It's not all about the pom-poms: cheerleading is on the rise as a sporting choice
KIM Manallack doesn’t play basketball. But she celebrated a special milestone when she stepped out on court for the Bendigo Braves’ recent home game against Albury Wodonga.
This is the 10th season Kim has been encouraging the players and entertaining the crowd as a member of the Bendigo Braves Cheerleaders troupe, both as dancer and coach.
To mark the event, she performed alongside her senior girls and some of her former Braves cheerleading team-mates in a half-time routine choreographed for the occasion.
“The 10 years crept up on me really fast,” says the 28-year-old who was invited to join the cheer squad in her late teens by dance teacher Jodie Gardner, became captain of the group and ended up running the show when her mentor moved to Queensland.
“I haven’t performed at games a lot of late, but I am still there every week coaching the girls. “So I thought it would be nice to have some fun, do a special performance and celebrate the fact I’ve been doing it for so long.”
Kim enjoyed her early cheerleading experiences so much she completed a two-year diploma of dance teaching and management and opened her own school in Bendigo, Cheer ‘N’ Dance.
As well as supporting the Braves, she has three senior and junior cheer teams that attend Bendigo Spirit basketball games, Bendigo Gold football matches, Bendigo Dragons gridiron contests and community events like fun runs, fund-raising days and the Weet-Bix Tryathlon.
But cheerleading is about much more than shaking pom-poms - it has grown into a highly competitive sport that has been given official status by the Australian Sports Commission.
Inspired by US movies like the Bring It On series, thousands of girls (and a smaller number of boys) across Australia are learning to dance, tumble and perform gravity-defying group stunts in front of a panel of judges who assess their skills, execution and teamwork.
“It is exactly like those movies, except more friendly,” laughs Kim. “You walk into an event and there are cheerleaders everywhere and so many different colourful uniforms...
“Almost every little girl who joins asks if it is like the Bring It On movies - and it is!”
Various organisations offer major state and national competitions in Australia, including AUS Cheer, World Cup Cheer and Dance, and UCA and UDA Australia.
Kim’s dance school has about 10 competitive teams - known as Bendigo Blitz All Stars and Bendigo La Trobe Fury - that enter events run by the Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation.
They contest the disciplines of dance (hip-hop style and pom routines); stunting (one-minute performances where team members perform tricks in formation or as they are thrown into the air); and the ever-popular cheer (150 frenetic seconds of dancing, jumping, tossing, stunting, tumbling and pyramid building).
At the recent Winterfest competition in Melbourne, which attracted about 3000 cheerleaders, the Bendigo Blitz girls brought home four trophies in what was their best-ever result.
Three years after Kim opened her business, she has around 130 students aged from two to adult learning cheer and dance at her Golden Square studio, with classes seven days a week.
She also attends schools in Bendigo, teaching her trade during PE lessons, and has 20 pupils based at Quarry Hill Primary who do regular school-based sessions.
Cheerleaders are overwhelmingly female, but boys can and do take part.
“The Bendigo Fury team, which is based at La Trobe Uni, has one boy in it and we hope the younger boys will see him and realise they can do it and it’s suitable for both boys and girls.
“A lot of the teams in the big competitions include boys - just not in Bendigo yet!”
Kim says while she loves performing, the team aspect of cheerleading is another attraction.
“You rely on everyone in the team and when you’re missing even one member of the team, you really notice it. Whether it’s one of the flyers being thrown into the air or one of the bases who has to catch them, you rely on each person to do their role.”
Senior and junior cheerleading classes are also offered at the Belle Etudes dance school in Bendigo.
Director Erin Hokin says her program has a high gymnastics component and is affiliated with Gymnastics Australia through governing body AUS Cheer.
“Cheerleading in Australia is quite new as a sport and it is certainly growing in Bendigo,” she says. “It’s a very multi-disciplinary sport that brings together the components of gymnastics, dancing and strength and conditioning.”
Some central Victorian girls are even travelling to Melbourne in the name of cheerleading.
Taylah Kurrle, Taeah Brown and Leticia Hunt are members of the Cheer Factor school based in Tullamarine, and also won awards for their performances at the Winterfest event.
Heathcote teen Taylah started cheering seven years ago after receiving a flyer about it in the mail. She had been dancing since the age of three and was keen to try something new.
She now heads down the highway three times a week for her troupe training – often sleeping, eating or completing homework in the car during the journey.
“I like that you become one big family through cheerleading.
“And there is always something to work towards and so many different skills. You have to train hard and it’s all about dedication because learning them takes time.”
The girls enjoy the competitive side of cheering and the chance to don a costume and perform in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
“It’s really energetic and a lot of fun,” says 13-year-old Taeah, who trains twice a week in Melbourne and has three years of experience under her belt.
Leticia, however, only started cheerleading this year and Winterfest was the first competition she had taken part in.
“I was nervous at first, but only a little bit,” she concedes, though the trophies her team received will surely give her great confidence for next time.
Cheerleaders from Bendigo Blitz and Cheer Factor are now busily preparing for the next big event on their competition calendar: the All Star Battle in Melbourne from August 8-10.