Cheerleading: It's not just for girls anymore

By LaReeca Rucker

It’s one of those traditional American dreams, like the walk down the isle, the house with the white picket fence and the baby in the carriage. For years, little girls have dreamed of becoming cheerleaders.

But as times change, so do visions. A ring with bling-bling may be a requirement for today's isle walk. An electronic gate has likely replaced the picket fence. And cheerleaders are no longer synchronized sideline Barbies who motivate the crowd with encouraging rhymes and perky pom pons. Pretty, popular and peppy aren’t prerequisites.

Today’s cheerleaders are athletes trained in gymnastics who start very young and work toward a coveted squad spot. In fact, if you wait as late as junior high to begin learning the fundamentals, you’re way behind. Children as young as 3 years old take classes at cheerleading facilities in the Jackson metro area, and some that small are on competitive squads.

Mary Emily Moore, 10, began taking gymnastics when she was 6 and enrolled in the Mississippi Elite Cheerleading and Tumbling Centre last year. The Ridgeland-based cheerleading facility is one of about five cheerleading companies in the Jackson metro area.

“I just like the tumbling and being with all my friends,” said Mary Emily, explaining why she wanted to become a cheerleader.

Her mother, Dee Dee Moore, said the activity has given her shy daughter more confidence.

“It’s a really good self-esteem builder for kids,” she said. “They have to get in front of a crowd and perform.”

Moore is also the fifth and sixth-grade cheerleading sponsor at Madison-Ridgeland Academy, who oversees a squad of 20 cheerleaders, including her daughter. She said most schools don’t require young children to try out.

“It gives them a period of being a cheerleader, going to the games and seeing if they like it,” she said.

But by junior high, things get much more competitive.

Kurt Koenig, owner of Mississippi Elite Cheerleading, said don’t wait to enroll your little cheerleader.

“If you wait until the last minute, it’s going to be too late,” he said. “And don’t think it’s just a fad. Every female wanted to be a cheerleader when they were growing up. It’s not a fad; it’s a fact.”

Moore said the best time to enroll children is probably age 4 or 5, but Koenig’s facility offers classes for children 3 and up. The Little Flips Gymnastics and Cheer class for children 3-5 teaches basic gymnastics skills that develop coordination, strength and flexibility. Tumbling, cheers and dance routines are also activities.

Koenig said he isn’t aware of elementary squads that require tryouts, but his own facility allows children as young as 3 to audition for competitive squads.

“We want to see if they have the mental capacity to get out there and do it,” he said. “We have a couple of preschoolers on a squad now, and we have a second grade and below squad with some 4- and 5-year-olds. There is also a division for kindergarten.”

Koenig said there are different guidelines for each competition. Mini Prep generally includes 2nd graders and below. Pee Wee, 4th graders and below, and the oldest members of the Youth Squad are in 6th grade. Younger children who are good enough may advance to the higher-level squads.

“The youngest have to hit a ‘High V’ and show their abilities,” Koenig said. “We work on it, so it’s not like they have to be perfect. It helps out with their memory a lot. It trains your body and mind at the same time.”

Moore said there are some children at the facility doing back-handsprings and full extensions as young as 3. Mary Emily has learned to do back-handsprings and tucks, but doesn’t get to demonstrate her skills on the school squad.

“We actually don’t let them tumble,” said Moore. “It’s a combination of we don’t want them to get hurt, and there are probably a lot of girls who don’t know how.”

But learning how is a must if you plan to compete for a future squad spot.

Ridgeland resident Sharon Ward’s daughter, Maghen, was a junior high and high school cheerleader who also cheered competitively on the Central Mississippi Cheerleading squad.

“Gymnastics is very important,” said Ward, “so they do need to start before junior high. In cheerleading today, you really need to know how to tumble. It definitely gives you an advantage at tryouts.”

Like any sport, cheerleading is a commitment that demands time and dedication.

“Maghen loved cheerleading,” Ward said, “and it pretty much consumed her life. I feel it molded Maghen to be the person she is today.”

As owner of the Sharon Ward Talent Agency in Ridgeland, Ward believes parents need to figure out what their child is best at and pursue one thing.

