Cheer: the fearless and tough athleticism of competitive cheerleaders

Youtube video of the cast of Cheer performing their Daytona routine on Ellen, January 22, 2020.

I watched Cheer a couple of weeks ago before anyone was writing about it or even really talking about it. I had run out of new episodes of The Good Place and wanted something to watch while I waited a week. Cheer caught my attention among the many possibilities.

It’s a six episode documentary series on Netflix that focuses on the championship cheerleading team from Navarro College—a two-year junior college in the small town of Navarro in Texas. It’s a gripping account of the training leading up to the national competition in Daytona, Florida.

Before the end of the first fifteen minutes you can see that these are athletes if there ever were any. The young women who serve as the “flyers” or “top girls” are masters of aerial acrobatics, balance, strength, and endurance. The young men who serve at the base, hurl the women up into the air, balance them on their shoulders and even their up-stretched hands, and catch them before they hit the ground. Meanwhile, the young women and men who perform tumbling routines have the speed, grace, strength, skill, and endurance of the most gymnasts at the most competitive levels.

The physical toll on their bodies—of the top girls / flyers and the catchers and the tumblers—is sometimes hard to watch. Imagine repeatedly landing, even if it’s on the intertwined solid arms of two strong men, after falling from great heights. Imagine being the base team members who catch them. The documentary audio picks up the thud of the impact. Imagine balancing your team mate on your shoulders (both the men and the women do this). Imagine doing this while you yourself are balanced on someone else’s shoulders. The result, especially when they’ve practiced and practiced and hit the moves as intended, is a mesmerizing routine that has the viewer thinking “how do they do that?!” Cheer gives is some insight into the “how.”

Of course if you’re offering six episodes, you need some human interest and drama. So of the 40 athletes on the team, the filmmaker focuses on the stories of fewer than ten — all of whom have some sort of hard luck angle — as well as the coach, Monica, born and raised in Navarro, and as tough a coach as you can imagine. She is competitive and perfectionistic, because that is what is required in order to win in Daytona. You have 2 1/2 minutes to do the routine. Period. It has to be perfect. And difficult.

I give big points for the depiction of the level of athletic skill and fearlessness required of all of the members of the team. The coach is also impressive in her focus, demandingness, and ability to cultivate a relationship of trust that makes team members not just able to follow her orders to do extremely dangerous and daring stunts, but also able to come to her with “life stuff.”

I’m not going to give an in-depth critique and analysis, but the focus on the hard luck cases (particularly Jerry, La’Darius, Morgan, and Lexi, but also Gabi whose parents come across as taskmasters), while showing how people can overcome adversity at times felt exploitative. Both Jerry and La’Darius are young African American men. La’Darius had a difficult childhood where he was bullied and taunted and shamed for his sexuality (he is openly out as gay in the documentary). Jerry lost his mom to illness and is probably the single most likeable person on television right now because of his endlessly positive and accepting attitude. At one point it looks as if he’s going to be “on the mat” for Daytona but then he is taken off the next day and he surmises that his “chance” was really just to give a wake-up call to La’Darius, who needed to smarten up. Morgan was basically abandoned by her parents as a young teen. She looks up to Monica (the coach) so much you get the impression she would do anything that was asked of her (and she does when she is a top girl).

Though of course there is drama in the very story of training for a championship—will they be ready in time? Will they win? How will they overcome THIS injury (there are lots) or setback (there are lots)? — the momentum for a six episode series (as opposed to one feature length documentary) really comes from developing narratives around these five or six young people who are overcoming adversity and having a chance to shine.

The other thing worth noting is the despite there being a small number of African American men as catchers, spotters and tumblers, the women are almost all tiny, thin, and white—there is virtually no departure at all from the cheerleader stereotype among the women in the show, except perhaps Lexi who is a formidable tumbler who is able to pull off the same floor stunts as the men (which is apparently unusual).

And while they focus on the few whose lives have been difficult, there are another 30+ team members whose families had the financial wherewithal to enable them to be active in all-star cheerleading throughout their lives. Despite the narrative angle, therefore, it’s misleading to suggest that the Navarro team is a motley crew of kids from difficult life circumstances, saved from their terrible fates by Monica. This is not to trivialize the good she does do. Nor is it to minimize the manner in which these team members, despite adverse life circumstances, along with the rest of the team, are incredible athletes who accomplished something wonderful (regardless of the outcome—-and I will not reveal it here!).

Rather, it is to note that building drama around the handful of kids who had a tougher go doesn’t necessarily depict with accuracy what competitive cheerleading at that level is typically like. Like any sport, most of the team members are groomed from an early age and are able to compete because their families could afford their extracurricular activity.

That said, Cheer is worth watching. I watched one one-hour episode a night for six nights and each time I looked forward to it. I truly cared what was going to happen to the team. And I understand that a documentary can’t spotlight 40 people and be successful. There need to be stars, people in secondary roles, and the unnamed “rest of the team.”

Whatever you think of Cheer, you can’t deny that these are all underrated athletes worthy of recognition. What they do is an amazing feat, hard to watch at all, but impossible not to view with awe.

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