AMESBURY — When their daughter signed up for cheerleading, Newburyport parents Bill and Stephanie Crepeau thought Emma might carry pom-poms at a few youth football games. They had no idea how competitive cheerleading has become over the last decade or two.
By the time Emma’s team of third- and fourth-grade girls traveled to Boston in November for the annual New England Cheer and Dance Championship, the Crepeaus were hooked.
“I was blown away by the whole show, the pomp and circumstance,” recalled Emma’s father on a recent Sunday night, sitting with his wife in the cozy waiting room at the All That Cheer and Tumble training facility in Amesbury.
Amid hundreds of entries converging on the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center from across the Northeast, Emma’s team — a combined group from Ipswich and Newburyport — earned a second-place tie in the Mites division. That was good enough to receive a bid to compete at the National High School Cheerleading Championship at Walt Disney World next month.
The Ipswich-Newburyport Tigers will travel alongside an A team of Newburyport seventh- and eighth-graders to the Florida event, which coaches refer to as the Super Bowl of cheerleading. Cheering, they say, has grown far beyond its traditional role in support of other athletes — the boys — into a competitive sport all its own.
The younger cheerleaders work through a systematic progression, explained A Team coach Hollis Caswell, from synchronized dance routines and tumbling displays to high-flying stunts. Sally Little, a Newburyport high school freshman who helps coach the third- and fourth-graders with her friend Molly Hanson, said after practice that she gets frustrated by the old “stereotypes” about cheerleading: “It’s like, ‘You throw a 1-pound football – that’s cute. We throw whole girls!’”
The growth of the sport has led to busy gyms like the two at All That, a six-year-old facility tucked inside an office park in Amesbury. They’re large, bright rooms with high ceilings, thickly padded floors, and mirrors along the walls. The atmosphere is spirited, and demanding: “If at first you don’t succeed,” reads a hand-lettered sign on one wall, “try doing it the way your coach told you to the first time!”
All That is a training hub for community-based teams such as the Tigers, who are affiliated with the Cape Ann Youth Football League, as well as several US All Star Federation cheer and dance teams, a group of which just qualified to go to their own national finals.
The Crepeaus said their daughter has gained plenty of benefits from her participation, including a confidence boost — “she’s definitely less shy,” said her father — and a chance to stay active in winter.
“She’s been outside doing cartwheels,” said her mother.
The Tigers soon wrapped up their practice, pulling on puffy jackets over their tie-dyed T-shirts, and the seventh- and eighth-grade girls took over the gym for their own two-hour session. They wore matching T-shirts in Newburyport’s maroon-and-gold color scheme, reading “Keep Calm and Clipper On.”
Caswell, an intensive care nurse at Children’s Hospital, was captain of the Newburyport High School cheerleading team during her senior year in 1985. She went on to cheer in college at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and tried out for the New England Patriots cheerleading squad during the Drew Bledsoe era. Her fellow coach, Jessica Reed, is a former Boston Celtics dancer.
Caswell has two growing boys. They’re hockey players, she said: “These are my girls. That’s why I do this.”
Since receiving invitations to the nationals, the coaches have led a fund-raising drive to cover the estimated $1,000 it will cost each cheerleader for airfare and room and board in Orlando. The teams have been seeking donations through an online site and by collecting outside stores and at holiday events.
Throughout practice, the camaraderie among the girls was apparent. They complimented each other, checked with concern on a teammate when she took a spill, and apologized profusely when they missed a step.
They also chattered and giggled as the coaches put them through their paces.
“You guys cannot laugh,” barked Caswell at one point. “I know you’re tired, but you’ve got to hold it together.”
She and Reed used various terms — “pinball,” “shampoo” — to cue certain moves and formations. “You’re not ballerinas,” Reed reminded the girls at one point. For that routine, they should think of themselves as “robotic dancers. You should feel every movement,” she explained, demonstrating with herky-jerky karate chops.
In the office, All That cofounder Lisa Lariviere said she opened the business after logging too many miles with the team she coached at Triton Regional in Newbury to use a training center in Salem, N.H. Unable to use the Triton gym during basketball season, the cheerleaders sometimes held practice in the school library, which has high ceilings.
“They’d roll these heavy mats into the library,” she recalled, rolling her eyes. “That was their workout.”
The increasing popularity of businesses like All That reflects the respect cheering is demanding, she said. “It used to be all about the games,” said Lariviere. “Now it’s their sport.”
Outside the office, members of the A team, given a quick water break, flopped onto the old leather couches and armchairs in the waiting room. “The Simpsons” flickered on a TV screen in the corner.
For the girls, the team is like an extended family, they said.
“When someone asks me how many sisters I have,” said Madison Duford of Newburyport, fiddling with the bow in her hair, “I say 15.”