I (Dirk) recently attended an event called the Sin City Classic; it is the world’s largest annual LGBTQI multi-sport tournament in the world. The Sin City Classic offers 20 different sports and brings out anywhere from 8000 to 10,000 athletes a year to compete in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the sports offered at the Sin City Classic is competitive cheerleading, spearheaded by an organization called the Pride Cheerleading Association or PCA. The PCA is an umbrella organization that supports cheerleading squads all over the United States of America who perform cheer routines and stunts in their local communities, especially at LGBTQI pride festivals, local sports events, and exhibition performances. What sets PCA apart are two important things, the first is its emphasis on inclusive cheerleading that invites adult volunteer athletes of all shapes, sizes, colors, national backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations to try out and become cheerleaders. The second, and the most important of all, is what the PCA calls “Charitable Cheerleading” in which the main mission of the PCA is to use cheerleading as a platform to raise money for local LGBTQI oriented charities within the communities that they are performing. To date, PCA squads have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars LGBTQI charities within their local communities. Thus, PCA’s participation at the Sin City Classic isn’t just about organizing a cheer competition, it also is about doing what cheerleaders do, attending other sports events to cheer on the athletes as and to raise money for a local LGBTQI charity.
With 13 member teams (and several more in development) all over the US, the Sin City Classic is one of only two regular events that brings the different PCA squads together to compete, but also to form a PCA wide squad of athletes to support the other sports at the Sin City Classic. With each athlete wearing their own team’s uniform when the PCA wide cheer squad comes together, it shows off the diversity of its membership. After my own sports competition at the Sin City Classic was cancelled this year due to Covid, I was invited by PCA’s marketing coordinator, Sara Toogood to join the PCA for the event and to document their journey. For this weekend, the PCA had two important missions, the first was to get on a bus with six different PCA squads, Cheer San Francisco, Cheer Los Angeles, Cheer Salt Lake, Cheer Portland, Cheer Seattle, and Cheer Tacoma where we would travel to four different sports tournaments at the Sin City Classic. Each stop’s goal was to show off some excellent cheer stunts, fundraise for a local Las Vegas charity called the Golden Rainbow which provides housing and emergency financial assistance for people living with HIV/AIDS, and to perform a 60 second cheer routine set to music, choreographed and taught by Colyn Fiendel-Milani of Cheer New York. The second was to join them for the cheer competition the next day at the Sin City Classic. This article focuses on my journey with PCA on what I call the “Cheer Bus”.
As I mentioned before the PCA is an umbrella organization who supports local cheer squads toward their mission of charitable cheerleading. The Sin City Classic is only one of two events that brings the different PCA squads together, the other being the quadrennial Gay Games. So, when I boarded the cheer bus, I learned that many of these PCA members had never met each other before today and that the 60 second routine they were to perform many times in the day, they had just learned only an hour prior. The thing about cheerleading, especially when it comes to stunts, is that while each cheerleader ensures that safety is always a #1 priority and works hard to train the proper skills to perform stunts safely, but when you are stunting with people you’ve only just met, it can certainly cause anxiety. Stunting is about knowing the people you are working with, learning to anticipate their actions, and trusting them to be there to literally catch you. So, as we rode the bus to our first sport, there was certainly a palpable anxiety in the air. The group, having just met that day, wasn’t’ quite a cohesive unit yet, they hadn’t performed this routine for a crowd yet, nor have they spent much time stunting together. We were all unsure of what to expect or how they would be received by the crowds we were about to visit.
The first sport of the day was womens+ softball, now softball is the foundation of the Sin City Classic as the multi-sport tournament originally began as a softball tournament. To this day, it is the most heavily attended sport (both mens and womens+ divisions combined), so the PCA Cheer Bus had quite a large audience right off the bat. Talk about pressure!
Now, the first step to quelling this anxiety was to warm up, as we got off the bus, the individual members started rehearsing their role in the routine, self-organizing into their stunt groups to practice the timing of each move and familiarize themselves with each other. A pep talk from the group leader helped remind everybody that the only expectations for today was to be safe and have fun. That it’s okay to make mistakes and the people will still enjoy seeing the performance. While the routine itself hadn’t quite fully come together yet, it helped to lay the foundation for the group as a whole to come together in a shared experience and channel that performance anxiety into what they came there to do. Now that they had the eyes and ears from the crowd, it was time to show of some stunt work and raise money for charity. PCA still had some warming up to do, not just for the physical performance but to start engaging with their audience socially to solicit donations as well. Performing in a cheer routine in front of so many people and then immediately go out and become socialable to solicit donations, it’s an introvert’s nightmare. But, as the athletes moved around the complex and showing off some stunts, it was clear the crowd was warming up to the PCA. As they performed stunts and cheers, the donations started coming in. When it was time for the first routine performance of the day, the music played and PCA became front and center for the next 60 seconds. Despite a few bumps in the routine, it came together, and the crowd offered a resounding applause. A few more donations into the buckets and then it was right back on the bus, we have a cheer schedule to keep!
