Hofstra cheer redefines cheerleading with virtual routines

By Stephanie Banat

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, Hofstra University’s cheerleading team has had to adjust to a number of strange circumstances, as the team went an entire year without cheering on campus until their first in-person practice on March 19. Before that, they were all-virtual all the time.

After finally being approved to cheer on campus, however, the team had to discontinue in-person practices once again after only two practices because of a positive Covid-19 test within the program on March 22. Cheerleaders were then ordered by student health services to quarantine in their dorms and houses for 10 days.

Additionally, the 11 freshmen cheerleaders on the team were faced with extra challenging circumstances because of Covid-19. After spending their first six months on the team practicing on Zoom, freshmen were then unable to attend the first two in-person practices on March 19 and March 21, because they had been exposed to someone with Covid-19 in a freshmen class during the week prior. So they had to endure two quarantines instead of just one and, as of press time, had yet to come face-to-face with their teammates or cheer in Hofstra’s gym.

When they are able to practice, cheerleaders are required to show that they have a negative Covid-19 test result on file from that week, have their temperatures taken upon entry into the gym and fill out a survey in which they must state they have no Covid-19 symptoms. While practicing, they are required to wear masks and stay six feet apart at all times, except when stunting.

During the team’s year-long break from in-person practices, they still made a strong effort to continue practicing and taking part in other team activities virtually.

Cheerleaders and coaches met on Zoom twice a week for virtual practices. On Wednesdays, they would do intense core workouts, which included cardio, kickboxing and Pure Barre total-body workouts. On Fridays, they would practice their tumbling skills. They also had team bonding nights on Mondays, in which they played interactive games like trivia via Zoom to stay connected as a group.

“In addition to team workouts, we also did individual workouts twice a week and posted pictures of it in our team’s Facebook group each time to let our coaches and each other know that we did it,” senior cheerleader Annie Kambouras said. “We encourage each other to stay active and even to run a mile each week.”

Senior cheerleader Annie Kambouras landed a stunt in Hofstra’s gym. // Photo Courtesy of Hofstra Cheer Instagram

Kambouras went on to explain that without practicing in person, it has weakened the team’s stunting skills — as stunting can only be executed together in person. Stunting consists of group-building performances such as raising pyramids with two flyers on top of two bases. “Stunting is a major part of cheerleading,” Kambouras said, “so not being able to practice it has set back our progress.”

“Upperclassmen on the team also normally use practices to teach college stunting to the new freshmen because they are not familiar with it,” she continued, “but this year, obviously we couldn’t do that.”

Hofstra’s cheerleading team is now preparing for the 2021 College Cheerleading National Championship, or the UCA (Universal Cheerleaders Association) tournament, which will be held from April 27 to 28 at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.

While some college teams will attend the competition in person, Hofstra cheer will compete entirely virtually. This is, in part, due to the fact that New York State has placed more restrictions on college sports during the pandemic than other states have.

Competing virtually, however, presents different challenges for Hofstra’s cheer team. They are required to choreograph and record two routines: one that will test their qualification for the semi-final competition, and another that will test their qualification for the finals. The team has hired a videographer to help film these clips.

“This year is also different because for the first time we are competing in the championship as a co-ed team,” junior cheerleader Jessica Fleischer said. “We usually have a separate all-girls game day and a small co-ed division, and we create separate routines for each. Now, we have combined the two, since we have less time to practice . . . It’s better that we focus on one thing.”

 Cheerleaders practicing stunting in Hofstra’s gym. // Photo Courtesy of Hofstra Cheer Instagram

Junior cheerleader Grace Obregon also spoke about the challenges of having less time to practice for the championship.

“It definitely sets us back a bit,” she said, “because during a normal season, pre-corona, we would have pre-camp, we’d practice during the summer, then practice for fall fest, and then we would do intersession, which is when we’d get ready for nationals.”

“During intersession, we would practice for nationals for three hours, three times a day,” Obregon continued. “Now, we practice only twice a week, for one hour on Fridays and two hours on Sundays. We also have time limits on how long we can do stunting, since it requires us touching each other to lift people into the air. Whereas we used to do about 50 stunts back to back, now we do less than half of that.”

Freshman cheerleader Calista MacArthur spoke about not being able to attend her first-ever college cheerleading championship in person.

“As a high school cheerleader, the College Cheer Championship is something I’ve always watched videos of and looked forward to,” she said, “so the fact that my first championship will be virtual…with just us doing the routines alone in our gym and no crowds of fans… makes it a lot less exciting.”

When asked what the most frustrating part of not cheering in person is, MacArthur said it’s the fact that the team hasn’t progressed as much as some of the other college squads against whom they will compete, because those teams had more opportunities to practice in person.

“Our skill level is not what it should be at this point,” MacArthur said. “I guess because of New York guidelines we are a lot farther behind a lot of other cheer schools across the U.S in places like Florida, Kentucky, the Carolinas…They have been practicing in person this entire year and leveling up their skills…while we, on the other hand, only began to stunt literally last week.”

On the bright side, MacArthur predicted that it would be easier for Hofstra cheer to conduct team activities virtually in the upcoming years.

“Basically, this whole year was a test run of how cheerleading is going to work during the pandemic,” she said. “The incoming freshman next year are going to get more of a normal experience because we’re all going into this next year of the pandemic more ready…and at that point, the school will really know how to run cheerleading virtually.”