Cheerleading: History & Famous Cheerleaders

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

It wouldn't be an American sporting season without cheerleaders. We see them everywhere, we have our own opinions on cheerleading, but how much we you really know about this sport? In this lesson, we'll cover the history of cheerleading and see how it became an American pastime.


Ra-ra study hard 'cause you're a whiz! Ra-ra study hard you'll pass the quiz! Gimme a S, gimme a T, gimme a U, gimme a… oh you get the idea. Apart from energizing crowds and instructing us in basic spelling, cheerleading is an athletic competition with a long and rich history. Seriously. Today defined by advanced gymnastics, acrobatics, and an uncompromisable level of pep, the sport did not always look this way. It has changed many times throughout American history, reflecting the attitudes and beliefs of people across time, but always with an upbeat attitude and plenty of flair.

Cheerleading is a major part of American society today.

Origins of Cheerleading

When we think of cheerleading, we most often associate it with football. There's a reason for this. In the late 19th century, football was really just becoming an organized sport in its own right, with the first intercollegiate game played in 1869. Students came to the games en masse to cheer on their teams, which by the 1880s led to the rise of pep clubs, completely comprised of men, to cheer on the team. It wasn't until 1898, however, that crowds became involved. During a losing game, medical student Johnny Campbell of the University of Minnesota decided to respond to the other school's pep club by rallying the crowd in a collective cheer. Campbell grabbed a microphone and led the Minnesota students in a rousing chorus of Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah! This is officially considered the first cheer of cheerleading, making Johnny Campbell the world's first cheerleader.

Growth of Cheerleading

Campbell's crowd-rallying endeavor caught on, and led to the creation of formal cheerleading teams. In the early 20th century, these squads experimented with routines and defined their art. Cheerleaders first added gymnastics routines and tumbling to their cheers in the 1920s, and cheerleaders from the University of Oregon introduced the practice of using flashcards to build crowd support around the same time.

1914 Cheerleader

Now, something that's important to remember is that up to this point, cheerleading was an all-male event. It was not until 1923 that the University of Minnesota became the first school to allow women to become cheerleaders. The practice didn't actually catch on until World War II. When American troops left to fight in 1941, most young men joined, causing a labor shortage in the USA. Women jumped at the opportunity to fill positions that had been previously denied to them, as laborers, musicians, athletes, and even, yes, cheerleaders. It was during WWII that women first became the cornerstone of the sport, and they never let go.

Early Female Cheerleaders
Early female cheerleaders

Modern Cheerleading

Cheerleading as we think of it really begins after the end of WWII. In 1948, a cheerleader with the Southern Methodist University in Texas named Lawrence 'Herkie' Herkimer held the world's first summer cheerleading clinic. This clinic is considered the start of modern cheerleading, where Herkimer developed the use of spirit sticks, pom poms, and the 'Herkie Jump', the standard cheerleading jump which looks sort of like a split with one leg bent at the knee. According to tradition, Herkimer developed it on accident after failing to do a proper jump.

Later in his career, Lawrence Herkimer went on to found the National Cheerleaders Association in 1961, making cheerleading a nationally-recognized and standardized form of athletic competition. Cheerleading became more and more popular, and was practiced in nearly every American high school and college by the end of the 1970s. In 1974, former NCA manager Jeff Webb formed the Universal Cheerleading Association to teach cheerleading at an even higher level of performance, and by the 80s, professional cheerleading was growing. The increased physicality of the sport in this time led to creation of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches, dedicated to maintaining the safety of their athletes.

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