Many Germans tend to think cheerleading only entails young women in short skirts with pompoms dancing around during basketball or football games for the sole purpose of entertaining audiences. Yet that could not be further from the truth. In 2016, after all, cheerleading was recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee. Even so, some people still refuse to take cheerleading seriously, while others argue that it cements age-old gender stereotypes.
Alba Berlin, which plays in Germany’s top tier Basketball Bundesliga, recently reignited this old debate when it last week announced that it would no longer field cheerleaders during breaks.
“We have come to the conclusion that having young, attractive women perform during breaks for entertainment purposes is no longer suited to our times,” CEO Marco Baldi said. The practice had given the false impression that women were solely responsible for entertainment, whereas men were the only ones able to play basketball, he continued. That is why, Baldi said, Alba Berlin was now ending its partnership with the Alba Dancers cheerleader squad in order to “in future do more to foster the visibility of female basketball players so they can become role models.”
The Alba Dancers, in turn, expressed disappoint over Alba Berlin’s decision to end its partnership with squad after 25 years. “I can understand that they may want to re-orient themselves, but I personally find the justification given wrong,” Alba Dancers coach Valesca Stix told German news agency DPA. Many other figures from the cheerleading world expressed similar criticism. Germany’s Cheerleading and Cheerperformance Association, which has some 20,000 members, stressed that “cheerleading is a competitive sport” that features European and World Championships.
On social media, some users called the move to axe the cheerleaders from Alba Berlin’s games an act of “political correctness gone wrong.” The hashtag #deeplychauvinistic began trending, and other users complained that the step was nothing else than “men telling women how to emancipate themselves” which showed that they had “understood nothing.”
Cheerleading a demanding sport
Ilse Hartmann-Tews, who heads the Institute of Sociology and Gender Studies at the German Sport University Cologne, cannot understand Alba Berlin’s decision, either. “I was surprised by the team’s reasoning because cheerleading has by now evolved into a highly professional sport,” she said.
Hartmann-Tews insist cheerleaders cannot, for instance, be compared to the skimpily clad “grid girls,” who hold up starting numbers or hand over trophies at motorsport events. She says cheerleading is entirely different. The sport is so much more than entertainment and rooting for a team. Cheerleading is characterized by complex dance choreographies, aerial acrobatics and elements of floor gymnastics. And to master all this, cheerleaders often spend many hours each week practicing.
That’s the case for 20-year-old Miriam Krusy, who is part of Dusseldorf’s SC Unterbach cheerleading squad. They have won the German championships several times already, and will participate in the upcoming World Championship in Japan. Krusy has been practicing this sport for eight years, and she is sad to be confronted with so many prejudices. “Many have no clue what cheerleading actually is; it is not about entertaining men,” she said. Cheerleading is an elaborate sport, Krusy explained, adding that she wishes more people would recognize that. Performing at sports events, trade fairs and city festivals is important for generating income to cover the costs for cheerleading competitions and training camps, Krusy said.
Could mixed cheerleading teams help combat prejudices?
Mixed teams are becoming more common today. Krusy’s team, for example, is made up of men and women. “We have two guys on the team who participate in all our competitions,” she said. However, cheerleaders performing at events elsewhere usually do not have men on their squads. Krusy believes that if the visibility of male cheerleaders were enhanced, for instance during breaks at sports events, this could also help overcome prejudices.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently made a similar suggestion. Talking to German weekly Bild am Sonntag, the lawmaker said if having “all-female teams is deemed no longer in keeping with the times” then mixed teams could be the answer. This, he argued, would also better reflect society and the make-up of fans.
Professor Hartmann-Tews thinks the reason cheerleader performances are deemed sexist also depends on how they are framed. She says that when “such performances are introduced as sports events and when it is made clear how challenging they are, we immediately see them in a new light.”
Alba Berlin, it seems, could have opted for a different approach to combating the sexist image of cheerleader performances. However, the Alba Dancers cheerleader squad has already disbanded. And according to coach Stix “the younger members have already joined other teams, or signed up with [Berlin’s] Friedrichstadt-Palast [theater].” The older cheerleaders, meanwhile, are now looking into taking up a different sport.
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