WHAT do you do if you’re an athletic person who also likes performing? Do you go for a traditional sport or do you focus your energies on the performing arts? Well, you can have your cake and eat it too by opting for cheerleading, which is a mix of sports and performance.
Cheerleading, ...a sport? That notion does go against popular perception. When you think of cheerleaders, the image that’s often conjured up is that of American Football cheerleaders with their skimpy outfits and pom-poms. That is one form of cheerleading but there’s another type, which has all the elements of sports. And that’s what Jaymee Tan opted for as a teen.
“I had an active childhood doing ballet, swimming and even climbing trees but I also liked music and dancing. When I was 15, I tried out for cheerleading because it had all the elements I looked for in an activity,” recalls Tan. She went on to become captain of her school cheerleading team and later in university, represented the country in international competitions.
Today, Tan is the CEO of Cheer Aspirations, a cheerleading company that provides cheerleading coaching to over 30 schools. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. All signs pointed to her following in her father’s footsteps, working in the engineering field.
When the time came for her to go to university, Tan was still very much into cheerleading and toyed with the idea of studying performing arts. But she also liked physics and didn’t think there were any career options in cheerleading so she enrolled for a degree in Mechatronic Engineering.
It wasn’t long before she realised that engineering was not a profession she wanted to work in. However, she did like the idea of teaching so after graduating, instead of going into the workforce, she signed up to pursue a PhD to bolster her academic credentials.
Halfway through, a teammate from her competition days approached her to start a cheerleading company. It was a bold proposition but one she couldn’t resist. Instead of a PhD, she cut short her studies and settled for a Master’s degree in Engineering Design. She then proceeded to set up Cheer Aspirations with her former teammate.
A LIFE OF CHEER
It would seem like a waste of a Master’s degree to go into a completely different field but her parents gave their full blessings. “My parents saw that my passion for cheerleading was still burning strongly after all these years,” confides Tan, adding: “Besides, I already had my degrees to fall back on in case this venture failed, so they supported my decision to give this a shot.”
Cheerleading, adds Tan, has contributed significantly to her personal development in many ways. Perseverance is one of them. “The first year I captained my secondary school team, we got ninth place due to a technical mishap. The start of our music clip didn’t play properly so we missed our cue and had to rush to catch up,” she recalls.
Instead of despairing, Tan was spurred by the poor performance to do much better the next time around. So she stayed on as team captain and the very next year, her team achieved second place in the national secondary school championships.
Cheerleading also helped boost her self-confidence and taught her the value of teamwork. “The very first time I performed in front of an audience, I was doing my best to smile but I was clearly very nervous and uncomfortable,” she recalls. “After that experience, I taught myself to overcome stage fright and to always smile genuinely while performing.”
Cheerleading involves a high degree of teamwork. Says Tan: “If we don’t have good teamwork, we’ll not be able to build a strong pyramid and everyone will come tumbling down. Only with everyone properly playing their role can we build a solid pyramid and keep each other safe.”
Her teammate’s suggestion that they start a company came at the right time. Cheerleading had become popular in schools and a number of teams were looking for coaches. “At the time there was no company offering proper coaching,” recalls Tan, adding that many of her friends told her they would join her if she started a company. “We knew nothing about business back then, but we took a leap of faith, followed our hearts, and Cheer Aspirations was born!”
The business model they chose was to send coaches to schools rather than to build a centre or an academy. This approach was less capital-intensive and it allowed them to reach out to many schools throughout the Klang Valley.
Today Cheer Aspirations has a presence in about 30 schools. Some are private and international institutions such as Sri KDU, Alice Smith International School, Sunway International School and St Joseph International School. But it also provides coaching at government schools such as Catholic High School, SMK Seafield, SK Bukit Damansara, SK Convent Bukit Nanas and SJKC Puay Chai.
One school is particularly close to Tan’s heart: Sri Kuala Lumpur School, where she personally coached. “Sri Kuala Lumpur has been incredibly supportive in terms of funding the sport, providing a top-notch training gymnasium and getting the students and teachers on board,” she says.
