Issue # 61
November 20, 2001
Cheer Camp or 84 Hours and 17 minutes in the 9th Ring of Hell
By Trish Valenteen

Trish Valenteen is a good friend of mine from way back. And a good friend of Donna's from even more way back. Valenteen, who lives in the Los Angeles area, recently made former Monty Python member Eric Idle laugh.--RW

I am the Cheerleading Coach for a large Southern California high school. This is laughable for many reasons, but mostly because I'm not qualified to coach anything. I am desperately unathletic. I don't know the rules, regulations, heroes, history or point of any sport. I was that nerd in high school who sat in the bleachers reading and blinked with incoherence when the cheerleaders in my classes purred over our team's victories the night before.

My only qualification to coach is that I was walking past the principal's office at the exact moment that he and the athletic director were desperately brainstorming for names of suckers who didn't know enough about our sad athletic program to run screaming for the hills. (Advice to new teachers: avoid the main office as much as possible, and if you do have to go there, walk quickly through with eyes averted. But I digress…)

Cheerleading is not what it was when I was in school. No rah rah! No 'give me a V!" And certainly no rustling paper pom-poms. Routines are tightly choreographed hip hop dance numbers, done by girls in outfits that would make Charro blush. And Cheer Camp is the kickoff to the season, where the girls lay the groundwork (and size up the competition) for the year.

To say that Cheer Camp is competitive would be to say that the Holy Crusades were a church picnic. For those who have never been to Cheer Camp, I can only liken it to a beauty pageant. Fixed plastic smiles. Hairstyles planned with strategizing that NATO would admire. Frantically obsequious behavior towards anyone even suspected of being a cheer judge. Intense insincere friendships between squads, which transmogrify into murderous spite at the mere whiff of challenge. I recall being at a zoo once, observing a lion watching the tiger in the next cage being fed dripping chunks of red meat. The white-hot fury in that lion's gaze was nothing compared to the glare of cheerleaders watching another squad being complimented by the camp staff.

Then there is the daily fight for the Spirit Stick. The Spirit Stick is the Oscar, the Holy Grail, the Nobel Prize of Cheer Camp. And what is this object that is dreamt of and schemed for, you might ask? Is it a scepter made of the purest gold? Is it a diamond orb from which you must avert your gaze? Is it a relic from a saint or a Backstreet Boy? NO! It's a plastic tube, a foot in length, with the camp logo embossed on it. Even stranger is the superstition regarding the Sticks. They are never, under any circumstance, to touch the ground. If they do, grave repercussions will rain down on the offending squad, rendering the Spirit Stick fouled and useless. Kind of like the American flag, except it's not a symbol of our nation, but piece of plastic worth about 47 cents. Yet the battle to be awarded one of these trinkets was fierce. Squads were judged throughout the day on attitude, congeniality, and spirit. Mostly spirit, which resulted in a constant jockeying for position in front of the judges and the incessant caterwauling of veneration of anything said by an adult onstage.

The routine of camp was fast paced and exhausting, and as coach, I had to be a part of every minute. All directions were delivered by the camp staff in frenetic cheer. There was 3 ½ hours of group instruction, break for lunch and then three more hours of small group instruction, where the girls learned a battery of stunts and cheers that they could take back to their schools.

As much as the girls professed to be a team, the claws came out at this time. The bickering was non-stop. Insults and accusations volleyed back and forth, old wounds from elementary school were opened, alliances were made and dissolved. It was ugly. Drunk drag queens are nicer to each other than these girls. But as soon as a spirit coach came within earshot, every one was loving, happy, and supportive. The mood swings gave me motion sickness.

On and off the cheer field, melodramas erupted every few minutes. Here was a typical scenario: one girl would get in a huff and stomp off, bawling "Everyone leave me alone!". Another girl might start after her, to which the first girl would screech "I SAID LEAVE ME ALONE!!!" So I would tell the girls to move away and get back to work, at which point, the rogue girl would come running back sobbing "I can't BELIEVE you left me alone! We're supposed to be a TEAM!!"

I was consistently struck speechless by the glaring pretension and dramatics. I think my problem is that I'm not a girly kind of girl. I have no patience for the histrionics of adolescent divas, yet my increasing sarcasm and mocking seemed to only fuel their angst. I would sigh and ask as patiently as possible for the prima donna of the moment to please explain the logic of her insane action or statement. My request would only be met with choked back tears and the accusation "But you just don't understand…." Truer words have rarely been spoken.

Finally, the end of camp arrived. I made sure every girl was in a car and on their way home. Apparently, they had forgotten all of the reprimanding I had done, and all the aspersions they had heaped upon each other, because they all hugged each other and me and thanked me for a great experience, with memories that they would treasure forever. I shook my head in disbelief, wondering if we had all just been through the same 3 ½ days. I pondered this point for only a moment as I sprinted to my car, cranked up my Herb Albert CD, and actually burned rubber out of the parking lot.

As the campus faded from my rear view mirror, my annoyance began to fade as well, and I could actually smile at the good points. The girls were often very nice and funny, and their energy was admirable. And if the role of a cheerleader is to exude truly genuine school spirit, these girls had that in buckets.

And we must have done something right, because we were awarded three Spirit Sticks, none of which ever went near the sullying ground.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)