Something to Cheer About

Local groups bring it on

By Rebecca Berfanger

During the last weekend of January, a sea of young athletes in satiny track jackets, sequins, glitter and giant hair bows took over the Indiana Convention Center for the JAMfest Cheer Super Nationals. A billboard near the Indianapolis International Airport — the same one that also welcomes visitors to the Indy 500 every May — welcomed them to the Circle City.

The cheerleaders had all worked on their two-and-a-half minute routines for months. But it turns out that it’s not only the awards that mattered that day, or at other competitions, but what the cheerleaders did leading up to and after the big event, that their coaches say make the sport important to these girls and boys.

While the young athletes came from all over the Midwest and even as far as Texas, Florida and New York to compete at the JAMfest event, at least three of the teams were from much closer to home: VIP Athletics in Franklin (pictured), Tiffany’s Cheer & Dance Studio in Greenwood and Fierce Allstars Cheer in Franklin.

Each of these organizations has different uniform colors, routines and coaches — all of whom are extremely qualified with years of their own experiences as cheerleaders. But what they do have in common are a love of the sport and a shared sense of the values the athletes learn from participating in cheering.

Plus they all start the 2018-19 season in May, so there is still time to find out if cheer is appealing for you or a young person in your life.

While most of us probably think of movies like “Bring It On” and the many sequels, or even the cheerleaders who perform on the sidelines of middle school and high school sports, the athletes who participate in all-star cheering are more into the competitive side of the sport.

They spend several hours a week at and outside the gym, not only practicing their routines, but getting stronger through conditioning, learning new stunts, sharpening their tumbling skills and perfecting their choreography.

Unlike the drama in the movies, the coaches say the athletes form a bond similar to that of a family.

VIP Athletics co-owners Aaron Riley and Amy Rock have members of their gym who not only come to their classes, but might stay at the gym for additional hours to watch other classes. They also have members who tend to hang out for weekend slumber parties, even though they’ve already spent several hours together that week.

“We are a family-owned and operated gym, therefore each member of Fierce Allstars is our family,” says Crystal Dyer, who co-owns Fierce Allstars with her sister, Sara Hawkins. 

When the Fierce gym was ravaged by a devastating fire four years ago, the organization and the community pulled together. “The amount of support was breathtaking.  Every day, every hour someone was reaching out to us and offering support.  Our parents, athletes, friends, community and complete strangers were eager to help in any way possible,” Dyer says. “Our parents immediately held a prayer vigil in our honor, started organizing local fundraisers and then put their tool belts on and stood by us as we once again put our blood, sweat and tears into another home.”

The bond formed among teammates is also important to Tiffany Messersmith, owner and coach at Tiffany’s Cheer & Dance Studio, because, she says, “we are a second family to a lot of our kids in the program.” Many of the children stick with the program from a young age through high school, and some even compete at the college level. Those who have been in the program long enough have even received college scholarships from the gym.

Like any family, there are different levels and personalities, even from the beginning, but cheer helps bring them all together.

For instance, Rock says, “We often see older ones take responsibility for their actions or help little ones understand a routine. It’s a lot like a big sister-little sister relationship. Throughout the season, the big sister is like a support for the little sister.”

These relationships also help build confidence. “It takes a lot of confidence to perform, even in practice,” Rock says.

For instance, Rock and Riley mentioned a girl at their gym who, the first year she came in, seemed very shy. She was so quiet that the coaches had to stand right next to her to hear her talk. But with a little help from some of the other girls and the coaches, within a couple of seasons she came out of her shell and was able to perform well at an event for the athletes’ families to come watch them.

“Now I can hand her a microphone and she’ll confidently say her name, age, how long she’s been cheering and a little about herself,” Riley says. The girl’s mom was “ecstatic” to see her daughter being brave.

Dyer has had similar experiences at her gym.

“While we are here to compete and everyone loves to win, this sport truly is about so much more than winning,” she says. “It’s about the leadership skills, confidence, teamwork abilities, lifelong friends and memories these athletes gain from being a part of an organized sport and team.  They are learning life skills that will help them navigate through every area of their life while growing into adulthood.”

Messersmith credits the team atmosphere for the sense of camaraderie the cheerleaders form.

“It’s a team sport, not an individual sport,” she says. “They learn to work together as a team, make lots of friends, do conditioning games, and we make it fun.”

Of course, the athletes all know they will eventually have an audience. For instance, Messersmith’s gym has girls who are Pacers Cheer Pals, that is, members of a cheer team put together by Messersmith and the Indiana Pacers basketball team to help encourage crowd involvement and entertain at select Pacers home games. A former cheerleader for the Pacers (aka Pacemate), Messersmith started the partnership as a way for the girls to get the experience of performing in front of big crowds. The girls, ages 5 to 11, must be members of Tiffany’s All-Star cheer program when they audition. A coach for the Pacemates holds the tryouts and makes the decision of which girls will cheer at a Pacers game once a month.

“They love all of it,” she says. “They get to learn different routines each month. It’s also a little more relaxed because it’s about performing instead of competing. When they go in front of the NBA crowd, it’s pretty exciting for them. They’re back in the locker room area, they’re like little mini Pacemates, they get to see Boomer, they see the Pacemates, they have a lot of fun.”

The Cheer Pals perform during a timeout in the first quarter. The last two games of this season where they’ll perform are March 23, Pacers vs. L.A. Clippers, and April 10, Pacers vs. Charlotte Hornets.

While there are a few options in the area for all-star cheering, most cheerleaders do the work because they’re in love with it, not necessarily with the dream of going pro.

“When you talk to someone who plays basketball or baseball or soccer, they say, ‘I play basketball,’ ‘I play baseball,’ ‘I play soccer,’” Rock says. “But cheerleaders will say, ‘I am a cheerleader.’ It’s more than something you decide you want to do. After you decide to try it in the beginning, you adopt the lifestyle of fitness and health, and you become this person that is a cheerleader.”