More than 22,000 people packed the Araneta Coliseum last Sunday to watch this year’s UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) cheerdance competition. Many more people, maybe reaching a million, followed the competition on television, through live and delayed telecasts.
I watched at the coliseum mainly to cheer on the University of the Philippines Pep Squad but, as usual, I watched as a social scientist, too, intrigued by the way cheerdance has been evolving as a Filipino institution since the UAAP began the competitions in 1994.
The very word “cheerdance” is not quite an American or British term. I do not know if it was coined in the Philippines, where it seems to be most widely used, but there is also a Japan Cheer Dance Association so it’s hard to say.
The origins of cheerdance are definitely to be found in American cheerleading, which goes back to the 19th century and was originally all-male, until women were allowed to come in starting in the 1920s. Today, cheerleading groups are overwhelmingly female.
Cheerleading was originally meant to, well, cheer school basketball and football teams as they competed, and was mainly a combination of dance and gymnastics. This original function of the groups cheering for athletic teams is still there, but our cheerdancing also drew from another American tradition—the pep squads.
The pep squads were slightly different from cheerleading groups. Pep squads were associated more with elementary and high schools and emphasized school spirit. The UAAP cheerdancing groups have mostly adopted the name Pep Squad and have become varsity teams in their own right, meaning they don’t just cheer on the basketball teams but are themselves competing teams, which is why we have this separate one-day event where all the UAAP schools compete.
In form and substance our cheerdancing has evolved into a sport in its own right and, even more importantly, as an art. The dance and gymnastics components form the core of cheerdancing, but there are variations in what each school emphasizes. National University (NU), which emerged No. 1 for the second consecutive year, is clearly oriented to gymnastics and stunts, with hold-your-breath rotations high in the air.
The UP Pep Squad has gymnastics and stunts, too, but is heavier on dance, reflecting coach Lalaine Juarez-Pereña’s own training background. It has workouts in jazz and contemporary dance, with some ballet thrown in. The University of Santo Tomas team has a similar focus on dance, even retaining the name “UST Salinggawi Dance Troupe.”
I noted, too, how much of theatrical showmanship there is in cheerdancing, and I think this is what makes it so Filipino. I’m wondering if cheerdancing is moving into a kind of local Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian group that took off from circus acrobatics to develop a dazzling combination of ballet, pantomime, even aspects of synchronized swimming, all enhanced by high-tech lights and props.
Our cheerdancing is of course much more modest with the props, but the universities clearly invested on the costumes and accessories. I was struck by how two of the teams—those of UST and Far Eastern University—used Chinese themes. NU, although now owned by the Chinese-Filipino Sy family (the ShoeMart Advantage, according to netizens) chose instead a Native American theme.
Which takes me to the UP Pep Squad. In the UP tradition, it decided this year to dramatize a strong message, captured in flash cards brought by UP fans that read “UP” on one side, and “Pantay Pantay” (or Equality) on the other. The “Pantay Pantay” message initially perplexed many, until the team performed.
Halfway through the UP Pep Squad’s performance, the audience gasped when our women defied tradition by lifting two of the men, rather than the other way around. I heard later that people sitting farther from the performers did not quite catch this; they assumed it was always men hoisting up women. But later there was a buzz in social media, with people exchanging views, overwhelmingly positive, on this innovation.
When the team did a sneak preview for the UP community days earlier, our students just went wild, roaring approval when the men rose into the air on the women’s shoulders.
I was elated when I first saw this reversal of roles. Back in July, Coach Lalaine told me that she and the team were thinking about challenging traditional roles in gymnastics. I encouraged her, saying I wanted to see our athletes overturning gender stereotypes.
Watching the UP Pep Squad performing at the coliseum, I thought of the grueling weeks its members had put in for rehearsals. Remember, UP shifted its school opening from June to August, but even the team’s freshmen—there were three of them who performed last Sunday—came in during the prolonged “summer” to practice. It was even more difficult when school started, given that these are kids who have demanding courses, like psychology, sports science, or electrical engineering.
As a whole, the UAAP cheerdance competitions are heartening in the way they reflect growing interest in performance sports. The teams have caught the attention of young Filipinos in high schools, who idolize the cheerdancers. Many neighborhood street dance groups are incorporating cheerdancing elements, and I hope our UAAP cheerdance teams can find time to visit these schools and neighborhoods, not just to perform but also to coach the aspirants, especially on safety aspects.
I did watch the UP Pep Squad last month coaching a group of disadvantaged students, all scholars from rural areas. The message was clear: You can learn many techniques fairly quickly, but perfecting a performance requires dedication and discipline.
And courage. Cheerdancers are no mere daredevils. They’re clearly driven, focused on what they want to achieve, and willing to work extra hard. This year was especially difficult with the “Pantay Pantay” challenge. Our women cheerdancers tend to be quite petite, so they had to put in much more to condition themselves to lift the men.
Rainbow of hope
At one point last Sunday, the UP crowd unfurled and began to pass around a huge rainbow-colored flag, borrowed from the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) movement to symbolize diversity. The UP Pep Squad said it takes the rainbow to represent hopes for equality.
The flag was first passed around the bleachers, where there were mostly UP people. Eventually, members of the audience thoughtfully passed it on to Ateneo. The Blue Eagles fans took up the flag and then passed it to the next school.
The transformation was dramatic. Almost in contrast to the loud cheering, the flag quietly floated around the coliseum, no longer just UP’s flag, or theme, but a vision for all who care about equality—in cheerdancing, in sports, and in all we do.
* * *
Many thanks to the UP Pep Squad members, with special mention of Coach Lalaine, assistant coaches NJ Antonio, Pio Opinaldo and Suyin Chua, team captain Audrey Muñoz and cocaptain Christian Gorgonia. Also, it’s time we recognized the all-important role of the Pep Squad Drummers, led this year by John Anthony Sayson and Christine Marie Pagador.
(E-mail: [email protected])
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