As we made our way to the second sport, the athletes were really starting to relax, with the first sport out of the way, everybody had an idea of what to expect and started becoming more comfortable with each other. I had to scramble for my camera as the athletes took the brief rest on the bus to introduce themselves and share their own stories about how they became involved in PCA and what it means to them to be part of the organization. I found myself holding onto dear life as the bus sped down the highway, making sure I was able to capture the moments as they were happening. As each athlete shared their stories, many found PCA to be a place where they found acceptance and inclusion for who they are, that they could still be “cheerleaders” without having to reach unrealistic body proportions and that they could express themselves through cheerleading. For some athletes, joining PCA helped them escape toxic situations and to find the social support and strength they needed to take control of their lives and help heal past trauma. Of course, a big factor for joining PCA as well focused on the charitable cheerleading, being able to support their community and raise money for good causes. It was truly a powerful moment to hear everybody share their experiences and served as an important bonding tool for the group.
Our next stop was the kickball competition, and yes, it is the same kickball that probably traumatized you in elementary school. After the emotional bus ride over, the athletes came off the bus much more relaxed, they were laughing, chatting, dancing and ready to engage the crowd with some impressive stunt work to solicit donations. Now, the thing about each of these venues is that PCA would have to adapt to the event as it was happening and its location. So, there was no set schedule of when/where to perform, making the endeavor feel a bit more spontaneous. The 60 second routine still had some rough spots to iron out but building that trust and comfort from the first sport with the stunt groups and cohesion with the group as a whole had already started building the confidence in each athlete to perform well. The donations were quickly rolling in as people were finding themselves cheering the cheerleaders as they showed off some amazing stunts and cheers for the teams playing on the field. As the group set up for their second routine performance of the day, there were still a few spots to rehearse through and iron out, but the newfound cohesion and confidence with each athlete and the group helped to bring it together just a bit more. People were more relaxed and feeling comfortable with each other and the routine. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the bus again and we sped off to the next sport.
We were officially halfway through our cheer bus sports tour and the coffee was starting to wear off. It was nap time and the fatigue started to set in. A morning spent rehearsing, cheering, stunting, soliciting donations and performing will certainly make nap time a welcome respite. But no time for naps, we arrived at our third sport, Quidditch! And yes, it’s the same Quidditch from Harry Potter, albeit with a few medications for a more… realistic game. As we got off the bus, the first thing the athletes noticed is that the sport didn’t have quite as many spectators, hardly any as a matter of fact. The only spectators were teams that weren’t currently playing, but no matter, we were there to support the athletes. There was one spectator there however, who added a bit of pressure for PCA, a live stream of the competition where people could tune in on the internet and watch the games live. The thing about each of these sports is that PCA would need to size up the scene and adapt to each setting as we were there, waiting for teams to have a break or games to end before doing the routine, stunts, cheers or soliciting donations. Each stop was different, which is what made things fun and interesting. Now in a Quidditch game, there is a half time, but it only lasts for 60 seconds and PCA had just arrived a few minutes before halftime for the main game being played. PCA’s cheer routine was also exactly 60 seconds, and the question was raised could PCA perform their routine on a live broadcast during halftime? Guess we’re going to find out.
An anxious energy once again filled the air, but this energy was different. There was a much greater sense of comradery, confidence, and support for each other. After two performances down, each athlete knew what to do. This was an anxious energy of excitement and the extra pressure of running out onto the field and performing the routine for the camera then running off the field again. The thing is, we didn’t know exactly *when* halftime was going to occur, only that the field manager would shout “half time* and then it would be time to go. So, the entire group was anxiously watching the game, waiting for their moment to quickly take the field and perform. During this moment, some athletes focused on practicing the choreography, others were utilizing visualization to help them prepare while most eagerly watched the game. We were given a 5-minute warning and the nervous excitement of anticipation continued to grow.
