Sara McNeilly, the coach of Newtownabbey Allstars Cheerleading Team, speaks about the sport that is taking Northern Ireland by storm.
How old are the girls in your cheerleading team?
At the minute, I have 50 girls altogether aged between four and sixteen. Girls between four and five years are in the Prep group, Peewees are under 10, Juniors are under 15 and Senior girls are under 18. There are adult teams, but I only teach girls aged up to 18. I. Each session lasts an hour and classes take place on a Sunday.
Do they take part in competitions?
They do. I’ve only had my squad for just over 12 months, but we’re doing three competitions this year. The Juniors are going over to Glasgow to do a British Cheerleading Association (BCA) competition. I went there last year with another squad and it’s just like Bring It On [an American teen cheerleading film]! The arena was the size of the Odyssey and there were about 3,000 cheerleaders: it was absolutely packed with cheerleaders practising their routines, their mums, dads and coaches. It was amazing.
We’re also doing a Festival of Stars competition, which is a talent competition run by holiday camps for up-and-coming kids. The girls are taking part in that in June, so we’ve a really busy schedule.
The BCA is hopefully going to hold a competition here in Northern Ireland. The issue is finding a venue that’s big enough, but doesn’t cost too much to hire, because the Association is a charity. As a non-profit organisation they need to keep the prices down.
How many teams are there in Northern Ireland?
There are 18 teams scattered through Belfast, Co Antrim, Co Down, Co Fermanagh and Co Derry. When we went over to the Glasgow competition, we were the only team from Northern Ireland. Cheerleading can be quite expensive because there are no competitions held over here, so we do a lot of fundraising to get over to the contests across the water. I’ve helped a lot of teams start up, because the more teams we have, the more likely the BCA will run a competition in Northern Ireland.
How do you teach stunts?
I start off with different motions - the High-V, the Low-V, and so on – and drills, which are jumps. The girls have to be with us for at least three months before we start to look at the basic stunts. Prep don’t do stunts because they’re just too little to understand; the Peewees do stunts, but nothing above roughly one metre high. The Juniors can do more complicated stunts because they’re aware of the safety aspect and they understand the theory behind it: it’s quite technical, but they understand it. We do stunting with mats and I have two helpers because we’re very safety conscious. But, if it’s taught properly, stunting is very safe.
The girls love cheerleading, especially stunting. It’s great because it’s a cross-over sport. It’s a mix of dance and gymnastics, so it’s a good way to keep fit. Cheerleaders have to be exceptionally fit, they have to be able to do tumbling (even if it’s just a forward roll) and they need to develop co-ordination. I think that’s one of the best things about cheerleading because there’s always something to keep the kids interested, plus the uniforms and pompoms!
Where do you get the uniforms?
There are no cheerleading shops in Northern Ireland, so it can be difficult, but I’ve discovered that Ebay’s a really useful place to find dance costumes. There are a couple of dance schools in England and Scotland who get costumes for one show and then don’t wear them again, so they put them up for auction on the site and tell us that they’re available.
How do cheerleaders progress?
There are different exams that the girls can do. The little ones do rosettes, which is demonstrating the foundation skills, while the older girls have to demonstrate a routine or a series of jumps. If they want to, they can go right up to awards that enable them to teach. I’d love to see some of my Juniors take over from me in years to come.
Contact Sara at 07786866869 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.