Monday, April 18, 2005

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Bare midriffs. Short skirts. Bump-and-grind routines.

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

That’s where Christian cheerleading camps come in. 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. It’s 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 regular cheerleading camps when she was in high school. When her Christian school squad got home, they’d have to rewrite routines, putting them to music that didn’t fit and taking out hip movements.

When she heard about the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders — a Lawrenceville company that mixes religious messages with cheerleading — Miss Fulton signed up her 20-girl squad for a camp 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, Miss Fulton said, cheerleaders learn they don’t have to sacrifice modesty to have hip routines: “It’s not dorky. It’s not ‘80s cheerleading. They just take out the gross stuff.”

It’s an approach that’s growing 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. 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.”

Cheerleaders from Christian schools say they’ve felt left out at secular 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 cheerleader at Humble Christian School in Texas. Tracey’s squad went to a CCA camp, where no one snickered at their skirts that 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 also a stronger focus on good sportsmanship at Christian camps, coaches said. Tracey’s coach, Vicki Howell, said 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.”

Cary Coleman, founder of FCC, said the company is doing so well, it plans to expand into churches. Many churches already have teams, so why not recreational cheerleading?

Mr. Coleman envisions a day when cheerleaders can go through a faith-based program their entire careers, from learning to cheer at church straight through high school or college.

The mixture of religion and cheerleading is a natural fit, he said, because while sometimes sports programs focus on culling a few superstars for professional athletics, everyone knows cheerleading isn’t a career.

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