This afternoon, the two mightiest teams in American football - the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers - clash at Wembley Stadium in a pre-season warm-up. The players are only part of the package that will be love-bombing the traditional reserve of the British crowd. There are the marching-bands, the stiltwalkers, and above all, the cheerleaders.
American cheerleading is synchronised perfection, an art-form in its own right and well-rehearsed. In the function room of the Forum Hotel in west London, at 9am one morning last week, Gold Rush (cheerleaders for the 49ers) take the floor - a symphony in immaculate make-up and red satin Lycra. 'Squeeze those butts]' shrills their choreographer as his 40 leotarded charges swivel their hips and leap nimbly into the air. 'More attitude on that high kick]'
Yards of blond, straightened and poodle-permed locks are tossed, and 80 manicured fists punch the air. The ghetto-blaster is belting out Michael Jackson. Team member Melissa is taking time out by the Haagen- Dazs ice- cream dispenser. 'This is something we give our all to,' she confides. 'It's not something cutesie any more, but a sport we take very seriously.'
Charlene, team leader for the Red Skinettes, agrees: 'It's wonderful the exposure you get and how loyal all our fans are. I'm always being recognised and asked for my autograph. Every American schoolgirl dreams of becoming a cheerleader.'
Rather than any bimbo stigma, tremendous prestige attaches to cheerleading, and with celebrities such as Paula Abdul and Madonna (whose flesh-coloured knickers were legendary) proud to be former pom-pom queens, there is also the chance of a leg- up into showbusiness. Competition for the Red Skinettes squad is now so fierce that 800 girls turn up at try-outs every year to contest the 40 places. Those without glossy good looks and a will of iron need not apply.
Now that Britain has joined the newly formed US World League, Charlene predicts, it will be only a matter of time before the game starts to rival our traditional spectator sports. Then, every British-born quarter-back will need his own home-grown cheerleader to egg him on.
Will these novices also develop the American girls' teeth'n'smiles killer instinct and un- British professional zeal? Rhonda Millar, squad leader of the Crown Jewels, Britain's only professional cheerleading team, doubts it. When her girls go on to the pitch to whip up support for the London Monarchs (Britain's only professional American football team) they are strictly out for fun. All have day jobs in showbusiness or aerobics.
'Our attitude is different,' she insists. 'The most important thing for us is to get the crowd going. In the US some of the girls spend too much time worrying about the dance steps.'
But British cheerleading is on the march. Three years ago there were six amateur squads supporting home teams; now there are 75. Many of these enthusiasts refuse to see it as a sideline of showbusiness. Lorraine Royal, president of the United Kingdom Cheerleaders Consortium, set up the organisation in 1983 to promote health-giving cheerleader activities in school gyms, university campuses and Scout huts throughout the land. 'At the UKCC we would classify the Crown Jewels as a dance squad rather than a cheerleading team,' she sniffs. 'Glamour is the least of our interests.'
What UKCC members see as their mission is not only the recognition of their hobby as a serious sport in its own right, but also a means of restoring a wholesome 'family atmosphere' to some of our more macho national sports. It won't be easy.
'Our girls have just been asked to perform at an ordinary British football match,' says Kim Rochelle, trainer of current UK amateur champions the Birmingham Hotshots. 'I'm hopeful, but I don't know how it will go. When we tried it before, at Aston Villa, the whole crowd shouted 'Get them off]' at us as we ran on to the pitch. It wasn't very nice.'
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