At first, the cheerleaders getting ready for practice in a Los Angeles park seem like average teens as they sip Coke and pepper their sentences with "like." But then 17-year-old Larry Wood peels off his sweat pants to reveal a short black and red pleated skirt. A startled onlooker yells out, "Faggot!" Wood, who has a girlfriend, shrugs and tries an arabesque. "I just don't pay attention to it," he says. "It shows how much they know. It doesn't matter if you're gay or bi. We should all be treated equally." Moments later, Wood and the 11 other members of Radical Teen Cheer, who come from two inner-city high schools and several colleges, launch into their first routine: "We're teens, we're cute, we're radical to boot! We're angry, we're tough and we have had enough!"
Radical Cheerleaders might seem like an oxymoron, but in the last few years, teenage and twentysomething activists around the world have turned an American tradition into potent political theater. There are Radical Cheerleading squads from Burlington, Vt., and San Diego, as well as France, Poland and even Japan. Some squads carefully choreograph routines and wear matching outfits, complete with pompoms and megaphones. Others go for a more eccentric look.
It's a grass-roots movement, usually spread when someone sees a squad in action--at WTO protests, for example, or antiwar demonstrations. (Meredith Ryley, a history teacher, started Radical Teen Cheer after reading about a Minneapolis group.) What unites them are causes, from protesting the Iraq war to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and capitalist exploitation. Cheerleading is the ironic medium for their message. University of Alabama professor Natalie Adams, coauthor of "Cheerleader: An American Icon," includes Radicals in a class she teaches called "The Cheerleader in American Culture." She compares them to Twinkies, which, she says, were created when someone took conventional ingredients, sponge cake and icing, and made something new, just as activists have created something new out of traditional cheerleading. "I think it's brilliant," she says. "It's American ingenuity at its best."
Most squads credit two activist sisters from Florida--Aimee and Cara Jennings--with coming up with the idea in the mid-1990s. They taught cheers to other women at workshops, and the concept spread quickly. By 2001, there were enough radical squads for a convention in Ottawa. Since then, Aimee Jennings, now 33, says in an e-mail, "this combustible merger of traditional cheerleading and social justice has focused on everyone from the streetside sexual harasser to G.W. Bush."
The first Radical Cheerleaders fashioned pompoms out of plastic garbage bags, but there have been dozens of variations on the theme, with coed, gay and transgender squads. "Every group does their own thing," says Robin Jacks, 23, who helped start the Dirty Southern Belles in Memphis. The Belles wear pink and black when they cheer for gay pride or protest what they see as patriarchy at a Promise Keepers gathering. Milwaukee's Pirate Cheerleaders don black skirts with white pleats and black shirts with white pirate logos to perform at basement punk shows, Ladyfest Midwest (a feminist celebration) and malls. They cheer about motherhood as unpaid work and body image, among other things. At the State University of New York in New Paltz, Wazina Zondon, 20, helped found the New Paltz Rads, whose colors are black and red. "Crowds love it when we're out there cart-wheeling and screaming in fishnets and combat boots," Zondon says. They've cheered at antiwar rallies, Take Back the Night protests and a friend's opening at the campus museum, "trying very, very hard not to cartwheel into the sculptures."
Since attracting attention is the goal, outrageousness helps. "We sort of consider ourselves queer-leaders instead of cheerleaders," says Abigail Katz, 23, who founded Chicago's Lickity Split and whose nom de cheer is Queefer Southernland. The performances are often R-rated but, says Katz, "We feel comfortable and shameless enough to go out in public and shock." She hopes to inspire others. "I personally hope there can be a younger Lickity Split," she says. "On college campuses, there's such a great energy. We're getting old."
One might think that traditional cheerleaders would take a dim view of all this. And indeed, some do. "It is a warping of what cheerleading is all about," says Sheila Noone, editorial director of American Cheerleader magazine. "Cheerleaders have an uphill battle getting respect, and that's the last thing we need." But others are more open. Robin Jacks's sister, Lauren, 21, is a proud member of Harvard's cheerleading squad. Cheerleading, she says, is "all about trying to get everyone else excited about your causes, so it's perfect for political activism." And if the Dirty Southern Belles need a hand, they can count on her. "I definitely would love to get out there and help them with their stunts," she says. Now that's sisterhood in action.