“Cheer” Captures What It Really Felt Like To Be A Cheerleader

The Netflix documentary Cheer shows viewers something I learned a long time ago: All kinds of people become cheerleaders, for all kinds of reasons — and some are profoundly changed by it. (A few spoilers.)

The American cheerleader is an exhausted cliché. She’s the popular girl, the tan girl, the blonde girl, the skinny girl, and almost always the white girl. She’s a queen bee. She’s straight, and her boyfriend plays football. She’s not particularly smart. She generally has money. And her status as a cheerleader is mostly for show: an opportunity to wear a costume that announces, over and over again, her place in the social hierarchy. She’s Hayden Panettiere in Heroes, Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On, Minka Kelly in Friday Night Lights, Ali Larter in Varsity Blues, Kristy Swanson in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, the majority of the female cast of Saved by the Bell and Glee, and any number of supporting characters across film and television over the last 50 years.

Like all stereotypes, that image of the American cheerleader is periodically challenged (Gabrielle Union’s squad in Bring It On) and subverted (But I’m a Cheerleader) or turned into the backdrop for a noir-ish murder mystery (Dare Me). But the cliché has proven stubbornly resilient. When people find out I spent my teen years as a cheerleader, they sometimes react with a disbelief I find quietly insulting: You, a cheerleader? I think they mean it as a compliment. But all kinds of people become cheerleaders, for all kinds of reasons and all kinds of rewards. If you don’t get that, you haven’t been paying attention — or watching Cheer.

The new six-part documentary, now airing on Netflix, follows a super-elite squad of cheerleaders at Navarro College, a junior college in Texas, as they train to defend their title at the national cheerleading championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. And the first thing that drew me to Cheer was the familiar, simple promise of watching elite cheerleaders on their journey from “very, very good” to “the best.”

Every cheerleader of a certain age knows that the best cheerleading movie is not Bring It On, but the VHS of the national competitions you taped off ESPN and watched on repeat: at squad sleepovers, but also by yourself, dreaming of a basket toss that went that high and hit that crisp. What mattered about those high school and college cheerleaders I watched competing wasn’t that they were cool, or hot, or rich. They were just good. When they were disarticulated from their social setting, I saw in them what I saw, or at least hoped to see, in myself: discipline, skill, and strength. Their beauty wasn’t in their faces (which I couldn’t even see, since this was pre-HD, and the camera essentially did not move) but their synchronization, which felt at once pulsing and alive and mechanically precise.

And there were boys on those squads! No boys would dare cheer at my school, for all the old-fashioned reasons you would expect. Watching a really good all-girls squad is hypnotic, but watching a co-ed one feels like a revelation, like the full expression of the sport: This is what cheerleading could look like, like firecrackers exploding one after the other.

Cheerleading, like any sport, can beat you up and string you along with the promise of glory, but it can also be deeply transformative.

If the “plot” of Cheer — who will make it “on mat” (the performing team) at the championships? — were all it had to offer, I’m sure the series would still find its audience. But Cheer does something much more expansive and even more compelling. It shows the darkness and levity, the devotion to individual and group perfection, that has accompanied the evolution of cheerleading from glee clubs with pom-poms to a fiercely competitive sport.

To do that, the series opens a door to the individual lives of the cheerleaders on the Navarro squad — their pasts, their families, and the various pressures that surround them on and off the mat, largely from adults with seemingly little mind to their long term health or livelihoods. Gabi became a cheerleading celebrity as a tween but now has to deal with her family’s attempts to monetize her career; Jerry is desperate to make it to mat but is also still grieving the death of his mother; Morgan, effectively parentless, is so desperate to please her coach that she ignores her injuries.

Cheer also gives viewers a front-row seat to the process of perfection. Over the course of dozens of practices, you see the team’s members, in the peak athletic condition of their life, left panting on the ground. It shows concussion after concussion — ice baths and bruised ribs and broken elbows. The athletic trainers are characters as much as the cheerleaders. You can hear the sound of every single basket toss, bone against bone, flesh against the mat. The literal impact of cheer becomes a visceral, shared experience.

“When you give yourself over — not just to a sport, but a group of people — then if and when it works out, the joy you must feel must be something incredible,” Greg Whiteley, one of the directors of Cheer, told me. “You could draw on a Venn diagram: the higher the pain, the higher the workload, the more trust and the more of you that is required, the greater the joy.”

What popular depictions of cheerleading have always, at least until recently, seemed to miss is that cheerleading, like any sport, can beat you up and string you along with the promise of glory, but it can also be deeply transformative. It can change lives the same way that soccer, or football, or basketball, or even math team can change lives. Cheerleaders have known this for decades. Cheer just makes it impossible for other people to deny.

