When I think “cheerleading,” there is always one image that comes to mind: Kirsten Dunst’s character, Torrance Shipman, in 2000’s all-the-rage chick-flick, Bring It On. In this high school drama filled reel, Torrance slays her way through countless routines all while remaining perfectly clad in her Rancho Carne High School red miniskirt and crop-top. So with this image naturally in mind, I arrived at the Cheonan World Dance Festival with plans to attend the cheerleading semi-finals. I was expecting to witness cheerleading teams dressed in typically embellished yet simplified concoctions of polyester and spandex blended fabrics while parading around in perfectly matching white shoes.
I arrived early, eager for a front row seat, and began making myself comfortable as another scheduled program was completing its performance. As I began readying my trusty camera *cough iPhone cough* I couldn’t help but notice a large group of performers to my left. They were waiting within an area designated as “Dressing Rooms” and were dressed in what appeared to be a somewhat modern take on traditional Spanish matador uniforms. I observed them for awhile and wondered what specific type of performance they would be showcasing. Then, as if on cue, my mind quickly took some logical steps, and I realized they were not some part of a Spanish themed performance but rather the participants for the cheerleading semi-finals.
The outfits, as one could imagine, were rich in color and embroidered in great detail with intricate gold twirls and loops. There were frills, puffs, and lace paired with white knee-high boots that, on several occasions, proudly boasted gold tassels. Each team, though competing against each other, wore similar outfits and ordained them in comparable styles almost to the point of matching completely. As I would later discover, in South Korea, cheerleading takes on a different role than what is typically associated with the term. Here, the sport is only formed in the setting of a college or university, and is composed and organized in order to bring about school pride and spirit. Regardless of their originating university or college, the teams all wear a version of the traditional South Korean cheerleading uniform, so for a situation to present itself in which all are matching is something expected and planned. Given this and the general connection between cheerleading teams in South Korea, although they compete against one another, there’s an atmosphere of support and comradery, which was something I would experience throughout the performances. When learning this and understanding the context in which the teams perform, I was all the more intrigued and eager to watch the performers present their routines.
Once the lights and sound checks were complete and the staged primed and ready, the first team that took the stage to deliver their routine did not disappoint. Between the twirling arms and multiple feet kick-backs, the crowd was all smiles as the playful tune they have chosen echoed throughout the arena. They had energy, they were lively, and they gave it their all. Although they did not receive a relatively high score, they were proud as they left the stage.
As the program progressed through the various teams and performers, it was clear that the energy and excitement exuding from the teams was being transferred to and manifested in the audience and their reaction during and after each performance. Each team, as one could expect, had a captain – or in some cases, two – that lead the team through basic whistle commands and instructions. Many of these captains, in addition to their performance with the team, also lead the audience in accompanied claps and sways to the music. As the audience related this energy back to the performers, the smiles and grins all around were incredible to experience. Even outside the arena many festival participants gathered to watch and cheer along with the songs used during the routine. And having selected songs that were evidently familiar with the audience, many teams capitalized on the music-born connection with the crowd. As if the energy were not enough, some teams ventured well outside the realm of dance moves and employed throughout their routines incredible displays of flips, tosses, and twirls. Those were always a crowd pleaser as the echoes of “ohhs” and “ooos” followed by “ahhhs” reverberated like a rippled affect across the rows of chairs.
But perhaps the most incredible aspect of all was the support and incredible display of genuine joy directed towards the performing team by the other competitors. Each time a team performed a technically difficult stunt or executed a synchronized lineup impeccably, the loudest cheers were echoed from the fellow competitors. It was an incredible experience, witnessing the teams support each other’s performances in a way that not only showcased the spirit present throughout the competition but also the spirit of the South Korean cheerleading society as a whole. I left the event with a new perspective and insight into how a world full of so much culture could bring that spirit into a modern-day cheerleading competition at the Cheonan World Dance Festival.