More than just good looks and pom poms

  • 2012-05-30
  • By Jared Grellet

RIGA - After standing and cheering on the sidelines at basketball games throughout the Baltic winter, it is now the cheerleaders’ turn to take center stage at the third annual Baltic Cheerleading Championships in Riga on June 2. Already a regular fixture on the North American sporting landscape since the ‘80s, competitive cheerleading is now catching on in the Baltic States, with 12 teams from throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania descending on the Latvian capital with aims of being crowned as Baltic champions for 2012.

Most of the teams that are coming to compete in Riga are associated with basketball clubs, and for some of the squads it is an opportunity to put in a performance that outshines that of their basketball counterparts.
One such team that fits into that category are defending champions Turiba Biznesa Augstskola, from Riga. With Turiba’s basketball team only winning two games in the Baltic Basketball League Challenge Cup and finishing second to last in the Latvian Championship, Turiba cheer squad trainer Viktoria Graudina is expecting better results from the university’s cheerleaders.

Growing up on a diet of cheerleading and gymnastics in the United States, the Latvian-American is now back, living full-time in Latvia, working not only as a trainer for the Turiba cheerleading team, but also as one of the driving forces behind the Baltic Cheerleading Organization, whom is responsible for organizing the upcoming competition.
“There are a few teams here [in the Baltics], where what they are doing looks more like something between hip hop and go go dancing,” Graudina, who is changing the Baltic perception of cheerleading, told TBT.
“I have seen instances [in the Baltics] of the cheerleaders simply standing round under the basket[ball hoop] between time outs and doing nothing to get the crowd cheering and involved, kind of defeating the purpose of why they are there. You need to be active and into it, even if the crowd is not.”

Moving to Latvia full-time in 2010 after completing studies in the United Kingdom and briefly traveling, Graudina was interested in becoming involved in cheerleading in the Baltics but was discouraged after looking on Youtube and realizing that the performances being put on by local cheerleading squads were more akin to dance routines, without the tossing and stunts that set cheerleading apart as a sport.
However, after meeting a girl involved on the Turiba team, and learning that Latvians wanted to learn the stunts they had regularly seen performed by American cheerleader squads, but lacked the know-how to pull them off, Graudina needed no convincing to become involved as a trainer.

The results have spoken for themselves with more clubs now taking an interest in the direction from Graudina after seeing the stunts and tosses being performed by the Turiba squad – elements that played a major part in their victory last season.
This year at the Baltic Championships, Turiba, who are the defending champions, are once more expected to be leading the way with routines that seemed unimaginable prior to Graudina’s intervention. Yet despite the promising work of Graudina in changing the Baltic perception of what it means to be a cheerleader, the task of convincing people that it is a sport in its own right is going to be tougher to tackle.

“Even in the United States, where it is considered an actual sport in most universities, it is still fighting against the whole stereotype of short skirts, poms poms, hair waving round and shaking your butt,” says the cheerleading aficionado.
It is not without a hint of irony that this is the direction that cheerleading has taken. With its roots firmly embedded in the United States prior to World War One, cheerleading was performed by men at university football games, who tried to get the crowd involved in the game by yelling and chanting slogans that the crowd, in turn, could repeat.

The next evolution in the sport was the inclusion of acrobatic stunts, but it was only at the breakout of the First World War, when the men were away on duty, did the women take over the cheering duties. When the war ended and the men returned from Europe, women were once more eliminated to the bleachers, with many schools banning women from cheering, citing it as too unladylike for women to be cheering and yelling.
Once more, at the advent of the Second World War and with the men off fighting throughout Europe, Africa and the Pacific, it was up to the women to take over cheerleading duties. However, this time round, when the men returned, the ladies were not about to return to the bleachers.

This will be evidenced in Riga, with only a handful of men making up the approximate 150 athletes performing. Action starts at Tiraine Sports Complex this Saturday at midday.
Action starts at Tiraine Sports Complex this Saturday at midday with free entry for all onlookers, something that organizers are hoping will promote a big crowd. One fan interviewed by TBT, 20-year-old Thorsten Sa has been anticipating the event for some time, claiming, “I am really excited about The Baltic Cheerleading Championships where the combination of power & beauty is unique. It is a very aesthetic and is worth watching it every year”