A Brief History of Cheerleading In Honor of the Sport’s 120th Anniversary
The world's first cheerleader, a University of Minnesota student, wasn't who you think.
The 1898 season for the University of Minnesota football team was not a good one, but it did have a silver lining.
Finishing at 4-5, the Golden Gophers went 1-2 against their Western Conference opponents, including a humiliating 28-0 loss on the road to archrival Wisconsin that led to the student newspaper ripping the team in an editorial and asking readers for suggestions on how to improve school spirit at home games in Minneapolis.
How the university ultimately decided to make that improvement changed the face of sports – and invented one in the process.
For Minnesota’s home game on November 12 against Northwestern, medical student Johnny Campbell and five other men were appointed as “yell leaders” who would lead cheers and pep up the home crowd.
With Campbell and his colleagues leading the school chant in their various sections – “Rah! Rah! Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hurrah! Minnesota! Hurrah!” – the Gophers rolled to a 17-6 victory over the Wildcats and cheerleading was officially born.
Schools across the nation soon had designated cheering squads of their own but it wasn’t until 1904 that cheerleading at the University of Minnesota was made official and Campbell was named the school’s “rooter king.”
“The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college,” The Nation wrote back in 1911. “It ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.”
The next milestone for the sport came in 1923 when, also at the U of M, women were allowed to partake in the activity for the first time. With that addition, the cheering soon began to be accompanied by tumbling and acrobatic routines.
Despite the growth, cheerleading remained a male-dominated activity until World War II when teams were essentially forced to fill their ranks with female cheerleaders because so many college-aged men were overseas fighting the Nazis.
By 1948 the sport had grown so much at both colleges and high schools that Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, a former cheerleader at Southern Methodist University, formed the National Cheerleaders Association and began to hold cheerleading clinics. The NCA’s first clinic was held in Texas and it drew 52 girls and one boy as participants.
In addition to giving cheerleaders a way to compete against one another, the NCA was also the first organization to supply official cheer uniforms.
In 1965, cheerleading reached another historic point when Fred Gastoff came up with the idea of making pom-poms out of vinyl or plastic instead of manufacturing them from crepe or tissue paper as had been the practice up until that time.
From then on, plastic poms became standard issue for cheerleaders.
The most famous cheer squad in history, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, officially got their start, and their pom-poms, in the 1972-73 NFL season.
Following a grueling round of auditions led by Dallas dance studio owner Texie Waterman, a squad of seven dancers was selected from a pool of around 60. Trained throughout the summer by Waterman, the team debuted at Texas Stadium wearing the star-spangled uniforms that have made them icons.
Notable for their looks, the first Cowboys cheerleaders were also noteworthy because they were able to blend jazz dancing in along with their grand jetes and pirouettes.
The team was a hit with both fans and detractors of the ‘Boys and their responsibilities quickly expanded from simply dancing on gameday to training sessions, meetings, and making personal appearances.
Still clad in blue and white, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are basically an American institution at this point.
And, of course, without the iconic squad and cheerleading in general, we wouldn’t have this:
Cheerleading, Happy 120th.
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