China trains 200,000 cheerleaders – for other Olympic teams
The Beijing Organizing Committee has enlisted cheerleaders from the New England Patriots football team to hone the Chinese elite squad's skills.
Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Cheerleading, the quintessential American act, is relatively new to China.
But that hasn't stopped the enthusiastic Olympic host from assembling a pep squad of 200,000 volunteers, the largest in Games history, to stir up spirit for any national team that needs it.
It's one of the bubbliest – and perhaps unlikeliest – ways China hopes to wow its international visitors next month.
Then again, this is the country that has recruited 1.5 million Olympic volunteers and spent $40 billion for its coming-out party – both record-breaking efforts.
"It is almost unheard of in the history of the Olympic movement, [recruiting such a] large number of student cheerleaders to cheer for other countries during the Games," says Guoqi Xu, author of "Olympic Dreams, China and Sports, 1895-2008," in an e-mail. "The Beijing Olympic Games has not yet started, but Beijing has created many precedents" already.
Most of the volunteer cheerleaders – which include many retired civil servants – though, have never shaken pom poms in sassy pleated skirts, let alone roused a crowd with victory jumps.
They'll have some simple dance steps under their belt as well as plastic, noisemaking "cheering sticks" to clap together.
But lest the crowd be unenthused by their routines, or props, Olympics organizers are also preparing 28 elite squads of young women chosen through a nationwide competition and from cheerleading or dance institutes.
The 400 who made the cut will perform "not only as cheerleaders, but also as dancers and acrobats," the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) promises on its website.
They've been practicing for four to six hours a day at a compound on the outskirts of Beijing since June. To teach them new moves and help them with pep and precision, BOCOG brought in cheerleaders from the storied New England Patriots football team.
Some routines are self-choreographed and throw in some Chinese flair. One group squats and kicks with red fans, flicking them open and shut with a loud whir to Asian-infused techno.
Another squad twirls nunchucks before switching to pompoms mid-song. "Everyone knows cheerleading is a Western activity, but we hope we can find a Chinese way to do it [and] show the world," says He He, who sports long, dyed-red hair and a sparkly belly-button ring.
How do China's cheerleaders feel about rooting for other countries?
"My first choice is China," but I'm happy to cheer for any team, says Yang Xue, who has done cheerleading for one year. Her squad is assigned to basketball, which means a potential courtside glimpse of national sports hero Yao Ming.
We're teaching them "how to entertain a wide crowd," and for that, "spirit" and "poisemanship" matter more than the actual dance, says Patriots cheerleader Carrie Binette.
The Chinese trainees appear to have learned that well. When the wrong music begins to play for their practice performance, they hold their positions and smiles. Someone fumbles with the stereo. Silent seconds tick. Then, a burst of enthusiasm. "Yea!" they clap and leap..