There’s not much room in the case for more trophies, but the team won two more this weekend, so Tyson will try to squeeze them in. She lifts the 3-foot glistening silver tower into the case and pushes it into the back right corner. The light reflects off its surface into a thousand little rainbows. Adorning the top is a golden cheerleader suspended in midair.
With this trophy came controversy. Three days earlier, a different team had hoisted it and posed with it for photos.
The winners were announced at the U-Fit competition in Charlotte the previous weekend, and another team, Xclusive Cheer, was named the overall champ. Highland Springs placed third. But when the Highland Springs coaches were given their score sheets, something was missing. One judge awarded them just 55 points, 30 points less than all the other judges had given them. Two categories on the score sheet had been left blank.
Realizing there were errors in the score tabulation, the event organizers collected the trophies and score sheets. They recounted and discovered errors for multiple schools. When new totals were calculated, Highland Springs’ score had jumped 40 points, putting it 2½ points ahead of Xclusive.
Cheerleaders from other teams weren’t satisfied with the outcome. One girl took to social media to label the competition sabotaged and dubbed Xclusive the real winner. Highland Springs posted a response to its Instagram page:
“We had no control over the outcomes nor would we ever try to cheat or take anything from anyone. We pride our program on building positive connections with other teams and organizations.”
Some teams are gunning for Highland Springs, looking to knock Blackout from its perch. Others respect the Springers as a benchmark. If we can compete at their level, we know we’re doing well.
“There are so many teams that want to beat us,” Tyson said. “Some teams don’t like us.”
Watch traditional cheerleading on ESPN and you’ll see a good deal of stunting. You’ll see running and flipping, which is referred to as tumbling. Those elements are included in Highland Springs’ routine, but they aren’t the driving force.
Because this performance is in the style of Stomp-n-Shake, the voices, the clapping, the hips bouncing from side to side, the feet slamming against the floor, these are the most prominent elements.
Another difference is the sound. Stomp-n-Shake cheerleaders yell lower and louder, pushing with their diaphragms, aiming to project their cheers to the edges of the room.
Highland Springs cheerleader Angel White (right) talks with varsity co-captain Aniyah Winston before the Highland Springs football game against Lee-Davis on Friday Sept. 21, 2018.
Some credit Virginia State University’s first cheer coach, Paulette Walker Johnson, for inventing the style in the 1970s. She got the job in 1974 and inherited a cheer team that was short on traditional cheerleading talent. But the girls had rhythm, and they knew how to dance. So she created cheers and routines that her girls could perform.
“I took what I had,” she said.
To her, building a human pyramid wasn’t exciting anyway. Throw a girl in the air, and the audience is pleased for 5 seconds. Bring the heat for a 30-second dance, and the audience will be enthralled from start to finish.
Johnson taught her style at cheer camps, and high schools and historically black colleges and universities started to emulate it. Coaches preferred it because they didn’t need cheerleaders who could perform cartwheels or back flips. Anyone could be taught to stomp and shake.
HBCUs across the South adopted Johnson’s cheers. She would attend events and watch teams perform routines she had once taught. It wasn’t until years later that the style was branded as Stomp-n-Shake.
In recent years, it has proliferated in Virginia and North Carolina. A team from as far as California will attend this year’s Stomp-n-Shake national championship.
To Roberson, one of the Highland Springs assistants, Stomp-n-Shake is point of African American pride. HBCUs were created because black students couldn’t attend segregated white colleges, and it was there that the style originated.
“Our culture was able to cultivate something amazing,” she said. “African American girls can be proud to say this is something we created.”
When Stomp-n-Shake cheerleaders attend a game, they can simultaneously cheer on the team and entertain the crowd. When performed well, Stomp-n-Shake shows wow the crowd. A battle between two cheerleading teams at a basketball game can surpass the excitement of the game itself.
Rhythm and bravado are major components. When the Blackout team enters a gymnasium, they quietly chant, “Watch out, you better move.”
It takes two school buses and 35 minutes for junior Sydni DeBerry to arrive at Highland Springs High School each morning by 8:20 a.m. She lives in the Glen Allen district on the other side of Henrico County, and travels alongside students enrolled in Highland Springs’ engineering program, its Advanced College Academy and International Baccalaureate. She’s the only one on the bus who comes for its cheerleading team.
Highland Springs cheerleader Sydni DeBerry cheers during the Highland Springs basketball game against Varina on Friday Jan. 18, 2019.
Before her ninth-grade year, DeBerry requested a variance to attend Highland Springs, and the cheerleading team was the biggest reason why.
“I wanted to meet new people,” she said. “I wanted to start something different.”
When she first arrived at her new school, she had no friends. Now she has “cheer sisters,” whom she sees six days a week. During competition season, free time is at a minimum.
“Their social life is nonexistent,” Tyson said.
Expectations for the girls are laid out before the season begins. They sign a five-page contract acknowledging the extensive time commitment. The season lasts 12 months a year, beginning and ending in the spring. Playing another sport isn’t an option. They agree not to get tattoos or piercings and they consent to eliminating soda from their diets.
Sometimes it means sacrificing your body. A year ago, the team was practicing stunts, and DeBerry was part of the base. The flier at the time was new and was instructed to twist in midair. When she landed, her elbow crashed into DeBerry’s eye. At first, the coaches didn’t believe DeBerry was injured.
“I could feel that it was starting to turn purple,” she said.
It was the week of homecoming, and attending the dance with a black eye wasn’t an option. She covered it with concealer and successfully hid the purple marks on her face.
But maybe the greatest pain she felt was not getting to cheer at all. Last spring, DeBerry got in trouble at home, and her parents pulled her off the team – two weeks before nationals. She went home and cried that night.
