BY Raveena Sagantiyoc & Conor Tomalty

Abril Moreno has been cheerleading since 2011, and instantly fell in love with the sport.

“I immediately felt very welcomed. They made it very clear that the audition process wasn’t like the movies, like Bring it on, and that everyone would be on the team. It was more about figuring out our skill level in terms of fitness,” she says.

Even though Moreno was one of the few women of colour auditioning for the team, she found that the coaches prioritized athleticism rather than race.

wide shot of a cheerleading practice

Wide shot of a cheerleading practice. Photo by Raveena Sagantiyoc.

“My first day of cheer was very brutal. I worked my body so hard that my muscles were sore at the end of the day. But even though it was intense, I loved every second of it. It was the first time I had ever pushed so hard physically, and it felt amazing to be in control of my body and see what I was capable of,” she says.

After many years of cheerleading, Moreno started to understand what it means to be a woman of colour in the sport. Coming from a single-parent household and residing in areas designated for underprivileged families, she had to cover all expenses herself.

“When a Black girl joined the team, she told me she would not be able to continue next year because she could not afford it. That’s when I realized I wasn’t the only one with financial issues. It was almost relieving. Thinking about it, most of the cheerleaders’ parents helped them with money, and it was interesting that they were all white,” says Moreno.

Close up of Abril Moreno warming up before practice

Close up of Abril Moreno warming up before cheerleading practice. Photo by Raveena Sagantiyoc.

Moreno goes to university full-time, works a part time job and can only do cheerleading by working at the cheerleading gym four times a week, which covers only half of her expenses.

“It’s been really tough on my grades and my mental health. I’m working really hard just to keep doing cheerleading. It might seem like a small thing, but it means a lot to me. It’s upsetting that I might have to stop just because of money,” she says.

While Moreno struggles with money to keep cheerleading, Darlène Agbo faces a different problem.

Agbo has been cheerleading for most of her life and has been coaching cheerleaders in high school since 2018.

Cheerleaders wear the same outfits and style their hair and makeup the same way to promote unity and team cohesion, but the issue of hair can sometimes pose significant hurdles. Agbo recalls her own struggles with fitting in due to having a different hair type and skin tone than the rest of her teammates.

Close up of Abril Moreno tying up her hair

Abril Moreno tying up her hair. Photo by Raveena Sagantiyoc.

“I was self conscious because as much as I wanted to fit in, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do my hair the exact same way as the other athletes,” she says.

According to Agbo, there is a lack of support systems and resources specifically designated to help cheerleaders of colour who may face discrimination.

“Coaches and people in charge are the only people you can talk to when it comes to cheerleaders who might face discrimination,” she adds.

A brief overview of the history of cheerleading. Photo by Raveena Sagantiyoc.

Sports sociologist Michael Messner explains that cheerleading isn’t just about race but also about social divisions.

“Cheer in US high schools and colleges began in the early 20th century as a high-status activity exclusively for boys. In the pre-WWII years, you start to see some mixed boy-girl squads. In the post-WWII years and into the 1970s, cheer became an almost exclusively girl’s activity,” he says.

According to Messner, when football became seen as the top sport for boys in high schools, cheerleading becomes the top choice for girls, especially white girls. Even as schools became more diverse, the cheerleading squad stayed mostly white, blonde and female.

“Cheerleaders are still almost exclusively girls, at the high school I studied, 98% were girls over the past five years; at a school that’s now only 20% white, they are still disproportionately white girls. Nationally, in 2023, 97% of the 153,820 U.S. high schoolers in “competitive spirit” were girls,” he says.

Cheerleading is still seen as a prestigious activity for girls, but it’s changed since the mid-20th century according to Messner. Now, it’s more about athleticism and competition, and it’s often something privileged girls do to build their college applications.

Harold Etienne at Ontario Cheerleading Federation (OCF) says that they don’t really deal with issues of race. They primarily focus on the organization, regulation, and promotion of cheerleading activities within Ontario.

“It’s definitely an important issue to address but those issues don’t get brought up to our level. If any cheerleaders were mistreated by our staff, we would make sure it’s reported to the right person to handle it,” Etienne says.

If someone experiences racial discrimination in cheerleading, they have the option to report it to officials, and in some cases, they may need to file a formal complaint. People of colour might be scared to speak up because they worry they won’t be listened to and that the system won’t fix the problem or stop it from happening again.

People facing racial discrimination in cheerleading often have limited avenues for seeking help or support. This means that they may have to rely solely on their coach for help.

A look into the importance of Queer spaces in sports. Video by Conor Tomalty.

Kaitlyn Greene, a faculty advisor for several cheerleading teams, acknowledges that cheerleading has been historically predominantly white and female, but is always trying to find ways to recruit people from various backgrounds.

“I am dedicated to make cheerleading for everyone. I reach out to different communities, partner up with schools, and help with training staff to be inclusive. We want every athlete to feel like they belong and are valued here,” she says.

Greene also understands that equipment and finances can be a big issue in joining the sport. This includes uniforms, practice spaces, and even travel and hotel expenses during competitions.

“In Montreal, they don’t offer cheerleading scholarships like they do in the U.S. If they did, it might help talented people from low-income families to join,” Greene adds.

As a Black woman in cheerleading, Agbo has had her own hurdles to fight through. Now as a coach, she’s able to use that experience to help the younger cheerleaders avoid feeling left out and self conscious because of their race.

“Now that I know what works for my skin tone and my hair texture, I can see the athletes I coach struggle the same way I did,” Agbo says

By teaching them how to style their hair for competitions and providing makeup that matches their skin tone, she empowers them to feel confident and comfortable in their own skin. Through her guidance and mentorship, Agbo strives to create a more inclusive and supportive environment within the cheerleading community.

Abril Moreno putting her ankle brace

Abril Moreno putting her ankle brace. Photo by Raveena Sagantiyoc.

Agbo and Moreno’s experience exemplifies the many challenges people of colour in cheerleading face.

“If cheerleading were more financially accessible, people from different backgrounds could participate fully without having to worry about leaving something they love behind,” says Moreno.

Addressing these affordability issues can help prevent talented cheerleaders like Moreno from being forced to quit because of the lack of finances.

“For the most part, I had a positive experience but I wish I could say the same for other black athletes,” says Agbo.

While she acknowledges her experience was not easy, she was able to find positivity in those challenges that other Black athletes still currently fight through.

Main image by Raveena Sagantiyoc.
Published May 10, 2024.