Cheerleading has come a long way since the 'pep clubs' of more than a century ago, when all-male squads would stand on the sidelines and lead cheers at football games. These days, it's not just school-based, and the athletes have taken it to a whole new level. Club cheer groups, known as 'all-star' cheerleading, which started in the late 1980s and grew rapidly through the 1990s, focuses on athletic training and competition performances, says Sheila Noone of USA Cheer and Varsity Brands Inc.
USA Cheer (USA Federation for Sport Cheering) is the national governing body of sport cheering and serves the cheer community, including all-star organizations as well as the traditional school-based cheer programs.
And competitive cheer continues to evolve. One of the latest additions at the collegiate and high school levels is something called STUNT, which has been promoted by USA Cheer and Varsity Brands. In part because of questions about whether competitive cheerleading is considered a sport for Title IX compliance purposes, the aim of STUNT is to focus on the technical aspects of cheerleading such as tumbling and jumps and a dynamic team performance, and to remove the more crowd-leading element.
Some performance athletes gravitate toward dance, and as a result, dance teams are popular on both the high school and college level. These athletes generally perform on-field during half-time, and also participate in competitive travel programs. They are sometimes grouped under the heading of 'dance and drill teams.'
Cheer and dance events appear to be getting more and more popular around the country, with many different types of cheer and dance competitions that involve thousands of youngsters and young adults. The National Federation of State High School Associations, for instance, lists 5,711 schools that offered “competitive spirit squads” for the 2011-2012 school year, with 111,339 participants from across the country, and those numbers continue to grow.
Mike Duhon, the executive director–championships for the National Cheerleaders Association and National Dance Alliance, heads up the planning and administration of 34 championships for junior and senior high school and college students. Venues suitable for cheer and dance competitions, Duhon says, are different, depending on the type of event.
“Regional events, generally held in gyms, have a standard mat—a basic setup,” he says. “For our ‘classics,’ we look for a minimum of 2,500 seats, and a minimum ceiling height of 25 feet because of the stunts required. There typically needs to be a practice area for the participants to warm up in.” Each team’s routine runs two minutes, 30 seconds long.
Duhon says NCA generally brings in lights and a sound system for its events. “At any given event, we’ll have two to three production trucks. We set up our signs, our floors—the entire area.
“For us, as far as the venue required, it’s really just the space. We look for arena-style seating so spectators can look down on the floor. Or, we have to bring in a stage and seating is on the ground. We also know we have to have an area for our judges, on a platform so they have a clear view of the floor.”
Duhon says they also want to be at a “destination” for the competitions. “The performance for participants is only two and a half minutes, so we want other things there for the kids,” he says.
Daytona Beach, Florida
One unique destination that Duhon deals with frequently is in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Ocean Center Daytona Beach hosts probably the premier cheerleading event in the country every year, the NCA Collegiate National Championships. “Daytona and the Ocean Center are unique,” says Duhon.
“We host some very strong events throughout the year,” says Tim Buckley, sales manager for the Ocean Center. The NCA Collegiate National Championship, which brings in close to 10,000 attendees and participants every April, is in its 16th year at the Ocean Center. And now, there’s also a spinoff international championships, also held in April, that has nearly 11,000, including more families.
The NCA championships in Daytona usually receive national TV coverage every year. In fact, in the movie “Bring It On,” the story line was about two competing school teams, each focused on winning a cheer championship in Daytona Beach.
The Ocean Center also hosts other large cheer events, too, including state competitions in January, and other events in October, some bringing in as many as 12,000 attendees. The center has been hosting an event in June called Showbiz Dance, which is a touring dance competition, with individual and team dancing with props and costumes.
The Ocean Center venue is right on the beach, and includes a massive interior space, but also a large outdoor band shell where many of the competitions—and especially the finals—are held. “Our historic band shell is kind of like the ‘superbowl’ of cheerleading,” says Buckley, adding that the good thing about the setup is that on those rare occasions when the weather doesn’t cooperate, the competition can move inside.
“The thing about Daytona that’s most appealing is the destination,” says Buckley. “The great weather, of course, is important, too. But during the competitions, the teams are practicing all over the place. It’s great… they’re in the historic band shell, and they’re in the park in front of the hotel across from us.”
And being in Daytona Beach, there is a lot for attendees, and their families, to do when not practicing or competing. “Everything is within walking distance,” Buckley says. “We’re 400 feet from the beach, and there are great hotels, shopping, restaurants.” Also, the area is about 10 minutes from the Daytona Beach International Airport, with easy access to Interstates 4 and 95.
The northwestern part of Florida is home to the “Emerald Coast,” a wonderful string of beaches that include the areas of Destin, Okaloosa Island and Fort Walton Beach. For sports events such as cheer and dance competitions, one of the jewels in this area is the Emerald Coast Convention Center, on a barrier island just steps away from the white-sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico.
