When I joined the Ticat cheerleading team, I thought of it as a logical extension of my past experience with competitive dance.
I attended six or seven venues each year, performing at least four dances per competition. From the time I was five until I was 18, Father's Day weekend in June meant a recital at either Mohawk College or Hamilton Place. It's funny that performing has led me back to Hamilton.
Before the season had started, I told my dad that game day would be just like those competitions and recitals. He laughed.
"There'll be a few more people at the Tiger-Cats games than there were at Mohawk College," he said.
"Well, how many more, do you think?" I asked him. "Double?"
A nervous feeling
As my dad continued to laugh, and perhaps wonder how I survive daily life with no concept of large quantities, I realized that I was about to feel very nervous.
It turns out that there are more than 10 times as many people watching the CFL games at Ivor Wynne Stadium than in the dark auditoriums I remembered. (20,874 is the largest count to date). And there were almost 10,000 more when we went to the Rogers Centre to beat the Argos.
Now, I'm not so naïve as to think that everyone in the crowd is constantly fixated on the cheerleaders as we stand at the sidelines, but Coach Lesley has emphasized that we should look as though they are. You never know when you'll be face to face with a cameraman looking for shining smiles and shaking poms. In a split second I could flash onto the Tigervision screen in the end zone, and staring off into space or fixing my hair wouldn't do much for the dumb cheerleader stereotype we're trying to avoid.
We spend the game rotating our squad from corner to corner each quarter. We stand at the edge of the field, poms on hips, one knee 'popped' (i.e. bent and on tip-toe) and watch the game. Since our Skechers aren't exactly known for their arch support, some of the girls get their feet taped. Our team physiotherapist is even looking into orthotics to better equip us for the three-hour games.
We change from this position only to dance, cheer, move for the TV camera cart, or fall to one knee when a player is injured. I like that Lesley doesn't want us dancing while players-even from the opposing team-are injured.
More than a few embarrassing moments
So while at the sidelines I divide my time between watching the game and listening for Linda, my squad captain, to call a cheer. And I really need to work on listening for Linda, because I've already embarrassed myself on more than one occasion.
My position is at the end of the squad closest to centre field rather than the end zone. So when I'm watching the game, I can't see the rest of my team. And depending on what's happening on the field, I can't hear Linda either.
The first mistake I made was striking up a conversation with the photographer standing next to me. As I made a joke about switching my poms for his camera, the rest of my squad kneeled down in light of the fallen Ticat player on the field. When I finally noticed, I dropped the wrong knee just in time for a cameraman to walk by, lens pointed at us. Luckily my mistake wasn't picked up on the giant Tigervision screen. But I have since vowed never to talk to handsome photographers.
At least my next embarrassment had more to do with the game itself. I was so engrossed in the play that I didn't notice a Winnipeg Blue Bomber running within two feet of my face. This is surprising as he was probably double my size and also because my fellow squad member Nikki later told me that she was yelling for me to get out of the way.
Finally, just to make sure everyone knew I was a rookie, I did a frighteningly spastic jump-and-squeal when I first saw Nick Setta kicking into his practice net out of the corner of my eye. I know it's unlikely that the football will break through the net and knock me out, but I can't seem to control the physical reaction. Even looking away doesn't help because I still hear the foot-on-football thud.
"Don't worry Erika, I was on the end last year and the ball will never hit you," said Andrea, trying to reassure me as I continued to wince.
I guess it's something to be learned from experience. Seven more home games and I bet I won't even flinch.