The Birth of Modern Cheerleading

American Icons, Hometown Heroes, Sports
on September 11, 2013
David Mudd Sydney Polke, co-captain of the University of Miami cheerleading squad, revs up the crowd during a football game.

While spontaneous cheering dates to the earliest days of sport, organized cheerleading originated in the United States in the early 1880s when an all-male pep club performed rehearsed chants during Princeton (N.J.) University football games. When Princeton graduate Thomas Peebles moved to Minnesota, he introduced the yells to University of Minnesota football fans, including medical student Johnny Campbell, who reportedly picked up a megaphone and rallied his team with the cry, “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-u-mah! Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!”

Cheerleading was born.

During the early 1900s, cheerleading expanded with the popularity of football and other collegiate sports. Cheerleaders at Texas A&M, Oregon State and Harvard, which boasted future president Franklin D. Roosevelt on its squad, were all male until the University of Minnesota introduced women—as well as tumbling routines—on its sidelines in 1923.

When most college-age men left to fight during World War II, women stepped into traditionally male roles. By the mid-1940s, the majority of cheerleaders were female.

Post-war, the boys were back and football was all the rage. In 1948, an enterprising Southern Methodist University cheerleader, Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, organized the first cheerleading camp at Sam Houston State Teachers College, now Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas.

“We made cheerleading into a science,” says Herkimer, now 87. “Rather than just have eight enthusiastic people revving up the crowd, we synchronized everything.”

Through Herkimer’s National Cheerleaders Association (NCA), incorporated in 1961, thousands of college cheerleaders each year attended three-day camps or one-day clinics across the nation to learn and practice everything from dance routines to building human pyramids. Eventually, youth and high school cheerleaders joined the fun.

The ultimate goal was to develop ways to promote school spirit—which remains the primary objective at summer camps such as those sponsored by the NCA/NDA (National Dance Association). Last year, for instance, cheerleading squads from 31 colleges and universities converged on the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Convention Center for three days of practicing and synchronizing energetic exercises in flipping, jumping, clapping and chanting.

“We’re here to become better cheerleaders—so we can go back and support the basketball team, the volleyball team, all the teams,” says Jessica Fritts, 21, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro cheerleader from Welcome, N.C.

Georgia Bulldogs cheerleader Stephanie Ross, 21, a senior from Roswell, Ga., says leading a crowd is exhilarating and emotional. “Being in front of 90,000 fans, it’s electrifying!” she says. “At my first game freshman year, tears were rolling down my face. It was an awesome moment.”

Leaps and bounds

Most people equate modern-day cheerleading with human pyramids and high-flying stunts such as the basket toss, in which two sturdy cheerleaders flip a smaller teammate into the air, then catch her safely in their arms. Such acrobatic feats were championed in 1974 when former University of Oklahoma cheerleader and Herkimer protégé Jeff Webb founded the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA). Webb eventually established national and international governing bodies for cheerleading and, in 1982, introduced the UCA’s first Cheerleading National Championship to a TV audience.

“I would credit much of the growth of cheerleading with getting the competitions on TV, ESPN in particular,” says Bill Seely, 47, executive director of USA Cheer, the governing body for sport cheering. “As ESPN grew, so did the interest in cheerleading.”

Aspiring cheerleaders watched the first championships, spawning dozens of spinoff cheerleading organizations around the world, from UCA Japan to Cheer Chile.

“There’s cheerleading now in 100 countries. The competitions did that,” Herkimer says.

Some cheerleading squads, known as All-Stars, compete against other squads and do not cheer for school sports teams. But most cheerleaders say promoting school spirit comes first.

“Cheerleaders are more than just athletes,” Seely says. “They are ambassadors and the bearers of the school brand. They do so much more than just compete.”

While grounded in school spirit, cheerleading continues to evolve for more than half a million U.S. participants. With today’s emphasis on acrobatic stunts, gymnastics-style tumbling and year-round practices, cheerleading is increasingly viewed as a sport—not a club activity. Although the NCAA does not include competitive cheerleading on its list of sanctioned sports, at least 29 state high school athletic associations do. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report citing safety concerns and urging that cheerleading be designated an official sport.

Cheerleading formats are expanding as well. In 2011, USA Cheer introduced STUNT, a competitive sport for female high school and college cheerleaders that removes the crowd-leading element and focuses on the technical and athletic components of cheering. Last year, STUNT received NCAA emerging sport status.

“When cheerleaders show off their skills in a game-competition format, it’s our chance to cheer for them,” Seely says.

Whether they perform their formations, twisting dismounts and chants on the sideline or take them on the road to compete, cheerleaders share many common traits.

“The best cheerleaders are motivated, energetic and enthusiastic,” Herkimer says. “Oh, and upbeat. Definitely upbeat!”