SI Vault
 
FROM 'RAH' TO THE SUPERSONIC
Martin Kane
November 07, 1955
When men granted suffrage to women it was a time when all football cheerleaders were men. They wore sweaters and white flannels, carried megaphones and used fine stentorian voices to exhort the crowds. The crowds responded in rhythmic male choruses of "rah!" and "fight!" There were in those days neither public-address systems nor girl cheerleaders nor prancing majorettes. A football field was not yet the setting for a TV Spectacular with routines by a Jackie Gleason chorus. Women went to the games only to wear yellow chrysanthemums and attend fraternity dances afterward. Very likely they were bored by everything else. But now the times have changed, and maiden-aunt types who would not know a long cheer from a short beer, much less recognize a pitchout, are enthralled each football weekend by cheers and half-time shows both in rock-and-roll rhythm and with star billing for a line of girls doing a fast and leggy cancan. Quite a few men seem to like this too.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 07, 1955

From 'rah' To The Supersonic

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

When men granted suffrage to women it was a time when all football cheerleaders were men. They wore sweaters and white flannels, carried megaphones and used fine stentorian voices to exhort the crowds. The crowds responded in rhythmic male choruses of "rah!" and "fight!" There were in those days neither public-address systems nor girl cheerleaders nor prancing majorettes. A football field was not yet the setting for a TV Spectacular with routines by a Jackie Gleason chorus. Women went to the games only to wear yellow chrysanthemums and attend fraternity dances afterward. Very likely they were bored by everything else. But now the times have changed, and maiden-aunt types who would not know a long cheer from a short beer, much less recognize a pitchout, are enthralled each football weekend by cheers and half-time shows both in rock-and-roll rhythm and with star billing for a line of girls doing a fast and leggy cancan. Quite a few men seem to like this too.

Lest anyone think that the college directors of such performances have thought to sex up the gridiron, one sincere director has observed: "They're the sort of girl an older man in the stands would be proud to have as a daughter." And as one grandstand father has observed: "Gawd, they're terrific. And nice legs—all of them."

Cheerleading had its primitive beginning in 1898, an inspiration of the moment in the life of a Minnesota student named Johnny Campbell who hopped out of his grandstand seat and, in a frenzy of euphoria, capered before the student body with shouts of "Rah, rah, rah, Minnesota!" Thus Johnny Campbell became our first cheerleader. Or so says Lawrence Herkimer of Dallas, who is founder of the . National Cheerleaders Association and very likely the only man who earns a living solely by teaching the art of cheerleading. He teaches some 16,000 cheerleader fledglings a year, had 1,600 students at his last clinic and counts 4,000 members in his association. The little seed sown by Johnny Campbell has grown and nourished into something he did not contemplate.

Many of Herkimer's pupils are girls. Girls in coed colleges almost everywhere have become cheerleaders of equal status with men. They mark modern football as the Floradora sextette marked an era on the stage. There is a similarity in this. Girls are responsible for the chorus-dance innovation which has swept the stadiums of the country in recent years, introducing bigger, more elaborate presentations every fall. Mississippi Southern now has 30 Dixie Darlings in scanty outfits of black and gold. At Oregon City there are the 17 Famous Dancing Majorettes, who wear dazzling halter-necked costumes of sequin-trimmed red velvet, white boots and very brief flared skirts. They are backed by a drill unit of 49 girls (The Forty-Niners), so popular that they were drafted for half-time duty at the Oregon State-Stanford game this fall. The Forty-Niners' number began with the chorus garbed in breakaway Indian (for Stanford) costumes. At the University of Washington the coeds ride around in a purple and gold '56 Dodge rally car, looking pretty and swaying pompons like mad. The cancan is performed at Oregon State.

There are still some coed schools where cheerleading is restricted to men—Michigan and Wisconsin, for example—and this year the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which admitted coeds in 1794, dropped its girl cheerleaders. There is, however, no dangerous trend away from girls. On the contrary, Michigan State accepted women cheerleaders for the first time last year and the University of California turned to pompon girls in 1953. Girls have penetrated the cheerleading department in conservative New England coed schools. At Boston University there is a mixed group of cheerleaders—five men and five women—as well as a 120-piece band featuring five majorettes and 100 pompon girls. Massachusetts State has 10 majorettes dressed as Indians in tight-fitting buckskins and feather headpieces.

There is a general agreement among critics of the cheerleading art that, while the girls do wonderfully well at baton twirling, pompon waving and in high-stepping dance numbers, they lack the commanding presence of men when it comes to leading cheers. A male student looking at a girl cheerleader will open his mouth, to be sure, but may do so soundlessly. Nor are girls capable of such acrobatic stunts as are performed at Georgia Tech and Michigan, both of which have fine gymnastic teams and recruit cheerleaders there from. Or at Army, where the rigid bodies of cheerleaders are passed down, hand over hand, from top to bottom of the cheering section. Or at the new U.S. Air Force Academy, where cadets do somersaults from trampolets (similar to springboards).

Nothing walks like a girl, and so they do fine in the half-time drilling department, which is entertainment of spectators as distinguished from cheerleading, which is a call to arms. For one thing their voices, even when aided by loudspeakers, lack the quality of command. Their gestures are too pretty. They can't even look fierce.

Nor have girls shown much inventiveness in cheerleading. All the essential innovations have been by men. Linsley Bothwell introduced the animated card stunt at Oregon State in 1924. His 500-man rooting section flipped cards at his signal to show a beaver (the OSC mascot) smashing a huge lemon yellow "O" (symbolizing the University of Oregon) with his tail. The first college to use cards was California, in 1908, but these were a succession of still portraits, not animated. The first flip stunt was at California too, in 1920, when rooters flipped cards to show a small gold "C" against a blue background. On each of two additional flips the "C" grew larger.

Harvard, a man's school, claims the oldest college cheer in the country, its "regular cheer," which consists of three " Harvards" long drawn out, followed by seven "rahs" and ending with a "fight, team, fight." The Harvard band provides most of the half-time entertainment and has presented such routines as a huge champagne bottle tipped and its contents poured into a cocktail glass, from which bubbles rose and broke to spell out "Hic!"

Yale has, however, the most classic cheer, its famous Brek-ek-ek-ex-koax koax, from the chorus of Aristophanes' The Frogs. It goes back to 1884 on a night when members of The 13 Club, an eating group of the class of '86, devised it to serenade their Greek professor, Frank Bigelow Tarbell, beneath his study window.

Continue Story
1 2