Is cheerleading a sport? It is not a question that Netflix’s six-part docuseries explicitly asks. Cheer, a behind-the-scenes look at the Navarro College cheerleading team, does show cheerleading as an activity with all the drama, pain, glory, and athleticism of professional sport.
Central to Cheer’s appeal is Navarro’s coach Monica Aldama and her insatiable desire for success, along with the intra-team dynamics among a range of strong and charismatic personalities. One cheerleader says, “our biggest competition is against our team mates”, with just 20 spots available “on mat” to be selected from a squad of 40.
For anyone outside the US, cheerleading seems to be a twee hobby for teenage girls with saccharine smiles, long legs and blonde hair. What Cheer shows with great pacing and thoughtful storytelling is a world completely dislocated from these stereotypes.
Instead, the universe of college-level cheer has more in common with the pain and punishment of boxing, as seen in documentaries such as What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali, or the commitment to perfection seen in The Wayde van Niekerk Story, both of which are available on Showmax.
Billy Smith, a former cheerleader, describes cheerleading as a mix of “gymnastics, dance and circus”. It is more than that.
A cheer team comprises 11 men and nine women who, in a routine that lasts just over two minutes, complete an intricately choreographed set of dance, tumbles, flips, jumps, switches and dance moves that is, even for the sceptic, a spectacular sight to behold – especially the “baskets” in which young women are launched into the air in gravity-defying stunts. They then fall downwards towards men who catch them in what can only be described as rib-crushing manoeuvres.
“Loved and feared”
Then there are candid interviews with a colourful cast of cheerleaders, many of whom come from difficult circumstances, and with Aldama, the coach who is the driving force behind Navarro’s success. Aldama is a character who will divide opinion.
“Moulding, training, scolding, mothering and policing them all is their astonishing coach, Monica Aldama. She is loved, feared and respected by every student, as well she should be, and she smiles only when there is something to smile about,” is how the Guardian describes her.
She reminds her team on numerous occasions that she has an MBA and could be somewhere else – but rather chose the life of coaching cheerleading. She inspires her team and claims to “back them no matter what”, and at one point helps one of her troubled team members by arranging for her to speak to the local police chief (who happens to be a Navarro College cheer fan).
At the same time, there is a ruthless streak to Aldama, which she freely acknowledges. Cheer shows Aldama putting her team through a monstrous amount of physically taxing training, and mind-bending levels of stress and anxiety.
It makes for gripping viewing but the injuries sustained throughout training read like a catalogue of boxing or rugby injuries. There are concussions, a dislocated elbow, injuries to ribs, backs, and shoulders, and various sprains, bruises and niggles.
The athletes featured in Cheer are, despite some of their jet-setting lifestyles and massive social media following, not professionals, and do not get paid to brutalise their bodies.
Pain: The price of success
Pain and injuries have been and always will be part of sport. But the athletes featured in Cheer are, despite some of their jet-setting lifestyles and massive social media following, not professionals, and do not get paid to brutalise their bodies. It is a caviar lifestyle on a canned tuna budget.
Without taking a sanctimonious approach, Cheer does illustrate the apparent exploitation of college-level cheerleading in the US, and it suggests that this is justifiable because a top-level cheerleader’s career is unlikely to extend beyond their early 20s.
Aldama, for all her supposed compassion, forces an injured male cheerleader to practise as punishment for performing for another team. Morgan, a young star, even hides her rib injury from the coach.
The Atlantic accuses Adama of being “reckless” and “despotic” for failing to ensure their well-being. Many of the cheerleaders in Cheer have had troubled childhoods, and to a man and woman are grateful to Aldama for giving them a chance.
Stories of child abuse and neglect are heartbreaking, especially as characters such as the effervescent Jerry and mature-beyond-her-years Morgan will steal your heart. Cheer makes for captivating viewing because it does justice to their stories and to their extraordinary athleticism, all while breaking down stereotypes about how we view sport, coaching, and of the cost of success.