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1960s Cheerleaders: Rah! Rah! Rah!

Culture | June 5, 2018

ATHENS, GA - CIRCA 1960: Cheerleaders of the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team perform at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by University of Georgia/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Cheerleaders of the 1960s looked nothing like today’s pom-pom girls. While we are used to seeing tremendous tumbling skills, among some cleavage and short, tight skirts, in today’s cheerleaders, in the sixties, cheerleading was more about being pretty and popular than it was about being athletic. During the 1960s, cheerleading was a popular pseudo-sport for high school and junior high girls, but we will see that 1960s cheerleading was more about school spirit and synchronized clapping than it was about competition and athleticism.

Cheerleading Got Girls Involved in Football Games

Football has been around a lot longer than cheerleading, and when cheerleading first started, all the cheerleaders were men. Universities like Princeton, the University of Michigan, Minnesota, and Rutgers, all had informal groups of spirited young men that met at the front of the student section on game days to rally the fans and encourage the football players. Female cheerleaders weren’t allowed on the field until the late 1920s, but by the 1960s, nearly every high school, middle school, and college in the country female cheer squad … but only if they had a football team. Cheerleading and football have always gone hand in hand and schools looked at cheerleading as a way to get girls interested in supporting the football players.

Cheerleading Added a Girls’ “Sport”

Although Title IX didn’t go into effect until 1972, as early as the 1960s, people were decrying the inequalities among men’s and women’s high school and collegiate sports. There were simply more opportunities for young men to participate in sports, and more teams for them to join. Girls were limited to just a few options, such as volleyball and women’s basketball. Adding a cheerleading squad to the list of girls’ sports appeased parents.

Was Cheerleading an Actual “Sport” in the 1960s?

People love to debate whether cheerleading is a sport or not. If we define a sport by the competition aspect…the ability to win or lose…then cheerleading in the 1960s was probably not a sport. Instead of being serious, talented athletes, the cheerleaders were more like ambassadors of the school and representatives of the student body. Sixties cheerleaders were like the football teams fan club…making posters and decorating lockers and baking cookies for the team. During the game, they served as a connection between the fans and the players. With only a few exceptions, the only tumbling they did were simple cartwheels, and the stunting was limited to pyramids and shoulder sits. Today’s cheerleaders do complex tumbling passes, incredible jump sequences, and towering stunts. And they compete. Competitive cheerleading is going strong and will even have provisional recognition at the 2020 Olympic Games.

Cheerleaders’ Skirts Got Shorter as the Decade Wore On

At the start of the 60s, cheerleaders typically wore longer, full skirts that went down to just above their ankles. The wool skirts were mostly paired with a long-sleeved sweater with the school’s initials on it. The long skirts may have mimics the fashion of the day, but they were limiting and restricted movement. As the 1960s women’s fashions began to see shorter and shorter skirts, the cheerleading uniform followed suit. By the end of the decade, the cheerleaders wore short, pleated wool skirts with their sweaters. The shoes, for the most part, remained the same. Black and white saddle shoes remained popular cheerleading shoes throughout the sixties and seventies.

Cheerleaders are Motivators

The original job of the cheerleader was to motivate the fans to cheer for their team and to motivate the football players to beat the opponent. For high school sideline cheerleaders, that goal remains the same. Cheerleading evolved a lot during the 1960s and continues to change. Looking at the cheerleaders of the early 1960s, with their long, wool skirts, megaphones, and pom-poms, who would have guessed that cheerleading is poised to become an Olympic sport?

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.