“I see kids all the time with schedules that are unbelievably busy,” she said. “They can’t even squeeze one more thing in. We allowed our children to find what they loved. Maghen chose cheerleading and my son chose baseball.”

Moore said the convenience of having a cheerleading facility near her Ridgeland home helped Mary Emily decide to choose cheerleading as one of her two activities.

“We were doing soccer, horseback and cheerleading,” she said. “I told her she had to choose two because there was just too much. She dropped horseback riding for soccer and cheerleading.”

Mom’s say cheerleading can be expensive, but it’s comparable to other lessons that require monthly payments and proper attire. The uniforms Mary Emily is required to wear cost about $100, but if you’re lucky, the girls who move up, will sell you theirs half price.

“Sometimes you get lucky and don’t have to pay a lot and sometimes you do,” Moore said. “At school, that’s the only expense. We do treats for the players and paint signs, but the school pays for it.”

Moore said cheerleading classes aren’t that high considering the amount of time children can potentially spend at the facility.

“At Mississippi Elite, I think it was like $90 or $100 a semester,” she said. “That’s like a 10-week session. That’s not bad as much as they go. We were going once a week, and the girls who are doing competitions go more often.”

Moore said cheerleading shoes are one of the more expensive necessities.

“I spent more on her tennis shoes than I have any of mine, and I don’t want her to wear them with anything except her cheerleading outfit,” she said.

The expenses can grow with the cheerleader. Members of competition squads generally pay more because of entry fees and travel expenses. Ward said she spent about $80 a month to pay for her daughter’s uniforms and competition costs.

“Cheerleading can be a very expensive sport,” she said. “You are responsible for all of the costs. Unlike football or baseball, you don’t have booster clubs. Therefore, the parents have to pay for everything.”

Some parents hope the expense of cheerleading will pay off. David Hanbery, owner of Deep South Cheer in Ridgeland, said some parents are thinking ahead when they enroll their children in cheerleading and other sports.

“Basically, it’s beginning to be the same for a female as it is for a male in T-ball,” Hanbery said. “A dad will start his kids in T-ball so that they have hope of playing at Mississippi State. It’s starting to be the same in cheerleading.”

Hanbery trains more than 2,000 cheerleaders and future cheerleaders at one of his four business locations in Pearl, Hattiesburg, Ridgeland and the Gulf Coast. Clinton, Madison Central High, Ridgeland High, St. Andrews, Jackson Academy, Murrah, Brandon, Northwest Rankin and Florence are just some of the schools represented by cheerleaders who train at his facilities.

He said cheerleading has become the fastest growing sport globally, and the U.S. has about three million competitive cheerleaders, making the activity one of the largest sports in the country.

“If you have a guy who gets into cheerleading, he can pretty much pay his way through college,” Hanbery said, adding that future college scholarships are something many parents think about when enrolling their small children in cheerleading programs.

Hanbery should know. He cheered all the way through undergraduate and law school.

“I didn’t pay for school in undergraduate and graduate school because of cheerleading and academic scholarships,” he said. “In fact, I got money back.”

Koenig also attended Mississippi College on a cheerleading scholarship.

“My mom wouldn’t sign a release for me to play high school football,” he said, explaining how he became involved. “She thought the guys were bigger and stronger than me, so I started cheerleading. I walked in, and there were 50 girls and me, and I never looked back.”

Koenig made the squad at Jackson’s Winfield High School, one of the first schools in the state to have male cheerleaders. He later earned a spot on the Mississippi College squad that has won seven national titles.

Koenig said cheerleading is no longer exclusively for girls, and there are several boys who take classes at his facility.

“At one time, guys were the cheerleaders, not girls,” he said. “It changed during World War II. It’s getting to where it’s a lot more demanded as a sport, so you will see a lot more guys.”

Koenig said Richland High School and schools in Vicksburg, Tupelo, Long Beach and Gulfport have male cheerleaders.

Those interested in advancing can vie for spots on college squads. Delta State offers cheerleaders $500 a semester, a book allowance and an out-of-state tuition waiver. Mississippi State University offers $500 a semester and the University of Mississippi offers $1,000 a year to varsity and junior varsity cheerleaders.

Parents interested in learning more about cheerleading for young children, can visit the American Cheerleader Web site at, which has a section specifically for junior cheerleaders.