Primetime Players: The multiple roles of the University's cheerleading squad

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By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published March 10, 2015

Before agreeing to sit down for an interview, Pam St. John needed confirmation that any subsequent write-up or article resulting from the following week’s talk should take pains not to wheel her inside the orbit of attention. The focus of the writing, she wrote, must remain on Michigan’s Cheer Squad, a team she has spent the last 31 years coaching. And her reasons, left unsaid, seemed reasonable, even if with a characteristically PR-influenced tinge.

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St. John’s office is a small room at the end of a long hallway in the basement of the Weidenbach Building on South State Street. Inside, the walls are sheeted with a thick collage of posters, pictures, calendars, whiteboards and the occasional post-it note.

Beneath all the layering, almost hidden from view, are two massive banners — the kind found dangling from the rafters in most high school gymnasiums — that commemorate the team’s victories at the 2013 and 2014 National Cheer Association championships. Slight and perpetually smiling, St. John points at them with informality, speaking with the same restrained tone that frames the rest of her words.

“We’ve been lucky and fortunate to have done well the last couple of years,” she said.

It’s this thoughtful composure, also evident in the team members’ demeanors, that contradicts the violent bursts of strength and peril showcased in each minute of each performance. When LSA sophomore Josiah Ault, who is about to complete his second year as a cheerleader, describes the danger, he smiles serenely.

“All of us are quite literally putting our lives in each other’s hands,” he said. “It feels like more than just a team sport because of having to put all this trust in someone else and also trusting yourself to be in the position where you have to stop others from getting hurt.”

***

The practices are arranged throughout the school year to sync with football and basketball schedules, and eventually the team is divided in the lead-up to the national cheerleading championships. While the entire squad performs at football games, only a portion — called “Primetime” — can be seen at the basketball matches in the latter half of the year. The rest of the cheerleaders, usually the ones who have been on the team longer and are thus better attuned to the sport, spend practice time honing a routine that will be showcased at Nationals in Florida this April.

“Whether you’re competing at the end of the year or are performing at a game, that issue of safety is always there and it keeps pressure levels pretty high,” Ault said. “You can’t really slack off when you’re getting ready to throw, then immediately catch an entire person.”

Sitting through a typical practice is a little bit like watching the piecemeal construction of a hammered metal sculpture. The final product is a wonder to behold, peppered with the rhythmic cadence of the “one-two-three” counts uttered by anyone in earshot to frame stunts. Each count is like a hammer stroke.

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Within a constant and palpably visible struggle for balance — teammates floating in the air, flipping an impossible number of times before landing — the most resonant images are of them grimacing or gritting their teeth as they lock elbows and wait for the impact of reentry. Every stunt is dizzyingly complex, requiring a framework of carefully crafted choreography that the cheerleaders spend months — even years — practicing.

“One hand out of place, or even a few degrees off, and it won’t land,” said LSA freshman Priscilla Huddleston, who joined the squad last fall.

Actively recruited by St. John while still a high school student, Huddleston was promoted to the competition team quickly after coming onboard. April will be the first time she competes at the national, collegiate level, but before becoming a part of Michigan Cheer, Huddleston already had years of experience participating in tournaments sponsored by national cheer organizations.

These events, often called All-Star Cheerleading, are open to competitors of varying age groups and stand apart from typical high school cheer teams that are more closely associated with their school’s other sports teams. As opposed to composing defense or offense routines usually seen on sidelines or during halftimes of football games, All-Star cheerleaders focus on tumbling, gymnastics and the stunts needed to hone competitive skills.

For a time, Huddleston teetered between the two worlds of high school and All-Star cheer, but ultimately settled for the more competition-oriented events.

“I just fell in love with the tumbling; I fell in love with the gymnastics,” Huddleston said. “The main difference in All-Star is that you’re cheering for yourself, which is much more empowering than just being an adjective.”

Her parents shelled out the money needed to shuttle between tournaments, often without any help from the leagues organizing the events. Describing the traveling schedule, Huddleston said the competitive cheer from her pre-college years can best be labeled a “rich man’s sport.”

Those unable or unwilling to pay their way through All-Stars would be limited to the sidelines of high school cheer, which, by Michigan law, still does not allow men to compete in end-of-year tournaments.

***

Though the stigma against male cheerleaders exists and is acknowledged by men on the team, most are quick to point out that a large portion of the community, especially at college, is extremely supportive. Quinton Carter-Jones, a fifth year LSA senior who has been with the team throughout his time at the University, said on most occasions, people are simply ill-informed.

“You’ll definitely have friends from high school or certain family members making fun of you for it,” Carter-Jones said. “But the fact of the matter is you’re doing it because you want to foster self-confidence. You’re not doing it because of what anyone else thinks.”

“And honestly, how many people will ever get to say they know how to throw a girl over their head and catch her,” he added.

Yet on a more concrete level, the rules preventing men from taking part in the year-end meets for high school cheer also create a rift in the male and female talent pools. Many of the men joining Michigan Cheer don’t know how to tumble. Fewer have had any formal training in gymnastics.

“A lot of the time with guys, it takes a couple years to get them confident in their own abilities,” St. John said. “We’re very much starting from the ground up, but they’re stronger athletes because of it.”

Carter-Jones recalled the first time he tried to throw someone.

