Date of Award

Spring 2004

Document Type



Sociology and Anthropology


Cheerleading is a uniquely American cultural phenomenon. Like jazz and baseball, cheerleading originated in America. Soon after cheerleading's inception, the cheerleader became a nationally recognized symbol invested with cultural significance. Cheerleading represents both positive and negative values in American culture. In fact, cheerleading has become central to American mainstream culture because the positive values it portrays. For example, during a September 11 memorial, a New York City cheerleading squad was asked to perform. Audience members wept during the routine, and the announcer kept repeating "beautiful" as the squad performed. It may seem strange that cheerleaders would perform a memorial tribute in response to a terrible national tragedy; however, the inclusion of cheerleaders in this memorial service represents an American spirit and emphasizes our uniquely American character and identity. Cheerleading is also a social and political form of dance: a form of human thought and behavior performed by the human body for human purposes. According to Hanna, "dance interweaves with other aspects of human life, such as communication and learning, belief systems, social relations and political dynamics, loving and fighting, and urbanization and change" (1987: 3). Cheerleading is an American dance form that embodies these social, political, and cultural dimensions. Cheerleading is a ritualized dance performed in a public forum that has a communicative intent. Cheerleaders are American icons who communicate in three ways. First, cheerleaders individually organize their thoughts and actions performed in their cheers, stunts, and dance routines mentally. First, cheerleaders use spatial and temporal thought organization and also the rhythm of the dance and music to guide their movements. Secondly, the icon of the American cheerleader communicates cultural values primarily about proper social behavior and gender. These cultural values have changed over the last century, however the icon of the cheerleader has communicated these values from cheerleading's inception. Lastly, cheerleaders communicate to their audience, school, and each other using language in cheers and through body movements. Although a fairly new phenomenon within American culture, cheerleading has nonetheless had a major impact on many communities throughout the United Sates. As a social scientist, I am writing this ethnography on cheerleading to show cheerleading's impact on American culture as a highly symbolic American dance form. The focus of my analysis is the cognitive, social and political communication that takes place within and surrounding modern day cheerleading. I begin my analysis of cheerleading with background information on this American cultural phenomenon. First, I define cheerleading as a dance form and as a form of communication. I then discuss the cognitive aspects of cheerleading. Next, my ethnography traces cheerleading from its origination to modern day difficulties plaguing cheerleaders. Furthermore, I examine two key social aspects of cheerleading: issues of gender and race. Lastly I describe the politics of cheerleading and cheerleaders, and address the meanings, values, and symbolic communication associated with cheerleading. My examination of the complex communicative aspects in cheerleading started with introspection. Throughout part of my middle school and high school career, I was a cheerleader. Although I loved cheerleading, I was frustrated over the lack of respect cheerleaders received in comparison to other school sports. After earning second place in a national competition, and still receiving minimal school support and appreciation, I hung up my pom-poms forever. After I left the squad, I noticed the complexities of cheerleading that I had not noticed before. The behaviors of pettiness and shallowness, which were not seen on other athletic teams, seemed to proliferate in cheerleading. There was also a great amount of athleticism that went into performances; however, cheerleading is still mainly seen as an activity, not a sport. The complexities in cheerleading, coupled with the communicative messages in the performances and embodied in the cheerleaders themselves led me to my investigation of cheerleading culture and communication. This paper is a culmination of literature, personal experiences and information provided from interviews with other cheerleaders. I interviewed nine females and two males that had experience cheerleading. Please tum to Appendix A to see what questions I asked my informants. All of my informants brought to my attention that they appreciated that someone was "taking cheerleaders seriously."