What do a student, doctor, Bio-chemist, lawyer, nurse, teacher and a bio-mechanical engineer all have in common?
Some would say “that sounds like my local soccer team, or my local softball team” - a group of women with varying backgrounds who come together to play a sport. But if I told you that these were all cheerleaders what would your reaction be?
I have been fortunate to spend time within the NFL getting to know teams and cheerleaders and what they do, as part of my desire to understand and challenge the myths around cheerleading. Are these athletes or are they just what so many believe them to be?
It is impossible to find answers from the outside and so I am grateful in particular to the Oakland Raiders that allowed me unfettered access and have shared their vision with me.
Like so many, I have seen and heard so much over the years that I was completely blown away by the time I spent with Raiderettes Director Jeanette Thompson and her cheerleaders, The Raiderettes. As a previous Raiderette herself she fully understands where cheerleading was at and where it needed to go. Born out of her desire to challenge perceptions, Jeanette didn’t tell anyone about being a Raiderette. As she explained, “...other than my supervisor no one knew I was a Raiderette, and so when they found out I could say ‘now you know what a cheerleader looks like’ - and this challenged the perception.”
This for me is core to what Jeanette is delivering with the Raiderettes. The mantra that Jeanette instils into each Raiderette is that “The first thing that comes out of your mouth shouldn’t be that you are a Raiderette, it’s something that people should discover. It may be an impressive title but it’s not what defines you.” This is not what I expected to hear, if I am honest, and it is a comment that greatly impressed me. This wasn’t a one-off comment for the press, because as we talk more this was the constant theme for Jeanette. For Jeanette cheerleading excellence is the starting point and should be a given for such an iconic team. She is passionate about the Raiderettes being the best cheerleaders and wants them to have the best routines and look the best, but actually that is all underpinned by so much more.
The first question she asks herself of each potential cheerleader is “are you a well-balanced person?” This is a key question for her and a fundamental part of how Jeanette has and continues to shift the world of cheerleading. As well as this, she is going the extra mile with the cheerleaders under her wing, she ensures they have all the tools they need to function out in the community and in the world afterwards. She ensures they are all taught how to speak in public, how to interact with people and to continue to be the balanced people she discovered. These are priceless qualities Jeanette is equipping them with over and above what many think a cheerleader should be. “I can’t tell you anyone else’s perception, I can only tell you what we try to do,” Jeanette tells me of her quest to change perceptions. Jeanette is pushing the boundaries of perception very hard and ushering in a new dawn in cheerleading.
Talking with the Raiderettes, it is very clear they are keen to be on the squad and that they consider it an honour, with many of them having been lifelong fans of the Raiders team. The interesting thing is the enthusiasm that they speak with about all the community work they do. I tried numerous times to get back to my questions about training, what their schedules are etc. but we kept wandering back to the charity and community work they and the Raiderettes do. With three separate programs that all lead into being a Raiderette as well as a ‘play 60’ programme and charity work in the community, these are very busy cheerleaders. What is interesting though is that the work not only impacts the community but them as well. As one of the Raiderettes explained “..on our last ‘play 60’ event a girl said to us this was the best day of her life. Often these kids don’t come from the best circumstances and to able to give them positive experiences is amazing”.
These cheerleaders feel they are giving back and representing something much bigger than themselves: it’s about community and positivity and making a difference in people’s lives - and they quite clearly love doing it. What makes this all the more impressive is the fact that all of these activities are done in their own time. A schedule of events is sent out and they all volunteer as to which events they can make and this is then co-ordinated with Jeanette.
All of this is on top of the following schedule they have as Raiderette cheerleaders:
- 3 x 3 hour training session with the Raiderettes each week
- Strength and conditioning training
- Cardio classes
- It varies for each Raiderette but of those I spoke to, 4 x 2 hour gym sessions as well
- Normal 9-5 jobs
On game day they arrive at 7am for a 1pm kick off. They will have a full rehearsal followed by a performance in Raiderville and then on to ‘tunnels’, welcoming fans as they come into the stadium. This is followed by a pre-game routine and then 4 hours of dancing, rallying and standing, with their only break and time to get off their feet being half time of the game. They don’t sit for any of this time and as they say, “we only leave the field when the last player has left”. They then pack up and in some cases then have to commute 1.45 hours back to their homes, a very long day.
One thing that all of the Raiderettes agree on is the need for cardio and stamina training for the long hours standing and dancing in the sun. So many think that it’s about looking pretty and shaking pompoms for a couple of minutes, but actually there is far more to it than that and actually being pretty and being able to dance doesn’t cut it anymore.
This is a new era and Jeanette Thompson and the Raiderettes are at the front of this challenge to our perceptions of cheerleading and to this end I have the utmost respect for what she has achieved and her ethos in a challenging environment for female athletes.