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"It is hard coming to a place that is so cheerleading-centered," says high school junior Meghan Kinney, whose squad traveled from Baton Rouge to compete. Although it placed fourth in its category behind some Texas teams, Kinney, whose big blue eyes were topped off with a layer of gold eye shadow, thinks the whole thing was worth it.
"Actually, cheerleading is a way to express yourself and even get out your anger and frustrations," Kinney says. "It's just fun. And really we practice just as hard and as long as football; it's just as rigorous."
And the uniforms sure are cute, concedes Sarah Wood, a perky, freckled freshman at Pearland High, who is a first-year cheerleader.
"When you're a little girl, you just want to be one," she says, while waiting in line to use the bathroom.
Melissa Landrum, a sophomore on Pearland's junior varsity squad, admits there's a theater bug in each cheerleader. It's cool to get up in front of people and show them what you've got. And for anyone who thinks what they've got is easy to do, Melissa has this warning:
"You come out here and try sticking a free-standing liberty, and we'll talk," she says.
For the uninitiated, a free-standing liberty involves balancing on one foot in your partner's outstretched hands with your arms in a V. Imagine climbing to the top of a flagpole in tennis shoes, standing on one foot and not falling. Oh, and you've got to smile the whole time.
Smiling is a huge part of it. As the competition goes on, there are bobbles and a few tumbles in almost every routine, but the grins never waver. Even as the girls manage to haul their legs up into midair toe touches, the pearly whites are always showing. Although they might not admit it, perhaps some are using the old cheerleader trick of smearing Vaseline on their teeth to prevent their lips from touching.
In fact, the only people not smiling are the judges, who represent various cheerleading organizations from across the country. They sit in one of the back rows of the auditorium, and they all have beautiful fingernails. As they mark how well the squads did in categories such as fundamentals, transitions, projection and overall execution, they carefully balance deli sandwiches and sodas on their knees. They are as stone-faced and impartial as Supreme Court justices at the State of the Union Address.
But if the judges are serious, the crowd is not. And it is a crowd. An excited, screeching crowd. The fire marshal announces people need to clear the aisles. Masses of short, pleated skirts huddle at the foot of the stage to eye the competition. A big sign at the information table warns NO SEAT SAVING. Even though there are several co-ed squads competing, the afternoon is 100 percent girl -- a dizzying array of perfume, hair spray, bubble gum and ribbons. The place has a cotton-candy vibe to it.
One of the lucky ones with a good seat who hasn't budged throughout the whole competition is Herminia Benavides, who is waiting anxiously for her 16-year-old daughter's United South High squad from Laredo to take the stage. She answers questions in a hesitant mix of Spanish and English, trying to explain how cheerleading has become popular in her native Mexico yet doesn't quite look like the numbers performed on AstroWorld's stage. She can't exactly describe it, but it is different in America.
It certainly is. And it is doubtful that anywhere else but in the United States would someone get the opportunity to watch the Flying Seagull Pep Squad from Port Bolivar. When it is their turn, around 30 elementary school girls in impossibly short red skirts take the stage, driven completely by adrenaline. Halfway through their routine they link arms and perform a kick line to the country tune God Blessed Texas. The capacity crowd roars and claps and stamps along to the sassy beat.
Hell, it probably doesn't get much more American than that.
Jennifer Mathieu was a proud member of her schools' cheerleading squads for six years. E-mail her at email@example.com.