Monarchs of the pom-pom land

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The Independent Online
THE Pineapple Dance Studio, down a narrow side street off Long Acre in fashionable Covent Garden, in London, is not the sort of patch that Almanack is used to prowling. Slinky leotarded figures consulted timetables and did stretches in studio doorways: this was Fame territory, no place for a sports diarist. We felt like hiding, or running away. "Hi," said Ramona Braganza, Dance Squad Co-ordinator of the London Monarchs. "Great to see you."

The Blitz Dance Squad were at the studios for their penultimate rehearsal before today's first home game in the World League of American Football at White Hart Lane. Studio Nine at Pineapple was about the size of a couple of squash courts. One wall was a tall mirror, another sported a line of coat-hangers; the floor was a spaghetti of shoe-skid-marks. A single fan turned on the ceiling: walking in, you met a fug of healthy sweat and vaporised deodorant.

Twenty-odd dancers stood in three rows, clad in big baggy Monarchs football tops (all bearing the number 95) and a variety of leggings and shorts. Two kinds of footwear predominated: trainers and clunky-heeled boots. Nearly all the dancers were women, but two were men: the Blitz are not your old-fashioned pom-pom-and-mini-skirted cheerleaders, you see. They are a dance squad, and they are male and female.

Mostly female, it must be admitted. While Lisa Brockwell from Reebok took the dancers through one of their 10 routines, we had a word with Ramona about her squad.

Ramona Braganza is a big cheese in cheerleading. She spent 10 years with the LA Raiders, where latterly she was one of four team captains. She was recruited by the World League to knock two squads into shape: one for the Monarchs and one for the Scottish Claymores at Murrayfield.

"The Raiders' cheerleaders are split into four teams of 12," she explained, with a toothpaste-ad smile, "one for each side of the pitch. The job of the team captain is to keep an eye on the pitch, and communicate to the girls what's going on." Cheerleaders have a tactical function. "When your team is on defense, you have to get the crowd to make a noise, do the wave, kinda thing - so the opposition offense can't hear themselves. When we're on offense, we quiet them down." Fine. But will the Blitz Dance Squad have the requisite tactical nous for all this? "They need more time to get involved in the football games," Ramona conceded. "A couple of years, maybe. But I'll be on the touchline with a headset, talking to the captains and calling it from the line." Like the coach, right? "Sure. It's sort of fun being in charge like that."

Back in Studio Nine, Ramona took her squad through a complex routine. She had explained that this was not the same boring old cheerleading stuff. This was "City Jam-style Hip Hop dancing." We have plenty of experience of city jams, and we've even come across hip hops in Belgian beers. But nothing like this.

"One, two, three and four ..." Ramona said. One: arm up; two: other arm up; three: both up; four: fall back on left hand; five: back on right; six: leap up; seven: step right; eight: slide other foot right, turn 90 degrees left. A kerfuffle as one dancer omits the leaping right bit and is consequently leapt into. Ow. "Again,"Ramona said. "One, two, three, four ..."

The dancers fanned out into a large X formation, which will cover a large chunk of the pitch when they transfer to the wide open spaces at Spurs. It was a little cramped at Pineapple. We crouched in a corner. "You've got the class, girl," boomed the tape recorder. A line of big-heeled feet stomped their way sideways towards us. "You turn me on ..." Stomp, stomp. "Hey girl ..." Stomp. "Hey girl ..." Hey, bloody hell, girl, mind our feet.

Back in the safety of the corridor, we taxed Ramona on her boys-and- girls-together policy. Why, for instance, only four guys with 22 gals? "Hey, I'd love more," she said, "and friends of the guys are asking to join up. I'd love it half and half."

We tackled Bob Saunders, one of the fellas on the squad. He looked not unlike a nose-tackle himself: no Wayne Sleep. He's been an American football fan for 12 years, and a professional dancer since 1988. "This," he said, "is the perfect job."

But will it catch on? Cheerleading has been tried in British sport before - remember the Sky Strikers? No? Exactly. Ramona is upbeat. "I had my Scottish girls perform at half-time for the Hearts and Rangers game," she says, enthused, "and the crowd were just so receptive. You know, those little pie stands did no business at all."

Pie-sellers of White Hart Lane, you have been warned.

A BAD business at the recent British Marbles Championships in Devon: no marbles. A special consignment had gone missing en route from the manufacturers. But all was well in the end. The spokeswoman Julia McCarthy-Fox said: "We managed to find enough old marbles from competitors' homes, and it was agreed that no one would have a disadvantage. We even tried Maltesers, but it was a hot day and they didn't last long." Parcelforce are investigating the disappearance. If, in the meantime, you are offered a "hot" marble, just say "no".

FOR years the sight of pigeons scattering from cover drives has been a feature of cricket matches at The Oval. No more. Surrey CCC, concerned for the welfare of both the birds and bedroppinged point fielders, have brought in a deterrent Harris Hawk to overfly the ground on match days.