England have taken by storm an infectious sport which is part of American culture. Andrew Tong reports...

MAGIC KINGDOM The Hillstars dazzle in the parade at Disneyland Paris

IT’S hard to put a finger on what cheerleading consists of. Is it a sport, or is it a show? It’s a form of dance, but it’s gymnastics too.

It requires strength and stamina, but also agility, coordination, perfect timing and close teamwork – and acrobatic ‘stunt’ skills.

And it is not even remotely about girls providing touchline frivolity for the rough and tough male athletes according to the American model. It is now recognised as a sport in its own right.

Hillview in Tonbridge, a performing arts academy school, is an ideal place to nurture this complex performance. Since they began in 2012, the pupils have excelled – and become very enthused.

Some 200 pupils applied to take the ‘cheer’ course last year, but there were only enough places for 100 – an impressive number in itself.

The driving force behind the cheerleading is Tayla Petrie, a PE teacher who arrived in 2012 and immediately set up a programme.

In March two Hillstars squads went to Disneyland in Paris to compete against other European teams who were not based in schools, and took second and third place in their categories.

Tayla says: “Our two squads were up against gymnastics and dance teams, not schools, and they train every day of the week.”

“On the way out I told them to just enjoy the experience but they did brilliantly and they were ecstatic afterwards. The girls had a fabulous weekend and can’t wait to go back already.”

The performers had breakfast with the Disney characters before taking part in a parade through the park in the shadow of the iconic castle.

HIGH ACHIEVERS The cheer squad perform at Hillview as part of a fundraiser for Cancer Research UK

Last month the Hillstars were on top form at the National Schools Championship in Telford, where all three teams took part along with a stunt group. They amassed two first places, third and fourth.

Tayla says cheer is a growing phenomenon in the UK. “It’s becoming absolutely huge,” she says. “Team England won the all-girl division and the para-cheer at the Worlds in Florida last month.”

Cheerleading now receives funding from the International Olympic Committee – the first step to featuring as a sport in the Olympic Games.

Tayla, 26, is certainly an expert in the field, as she explains: “I did my dissertation at Brighton -University on why cheerleading should be part of the national curriculum.”

When she arrived at Hillview, she saw a great -opportunity. “They had never done it here before I arrived in 2012 and I was very passionate about trying it with the children.”

‘You need strength, stamina, coordination and resilience’

It is an ideal activity for a school environment because, perhaps unlike the impression given by US mythology where cheerleaders are all Barbie dolls, it can offer something for everyone.

“It’s very inclusive and it suits all shapes and sizes,” says Tayla. “Some of them wouldn’t think of being part of another PE club.”

The ‘flyers’ are small and light, and they need big, strong girls to hold them up and launch them.

“It’s definitely really healthy, very physically active. You need strength, stamina and coordination – and resilience is very big too,” says Tayla.

“It’s good for learning about teamwork too, because they have to get their timing right went they are throwing each other up in the air.

“Everyone gets on really well, and you see Sixth Formers going to lunch with first-year girls.

“Every day in the sports hall there are 40 or 50 girls practising at lunchtime to try to get in the team. It’s an infectious bug.

Pupil Louisa Heller has become a huge fan of cheer and spends her lunchtimes practising too.

GIVE US A LIFT Louisa Heller says cheerleading gives her confidence

“I really enjoy it,” says the 12-year-old. “I like all the sections; the introduction, the baskets, the stunt jumps, tumblers, pyramid and dance.

“It’s very good for your confidence,” she adds. “You have to have a lot of energy. It’s very energetic, like when you’re at the front and you have to run all the way to the back in a count of eight.

“It’s really good for team work too. The flyer has got to trust all the bases to hold them up, -especially with an extension.”

The routines require high levels of concentration and focus. “There is a lot to think about,” says Louisa. “In the stunts you have to dip and throw at the right count. If one person gets the count wrong then the whole thing goes wrong.”

And perhaps surprisingly, it can be a rough sport too. “You’ve got to be tough, you can easily get punched in the face,” says Tayla.

Louisa agrees: “I got really badly hit in the face once. You chuck them and they spin around and kick you in the head.”

But the girls’ enthusiasm cannot be knocked by a touch of danger. It takes a lot more than that to knock the Hillstars off their lofty perch.