Does cheerleading matter to Jewish women?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is considering a proposal to recognize competitive cheerleading as an emerging sport, a step towards legitimacy as a championship sport. Anyone who has seen competitive cheerleading (and the injuries cheerleaders often sustain) can understand why; it’s a physically demanding and dangerous version of gymnastics where people perform flips and handstands not on a balance beam, but on top of a human pyramid.
Still, the sport’s origins are sexist and that is troubling for some. Cheerleading in its traditional form still exists; not all cheerleading is competitive or particularly athletic. Professional cheerleading at NBA or NFL games is actually more like dance than gymnastics, often sexualized. But if we separate competitive cheerleading from its not-so-feminist sisters, competitive cheerleaders can receive the recognition they deserve as legitimate athletes. Nancy Hogshead-Makar of the Women’s Sports Foundation said, “As long as it’s actually operating as a sport, we welcome it into the women’s sports tent.”
Traditionally, cheerleading is not thought of as “Jewish.” This past month I have learned about a number of Jewish women athletes through #jwapedia, our campaign to tweet the Encyclopedia. Jewish women have made strides in basketball, baseball, table tennis, figure skating, track and field, and even the biathlon, but I hadn’t heard anything about cheerleading.
A quick search of the Encyclopedia brought up one entry: Eydie Gorme, who Gwen Nefsky Frankfeldt describes as “One of the great stylists of the American popular song.” Born Edith Gorme on August 16, 1932 (some sources say 1931), in New York City, she was the daughter of Turkish-born Jews of Spanish descent. At William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx, New York, she was voted “the prettiest, peppiest cheerleader,” starred in most of the school musicals, and sang with her friend’s band on weekends. After high school, she signed her first recording contract in 1952 and soon made the Top Twenty. She went on to have an impressive career, joining the cast of Tonight! in 1953, headlining at the Copacabana, performing on Broadway, starring in the Jerry Lewis Stage Show, and winning a Grammy Award with her husband, singer Steve Lawrence. In 1995, Gorme and Lawrence received Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Society of Singers and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Okay, it’s unlikely that the kind of cheerleading Eydie Gorme did in the late 1940s was the same kind being considered by the NCAA today. More likely, it was the sexist, less physically-demanding, sort that makes modern feminists cringe. Still, it's interesting to think of a second-generation Jewish girl as the “the prettiest, peppiest cheerleader” in her high school.
The iconic “cheerleader” conjures up images of blondeness and thinness – the Aryan beauty ideal that American Jewish women have struggled with for so many decades. Cheerleading is something that American women who do not fit the blonde beauty standard have felt excluded from in every generation. Somehow, on some level, it feels important to prove that Jewish women can be cheerleaders too.
Cheerleading may never be very “Jewish” (it’s hard to imagine Jewish mothers encouraging their daughters to participate), but Jewish cheerleaders are not completely invisible thanks to Eydie Gorme and maybe even Diana Agron, a Jewish actress who plays a Christian cheerleader on Glee. I'm sure other Jewish women have been cheerleaders and it would be interesting to hear their stories. Despite my distaste for its sexist origins, the new, legitimate sport of competitive cheerleading may well become a more welcoming and attractive option for Jewish women athletes.