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February 1, 2004

Every beat counts for deaf cheerleaders to bring it on

From: Contra Costa Times - Feb 1, 2004

By Lisa Fernandez

As the boom box blasts at a basketball game, 18-year-old Erin Ross, a senior at Fremont's California School for the Deaf, shakes her pompons, jumps and lands in splits.

No one in the stands can tell that she can't hear the music and is counting the beats to make sure she swings her hips in time to the song.

That is exactly what Ross wants. Cheerleading is her way of saying she is just like everyone else.

Ross and others in the deaf community want the world to know that not being able to hear does not mean they can't participate in mainstream life.

In Ross' case, she's chosen one of the most all-American activities: cheerleading. And her squad is competing with mainstream high-schoolers at the highest levels, heading to a national competition in March -- the first deaf cheerleading team to qualify for this prestigious event.

As a team sport, and a performance, somersaulting in front of a crowd can build leadership skills that are vital in adulthood, especially for those in a community that traditionally has been isolated.

"Most times hearing people look down on us, but this time my team's going to show off that we can do it," Ross wrote in an interview. "We can drive, we can laugh, we can travel, we can be governor, and mainly, we're not stupid."

The squad has talent, too.

The 13-person co-ed cheerleading team will compete in the biggest high school event on the West Coast -- the USA Spirit Nationals beginning March 19 in Anaheim. Last year, the event drew 7,000 competitors.

Did Ross' squad get the sympathy vote?

"Oh no!" said Rhonda Roberts, coordinator of the 19-year-old competition. "Every team that gets to the nationals deserves to be there. This is a huge, huge deal here on the West Coast."

The squad warmed up for the big day by hosting the all-deaf Western States Basketball Classic and Cheerleading Classic, a three-day event that ended Saturday.

Fremont has housed one of California's two state schools for the deaf since 1980; the other is in Riverside. The Fremont K-12 school draws its 450 students from all over Northern California. It has had a small cheerleading squad for several years, but when the team became co-ed two years ago, it grew.

On the surface, the deaf squad looks like a typical group of peppy teens. But there are some stark differences.

Ross and her squad are able to give the illusion that they are hearing the music because they are all counting the beats in their heads and watching the captain's nonverbal cues to jump, shake and clap. It reminds Ross, who was born deaf, of the jazz and tap classes she took with hearing children when she was young, before it became too frustrating to keep up.

"It was OK when she was 4 years old," said her mother, Karen Ross, who has hearing and is a nurse at Highland General Hospital in Oakland. "The kids and teacher did a lot of nonverbal things anyway. But as soon as they started talking, at maybe 8 or 9, Erin saw their mouths opening and closing and she felt left out, alienated. It was a very tough time for her."

Because they're each counting to themselves, deaf cheerleaders are sometimes just a hair off the musical beat. Music vibrations don't help: The thumps are too weak and the cheerleaders are too busy dancing to pay attention.

Watching deaf cheerleaders perform can be stunning for a hearing audience, especially when the squad spells out its team name. Soft grunts replace traditional battle cries and rebel yells. When they chant "G-O E-A-G-L-E-S!" the cheerleaders either spell out the words in American Sign Language or hold up orange and brown placards. The crowd, also silent, mimics back the chants.

Deaf cheerleaders proudly display exaggerated facial expressions -- a hallmark of the deaf community and an essential ingredient in showing spirit.

It is this spirit that Farrah Nolan, the squad's hearing coach, wants the students to cling to and use later in life.

"High school is where you find yourself," Nolan said. "That's especially important in the deaf community, which is so small. Cheerleading gives them an opportunity to be involved. Cheerleading helps them find out who they are and figure out what kind of person they want to be."

© 2004 Contra Costa Times and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.