WILDWOOD Erin McGibbon has been a competitive cheerleader for two years, but this season, her father is finally enjoying the experience. Because now Mike McGibbon's daughter is on the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.
"Last year, she was a flier, and I was scared to death," he said Sunday over a pounding dance track from another squad's performance elsewhere in the Wildwoods Convention Center. "All I wanted to do was get her down. This year, she's a base. It's helping my anxieties."
Beside him, his wife, Ann, worked a curling iron, prepping 14-year-old Erin's hair for her next performance. It had to be straight for the first, curly for the second. They had just a few minutes to make the change.
At a cheerleading competition, things run on time.
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Wildwood, about a hundred cheerleading and dance teams took to the floor at the Cheer Tech Spirit National Championship. On Sunday, as a storm blanketed the beach with snow, a sea of metallic hair bows, iridescent eye makeup, and spandex uniforms glittered inside.
Performances lasted 21/2 minutes. Staffers had only a few moments after that to set the next track. Then another team bounced into place, making for a power-packed schedule of handsprings, hurkeys, and post-performance hugs.
"When I tell people that my daughter is a cheerleader, they think she has pom-poms and goes to football games," said Diane Mattessich of Hillsdale, N.J. "There are no pom-poms here."
Most teams came from the Philadelphia region, but some, like McGibbon's One United cheer squad from Mooresville, N.C., traveled hours for a chance to take the title in their division. Mike McGibbon said the sport takes more time and money than any other his three kids have played, including football, baseball, soccer, and lacrosse.
Many gyms charge upwards of $200 a month. Each competition can cost from $35 to $150 per member. Uniforms add up at $350 each.
"Here, this is a business. They have to pay the coaches," Mike McGibbon said, estimating he spends several thousand dollars a year on a gym membership, competition fees, and travel expenses.
At least one coach at the competition wasn't collecting a paycheck.
Marie Brown said the $50 a month she charges at her Cape May Courthouse gym doesn't stretch far.
Dana Ruffo, whose two daughters cheer for Brown, said the coach knows many parents in the seaside communities her Fantasy Xtreme gym serves work seasonal jobs and couldn't afford what other programs cost.
Brown, who formed the team about 15 years ago, organizes fund-raisers so her girls can pay competition fees by selling cookie dough, cheesecakes, or candles. She does the choreography herself rather than bringing in specialists. She rents space at a gym instead of owning her own.
Jennifer Morales, 29, cheered for Brown as a teenager before joining her as a coach. Now, her daughter is a part of the program. On Sunday, three of their youngest squads won first place.
Ariel Cooper, a member of Brown's senior team, wasn't happy with her own performance after falling during a tumble. This was only the first competition this season. They'll perform the same 21/2-minute routine a half-dozen times more.
"I'll watch the tape a lot. I'll see myself messing up," Cooper said. "And probably until the next competition I'll be thinking about it and wondering how I could get better."