My mom didn’t want me to be a cheerleader. But in my small North Idaho town, I saw no other choice. In junior high, everyone I knew did some sport, and for the girls, the only available options were volleyball and basketball (I was hopeless at both) — and cheerleading. I’d taken dance for years, but never in a way I’d call serious. My major selling point, as cheer material, was my left front hurdler. But I was a middle-of-the-road prospect: a solid base, a fine jumper, an OK dancer, as were most others on the squad.

Back then, at least where I was, there was no such thing as “club” cheerleading — the private teams, run out of tumbling gyms, that now serve as the true training grounds for competitive cheer. But our squad tried the best we could to professionalize ourselves: by watching videos, by reverse engineering new stunts. We ran “private practices” in the cafeteria with no supervision. We made it up, essentially, as we went. We weren’t good, but we were a squad, and being part of it made me feel like I had found some sort of footing amid the constantly shifting social ground of junior high. Sure, it would’ve been nice if there was a way to find that in an activity that didn’t involve wearing a short skirt for seemingly no reason. But we don’t always get to decide what options are available to us.

I don’t have clear memories of cheering at games, but I do remember those practices. And that’s what Cheer communicates so strongly: Cheerleading may have developed as part of the infrastructure of men’s sporting events, a literally sidelined form of (feminine) spectacle, but it has gradually disarticulated itself from that relationship. Now, at least in the competitive world, cheerleaders and their feats of athleticism are their own main event. The team they’re ostensibly cheering for becomes little more than a name on the uniform.

The thing that excited me most about the prospect of high school cheerleading was that there was just so much more of it. More practices, more cheers, more dances, more stunts, more games, more traveling, more cheerleaders on the squad — and much higher expectations. The best girl on the squad had a toe-touch jump so effortless it felt like she was floating. She and the other tumblers would fling themselves down the field every time the football team scored a touchdown, and I’d beam with pride.

This girl, whom I’ll call Katie, had grown up as a star at the local gymnastics gym, left it behind with puberty, and then returned to the closest thing to gymnastics that didn’t involve that gym and the slimy coach who ran it. Like Lexi, the peroxide-blonde, preternaturally talented tumbler in Cheer — who dropped out of high school, got into violent fights, and at one point ended up in jail — Katie hung out with what parents like to call “a bad crowd.” She had an older boyfriend; she snuck cigarettes; she was bored by school and struggled to keep her GPA high enough to stay on the squad. She also did all of our hair and makeup before games with the skill of a trained cosmetologist. Sometimes, we’d worry that she’d forgotten we had a game — this was before cellphones, when it was difficult to track people down — but she’d always show up, just in time, ready to fly into the air.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder why Katie never quit: Cheerleading was so at odds with the rest of her posture toward the world and the sort of people she surrounded herself with. But I think it gave her something she wasn’t getting anywhere else, something she wanted to return to again and again, even if it was simply that feeling of performing mastery. Katie wasn’t from a rich family. She wasn’t popular. She was just the best.

My family was upper-middle-class, and another girl on the squad lived in a gorgeous pop-up mansion. But the vast majority of cheerleaders I knew came from modest homes, with modest means. Their parents were teachers and mill workers and cops. We put on a few car washes to help pay for our Kaepa cheer shoes and the cost of cheer camp in the summer, but the school paid for everything else.

Contemporary cheerleading is not cheap, and like almost all other American sports, it has become increasingly privatized, complete with gym memberships, travel teams, and private coaches. Access is still severely curtailed by class. But also like every other American sport, the people who actually do it, whether on their school squads or with a program at Navarro, are far more diverse in race and background than popular representations suggest.

“There’s the uniforms, which are insanely expensive — even just the cost of those bows are ridiculous,” Whiteley told me. “But if you have a unique skill, the gym will find a way to get you on a team and keep you on a team. And those types of people really run the gamut.” That’s part of how students like Jerry, whose mother died of cancer when he was in high school, and La’Darius, who was placed in foster care with his four brothers, made it onto the Navarro team with more solidly middle-class kids like Gabi and Allie. Lexi says at one point that she’s never paid a cent in tuition over 13 years of cheerleading — the gyms just wanted her tumbling skills.

At the semi-competitive high school level, cheerleading was a way to center myself in the flow of my life. It provided schedule and rigor; it forced me to collaborate with others, to push myself, to be on, to show up — not just because I was supposed to, but because if I didn’t, others would suffer. Of course, there’s a point at which practice and conditioning and scheduling can blot out all other components of the highly scheduled teen’s life. But for many of the cheerleaders at Navarro, cheer provides order where there was none, a path through what was a disorienting blank space.

