It may be a little more difficult for a girl to become a Hollywood starlet than to become head cheerleader at her high school's football games, but not much more. The amazing grace, precision and agile poise of the young gridiron acrobats who rouse the crowds with the fight-team-fight yells is really something to behold. And their ballet perfection is as roundabout to arrive at as a diploma.
Take the case of Laura Paul, head cheerleader at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn. Laura has 11 other girls working under her. When they dash out on the field of Hedges Memorial Stadium, they are sometimes facing close to 15,000 people—not far behind Madison Square Garden. If you have that many people watching you lead 11 other body twirlers, you have to combine some fairly special qualities to handle the job. Laura, just turned 17 in September, manages to do it.
Her saga starts back in April of '52, a time of year at Harding when sophomore girls become eligible for a crack at one of the four cheerleading jobs that will be open the following fall. On her big day, Laura wandered into the school gym with about 150 other hopefuls. She listened and watched as veterans of the past year went through their pep-rousing gyrations, with lectures. Laura knew that in these "preliminary motions" she could avoid being dropped out mainly through agility and coordination.
In groups of fives the girls went through the basic motions of jumping and arm-waving. About half were screened out quickly. Laura was among the 75 left to face the semifinals.
When this next now-or-never afternoon came along, the girls were given an entirely new set of motions so that nobody could practice up. Only natural coordination, not rehearsed perfection, could get you through. When it was all over, a dozen eager leapers were still in the running, including Laura. Here the struggle for survival started.
First of all, the dozen names were sent to the school nurse, who gave them a health check. Next, remaining names were sent to the principal's office for a scholastic okay. Thereupon, they were sent to every teacher Laura had ever had at Harding. The last big test was in the form of personal interviews with her physical education teacher, Mrs. Elinor Clancy, and Frank J. McKee, the principal. Finally, on the basis of personality and poise, four girls were tapped. It was all as simple as that.
Well—not quite. Laura and the others had to spend three nights a week all through August practicing, under guidance. "The hardest part at first," she says, "was to make your arms and legs go in different directions at the same time."
The girls have to buy their own uniforms, which cost them $35. The girls like it this way. Laura manages to do part-time work on the notions counter at Woolworth's and makes out pretty well on clothes and banana-split money.
A TREASURED KEEPSAKE
Laura, who is five foot six and 110 pounds, got to be this year's head cheerleader because the other girls elected her to the post at the season's end in '53. One of her treasured keepsakes is a telegram she received just before this year's opening game. It was sent by last year's leader, Dot Boroway, and said: "Lots of luck to you and best wishes to the squad."
As leader, the only thing that makes her nervous is the pep assemblies held in the Harding auditorium on Fridays. It's being on the stage, making the speeches she has to, that gets her slightly rattled. But according to Mrs. Clancy, she's one of the greatest speechmakers who ever came along, in her field. Before a recent Friday night game with Stratford High, this was Laura's message to the mob:
"We're going to win tonight, so there's no sense talking about it. Let's give the team a cheer and be done with it."
LIKE BALLET DANCERS, Laura and her squad fling arms and legs in practice session. It takes weeks of rigorous drilling to perfect such seemingly carefree antics.
...for an opponent to score against the Arizona Wildcats in their home games at Tucson. The penalty is more than mere yardage. The offending team can be fined $300 or locked up in the city jail for three months.