Christian Schools Clean Up Cheerleading

Bare midriffs. Short skirts. Bump-and-grind routines.

Cheerleading (search) has strayed from the 2-4-6-8 rhymes of yesteryear, and that can leave parochial school cheerleading squads wondering how to craft routines that fit their values without looking downright retro.

One answer is Christian cheerleading camp. A growing number of Christian schools, put off by the sometimes-seductive dances and cheers taught at secular camps, are opting instead for faith-based camps and competitions -- places where Bible study meets basket tosses and the music doesn't have to be bleeped out.

Jaime Fulton, cheerleading coach at Western Christian High School in Covina, Calif., remembers going to secular cheerleading camps when she was in high school. When her Christian school's squad got home, they'd have to rewrite many routines -- putting them to music that didn't fit and taking out some of the wilder gyrations.

When she heard about the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders (search) -- a Lawrenceville company that mixes religious messages with cheerleading -- Fulton signed up her 20-girl squad and found it a perfect fit.

"It's very different," she said. "I would never go back to a secular camp. What we're trying to teach our girls goes against all the media, all the sexual stuff and bad sportsmanship."

At FCC camps, Fulton said, cheerleaders learn they don't have to sacrifice modesty to have cool routines: "It's not dorky. It's not '80s cheerleading. They just take out the gross stuff."

That approach is turning into big business for the two leading Christian cheerleading companies, FCC in Georgia and Christian Cheerleaders of America in Winston-Salem, N.C. FCC now works with 15,000 cheerleaders a year in faith-based camps and competitions, with a staff of 100 coaches. CCA teaches 7,000 cheerleaders a year and recently built a 27,000-square-foot gym.

"We felt that Christian schools needed somewhere to go that's just for them," said Rose Clevenger, founder and president of CCA. At secular camps, "they can feel uncomfortable with the dress code, or maybe they have inappropriate music. Typically cheerleaders look like sex symbols and don't dress appropriately."

The camps work just like secular ones, but with devotional time added in mornings and nights. Most of the instructors are college cheerleaders who went to Christian schools when they were younger, and they're encouraged to talk about their faith. They tell campers that cheering is a God-given talent that can spread Christian lessons.

"We think it can even be an act of worship," said John Blake, FCC's event coordinator. "Being excellent at what you do in any facet of life, that can be a testimony about your faith."

The wholesome approach isn't just to soothe parents. Cheerleaders from Christian schools say they've felt left out at regular cheerleading camps, either because their skirts are too long or their coaches veto the music. At Christian camps, they all fit in.

"There's not the pressure," said Tracy Handey, a 15-year-old cheerleader at Humble Christian School in Humble, Texas. Handey's squad went to a CCA camp, where no one snickered at their skirts -- which fall to 4 inches above the knee. "I like our uniforms because they don't show everything."

In addition to cleaner music and dancing, there's a stronger focus on good sportsmanship at Christian camps, coaches said. Handey's coach, Vicki Howell, said that the growth of competitive cheerleading has led to more taunting and off-color cheers.

When her squad placed eighth at a recent competition, but won CCA's Spirit of Competition Award for good sportsmanship, she remembers telling her girls, "That's the only trophy you'll take into heaven with you."

"My goal is not just to coach cheerleading but to make well-rounded women," Howell said.