Pyramid Scheme

Two, four, six, eight.Come and watch us levitate!

It is just before the Canyon Middle School cheerleaders are supposed to take the stage at AstroWorld's Cheerfest cheerleading competition, and all anyone can think about is their hair.

"Honey, come here, you need some real hair spray," says someone's mom, pulling out a metal can like she's about to shoot down a bug. She pulls over a junior high girl, decked out in a red, white and blue uniform with the pleated skirt just brushing her bottom, and begins to shellac the preteen's tight blond ponytail. Sticky-sweet-scented alcohol fills the room.

"Anyone else need hair spray?" she asks. About ten Canyon girls and two hovering mothers are crowded into the orange-tiled video-arcade bathroom next to the Showcase Theatre where these seventh- and eighth-grade girls will perform. They are one of almost 150 squads, ranging from elementary to high school level and hailing from Texas and Louisiana, that are competing today for trophies, money and season passes to AstroWorld.

Right next to the hair spray madam, one girl is carefully painting bright lipstick on another girl's full mouth with the precision and concentration of Michelangelo.

"Does anyone have an extra hair ribbon?" one brunette begs, dashing into the washroom with a hopeful look on her made-up face. No one does.

"Someone has to have something," reassures one cheerleader, and the nervous girl with the naked ponytail dashes out.

Sharon Watkins is wearing a "Canyon Mom" shirt and has a two-inch-wide button on her chest with her daughter Jennifer's smiling picture on it. Right now Sharon herself is smiling into the bathroom mirror and putting on lipstick. She was never a cheerleader, she says, but she likes accompanying the kids on their trips from New Braunfels to competitions all over the state.

"Cheerleading keeps 'em fit, keeps 'em busy, helps them develop good friendships and good teamwork," Sharon says, stashing her lipstick in a plastic bag full of girlie goodies she has brought along to dress up her team. Suddenly she turns to look at her daughter, who is hovering near the stalls.

"You can't compete without going to the bathroom!" she cries. "Now you go find one with toilet paper in it and you go!"

The nervous precompetition flurry pays off. Canyon Middle takes the stage in front of hundreds of parents and fellow cheerleaders and takes second place in its category. It's the advanced tumbling, elaborate stunts and tough athleticism that win the award, not the makeup or the hair spray. Despite its sweet girl quality, this competition is mostly about who can jump the highest, who can flip the most times and who can maintain the brightest smiles as teammates perch on their shoulders.

This is not your mother's cheerleading competition. Or even your older sister's. Cheerleading has changed in just the past ten years, with entire gyms being set up to field teams that don't even cheer for schools. They just get together to cheer for themselves and compete against other gyms that do the same. There's a whole category at the AstroWorld competition especially for teams like these, usually called "All Stars" in the cheerleading world. These groups often have some of the highest skill levels at competitions, and many of their muscular members started out as pure gymnasts who either wanted to participate in a group sport or plan to go for college cheerleading scholarships offered by many Southern universities.

"These are high-level athletes," says Terri Jaggers, whose Northwest Elite Co-ed squad took first in the All-Star division. Jaggers works with more than 400 kids at her northwest Houston gym, priming 115 of them for competitions such as these. In addition to three-times-a-week workouts, Jaggers also asks her kids to perform community service for the United Way and other charitable organizations.

"What better sport to work with the community than the one that has the word 'leader' in it?" she asks.

But for every monolith like Jaggers's cheer factory, there are the small elementary schools and six-member teams from tiny towns. And in each of them there is a certain spunk that radiates. As youngsters from Shadydale Elementary in Houston get funky to a riff from the Commodores' Brick House or a bunch of high school girls perform a near-ceiling-high stunt to music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is not so much about competing as it is about exuding attitude and, as many of the cheerleaders insist, "having fun."

But with every smile comes the precompetition group huddle or prayer, the good-luck hugs and the nervous coaches waiting in the wings. It is a competition, and the tower-tall trophies sit under a spotlight as a constant reminder. This is, after all, Texas, where football is religion and cheerleaders rank up there with saints. It's home to Lawrence Herkimer, who birthed cheerleading as we know it when he invented the classic "Herky" jump at North Dallas High in the early '40s. He later went on to found the National Cheerleaders Association, which sponsors camps and competitions all over the globe. Texas is home to the famous Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (although the dance routines we see at their halftimes are a walk in the park compared to the workouts some of the AstroWorld competitors perform on stage). Texas is even home to the overly zealous Wanda Holloway, who was eventually freed on probation after trying to have the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival murdered.

"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 jmathieu@houstonpress.com.

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