The archetype of a cheerleader is frequently criticized and even mocked. When I told my friends I had joined the Tiger-Cats squad, many asked me if I was going to "like, start talking like this, like oh-my-God!" But the language of cheerleading is far from such a simplistic stereotype. And after embarrassing myself with my lack of knowledge, I have since learned some new terms.
Our first scheduled appearance was at the Hamilton Convention Centre for an event called State of the Franchise. We would be performing our dance routine for a crowd made up of people from the Ticat head office, a few players, and the season ticket holders.
I hadn't danced in front of an audience for six years. Everyone kept asking if I was excited for the first event and I would smile and nod my head. Little did they know, I lay in bed awake at night listening to the Janet Jackson song we dance to and repeatedly marking out the routine in my head.
During the practice before the performance we went over the details of lining up to enter and then exit the stage. When the dance was finished, coach Lesley told us that we should "cheer out."
I thought about the phrase, and thought about movies with cheerleaders in them. I concluded that 'cheering out' meant waving our pom-poms around and screaming "woo" loudly into the crowd. I figured none of my teammates were doing it in practice because it was just a rehearsal. After some hesitation, I decided I'd better make sure.
I raised my hand and asked Lesley if my interpretation of cheering out-the wave/woo combination-was correct. The room erupted into laughter.
The first problem was that cheering out in no way meant that we should be yelling. There was particularly loud laughter at my suggestion of yelling "woo." Cheering out just means waving and smiling at the fans. Had I not asked this question, I imagine the other 19 girls would have been quite surprised-if not alarmed-to hear me screaming from centre stage.
The second correction was that I had called them pom-poms when Lesley and all the veteran girls refer to them simply as 'poms.'
I've since learned that the full name is correctly spelled pom-pons. A little known fact, from what I understand, and one that I intend to spread. Although the two spellings are commonly used interchangeably, pom-poms are actually automatic quick-firing guns, and that would make for a different kind of football game indeed.
We have also been instructed not to let children play with our poms, and we are strongly advised against lending our poms-and the accompanying uniform-out for Halloween. Instead, the black and gold tufts of iridescent plastic stay in their drawstring bag until needed on game day.
So once I knew how to cheer out with my poms, it was time to learn the words to the Tiger-Cats best-loved cheer: 'Oskee.'
When I first told my friend James that I was a
'Oskee Wee Wee
Oskee Wa Wa
Tigers...eat 'em raw!'
Ticat cheerleader, he replied to my message with the words of the Oskee cheer and a reference to "the man, the myth, the legend Pigskin Pete." Having never attended a game, I assumed the nonsensical e-mail was the consequence of one too many drinks at the bar, and racked my brain for a mutual friend named Pete who played football.
Of course, I now know that Pigskin Pete is the pseudo-mascot who chants Oskee with the help of his black bowler hat in place of poms.
And despite the fact that the cheer itself contains sounds so absurd that my dad doubled over in laughter the first time I rehearsed in front of him, it's amazing to see the meaning it carries for the Hamilton fans.
After all, the cheer has been used for over 60 years, before the Tigers and the Wildcats combined into one club. The Tiger-Cats have since won eight Grey Cups, and the fans remain faithful and hopeful that the title will once again be theirs.
The Oskee Wee Wee cheer is such an emblem of Hamilton's spirit that it lends its name to an 11-minute documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The film focuses on Hamilton's 1967 Grey Cup win against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but has more to do with the feverish reaction of the fans.
It's amazing to see the stands full of people decked head to toe in black and gold, synchronized in speech and motion as the Oskee cheer starts up. It's so basic, so silly when you only read the words. But from the sideline, I realized that we, as cheerleaders, have the power to animate a crowd of thousands with a 10-second chant. And it aroused an excitement I didn't expect to feel on the football field.
Just another bit of my education to the life of a cheerleader.
Erika Tucker is a member of the 2008 Hamilton Tiger-Cats cheerleaders. Although it's her first year with the CFL, she has been dancing for the last 18 years. Trained in both Royal Academy of Dance and Russian Vaganova ballet, Erika has competed in jazz, lyrical and musical theatre around North America. A graduate of McGill University and Sheridan College, her blog will appear here on a weekly basis.