According to the National Cheerleading Association, more than 3 million Americans participate in the sport. But cheerleading is no longer just about pom-poms and whipping crowd spirit into a frenzy, it has evolved into a bona fide sport where many athletes — as they are now considered — train year-round.
These athletes work on the strength, balance and gymnastic skills they need to stand out and win competitions. I recently visited a gym in Grandview where teaching girl power and the sport of cheerleading go hand in hand.
You could easily ride right past it — a nondescript brick, low-slung building with white garage doors on Grandview Road. But inside is the home of Nash Jem All-star Elite Cheerleading. All-star refers to a cheerleading group that is not attached to a sports team. There is no need to have an actual team to cheer for, since the focus is on athletics and stunts.
Tonight, there is a buzz of activity right before class begins. Older girls are practicing in clusters along the blue foam-covered floor. Smaller girls are using thick red mats to tumble and floor posts to balance.
Nash Jem co-owner Jamisha Miller is working with a group of girls on their routine. Today’s lesson: perfecting what’s called a “ tic-toc" — a complicated stunt where the “flyer” (the girl who is lifted to the top) switches legs as she is hoisted in the air.
Coach Miller focuses on building teamwork and the flyer's courage so that this stunt comes off injury-free and technically correct.
"You can’t be afraid," says Miller.
Eight-year-old Nya looks nervous as her teammates prepare to hoist her in the air. But as their coach Miller counts and encourages, each girl performs her role. The result: Nya is beaming proudly at the top of the formation, one leg stretched high in the air. Coach Miller shouts words of encouragement and spectators roar with applause.
Jamisha Miller caught the cheerleading bug as a junior at Northeast High School. She saw that girls could have fun while building character and confidence. So in 2000, Jamisha and her sister CJ Nash started Nash Jem Elite All-Stars, using cheerleading as a way to empower and encourage young girls in the community.
The program’s name—Nash Jem—is derived from CJ’s last name and the Jamisha’s initials. The sisters saw the cheerleading program as a part of a spiritual mission — a gift from God they say. They started coaching about 20 students in tumbling, stunts and cheer.
"It was free at first we were operating wherever we could if there was a school that would let us use their gym... out of the Boys and Girl's Club, here or there, just wherever we could, just eventually before we realized that we had to charge something," says Miller.
With those fees, they hired professional coaches and found a permanent home. Their members have grown to include 150 athletes, ages three to 18 years old. Nash Jem serves everyone, but Jamisha Miller says being a mostly African American gym makes the program unique.
“There are other states where there are predominately African-American gyms but here in the Midwest we are the only one, and really because when a girls looks out there whether it’s on a magazine cover and she’s sees someone who looks like her it inspires her even more," says Miller.
"Sometimes we don’t realize it because we are in a culture that we have yet accepted that we are multi-cultural, but there is a certain part inside of you that when you see people like you doing a certain elite thing, you automatically think that that can be me."
Vernell Woods says that her daughter Sydney has benefited; cheerleading has helped her daughter’s self-confidence both physically and socially.
"If a friend don’t like me I can move on from that and I’m not scared to, you know, do cartwheels or backbends; just motivate her," Woods says of her daughter's attitude.
Seven-year-old Sydney Woods says that Nash Jem has helped improve her skills.
"I learned how to flip better, how to a better cheerleader and how to flip better," she says.
Jamisha Miller’s passion is building the self-confidence of African-American girls through the discipline of cheerleading. That’s how she hopes to fight the many forces in society that attack the self-worth of young African-American women and girls.
"All those things that you have to learn they learn that here, and it allows them to look at themselves in way that maybe they haven’t be fore and we remind them how beautiful they are, how gorgeous they are," says Miller. "And you would be surprised, many girls as beautiful as they are they don’t quite believe it."
Getting the girls ready for competition takes discipline and perseverance. Nash Jem Elite has eight competitive teams and two non-competitive teams. Coach Miller says they faced particular challenges early on because they were a mostly African-American team.
"It was more of 'didn’t like our style,' we didn’t look like the teams that they were used to judging or they couldn’t believe that our girls were the age that they were because our girls were doing so many elite things," she says.
"They would try to challenge our girls on their age which they’ve always been appropriately in their age bracket. Just honestly it just reflects where we are in the world there’s just some people who look at you and look at your brown skin and think you’re inferior."
Just like the Nash Jem cheerleaders, cheerleading itself has fought long and hard to be respected as a legitimate sport. Some critics still view cheerleading as a “fluff” activity involving more spirit than athletic substance.
Jamisha Miller thinks cheerleading builds a strong work ethic and teamwork .
"They’ve learned through their regiment, their regime, that you put on a good face," she says. "You may not be feeling it on the inside but when you go to work and you work and you work hard and you’re working as a team."
Coach Miller is preparing her girls to be competition-ready by November, when the first round of regional cheerleading challenges begin. At the end of the month, Nash Jem Elite All-stars will move to its new home in Lees Summit, where they hope to take their work to the next level.