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22 January 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:07pm

The dizzying highs and painful lows of Cheer

The Netflix documentary knows cheerleading is brutal, even when it is tinged with magic.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When Morgan was 15, she and her brother were living by themselves in a trailer in Wyoming, surviving on cheap bread and noodles. She never thought she would go to college. But she won a place at Navarro junior college in Texas on its famous cheerleading squad, coached by the formidable Monica Aldama. “It was the first time someone noticed me. It was, like, ‘I’m not just nobody.’”

Netflix’s Cheer follows the Navarro team on their journey to junior college nationals in Daytona, Florida. The team are terrifying to watch. Tiny, muscular girls balance one-legged on a boy’s flat palm, held high above his head. Then they fall, pirouetting, head-first toward the ground. The students come from very different backgrounds: there’s “cheerlebrity” Gabi, whose parents pay for her to fly to competitions across the country. There’s Lexi, a vaping high school dropout with blonde curls, who effortlessly pulls off floor moves usually left to boys. There’s Jerry, a beaming 18-year-old from Illinois who made the team after a group of “cheer moms” crowdfunded more than $30,000 when his mother died. All worship Monica.

But Cheer knows this sport is brutal, even when it is tinged with magic. Asked why she picked gorgeous Morgan, Monica says bluntly: “She had the look.” The 40 students train incredibly hard to pull off wildly dangerous stunts (serious injuries abound, even if Monica seems strikingly unconcerned about them), but only 20 “make mat” and perform at the nationals. All that work, for a chance to appear in a two-minute routine. After that, who knows? There’s no competitive cheerleading beyond college level, which casts an elegiac tone over the show, and makes the team’s dedication all the more striking. These athletes push their bodies beyond ordinary human limits for one short, sparkling performance. And then, life begins. 

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This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people