“I was so hurt,” she said.
After the Springers had won title No. 3, DeBerry watched the routine on video. She felt conflicted, feeling joy for her teammates’ success but devastation for not being part of it.
When junior year came, she decided she wouldn’t let another national tournament go into jeopardy. She was the first to turn in her cheer pack – all the forms and teacher recommendations necessary for trying out. The coaches say she’s more disciplined than ever before.
“It’s my redemption year,” she said.
This year’s team consists of 19 cheerleaders, all girls – there have been boys in the past, but there are none this year. Among the names on the roster are two seniors, four fliers and nine “Ayas”: Aniyah, Sariyah, Jeniyah, Nya, Damya, Amiya, Anaya, DaShiya and Mariah.
Mariah is the team’s best gymnast – halfway through the show she sprints diagonally across the floor, flipping herself into two back handsprings and a back tuck, landing cleanly on her feet.
When the girls are off the mat, they love to joke and laugh and yell. Their noise level, which is high on the mat, is at elevated decibels off the mat, too. They sing songs together, doing their best Cardi B or Chris Brown imitations. They FaceTime with their boyfriends – one girl estimated that 90 percent of the cheerleaders have boyfriends. FaceTime is the preferred means of communication, replacing the traditional phone call.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Highland Springs cheerleaders take pictures before the BTW cheer competition in Norfolk, Va. at Booker T. Washington High School on Saturday Jan. 26, 2019. Highland Springs cheerleaders Sariyah Briggs (left) and Sydni DeBerry vlog before the BTW cheer competition. Highland Springs cheerleader Sariyah Briggs (left) has her hair done by varsity captain Taylor Richardson. The team went on to win the competition with their 90s themed routine.
An inordinate amount of time is spent on their phones. They use them to post videos of themselves to YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. They post vlogs – video blogs – of their lives attending basketball games and preparing their outfits for practice.
Highland Springs loves its cheerleaders, but resources to support the team are lacking. The team raises money with car washes and at concession stands at games. In one long day, they have raised $2,000. Taylor Richardson, a senior captain on the team, wishes the team got more respect. Whenever the school needs the cheerleaders, Richardson said, they’re there, performing whenever they are asked. Now, she says, the team needs the school.
“It’s hard to be a cheerleader,” Richardson says.
Preparation for nationals
There are two days left before nationals now, and in 15 hours, the Springers will board a tour bus bound for North Carolina, where they will compete in the final competition of the year. This is the last night they will practice in their own gymnasium, so this run through has been dubbed a dress rehearsal.
The girls dress in their competition uniforms – black skirts and black long-sleeve tops with gold and white trim, the letters HS in white block letters on the chest. The girls stand off the side of the mat, and Tyson imitates the introduction they’ll receive on the day of the competition.
Highland Springs cheerleader Georgio Haskins works on a stunt during practice on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019.
“For the fourth time coming back to the mat, going for a possible fourth grand championship … coming here since no one knew who Highland Springs was, but look at them now. I want to introduce, at this time, the Highland --” but she can’t keep a straight face and she begins to laugh at her drawn-out introduction. Before she can finish, the girls have taken the floor.
The music is switched on from Onley’s phone and blasted through a wireless speaker set on the floor. The lyrics start: “Are you ready? Is you ready? You say you’re ready?”
And in an instant the fliers have been lifted into the air and shot toward the sky. But after several seconds, it’s clear the synchronicity isn’t there. The routine is coming unglued.
The music stops, and Tyson asks, “Y’all want to start over?”
The girls answers in unison, “Yes.”
They begin again, but Junior flier Treasure Bailey is dropped. Another girl falls on a flip. When the routine is finished, the girls fall to the mat, breathing hard, their chests heaving. The assistant coaches are all yelling now, pointing out each shortcoming. Never one to take a combative tone, Tyson offers her assessment in a calm, level voice.
“I feel like y’all retracting,” she says. “That’s not a good sign.”
“The stunts,” Onley adds, “I’m scared.”
“Y’all have to know in your mind it’s not going to fall,” Tyson says.
The team ends practice knowing the quality of their routine is short of expectations. They’re supposed to board the bus at 11 a.m. Friday, so they’ve scheduled an extra practice for 7 a.m. to put in more work.
They circle up, hold hands, and Tyson leads a prayer asking for the routine to work in a way it hasn’t yet.
“We thank you for allowing us to compete in this national competition for the fourth time,” she says. “I pray, Lord God, that you give us the strength tonight to come to practice in the morning and kill it like we’ve never done it before."
The day before nationals begins with an early-morning practice and includes a four-hour drive to Winston-Salem, N.C. There, the team checks into its hotel, visits a trampoline park for recreation and holds another short practice.
Seventeen hours after the day began, the girls are still bounding with energy, laughing and swatting one another with pillows. A mass text arrives from the coaches – noise complaints have been made by other guests in the hotel. If the team is kicked out, the message states, you will sleep on the bus.
Inside room 422 of the hotel, four cheerleaders are glued to their phones, texting and FaceTiming, making use of every last minute. At midnight, the coaches will knock on the door and confiscate their phones in an effort to remove distraction and encourage sleep.
“This is so depressing,” says Aniyah Winston, a senior co-captain. “I’m going to miss my phone.”
The knock on the door comes, and the four coaches are standing on the other side to collect the phones and place them in a large leather purse.
“Be blessed,” Tyson says as she walks out the door.
Though they are without their phones, the girls aren’t close to sleep. They still need to curl their hair – curly hair is essential for Stomp-n-Shake – and pin it to their heads. It’s not until 4 a.m. that all of them are asleep, but even then their heads are poked by bobby pins.
When they awake, the day they’ve all been waiting for will have arrived.
The final performance