As Tamara moves into her cheer career and I’ve been posting pictures and comments, one of the more frequent sentiments I’ve heard from my friends is along the lines of, “Imagine you involved with cheerleading! That’s so unlike you!” At first, I laughed along with them and agreed. And then I realized that was wrong. Most of my friends have only really known me in adulthood, maybe from high school. And since the best friend I had before then has been lost to me for more than twenty years, nobody else knows how wrong it is.
I’m a big girl. I’m not as big as some girls. I have plenty of friends who are bigger than I am. I still wear clothes smaller than a size 20. Although I’m back at my highest non-pregnant weight, I’m not even as big as I was the last time I was at this weight thanks to being in much better athletic condition. I complain about not being able to buy clothes I like and how much I hate shopping, but I can still trust that a race or event t-shirt will fit me.
I was a big girl growing up, too. I remember how difficult it was to find jeans that fit when I was a girl, and how one time my mother had me wear my cousin’s hand-me-down jeans to school…which mortified me because they were a boy’s jeans. Starting in second grade and continuing for years, I dealt with the petty bullying of being the fat girl. I believed I could never be physically fit and so I never really tried. I worried about sucking my tummy in constantly.
I took dancing and ice skating lessons when I was a girl. I dreamed of being a ballerina when I grew up, like most little girls do I guess. I took lessons at a studio that taught ballet, tap, and jazz all together. I loved dancing. I loved being able to follow the beat, to move my body with it. Learning choreography was like learning to play piano or learning to knit: it always came easily to me, and I rarely had to work very hard to master any step or sequence.
That all stopped when I was eleven or twelve, when my ballet class graduated to en pointe dancing. After allowing me to dance with the class for a year or so, the teacher told my mother that I could not do it any longer, that it would permanently damage my feet to dance en pointe at my size. So I quit dancing. As I recall, that was about the same time my mother started signing me up for weight loss programs, too.
Shortly after that, as I moved into high school, I discovered the drill team. This was a group of girls who went out and did dance and marching routines during games, like a cross between the marching band and the cheerleaders. This sounded like so much fun, so I tried out. I spent a couple of weeks going to the training sessions. I bought a shiny unitard to wear (it was pink). I spent hours at home stretching to try and master the splits. Shortly before the official try-outs, they handed out a list of rules for drill team members. Including in that list was a maximum weight. And that was it. I tried out, but I was obviously disqualified no matter how well I danced.
One secret that probably only my lost friend Alicia would know is the “How to Be a Cheerleader” books I had when I was little, and how I would practice doing jumps and cartwheels and cheers in my room or my backyard. Forget about actual cheerleading. In Georgetown, all the cheerleaders were elected by the student body. The only thing I would be able to garner votes for would maybe have been “most invisible.” I tried going back to the dance studio then, but since I couldn’t dance en pointe I was thrown into a class of beginners several years younger than I. Not much point in staying. In my sophomore year I discovered show choir, where I got to use my talents at both singing and dancing. I lettered in show choir, and those were some of my best memories of high school.
The next chance I had only lasted a few weeks. In between my first and second year at TAMS, there was a couple of months when it looked like I would have to go back to high school. I spent that time training with the local high school marching band, where I got to be a flag (I played oboe and bassoon, which aren’t allowed to march). Not only did we have set marching routines that we did along with the band, we worked on special routines where we got to step out from the band and do our own thing, dancing and spinning those giant flags. I had so much fun, and a bit of me was sad when I got back into TAMS and left that marching band behind without ever having performed.
Once you grow up, the opportunities for dance seem a bit more limited. I discovered ballroom dancing around the time we got married, but lessons were expensive and Brian can’t dance or follow a beat at all. (He can’t carry a tune, either, but he has other fantastic talents.) I was good at it, and I would love to do it again if I had a partner, but I don’t. I tried joining an adult tap class once, but I was only 19 and felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place with a group of women my mother’s age. Once I was over 21 and discovered the world of topless bars, I thought that sounded like fun, too, but they didn’t want anything to do with girls over a certain (small) size, either…although I got to play at it a bit when Plato’s Playhouse was still open.
Skating is the closest I’ve been able to come to the dancing I want to do. While I still never get to do couples or trios skating (no partner, no friends), anybody can skate up to a group working on a slide and just join in. It’s athletic, it takes rhythm and coordination, you follow the beat and show off to the music. I still tend to feel out of place there, like I’m the wrong color, but it’s one of the most fun things I do these days.
Still think being involved in competitive cheer is out of character for me?
All of that, and we come back around to Tamara, my oldest daughter, my little clone. She’s built just like I am, strong and stout. She also shares my love of music and dance, my coordination and ability. She loves to sing, she loves to show off for a camera or an audience, and she is even better at gymnastics than I ever was, able to do backbends and splits with far greater ease. She started asking me a couple of years ago if she could sign up for some activity that would involve dance or gymnastics, because she wanted to be a dancer…and my heart sank. I thought back to all the times I tried to do those things and was knocked right back down, and just as I homeschool in part so my children won’t have to deal with the cruelty of their government-school peers, I didn’t want to throw Tamara into something where she would just be told “no” or put in a box because of her size.
I spent most of a year trying to find something. I sent messages and emails out to my big girl friends, asking about any outlets they might know that would be size-friendly and welcoming. I didn’t get much response, and in fact I felt like they thought I shouldn’t even be asking. I even tried sending an email to Ragen Chastain, since I thought a woman who actually was an adult fat dancer would be able to give me some advice, some direction to look in. (She never responded.)
Finally, in January a post came across my homeschool group from a Young Champions cheerleading coach who was looking for more recruits. I had seen her post before but had never followed up on it. This time, I clicked through and took a look at the team and their pictures from past events…and I saw big girls! I saw big, strong girls, girls who could throw other girls in the air, who could support the base of a pyramid and still do backflips! And they were smiling and posing with their teammates, appearing to all be good friends despite their size differences! They did the things the drill team used to do, performing fancy dance routines in between their stunts and shouting.
So here we are. I felt a little uncomfortable at first, but mostly because I think I was expecting the other parents to act the way I remember cheerleaders acting in high school, all exclusive and special and part of a club I can’t join. But now I’m a cheer mom, and my daughter is a cheerleader. And all I can do as I clap from the sidelines is wish I was out there with her, and be grateful that she’s found an opportunity that I never did.