A loud voice and enthusiasm used to be about the only prerequisites for cheerleading. Not so today. Cheerleaders are often as athletic and well drilled as those they urge on. In fact, college cheerleading squads now compete in a national championship of their own.
Despite this ''new athleticism,'' cheerleaders still exist primarily to motivate the team by getting the crowd's support. ''That purpose has not changed . . .,'' says Jean Zucchelli, founder and director of the Nationwide Cheerleaders' Association in Inidana, Pennsylvania. Yet, unlike in the cheerleading heyday of the 1950's, today's version requires skill and coordination more than physical attractiveness.
Bill Lindsay of the National Cheerleading Foundation says the selection process is not the beauty/popularity contest it once was. People succeed in tryouts mostly on the basis of their ability and coordination.
To some degree cheerleaders entertain, but this is not their main purpose, as it is for professionally choeographed dance groups such as the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who are showgirls first and foremost.
Cheerleading organizations are quick to point out that true high school and college cheerleading involves a great deal of athletic ability, long hours of practice, and dedication.
''What most people do not realize is that many cheerleading squads practice more than the teams they cheer for,'' says Dave White, director of pre-collegiate programs at the University of Oklahoma. White, who holds summer cheerleading camps at colleges throughout the Midwest, says some squads practice as many as eight hours a day. ''Cheerleaders train as hard as athletes and should have the same preliminaries (warmups and stretches),'' says Zucchelli.''. . . the trend is toward more difficult routines.''
These new routines are possible because training starts at earlier ages than it has in the past. While programs used to begin in the sophomore year of high school, some now start in the fifth and sixth grades.
The growth in the number of male cheer-leaders has further allowed cheerleading to attain a degree of complexity never known before. With more gymnastics incorporated into the routines, men and women are working together. ''The presence of men is necessary to carry out highly sophisticated stunts and pyramids,'' says Lindsay, himself a college cheerleader. Men provide the strength necessary to lift their female counterparts and shoulder the weight in pyramids so that acrobatic stunts once practically unknown in cheerleading are now very common.
Figures indicate that males are more likely to infiltrate the cheerleading ranks on the West Coast, where there is sometimes an equal number of men and women participating. It is not catching on in rural areas as much as in urban areas. And, while the number of male participants is growing in both high schools and colleges, the largest increase has occurred at the college level.
In addition to increased atleticism, greater organization has helped put cheerleading back on track during the past decade. This trend is apparent in the number of coaches and faculty sponsors now taking an active part in selecting and training the squads, as well as planning their routines.
Further support has come from an increasing number of cheerleading organizations. While there may have been only two such groups a dozen years ago, they now exist in all regions of the country.
The proliferation of summer training camps nationwide has also been a factor. These camps provide intensive training - almost 30 hours a week - in the pyramids, backflips, and roundoffs that are part of modern cheerleading.
The increased athleticism and better organization of cheerleading squads, Zucchelli believes, is paying off. ''To enter in and feel a part of the game,'' she says, '' the crowd must have a 'center of oneness.' '' In bringing out this feeling of unity, cheerleaders fulfill an important role.