Rowing, punting, acting, Union debates, croquet, even drinking societies — these are the kinds of extra-curricular activities typically associated with Oxford University students.
Cheerleading, it’s fair to say, wouldn’t usually make the list. While the sport was actually conceived by a group of men at Princeton University towards the end of the 19th century, when they started yelling unified chants from their seats, it still conjures up a rather different stereotype of pretty, slim American High School teenagers, shaking pom-poms at basketball games.
But that perception of the sport is outdated, says Michelle Savage, the president of the Oxford Sirens — the University’s official cheerleading squad. “It requires the kind of dedication and discipline which are very useful if you want to do well in a degree at Oxford,” insists the 24-year-old DPhil Chemistry student from Pembroke College, who joined the Sirens in 2011.
Formed approximately eight years ago, the group currently has about 40 members, of which seven are men. Aged from their late teens to mid-20s, they include undergraduates and postgraduates reading a range of subjects, from History of Art to Computer Science. They practise three times a week at Iffley Road Sports Complex.
Although the popular perception of cheerleading is of dancers cheering on a team at a spectator game, the Sirens treat it as a competitive sport, participating in national contests in which complicated stunts and gymnastics, as well as choreographed hip-hop style dance routines, are judged. Pom-poms don’t get a look in; nor, sadly, does their chant “Let’s go dark blue! Let’s go Oxford Sirens!”
“When people see what we do, they realise it requires a lot of determination and stamina to be able to perform a dance routine and a lot of muscle tone to lift someone for an extended period of time,” explains Savage. In fact if anything, it’s getting harder. The team competes twice a year, once in the national university cheerleading championships and once in another open contest; they last won the university championships back in 2009. “The level of difficulty is increasing every year. It is getting more insane,” says Savage.
That insanity stems from the kind of stunts the team has to perform: everything from throwing a female flyer into the air to perform the splits, to forming giant human pyramids. The nature of the sport means injuries are inevitable. “We have had a couple of people with back injuries this year but nothing life-threatening,” she says. Members pay annual subscriptions and most of that, she admits, goes on the insurance.
While they’re not affiliated to a specific Oxford sport, they do turn out every year at Summer Eights to encourage all comers. The team will even cheer at spectator games, for which they often dust off their white pom-poms; last year they cheered on London Welsh at Kassam Stadium in the Rugby Union Championship Finals, for instance. “We usually perform for a couple of minutes at spectator games — at halftime and the start. We dance to Top 40 chart music andincorporate some stunts,” Savage says.
The girls wear short navy blue and white outfits, while the men don tracksuits. “We don’t do the whole fake tan thing but we do wear red lipstick. We wear stage make-up as we want to be seen during the performance,” Savage explains. “But you don’t have to be slim or beautiful or have experience of dance or gymnastics.”
Last year’s president, Suze Hawkins, joined the Sirens during her Freshers week. “It’s a growing sport. In my first university contest in 2011 there were 30 teams and this year there were 58,” explains the 21-year-old Biology finalist at St Catherine’s. “Some people are shocked by the short skirts but they have to be that short to be able to do the moves. We have high necks and long sleeves to make it more sophisticated. The girls do look quite glamorous, but cheerleading is hardcore. The people that make fun of it are the people that don’t know what we do.”
Indeed, there may be less reason to make fun soon: there are plans afoot to hold a Varsity cheerleading contest against the Cambridge Cougars next year. Sadly, though, it won’t be eligible for blues.