The Navarro squad venerates their coach, Monica Aldama, in part because she’s tough, but also because she’s predictable and reliable. Her rules don’t change. She sets her expectations high, and the members of her squad find themselves rising to meet them. They dedicate themselves to her, but also to each other: No stunt can work without someone to throw in the air, someone to hold you, someone to catch you if you fall. The cult of individuality is so strong in America that that kind of collective trust, of legitimate and unwavering support, can be so alien that it feels corny to describe. But it’s not corny. It’s just actual community.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a version of Cheer where that isn’t the case: where the competition to make it to mat tears the team apart, where confessional interviews turn into fodder for future catfights. But when Whiteley first approached Navarro to discuss the idea of following the squad on the road to nationals, the filmmakers were very clear that they had no interest in making a reality TV–style program.

“Navarro was wary in the normal ways, like, ‘Who are you guys? Are you going to exploit us? Are you going to manufacture drama that’s not really there?’” Whiteley told me. “But after the president and Monica became familiar with our past work on Last Chance U, those concerns went away.”

The cult of individuality is so strong in America that that kind of collective trust, of legitimate and unwavering support, can be so alien that it feels corny to describe.

The style of Last Chance U — which, over the course of four seasons, has tracked football players with tremendous talent at junior colleges in Mississippi and Kansas, trying to get their grades up high enough to transfer to NCAA programs — is about as close to naturalistic as you can get with a contemporary documentary.

“We told the administration we’re not at all interested in anyone behaving in a dramatic way for the cameras,” Whiteley explained. “All of that stuff will be edited out. So please just allow us to be in positions that give us the highest chance of catching stuff as it really happens.”

That meant access to dorm rooms (with student permission), access to practices, and access to families (who were uniformly thrilled to participate). When and if someone did start to perform or mug for the camera, the crew would simply stop filming. “You just wait it out,” Whiteley said, “and pretty soon people understand.” Once people realize that the things they say won’t be used to manufacture drama, they begin to trust the crew, and their interactions with the camera, especially one-on-one, become warmer and more dimensional.

“They never truly forget that you’re around,” Whiteley said. “They’re just allowing you to be part of the new normal.”

Halfway through Cheer, Lexi realizes that someone from her past has posted compromising photos of her, taken several years before, on Twitter. It visibly shakes her and begins to affect her performance in practice. At first she’s hesitant to tell Monica, who has standards about the way cheerleaders should represent themselves online. But when Lexi admits that’s something wrong, Monica takes her to meet with the chief of police — a massive Navarro Cheer fan — who helps come up with a strategy to get the photos, which were technically child pornography, taken down.

In those scenes, you see Lexi’s otherwise unflappable demeanor shaken — and a complication to Monica’s role as a tough, uncompromising coach. Lexi agreed to have the entire meeting filmed because she wanted other people in her situation to know they have options. And that’s what Cheer provides: evidence, over and over again, of options. Not every option, not even close. But your life doesn’t have to be what others have decided it will be.

“She wants something different for her life,” Lexi’s grandmother says in one episode. “She doesn’t want what she had before.”

Cheer never suggests that cheerleading is a cheat code for the American dream — that excelling at it will lead you to happiness. And the cheerleaders at Navarro aren’t gunning for spots on the Dallas Cowgirls; that’s a wholly different mode of performance. Some of them will end up working as coaches, but most of them will probably leave cheerleading behind, and simply graduate: with an associate’s degree, with no student debt, and with choices. That’s not a fantasy. But it’s also something that’s not available to everyone.

There’s a scene at the end of Cheer, when Lexi, along with the rest of the squad, runs into the Atlantic Ocean, completely overwhelmed with what she and her teammates have accomplished. The camera is set up in the water, so it’s able to track her closely. And the look on her face is one of unmediated wonder.

No one has their phones; there’s no posing. The cameras have been with them so long at that point that it doesn’t even feel like they’re performing. But every single one of them seems astonished with themselves. And that’s the sort of feeling that never leaves you. You’ll never find it, at least not precisely, again. But it can be a reminder, and a glorious refrain, of what’s possible.

My squad was never in the same universe as Navarro. Katie never tumbled across the stage in Daytona Beach, even though I feel certain, with the right training, that she could have. There’s no trace of her on Facebook, and she had no close friends, at least not in our high school class, who could help me find her. But I can still remember the perfect spread of Katie’s toe touch, and what it felt like to catch her from a throw. I can see her concentrated expression as she applied glitter to my face and French-braided my hair.

I hope that cheerleading gave Katie some semblance of the grounding and structure it gave me, and I hope she remembers those years we spent throwing and catching one another. I’ve never not worried about her, the same way I worry about Lexi at the end of the series: kicked off the squad for getting caught in a car with people who had drugs, back home in Houston and channeling her energy into the saddest rave I’ve ever seen.

But the other day I checked Lexi’s Instagram and felt an immense sense of relief. She’d posted a picture of herself back at the Navarro gym, stunting with the team. Her caption: “Honey, I’m home.” ●

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