“It was one of the most awkward moments of my life,” he said. “I had no idea who she was so I stayed really far back, just kind of threw her in the most literal sense of the word. Obviously, she didn’t go very high, so I panicked thinking this person would be horribly disfigured because of me and I tried to bear-hug her on the way down.”

Shaking his head, he muttered something to the tune of “horrible technique” before laying out, in great detail, the proper way to hurl another human body — the athletic stance, upright posture and vice-like grip he has since perfected and wishes could show his younger self. Confidence, and with it the willingness to place a measure of weight behind even the smallest actions, he explains, is the key.

“You can’t have any inhibitions. And they didn’t go away until Coach Pam had had some time to kind of nudge me in the right direction,” he said.

Many team members share similar views. They talk openly about the influence St. John has had not just in the shaping of the cheer team, but entire college careers. Whenever the conversation drifts to her role within the squad, most of the cheerleaders smile or nod, then relate an off-hand story following a format that falls in line with “she once told me to do (x), and (x) was completely out there so I never believed it could work ... but obviously I was dead wrong.”

Even more talk about St. John’s continued efforts to maintain the team’s now-sprawling network of alumni. The assistant coaches she employs are former members.

“You can ask her about any random person from any random year who used to be on the team,” Carter-Jones said. “She’ll tell you where they are now, what they’re doing and how many kids they have.”

***

St. John was one of the first female cheerleaders on the team in mid-1970s, when she was still an undergrad at the University. Then, the sport revolved almost completely around the “cheer” aspects many people still identify it with today.

“At that time, the culture was very heavily dominated with this notion that our only goal was to support other teams at the school,” she said. “I don’t want to diminish what we had, but it rarely ever feels like just a sideline activity anymore.”

After graduating and spending some time as a dental hygienist, she was asked by the team’s supervisor to return as its coach and adviser. She joined the staff unpaid and working part time, at a period in which the sport was on the verge of undergoing what she calls an “evolution of athleticism.”

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“We didn’t have a lot of the strength or conditioning or training that can allow it to be as competitive as it is today,” she said. “The integration of gymnastics led to stunts which led to something that high-caliber student athletes could apply their skills to, to really sink their teeth into.”

A former student-athlete herself, St. John competed on the national stage in track and field while studying at Michigan, but a car accident shelved her prospects, ultimately pushing her commitment to the cheer squad. In spite of the fact that institutions like the NCA are revolutionizing the future of teams similar to St. John’s, these organizations can boast small resemblance to the mainstream success the NCAA maintains with football and basketball. A majority of people have never even heard of competitive cheer.

“Here, the emphasis is clearly on a supportive role, and we embrace it,” she said. “But we’re fortunate to have the support to be competitive. It adds a lot to what we do and the kids’ skills are much more apparent when they have something to work toward.”

When the scene first started to take shape, St. John — who had no experience with gymnastics — had to teach herself as she went. At the time, of course, collecting little to no compensation for her efforts. It’s hard overlooking the clear, sports-centric influence that has laid the groundwork for much of St. John’s time with the team.

“I used to be able to tumble, which was self-taught,” she said. “But a lot of the key stunts that you can see now, those I picked up because I was coaching when they were still being thought up and put on the page.”

“I love what I do,” she said, after a pause. “I took whatever training I could find, whether it was gymnastics, going to summer camps, or just watching others.”

According to the University's Salary database, it wasn’t until the 2005-2006 school year that St. John started getting paid substantially for the work she has now been doing for thirty-one twelve-month seasons. She only received part time compensation from the University before this period. In the five years that followed, she earned an annual salary between $30,000 and $40,000, and she didn’t receive a significant raise until 2013, when the team won its first NCA title and former Athletic Director Dave Brandon was at the helm of the Athletics Department.

Despite a full-year season, three decades of experience and almost single-handedly shepherding competitive cheer to the University, St. John makes less than any other head coach employed by the University. Still, she states the Athletics Department, especially under Brandon’s direction from 2011 to 2014, has drastically improved the support structure for student-athletes on the team.

“Dave (Brandon) played a big part in these two championships we have,” she said. “From the day he walked in, he wanted to know how to help.”

In addition to expanding the accessibility of academic support, Brandon extended benefits typically reserved for other student-athletes to the members of the cheer team. These included priority registration for classes, expanded nutritional and mental health care services, access to strength and conditioning along with stipends for financial aid. Many Michigan cheerleaders, including Huddleston, do not have to pay for their books — a far cry from the large scholarships awarded to football players, but “she’ll take what she can get,” says Huddleston, who is also a product of St. John’s first recruitment campaign as the cheer head coach.

Coach Pam loses a little bit of her restraint when she talks about football games. She beams as she lists the best memories she has of watching, from the closest spot imaginable, crucial moments in Michigan sports history. As is true for most members on the team, she cites the experience of standing on the sidelines, a few feet away from a game-changing tackle or a momentum-shifting touchdown, as the real reason she’s stuck around for as long as she has.

“I’m not promising I’ll be here after Drake graduates,” she said (her son is currently a senior on the Michigan football team). “But you can’t beat having front row seats to us stomping Michigan State. Or any other Michigan team for that matter.”

“There’s nothing quite like running our flag down the loser’s sidelines,” Carter-Jones said. “You have to love that shit.”