What's appropriate in cheerleading

A bill to tone down 'sexually suggestive' routines draws boos, cheers, and a deeper look at a staple of Texas culture.

After the national cheerleading championships in San Antonio in January, administrators at the American Cheerleaders Association gathered to review their event.

In addition to marveling at the athleticism and spirit of the 4,000 students, much of the talk revolved around the increasingly sexual nature of their moves. In fact, the cheerleading organization considered sending a notice to next year's participants: Tone it down.

Now the state of Texas is sending that message for them.

Last week, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill that would prohibit "sexually suggestive" cheerleading and drill-team routines in public schools. The bill has garnered plenty of national attention, but likely won't become law in Texas because it has no sponsor in the Senate.

Still, that fact has not put an end to the debate about what is considered lewd or provocative behavior and who is responsible for monitoring it. Few people have missed the irony that the state of Texas, which shocked America when its Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders shed their pompoms for go-go boots and short shorts more than 30 years ago, is now trying to legislate morality on the sidelines.

But as cheerleading continues to gain in popularity across the country, and especially in Texas, some want to make sure it doesn't go the way of Britney Spears and MTV.

"We are telling teenagers not to have sex, but are teaching them how to do it on the football field and applauding them when they do it," says Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, who sponsored the bill.

He says that over the years, he has watched cheerleading routines get racier and uniforms get tinier - a "distracting" trend that in his view encourages teen pregnancy, boosts dropout rates, and increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

"We've got to clean it up," says the Democratic representative who, in past sessions, has battled raunchy song lyrics and advocated cutting off the fingers of drug dealers. "We teach children math, history, chemistry, science. Surely, we can teach them how to perform in appropriate ways and not be exploited."

The problem of specificity

How to enforce the legislation, should it become law, is causing angst in school districts statewide. Under the bill, the Texas Education Agency would be responsible for determining what is sexually suggestive and forcing schools to take "appropriate action" to stop it. Stripped from the bill was a provision that would have cut funding to any school that did not take appropriate action to stop it.

"The legislation does not have any specificity to it," says Keith Kilgore, athletic director for the Fort Bend Independent School District, just west of Houston. "I was surprised that it got as many votes as it did - not that I don't share their concerns. I just fail to see who is going to identify what is and what is not acceptable behavior. And if there are consequences, who is going to administer those consequences."

Mr. Kilgore says when the bill was first introduced, the district's eight high schools were right in the middle of cheerleading tryouts, so he gathered together coaches, judges, and other school officials to discuss the issue. He says everyone was at a loss as to what to say because no parent or spectator had ever raised the issue before. The school district has never received a single phone call to that effect, says Kilgore.

In fact, some say that the bill is missing the mark entirely. It is not the public schools that tend to cross the line; it's the all-star gyms that teach cheerleading after school - and even then, it's a small percentage of those, says Kristy Von Runnen, vice president of the American Cheerleaders Association in Dallas.

"Most are very clean, but we have noticed a growing trend in which the dance part of cheerleading has gotten a little more suggestive," says Ms. Von Runnen, whose association supports the legislation. "I've seen 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds doing things that college-age girls are doing."

At their cheer competitions, she says, judges are increasingly making "tone it down" and "crossed the line" comments on their score sheets. But her organization does not have a rule specifically prohibiting what some see as dirty dancing.

The National Cheerleaders Association, however, does have such a rule, and if a judge feels a routine is not "appropriate" choreography, the team can receive a deduction. However, the association considers the issue insignificant enough that they don't even track the number of deductions for inappropriate behavior.

On the sidelines' frontlines

In his 12 years of cheer coaching and judging, Eric Howze says he has seen maybe five routines that he felt were too sexual.

"It's a rare, rare thing," says Mr. Howze, owner and director of the Southwest Cheer Academy in Safford, Texas. Further, he says, lewdness and provocativeness are all in the eyes of the beholder.

"If I go to a hockey game and in the third period a fight breaks out, and I walk away saying, 'hockey is violent,' I have missed three periods of excellent skating, great stick work, and wonderful line changes," he says. "This legislation is much the same way."

And even if a particular routine does occasionally cross the line, Howze continues, parents are the ones who should be monitoring it. They are the ones who enroll their kids in cheer schools and watch practices.

"Being in Texas, which is a huge Christian-based state ... I don't feel it is the right of somebody else to come in and do the parenting job that somebody else should be able to do," he says.

As a parent of a Houston-area cheerleader, Jody Wolfe says he is very comfortable letting his daughter, Amanda, participate in the after-school activity and has never seen an offensive performance. "It's pretty wholesome," says Mr. Wolfe, calling the legislation "goofy."

For her part, Amanda, who has been cheerleading in junior high for two years and will try out in high school as well, says she understands where the bad rap comes from. She has seen the scantily clad cheerleaders on the sidelines at the Houston Rockets basketball and Houston Texans football games whose racy performances appear to her to have nothing to do with the games.

That's not for this eighth grader, who says that for her, cheerleading is about "cheering people on and all that spirit and stuff."

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