“Cheerleading is big at Sri KL. It unites the school and gives them a strong sense of school spirit and pride. There’s even a supporters’ club for the cheerleading team.”
Not surprisingly, Sri KL has a winning team who are national champions. But it wasn’t always this way. When she first approached the school there were only about 20 girls in the team. Almost half of them quit once they were made aware of the commitment required. Instead of relaxing the training regime, Tan stuck to her convictions and pushed on with whoever stayed behind. Her dedication paid off.
“Before we started coaching in Sri KL, the cheerleading team was ranked about 30th in the national championships,” she recalls. Within one year, the team skyrocketed to first place, a position it has held for eight straight years.
IT’S A SPORT!
Although cheerleading is now more popular than ever before, nationwide it’s still a niche sport. Says Tan: “Whenever anyone mentions the word ‘cheerleader’, the common image is that of a bimbo wearing a sexy outfit. We work hard to shake off that perception.”
There are two types of cheerleaders, explains Tan. There’s the “American Football” type of cheerleaders with their skimpy outfits and dance routines. They typically do not do acrobatic stunts or take part in competitions.
Then there are the competitive cheerleaders, who do stunts like forming pyramids and being hurled into the air. “In Malaysia, we have mainly competitive cheerleading and not the dancing type.”
Still the sexy cheerleader image persists, as does the perception that cheerleading isn’t a proper sport although it’s recognised by the Global Association of International Sports Federations or GAISF (formerly known as SportsAccord), an umbrella organisation for all international sports federations.
GAISF defines a sport as having five key characteristics. It should have an element of competition; should not rely on luck; should be safe for participants; should not harm any living creatures; and should not rely on equipment provided by a single supplier. All in, there are 92 sports federations that are members of this body, which includes the International Cheer Union.
“It’s every bit a physically demanding sport as any,” says Tan. “Imagine carrying another person on top with just one hand or being thrown into the air, doing a flip and twist, before being caught by teammates on your way down. Do you know how much physical strength and coordination is needed to do things like that?”
EVERYONE CAN DO IT
While it’s true that most cheerleaders are students, it’s possible for non-students to take up cheerleading as there are all-star teams in Malaysia which takes on both students and working adults. Cheer Aspirations itself has such a team called CA Awesome All Stars.
There are lots of competitions domestically and internationally that teams can take part in. This year, there are national-level competitions being held in May, July and December. Cheer Aspirations will also be organising its own competition in November.
Top teams can compete internationally. There’s the Asia Cheerleading Invitational Championships in Singapore in March, the International Cheer Union World Cheerleading Championships in the US in April, and a number of competitions in the region like the Asian Cheerleading Championships and the Asia Open.
If getting students isn’t a problem, getting enough coaches is. This is largely because of the perception that coaching is not a serious career option. “Coaching is similar to teaching and is actually a very rewarding career choice.
“But Asian culture tends to value doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants. I still regularly have people asking me how cheerleading can be a business and how anyone can make a career out of it.”
Besides coaching, cheerleaders can also make some income through performances and there’s a growing demand for this. Cheer Aspirations has conducted performances for over 100 corporate clients including some big names like Nestle, Standard Chartered, YTL, Genting, Mary Kay and Coway. There are also requests for government ministry events and even royal events.
“We performed with 200 cheerleaders for the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup in 2013 and 2014, to an audience of 80,000 spectators,” recalls Tan, her voice laced with pride.
Cheerleading has been a big part of her life. It has taken her to many countries as a competitor and later, as a judge. She has also built a career around it and had even been invited to give a talk at TEDxYouth@KL about lessons she learnt as a pioneer cheerleader. These are all accomplishments she can be proud of.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Tan believes that she still has much to accomplish. She strongly believes that cheerleading is the way to equip our youths with the values and skills they need for the future — discipline, dedication and being a team player.
Concluding, Tan says: “If our future leaders had such qualities, I’d rest easy knowing our country will be in good hands. That’s why I’m committed to getting cheerleading into all the schools in Malaysia.”