With less than 60 seconds to go, all the athletes stood at the ready, I was there in between them and the field recording the whole moment on my camera, excited to capture the whole thing. HALFTIME! PCA goes running out there, excited, cheering, and confident to perform. Now was the moment to really give it all. It was self-expression at its best as the PCA athletes stormed the field, got into place and as the music hit, they were right into the routine, showing off the moves they’ve been practicing all day and giving us the best energy, we’ve seen so far. Before we could even process what was happening, the routine was done and PCA quickly rushed back off the field so the game could resume. The fatigue from the bus ride was gone and replaced with excitement, adrenaline, and fun! High fives and cheers all around as PCA took in the moment and celebrated their collective energy. Who would’ve thought having an unseen audience would be such a powerful motivator? Of course, PCA was there for charitable cheerleading, so the athletes took that energy and went right to work to solicit donations, visiting the other Quidditch fields to perform stunts and cheers Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the bus. Three out of four stops for the day were done and it was time to head to the last and biggest stop of the day.
As the bus made its way to our last stop of the day, our bus driver Annie, feeling inspired by PCA’s charitable cheerleading, took the time to share the story of her son who had passed away from HIV/AIDS and expressed how much PCA’s work meant to her. Prior to the day, Annie had never heard of PCA, but the bus company she drives for had and offered the use of the bus for a “deep discount” for our Cheer Bus adventure to support PCA’s charitable cheerleading. For Annie, the PCA’s work of raising money for Golden Rainbow, a charity committed to providing housing and emergency financial assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS, had a profound and personal impact on her. Annie shared with the athletes her story of having a son who had and ultimately succumbed to HIV/AIDS, she shared with us her journey in taking care of him and how much PCA’s work in supporting HIV/AIDS charities like Golden Rainbow meant to her. She donated some of her own money to support PCA’s cause and applauded the squad for the work that they do. It was at that moment that all of us on the bus, especially the PCA squad truly felt the impact of the work that they were doing. Despite starting off the morning as strangers, every single person on that bus truly came together as we understood the power and impact we were having. That every single PCA athlete was making a tremendous difference through the power of charitable cheerleading. All of the PCA athletes truly came together as a family, united by a common goal and a shared experience they will never forget. I can’t even properly describe how it felt in that moment, but it was truly inspiring.
As we arrived at the last stop, it was clear that before making our way to the fields, hugs and a photo with Annie came first. Annie sharing her story was the final motivational push the squad needed to get out there and reach the fundraising goals. They were going to need it too, for we arrived at the biggest sport of the entire Sin City Classic, Men’s Softball.
While womens+ softball earlier in the day had a big crowd, men’s softball is by far the most popular and well attended sport of the entire Sin City Classic. Even more so, we arrived right in the prime of the afternoon, when players had been playing and drinking beer all day. The time had come, to cheer for their lives. PCA hit the ground running with such energy, motivation and vigor, I could hardly keep up. Poms were shaking, people were flying, cheers were shouting, and money was flowing. PCA quickly found their audience as the softball players were LIVING for all this excitement as the athletes brought their spirit. Before we knew it, it came time for the final routine performance of the day. This was it. After countless run thoughts, warmups, team bonding moments and three performances, these athletes, who had started out the day as strangers united by name, now found themselves as family who had come together through a shared sense of purpose. They were truly a cohesive unit and there was no stopping them now. As each athlete took their place, the music hit, and everything just flowed. Everybody was living in the moment as the cheers and screams from the crowd invigorated the whole complex, every mark was hit, and every stunt performed flawlessly, every athlete performing was living in that moment and nothing else mattered PCA had entered a state of flow, not just as individuals but as a group.
All that nervous energy, fatigue and anxiety was gone, replaced by pure adrenaline and the sheer thrill of performance. At that moment, each athlete knew that this was the moment they were meant to be. That moment felt like it could have gone on forever, yet it was over in only a short moment. The music may have ended, but the excitement was high, and the crowd was cheering. More donations were rolling in, people were having fun and all the hard work of the day truly paid off. The PCA athletes on the Cheer Bus came from six different squads from around the country and represented true diversity with every letter of the LGBT community represented, people of different body types, racial backgrounds, religions, national origins, gender identities, sexual orientations and so much more. All of whom are now forever bonded by this experience and the impact that they have made on so many people in just one day, this was the power of charitable cheerleading. Diversity and inclusion at its finest.
It was time to head home, back to the hotel that is. As we boarded the bus one last time, the conversation was high, filled with laughing, sharing stories, and generally having a good time. The energy began to wind down as we made our way back to the hotel and upon arrival, PCA all gathered one more time to celebrate a successful day, filled with comradery, support and purpose that had a major impact on every person on that bus today, myself included. We all gathered around in a circle, one hand in and final words of support before coming together and shouting “PCA ROCKS!” It was a fitting end to a truly memorable adventure.
Check out my episode of Sport Psych n' Stuff that came out of this experience!
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.