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Traditional Thai cheerleading explained
Forget pompoms and acrobats. Cheering at Thailand’s two oldest universities is about movement, grace and singing
Think of cheerleaders, and maybe the first things that come to mind are pompoms, bare midriffs and drunken escapades with the quarterback underneath the bleachers.
But in Thailand, traditional cheerleading takes on a vastly different tone. The uniforms are still tight and the makeup plastered on, but for the most part this well-respected sport couldn’t be more different from its pyramid-building Western counterparts.
For Thais, cheerleading means just that. Leading cheers. There are no acrobats, no gymnastics, no pompoms and no stereotypes.
Some universities have adopted the fast-paced acrobatic-filled U.S.-style -- and are doing a fine job of it -- but the squads involved in traditional Thai cheerleading don't pull off grandstand stunts or handsprings or cradle catches or dismounts.
Instead it's all about stylized movements, singing and chants designed to elicit similar yells from the crowd.
To see how it's done, take a stroll around the campuses of the two oldest universities in Thailand: Chulalongkorn (CU) and Thammasat (TU).
Students from all disciplines become cheerleaders. Chula’s current squad includes a medical doctor among its litany of talent while Thammasat’s has an English Major.
“It's about tradition,” says one Chulalongkorn cheerleader, noting that cheerleading squads were first established to take part in the annual TU-CU football game, which takes place every February.
This year’s squad is the 30th to take the field. And the rivalry that simmers on the pitch and in the classroom also makes its way onto the sidelines.
The common perception among students is that Chula’s students are snobby, well to-do, and privileged while Thammasat students are a bunch of laid back, middle class hippies.
“Well, we are certainly more chilled than they are,” replies one TU cheerleader when asked about the rivalry.
In a separate interview a CU counterpart admits, “They are much more relaxed. While we have strict rules regarding behavior we see them hanging out after their practices.”
Taking a more diplomatic tone, a Thammasat squad member gives the dispute a technical riff: “Our style is more power based while Chula’s is more graceful.”
Rivalries aside, the cheerleaders seem to have different perceptions of "chilled" when compared with the rest of the world.
TU’s “relaxed” practices start after class at 5 p.m. and can run till midnight, every day for three months leading up to the annual TU-CU football match. Chula’s squad schedule is equally as demanding.
Both squads also have to attend a mandatory orientation getaway where they are locked up, literally, and have to endure a full week of repetitive gesticulations and chanting.
Usually this happens right after the final squad is selected. At both schools hundreds of students try out for just 12 places. Almost everyone from both teams echos similar sentiments when asked why they decided to try out.
“I wanted to prove something to myself.”
“I wanted to carry on tradition.”
“I wanted to be part of something bigger.”
At TU, the previous year's squad determines the process of selection with little outside influence from elders, while at CU the process is more complicated as befits their aristocratic stereotype.
Chulalongkorn’s selection process includes input from previous squad members, alumni and a bit of parental lobbying.
And while both teams don’t always see eye to eye and the selection process and attitude of each squad could not be any more different, the resulting experience is poignantly similar, says a CU cheerleader.
“After countless hours together where you sweat and cry and hurt, what we’ve become is one really close-knit family.”