Johnny Campbell, you created a monster.
A high-flying, gravity-defying, move-busting monster.
That’s the only way I can describe the Edmonton Eskimo Cheer Team, which will host the 2010 Grey Cup Cheer Team Extravaganza on Nov. 27.
Campbell is the man credited with inventing modern cheerleading at the University of Minnesota in 1898.
Back then it was an all-male affair known simply as “yell-leading” because, well, that’s all it really was: a bunch of dudes chanting through megaphones at the crowd during football games, trying to get everyone cheering for their team.
According to cheerleading lore, they began performing acrobatic shows during stoppages in play in order to keep fans from wandering outside the stadium to drink.
It wasn’t until the Second World War and a shortage of college-age men that female cheerleaders became commonplace.
My own impression of organized cheering goes back to the decadent, disco- era 1970s, when the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders debuted their skimpy outfits and gyrated like strippers on the sidelines. Like every other teenage boy in North America, I barely noticed the football game going on in the background.
That’s what I was thinking when I crashed a recent Eskimo cheer team practice at Perfect Storm Athletics in the West End.
No sweat, I thought as I strode in. Anything they can do, I can do better. After all, back in my university days, I was a real athlete — one of the guys the cheerleaders were cheering for. How hard can it be to wave a pom-pom, jump around and scream like a girl?
It was then that I noticed a woman flying eight metres into the air, spin around and land delicately into the arms of two male team mates.
Mouth agape, I thought, this is way higher than it looks from the 30th rows up at Commonwealth Stadium.
“It’s a little more work than it looks,” says Dianne Greenough, the team’s coach and owner of Perfect Storm. In fact, she chose the location specifically because of its 30-foot ceilings. “They get up there pretty high.”
The team is divided into two squads: the stunt squad and the dance squad. Most are university students but still devote 10 -15 hours a week to perfecting their moves.
Oh, yeah. I’m ready to show them how it’s done.
My first task was to take >Chelsea, a petite fourth-year economics student at the University of Alberta, and toss her around like a rag doll.
“Are you sure?” I asked her, feeling like a heart surgeon about to perform his first solo.
“Of course,” she said, not a hint of fear in her eyes.
Next thing I knew, Chelsea was standing on my hands, which I held a shoulder height.
On either side of us, several other pairs in the same position were rotating around us like a chorus line.
When she landed safely I was soaked in sweat, some from the effort, most from terror.
“You did great,” Chelsea said kindly as I sobbed with relief.
Next up, the dance team.
When Cheryl, who has her master’s degree in translation and plans a career in the diplomatic corps, informed me that she’s been dancing for more than two decades (which must mean she began in the womb), a tiny whimper escaped me.
I was placed in the middle of the front row and made to perform a series of contortions that included “washing my hair” (I know, I know. I got the irony) and finishing up “sexy” — which couldn’t have been further from truth. It looked more like I was having a seizure.
When the ordeal was finally over, I had a sore back, a throbbing hamstring and a whole new appreciation for cheer teams.
Next time I go to a football game, I’ll ogle their artistry and athleticism.
The Grey Cup Cheer Team Extravaganza, which features seven-minute routines from all eight CFL teams, will be at Grant MacEwan University on Nov. 27.
Doors open at 4 p.m. and the show begins at 5. Tickets at the door are $15.