“Our location is pretty awesome,” admits Tisha Maraj, sales and marketing manager for the Emerald Coast Convention Center. “Everyone seems to want to come to this area. It’s so popular.”
The region has been cited by many national publications and websites. USA Today rated it as a “top beach” in the U.S.; Trip Advisor says it’s one of the “top 25 destinations” in the U.S.; National Geographic lists it at a “top place to visit”; and Good Morning America has dubbed it one of the “top 10 most beautiful places.”
The area's convention center opened in 2003, situated along 24 miles of beach in the heart of Northwest Florida. “We take a lot of pride in our building,” says Maraj. The Emerald Grand Ballroom has about 21,000-square-feet of column-free space, with 24-foot-high ceilings, and it can accommodate over 2,300 people. The convention center also has plenty of other rooms and areas available for cheer and dance teams to warm up. Complimentary services at the convention center include facility-wide WiFi, parking, dressing room use, website and marquee advertising, and use of the box office. The venue also offers state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment and technicians on site.
“We’ve done a lot of cheer competitions,” Maraj says. “It’s so amazing to see these kids perform. But probably one of the reasons why they come back every year is that our experienced team assists in every detail. We work with them and are very close to them, helping to find accommodations, getting coupons for dinners, helping with gift baskets—things that make it really special for them.”
One of the regular events held each April at the Emerald Coast Convention Center is the Athletic Championships Destin, with more than 3,500 athletes from around the country. During the Fourth of July holiday, the convention center is home to a Masquerade Dance Company–Dance Competition National Finals, with all types of dancing for participants from elementary school to high school ages. “We live-stream this one, so family members who couldn’t make the trip can watch,” Maraj says.
Driving or flying, the Emerald Coast is easily accessible. Northwest Florida Regional Airport is a short drive from the Emerald Coast Convention Center, and the Pensacola International Airport is just an hour to the west. The area has more than 13,000 hotel rooms and hundreds of restaurants, so there are options to fit all tastes and budgets, and there are plenty of attractions and activities for cheer and dance participants and their families to do when not competing. And of course, there’s the beach.
Branson/Lakes Area, Missouri
This year is something to cheer about in Branson, Missouri, as the city turns 100 years old in 2012. Branson, of course, is a popular destination for visitors from all over the country, and is nicknamed the “live entertainment capital of the world.”
“We have 50 theaters in Branson—more seats than on Broadway,” says Terra Alphonso of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This offers a lot of opportunities with cheer and dance groups. Several of the theaters have multiple changing rooms available for teams to use. That’s one of the important things, having a place for participants to change, sit and relax.
“The nice thing about the theaters is they have their own stage and lighting,” Alphonso adds. “Some of our theaters have really nice, high-quality sound and recording systems. Sometimes, groups will bring in a different type of flooring, too.”
The Clay Cooper Theatre has hosted several cheer and dance competitions, she says, as has the Tri-Lakes Center and the Hughes Brothers Theatre. Some theaters also offer dinner shows. “That’s been something cheer and dance groups have been able to take advantage of,” Alphonso adds. Another venue that can host cheer and dance is the Branson RecPlex, which has a 44,000-square-foot recreation center with two gymnasiums.
A relative newcomer to the century-old city is the Branson Convention Center, built in 2007, which has hosted several cheer and dance competitions, including the JAMfest Mega-JAM Series event in November, which will bring in more than 1,000 participants. The Convention Center, managed by Hilton, has two exhibit halls totaling 50,000 square feet, in addition to a 23,000-square-foot ballroom.
Branson has more than 200 hotels that provide over 19,000 hotel rooms and there are more than 240 restaurants to suit all tastes. In addition to 50 theaters (which offer over 100 live shows), there are 300-plus retail shops, 12 museums, two theme parks, three lakes and 1,250 miles of lake shoreline.
Columbus, Georgia, is about 90 minutes south of Atlanta and offers facilities suitable for cheer and dance events such as the Columbus Civic Center, Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center, and RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. The area has 42 hotels with 4,600 rooms available.
The Columbus Civic Center is a state-of-the-art multipurpose facility with 10,000 arena seats, 23,000 square feet of flat floor space, and 5,000 square feet of hospitality suites.
The Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center is located along the banks of the Chattahoochee River in the historic Columbus Iron Works, which has been restored to its Civil War splendor. The ballroom area offers nearly 22,000 square feet and can accommodate nearly 1,400 people.
Located in the heart of historic uptown Columbus is the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the centerpiece of the city’s new arts and entertainment district. The 245,000-square-foot RiverCenter is a stunning blend of past and present, mixing the brick and ironwork of the area’s historic buildings with a modern multi-level glass and steel façade. RiverCenter’s state-of-the-art facilities include the 2,000-seat Bill Heard Theatre, the center’s main venue.