At a small gym, sitting on a hill just off of the Texas Highway 31, the sounds of young girls practicing their dance routine reverberate throughout the concrete walls.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight …,” one of their coaches, Jamar McGowen, belts out as groups of girls scramble into formations and then catch the girls who have been tossed into the air.
At Cheer Knowledge, youth ranging in age from 5 to 18 go there to learn competitive cheer, but also leadership and discipline. With that, comes self-confidence.
“Some are already cheerleaders in school but the majority are not,” McGowen said. “When they are ready, and if they do decide to school cheer, we not only want them to not have to worry about making it, but we want them to walk in feeling like 'I'm going to be captain.'”
All-star cheerleading — squads not related to a school — is different from the sideline cheering spectators see at sports events. It's filled with acrobatic stunts, dancing and tumbling. This evolution of cheerleading has grown in popularity over the last two decades, with gyms sprouting across the country, including in Tyler and East Texas.
McGowen, 27, and his friend JerMarcus Walker, 32, opened Cheer Knowledge last fall. They were both college cheerleaders.
McGowen is a substitute teacher by day and Walker has a job as a letter carrier. But by night, they report to the dark, tiny gym to guide their bright-eyed students.
“This right here is not work,” Walker said. “This is fun. I'm living out my dream. … This keeps me young.”
Cha'Kalian Browning, a third grader at Rice Elementary, has cheered for about two years. She began the sport haphazardly, after horse playing at home.
Although she's only 9, she's a strong leader among her age group, as she confidently shouts out commands and cheer counts as loud and clear as her older counterparts.
Since her time at Cheer Knowledge, she's perfected her tumbling skills.
“Coach Jamar told me I'm a quick learner,” she said. “I like stunting. I like my coaches. I like my friends. I just love it. I'm grateful to have my coaches.”
Shanecia Baker, 17, of Chapel Hill, is one of the varsity girls who also cheers at high school. She's been a cheerleader since her Pop Warner days. Miss Baker hopes to parlay those cheering skills into a scholarship to Texas Christian University.
“Stunting, tumbling, dances, having team spirit, smiling and everything; I like everything about cheer,” the teenager proclaimed. “I'm going to continue to grow and get better.”
LaKeesha Williamson, 34, of Tyler, watched closely as her young daughter practiced. Cheerleading is a household constant for the family. Ms. Williamson's oldest daughter cheers in high school and she was a cheerleader at John Tyler herself.
“It teaches her self-discipline and now she's a perfectionist,” she said, noting that her youngest daughter tumbles in hallways every chance she gets.
Ms. Williamson said McGowen and Walker are good friends of hers and she wanted to support them when they opened the gym. She said she is thankful for their dedication to the children, which includes using their money and stretching their schedules to be with their cheer family.
Walker said cheerleading is a serious sport, that it takes muscle strength and special techniques to accomplish the stunts they perform. In recent years, movies about cheerleading competitions have changed the perception of the activity.
“It's a lot better,” Walker said. “The sport has become a lot broader since the movies like Bring it On. With those movies, people get to see that it's hard.”
However, most schools, collegiate programs and Olympic officials are still reluctant to officially designate cheerleading as a sport. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that cheerleading be considered a sport so that it is subject to rules and regulations of governing bodies.
According to the AAP's report, published in its journal, Pediatrics, although the rate of injury is low, cheerleading has accounted for 66 percent of all catastrophic injuries among high school girl athletes in the past 25 years.
They knew each other through the cheer world and their respective families. The two also share a passion for their religious faith.
Walker's uncle is a pastor and so is McGowen's father. Walker is a choir director and a youth sponsor at his church. McGowen also serves as a choir director at his church.
Their faith bleeds into their jobs as cheer coaches. They let the girls take turns leading prayer — not just before an event, but everyday at practice.
“Our thing was, we're not going to be that team that prays right before we get on the floor,” McGowen said. “We are going to pray after every practice. That won't be the only time we pray — when we want to win. We pray for each other. We pray for traveling grace. We pray for no injuries. We just won't be praying to win.”
Parents value this aspect of the company's creed.
“That's one biggie for me,” Ms. Williamson said. “They are showing the girls that without God, you can't make it without him.”
McGowen's love of cheer began years ago, when he'd watch his brothers tumble in the yard. He became a cheerleader during his senior year at John Tyler High School and also joined Spirit of Tyler, a local cheer gym.
McGowen received a full scholarship at Trinity Valley Community College, then went on to cheer at Stephen F. Austin State University. He has also coached and choreographed winning routines for competitive cheer and dance teams. Walker began his cheer career at 18, while at Tyler Junior College.
“At that time I had never done anything with cheer in my life,” he recounted. “All I could do was jump.”
Walker went to the competition and remained on the team afterwards. He trained at Texas East Gymnastics once a week, learning to tumble and do stunts. He later cheered at Grambling State University.
“I learned how to work as a team” Walker said. “Teamwork, dedication, being committed to it — it takes a lot of work outside of practice. It stayed with me.”
He added, “I never knew this side of cheerleading existed. All I had ever known (about cheerleading) was the girls who cheered for the football guys on Friday nights.”
Dating back to the late 1800s, cheerleading was associated with men, who were called yell leaders. It wasn't until around 1923 that women started participating. By the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders changed the image of cheerleading forever, making it more feminine and sophisticated with its dance routines and revealing outfits. Today, about 96 percent of all high school cheerleaders are female, yet nearly half of all college cheerleaders are male.
Modern male cheerleaders typically feel the stigma of being on a squad, even though they see it as an athletic sport, just like football or basketball, the guys explained.
“If you talk to a guy that doesn't know anything about cheer the first thing he's going to think about is the girl on the sidelines cheering for football guys, and 'why would you want to do that because that's for girls?,'” McGowen said.
“When I tried out at John Tyler, that's what I had to deal with. The worst was at pep rallies. I did it anyway. I just dealt with it.”
Nonetheless, people were impressed with his skills and he gained plenty of friends in the cheer world. They opened Cheer Knowledge to any child, including males, and so far, they have at least five boys learning to tumble.
Cheer as a stepping stone
“They don't get to put their kids in this kind of stuff because they simply can't afford it,” McGowen said. “So what we try to do is make it easier for them to have the same experience as a wealthier family. … I don't want them to have a passion for cheer but not pursue it because they feel like they can't afford it.”
The men charge $45 per month, compared to $85 to $125 a month at other gyms.
To stretch a dollar, they choose smaller, less expensive competitions, make the uniforms and create their own music using a laptop and computer software.
To make the girls' hair ribbons, they bought a roll of ribbon, which yielded several dozen bows.
“Why not just give it to them?” Walker asked. “Why do I have to charge them $15 for a bow? We're just trying to keep it as inexpensive as possible.”
Another goal is to provide an avenue for the girls to use their newfound talent to pay for college.
“A lot of people don't know that cheerleading will pay for school, so we try to open that door,” McGowen said. “I just lucked up with my scholarship to Trinity Valley. I didn't know I could go to school for free, pretty much.”
The men say cheerleading parents often want their children to attract SFA cheer officials, a powerhouse in the National Cheerleaders Association.
“Can't is a cuss word in the gym,” McGowen said. “If somebody says 'I can't,' the kids are like, 'Ooh, coach, she cussed.' We want them to know you can do anything that you want to do.”
The men work with about 89 students. They hope for growth, but humbly enjoy the success of today.
“If I don't gain another girl, I am happy,” Walker said.