Is cheerleading culturally offensive? Ask Bollywood item numbers

April 27th, 2008 - 1:37 pm ICT by admin  

By Mayank Chhaya
It was only going to be a matter of time before a self-righteous Indian politician’s underwear bunched up in manufactured rage or TRP hungry television channel whipped up a fake controversy over the Washington Redskins cheerleaders. Although there are some predictable criticisms from the usual suspects among the country’s moral police, so far the extent of protest seems remarkably subdued in a tradition-bound nation. While one cannot guarantee that it would remain so, it is possible that the ‘outrage’ over the cheerleaders would not amount to anything much.

Cheerleading comes to India at a time when its movies have significantly demystified the female body with its many raunchy songs in which girls dress and dance far more provocatively than what was on display at the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 game in Bangalore. In the past decade or so the inelegantly named “item numbers” in Hindi movies have immunized the young against any possible shock. The amount of crotch grinding and artless suggestiveness that Hindi movie starlets engage in some of the “item numbers” far surpasses anything that the cheerleaders might do.

Those who know about cheerleading in the US would know that while at some level it is undeniably voyeuristic, its moves and choreography are by no means designed to be titillating. It is true that cheerleaders wear clothes that barely leave anything to the imagination, but the overriding appeal of cheerleading is athletic rather than erotic.

The introduction of American style cheerleading seems inevitable as cricket is acquiring some of testosterone of American football. Sure it was once a game where every cover drive or a leg glance was applauded by indolent British lords and lesser aristocrats from the sidelines. Every time they harrumphed , a retinue of their servants went scurrying about to bring them tea and sandwiches.

Now cricket is a glamour sport where fetching and well-endowed young women with supple bodies vigorously cheer from the sidelines. The purists may feel offended that the game is cheered by women who do not know a bat from an umpire, but that is the nature of evolution. It is as much entertainment as it is a sport. What would the purists rather have - empty stands for a five-day test match or a full-house for a three-hour game of unbridled excitement? If cheerleaders can bring in more spectators, cricket will be the better for it.

Cheerleading, like beauty pageants, is an institutionalised celebration of the female form in the US. It is impossible to find a cheerleader who is not desirable. But beyond the obvious it requires a fair degree of athletic skills, particularly when it comes to tumbling. Cheerleading is almost a part of the school curriculum. Young girls begin to train for this art form which is somewhere between gymnastics and dancing. Done well and with finesse, it looks rather easy. But, in fact, it can be very demanding physically.

Cheerleading as an attractive sideshow to football games has been in existence since the 1880s in America . It acquired most of its contours of today, including its rhythmic yell, in 1894 when an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota called Johnny Cambell, bored of sitting quietly in the bleachers, started yelling “Rah, Rah, Rah! Sku-u-mar, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!” from the sidelines. It has since gone on to become an increasingly well-defined physical activity, which involves dancing, tumbling and a whole lot of other tricks.

Some 115 years after it was introduced in the US , cheerleading has come to India thanks to Twenty20, the tarted-up version of the more staid test and one-day cricket. It is just as well because in the new “cricket on crack”, as the Twenty20 version is so illustratively called, the actual game seems incidental. A young beer swigging spectator in Bangalore said in his just acquired fake American accent on ABC News, “They are hot. They are rockin’. I want their numbers.” Two more young men chimed in, “They are drop dead gorgeous. To be honest, we are ardent cricket fans. But today we did not see a single ball of cricket.”

They did not have cricket on their mind. They had the cheerleaders on their mind with their bright red pompoms, yellow bikini tops, shorts and white high-heeled boots. It was an erotic fantasy come true. Unless you are differently inclined, who does not like girls with taut bodies in tight outfits and high-heeled boots flailing their limbs? Vijay Mallya, the ever glad eye owner of the Royal Challengers team, has understood that in order for his latest business to be attractive he has to have attractive people selling it.

Although it may still offend the sensibilities of some, the changing trend of popular tastes suggests cheerleading could strike roots in India. Of course, like everything else it is bound to be Indianised, which might mean less skin than in the US.

(Mayank Chhaya is a writer and commentator living in the US . He can be contacted at

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