Originally created 11/05/01

Savannah schools crack down on lewd cheerleading



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The drum major strikes up the Motown classic "Just My Imagination" as Beach High School's dancers, backs to the homecoming crowd, let their knee-length coats slip from their shoulders and onto the football field.

Dressed in sequined tights, thigh-high shorts and fringed miniskirts, the girls resemble a squad of 1960s Tina Turner clones, dancing to a marching band more tuned to James Brown than John Philip Sousa.

There's an awkward hip-swivel here, a tentative knees-bent thrust there. But is their act too sexy for a high-school halftime show?

Yes, say some school board members, who believe some cheerleading and dance squads have gone too far with moves emphasizing sex appeal over school spirit.

Savannah's Chatham County school board plans to vote Wednesday on a policy banning "lewd gestures, inappropriate comments and suggestive or vulgar movements" by any student group, from glee clubs to wrestling teams.

The effort has some parents jeering from the sidelines.

"It's the same as whenever Elvis Presley came out in the early days," said Yvonne Holmes, mother of 16-year-old cheerleader at Savannah's Johnson High School. 'They said he couldn't move his hips and they could only film him from head-to-waist. It's just a different dance they're doing."

Valerie Ninemire, a Dallas cheerleading aficionado who runs the Web site www.cheerleading.about.com, said most high school squads focus more on athletic stunts than sex appeal.

But costumes have gotten skimpier - some schools across the nation have barred cheerleaders from wearing their uniforms to class on game days because they bare the midriff, Ninemire said. Hip-hop dance trends have also taken hold.

"Shaking your rear end is really common in cheerleading," she said. "Cheerleading has become highly competitive and these young men and women have to stay up with the latest trends and the moves and the music."

Holmes and her daughter, Christy, say the board got involved when the father of a Johnson High cheerleader complained about some of the squad's moves.

Christy says the girls were told they'd have to alter their routines - "hip movements, and that's mostly it." And she says the cheerleaders are still baffled about how they might have offended anyone.

"We weren't, like, doing anything with hip movements in it," she said. "To this day, I don't think none of the cheerleaders really realized what they actually meant by that."

Diane Cantor, the school board president, said the board has heard complaints for years and the proposed policy targets no one school. It merely sets guidelines for principals to decide for themselves what's appropriate, she said.

"You will not find me going to individual schools and saying, 'I want to see this routine,' or 'I want to look at this costume,"' Cantor said. "Some of that is subjective and there's always going to be a difference of opinion."

The opinion of fans in the bleachers at Beach High's homecoming game Oct. 16 was largely that the girls should be left alone.

In blue and gold uniforms topped by bows in their hair, cheerleaders would rarely augment their heel-to-toe hopping, hand clapping and high kicking with an occasional pelvic thrust.

But that's not vulgar, said Sally Stanley, a former majorette who graduated from Beach in 1962.

"They're not doing anything like we did in '62. We GOT DOWN! In '62, I would get all wild. This was nothing, baby," said Stanley, a Savannah real estate agent. "It's a game these people are playing. It's sad. They need to leave us alone."

Though fans at the Beach game denied it, school board member Lori Brady said she suspects schools have toned down their act in the weeks since the board got involved.

As the mother of two band students, Brady said she's seen her share of "sexually suggestive movements" at football games the last few years. She said the offenders include Beach High, whose band she once trailed behind in Savannah's St. Patrick's Day parade.

What sort of movements? "Frontal hip thrusts," Brady said, adding that parents have complained to her of other suggestive dance steps.

"Not that I've seen this happen, but it would be inappropriate for a dance team to turn around with their rear to the audience, push it out and start shaking it all over the place," she said, recounting one complaint.

Beach High Principal Roy Davenport said he hasn't received any complaints about the cheerleading and dance squads this year. In fact, he said, they've been invited to perform at parades and festivals in Florida and South Carolina, and at several Savannah elementary schools.

"We're having to turn down requests so I can keep the kids in school," Davenport said. "It's just young people dancing. ... It's tasteful."

Some suggest the gap separating the students and the school board may be racial as much as it is generational.

Both Beach and Johnson High are predominantly black schools. Holmes says the parent who complained at Johnson is white. Stanley and other Beach alumni bristled that Brady had cited their school as an offender.

"When we shake, as African-Americans - because we're so healthy - it's going to shake a little harder than any Caucasians," said Lisa Wilkins, a 1994 Beach graduate attending homecoming. "What're you going to tell me to do? Square dance?"

Cantor and Brady both denied any racial bias. "Emphatically no," Cantor said.

The point, both board members said, is that the affected groups are children who dance and cheer in public wearing school colors.

"I understand they go home and they watch Janet Jackson and Britney Spears on TV doing those types of movements," Brady said. But trendy moves take a backseat "when they are performing on behalf on public schools with our uniforms."