Peter Pringle's America: No cheers for dancing girls

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The Independent Online
AT SOME point in their early lives most American girls want to be cheer-leaders. They yearn to leap around alluringly in skimpy gymslips beside the hulks of the football team, shaking pompons and sending the crowd into a frenzy. It is a peculiarly American practice that rose to prominence in the Cold War and should now be phased out along with B52 bombers.

But becoming a cheer-leader is still a big deal. Chosen for their looks, athletic ability, vitality and self-assuredness, cheer-leaders command tremendous respect throughout the school. They are pursued by the boys, admired by the girls and marvelled at by teachers and parents as symbols of the innocent freshness of youth.

So when a cheer-leader lets the side down, for whatever reason - a missed high-kick, or bad grades in class - much more than the school's reputation can be at stake. For many Americans it is as though the fabric of society is under assault, jolting their faith in the entire system.

So when four girls in the cheer- leading squad of the Fighting Bobcats football team of Hempstead High in south Texas became pregnant it became a national scandal; the latest symbol of the growing problem of unwed teenage motherhood. The rate of such pregnancies has risen for the fifth year in a row. It now stands at 62 births per thousand between the ages of 15 and 19, prompting a moral debate to which everyone wants to contribute. Hempstead High was no exception.

When the four girls in the tiny farming community of 3,500 revealed they were pregnant, the school board immediately ordered them off the squad. But not because they had disobeyed school rules or because being pregnant necessarily disqualified them from jigging about on the football field in the name of the school.

No, the real reason, the school board admitted, was that should a miscarriage occur, the school might be held liable and could face paying out millions of dollars in damages.

One of the four girls opted to have an abortion - because of undisclosed health complications, her mother said. The school board gave her permission to rejoin the squad, but that decision set off an impassioned protest from many parents and students who argued that it was wrong to reward the girl who had had the abortion while still punishing her three classmates who plan to give birth.

This has put the fourth girl in an even worse position. Many of the Hempstead townspeople believe abortion to be morally wrong, and although there are no reports of hostility towards the girl she is reluctant to rejoin the squad for fear of being booed as she returns to the field. Some of her classmates have said it would not be fair, in any case, for her to be there if the others were still banned.

Joining the debate from the moral high point of Manhattan, the New York Times complained that the girls' right to elective office (cheer-leader) had been violated simply because they were pregnant. Maternal health could not be used as an excuse in such a manner, the Times said. The school board's decision represented the 'desire to punish and stigmatise' and was unfair to the girls when the boys got off free. It is widely assumed, of course, although there are no confessions, that boys on the football team are responsible for the pregnancies. In all fairness, suggested the Times, these girls should neither be stigmatised nor stopped from joining in any school activity.

In all fairness to the girls, how about ending the antiquated and, for women, degrading activity of leading the cheers of a football crowd on Saturday afternoons? Boys chasing a ball and bashing themselves about is a spectator sport all of its own, requiring no adornments.

It doesn't take a minute to think of roles schoolgirls could play that would be preferable to that of cheer-leader. More tears are shed by teenage girls each football season over not being elected as a cheer-leader than over losing election to the student body. And in a nation where functional illiteracy is still embarrassingly high for an industrialised country, how about holding up the nerds of the class instead of the beauties?

Hempstead High apart, it has been proved many times that cheer-leading is a socially divisive activity. Parents as well as children make fools of themselves. Distraught mothers, finding their daughters excluded from the squad, have been known to demand a recount of the vote or the resignation of the school principal. All of which is deeply embarrassing and emotionally scarring for their daughters.

In a school near Houston, a woman whose daughter was about to enter the lists for cheer- leader was said to have put out a contract to kill the mother of her daughter's main rival. She thought the rival would be so overcome by grief that she would be unable to compete. They made a television movie about it.

Such is the national reverence for cheer-leading that not even the clergy dares to intervene. Two years ago, three sisters who grew up in the small Baptist Belt town of Lubbock, Texas, wrote a book about their days in the Seventies as cheer-leaders for the Dallas Cowboys. Being tough girls, they survived - but no thanks to the moralising elders of Lubbock, who frown on dancing of any kind. But when the sisters sought advice about their chosen profession, the local pastor advised: 'You can dance all you like for the Dallas Cowboys, it's the other cowboys we want you to stay away from.'