Cheerleaders told: 'Strut your stuff but cover up'

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The Independent Online

Cheerleaders have always been inclined to wear exactly what they want as they jump around with their pom poms - President George Bush, while attending the Phillips Academy boarding school in Massachusetts, once displayed a talent for the activity by donning a wig and stuffing false breasts up his jumper to taunt a rival school.

But the days of laissez-faire appear to be over for Britain's young female performers who have just been told by their national association that they must not expose their midriffs, for fear that their opponents will feel inclined to go on dangerous crash diets.

The little known new modesty rule being introduced by the British Cheerleading Association (BCA) has been highlighted by the 15-strong Spirit Shockers troupe from Glossop, Derbyshire. The Peak District town can be chilly at the best of times but the team's coach Hannah Jones, who has firm ideas about her girls "retraining their individuality", has allowed them to design their own, crop-topped uniforms. Then she learnt of the BCA's specific new dictat: no midriff must be showing when the girls are standing with their arms at their sides.

The new rule reflects a policy being introduced at schools across the US, where the Texan House of Representatives recently voted to ban "overtly sexually suggestive'' routines from school cheerleaders inspired by the way the renowned Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders strut their stuff.

Ms Jones, 21, is not happy. "It's allegedly supposed to be about the girls self-esteem and body image," she said. "But my girls have designed their uniforms themselves and that's what they have picked. If they didn't want to show their stomachs they would have designed a different uniform. It's not about being stick thin, it's about ... being confident and happy with their body, which cheerleading actually promotes. I have never been slim and they have always seen me as their coach and role model. Personally I don't think the uniforms affect the girls' self-esteem at all, or that of anyone watching them."

Bob Kirafly, the BCA chairman, was unmoved. "There is a lot of pressure in society to make young ladies feel uncomfortable about their size and shape, and that is something which can pose personal risks for their health," he said. "In the United States there has been a gradual move towards uniforms getting skimpier and skimpier, make-up getting more exotic and moves becoming less suitable for the sport.

"In the States they have brought the uniforms into line with that of other athletic sports and I think this is actually a good thing for the sport. We are not making skirts come down to the people's knees or anything ridiculous. It's about keeping a degree of sensibility."

The controversy comes as the activity enjoys great popularity in the UK. There are now 286 registered clubs in the UK, whose 11,000 members include an increasing number of boys. In the US, the national championships are shown live on television and almost 100 places of learning offer cheerleading scholarships.

All is not lost for the Spirit Shockers. Introduction of the new dress code has been delayed until next year to allow clubs time to purchase suitable attire.