Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cheer New York peps up the Big Apple: Whatever the age, anyone can pick up a pompom

The skills of Cheer New York are growing by leaps and bounds.

The skills of Cheer New York are growing by leaps and bounds.

"Cheer New York, you better work!" shouts a crew of 30 gyrating cheerleaders whose upbeat attitudes suffuse the Alvin Ailey dance studio much like sparkly confetti on New Year's Eve.

"Show me what you got!"

As they bump their toned chests, their cheers reverberate in a highly refined church chorus over Ke's "Blow." Fists clenched up high, kicks going over the shoulders, flipping and somersaulting on command, they seem like any other cheer squad that could be found in any high school or college in any city.

But this squad's captain is 41 years old. The median age is around 30.

"My friends are like, girl, I can't believe you're still doing this," says Kerry Harris, co-captain of the team. Harris, a national account manager for Swarovski, joined Cheer New York three years ago. He has cheered since he was 15.

"I'm like, you better believe it, that's why I'm so in shape."

Cheer New York, a volunteer nonprofit, has been performing with pompoms since 2002.

"I'm so glad I found a place to cheer, and it makes me so happy, especially after college," says Cat Marcasciano, 25, who also cheered in college.

It doesn't hurt that all of this fun - the choreography, commotion and camp - that the organization channels goes toward raising money for charities that fight life-threatening conditions and illnesses or issues facing the LGBT community.

Most recently, the organization raised $5,000 for the Peter Cicchino Urban Justice Center.

"People might think it's all fun and games, but at the end of the day, we're helping different causes," says Felipe Hernandez, the group's co-founder.

Hernandez, who first cheered during his junior year at Columbia, said he was inspired by the movie "Bring It On." But it wasn't until after 9/11 that he thought it was time to create his own team.

"I just thought that the group I was in didn't have the cheerful life message we wanted," he recalls. "New York really needed some cheering up."

Every August, Hernandez runs tryouts where only five to 10 who audition receive an offer. Since members are in the group "for life," as Hernandez puts it, spots are limited and the process is highly competitive.

"We look for people who can move and who are strong," he says. "And who are committed."

At practice recently, the group goes over drill after drill in preparation for the Gay Pride Parade. They have been preparing since January, and the squad still looks a little unpolished.

"This is for real, real, not for play, play!" a thin and highly energetic Mike Vandermause, assistant coach, yells. "Y'all are getting sloppy!"

Donning uniforms of red, white and blue, members wipe the sweat from their drenched faces, tired but determined.

"Like, OMG!" one member shouts from the back as he proceeds to kick one leg up to his ear.

"Cheer New York, work!" he says, snapping his fingers once in the air, then twirling.

Finally, after three extremely intense hours, they get the routine down, perfect.

And with a rah rah, sis boom bah, they shout: "Nine years giving back to New York! Pride and spirit still flying high! C-H-E-E-R-N-Y! Woo!"

As everyone sits on the studio floor, catching a breath, Jason Taylor stands and announces: "I just wanted to let you guys know that this is my last day at practice." He's off to San Francisco.

"And I wanted to let you know that this was the best experience I've had ever in New York. I'm going to miss you all!"

"We are proud of you, we are proud of you!" his cheer squad shouts out without a second thought, while double-clapping between beats.

"We are proud of you, we are proud of you!"

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