When Maggie Feldman-Piltch ’14 started the Wesleyan Cheerleading Squad in December 2010, she expected the school to meet her team with the same enthusiasm she had for the idea. Though many students have apparently been receptive toward the idea of cheerleaders on campus, the team says it feels as though it is still working to acquire respect and recognition.
“We get negative feedback on any given day,” Feldman-Piltch said. “Unfortunately, a good chunk of that comes from the administration. There are some people who have been beyond supportive and helpful, but it has been difficult.”
Feldman-Piltch and her co-captain, Hope Kabel ’14, were quick to emphasize that other than an especially vocal minority, much of the student body has been receptive to the idea of a cheerleading squad.
“I’ve only received positive feedback from students that I’ve spoken with,” Kabel said. “I also get a lot of, ‘Wesleyan has cheerleaders?’”
Feldman-Piltch explained that those who object to the squad’s existence seem to do so based on preconceived notions of what it means to be a cheerleader, citing in particular an instance broken up by Public Safety at this year’s Homecoming football game. While the squad was leading cheers on the field, several male students and one recent alumnus stood behind the cheerleaders, heckling them and making inappropriate remarks about their bodies.
“People discriminate against us for fear that we will discriminate against them, and that’s not fair,” Feldman-Piltch said. “There are intelligent, capable, brilliant, incredibly committed, and determined young women on this team, and they deserve to be treated with a lot more respect than that.”
Vanessa Castello ’15, a member of the squad, added that any negativity expressed toward the squad does not seem consistent with Wesleyan’s generally accepting atmosphere.
“It does make me sad when I hear negative comments about cheerleading because one of the things I love about being at Wesleyan is that it is such a tolerant school,” Castello said. “I wouldn’t really expect people to be any less tolerant toward cheerleading than they would be toward any other club, activity, or sport.”
Feldman-Piltch named Head Football Coach Mike Whalen among the squad’s most helpful supporters, but emphasized the squad’s desire to remain independent, rather than reliant on any specific team.
“We’re very much aware of the reputation that cheerleaders and football teams have, but they have been so supportive of us that we want to return that favor,” Feldman-Piltch said. “We don’t want to overdo it because the cheerleaders exist for the cheerleaders, they do not exist for the football team or for anyone else. That’s why we want to compete—to prove that we’re self-sufficient.”
Feldman-Piltch expressed her belief that some of the negative attitudes toward the squad stem from a lack of understanding of the squad’s purpose: if they’re not going to compete, students wonder, then what’s the point?
“I would have a lot more respect for them if they competed and were a legitimate team,” said one female student, speaking under the condition of anonymity.
Unfortunately, competing on a varsity level is easier said than done. Without University funding, the squad cannot meet the basic safety requirements of varsity cheerleading organizations, such as the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) and the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA).
“If we attempted to compete or do stunts [without meeting those requirements] and another school then reported us, there would be a lifetime ban on the team and Wesleyan could lose its athletic insurance,” Feldman-Piltch said.
Whalen, who will replace current Director of Athletics John Biddiscombe next year, emphasized that while he supports the squad, its varsity status is out of his hands.
“It’s not a decision based on me; it’s something that has to be approved from the top on down,” Whalen said. “It’s certainly something that we’ll continue to look at and monitor the interest level of. We appreciate all their efforts, and if it’s something for which there is continued interest, we will continue to support those efforts.”
Though the team received funding from the Student Budget Committee last year, it was unable to secure funds for this year. Because the squad is neither a club nor a sport, finding alternate funding is a difficult task.
“We don’t have a practice space in Freeman, and we are paying for our own coach,” Feldman-Piltch said. “Our storage space is in the trunk of my car and under my bed. This is completely student-run.”
Cameron Couch ’13, Chair of the SBC, noted that the team’s difficulty in securing funding is not a unique situation: other groups, too, have faced similar difficulties.
“Over the course of the year, the SBC unfortunately has to ask many groups to seek funding from other sources, through personal contributions from group members or via fundraising,” Couch said. “Most groups choose to look for money in other places to add to the money that the SBC was able to give them.”
The team is hopeful that, in lieu of receiving University funding, it will find another way to compete at a varsity level.
“We are in the process of getting gym sponsorship,” Feldman-Piltch said. “We have grant applications out. We’re in almost constant contact with the state director for UCA and NCA. We would love not to need a gym sponsorship because that takes us away from the Wesleyan community, but we have plans A through F at this point.”
Though the squad has yet to acquire the funding that would allow it to train under the safety requirements necessary to compete at a varsity level, the team’s captains expect that cheerleaders take the sport as seriously as they would any other varsity sport. The team practices four times a week and members are expected to work out on their own for two hours every day. As with University-recognized varsity teams, squad athletes cannot play on any other team while cheerleading.
“It’s a challenge [to enforce that rule] because it is student run,” Feldman-Piltch said. “[Our independence] is important to us to keep, but support is also really important, and when you’re not getting any of that in any way, it’s really difficult.”
Whether through official University funding or outside sponsorship, the cheerleading squad is determined to continue growing and improving and hopes next year to gain a larger, more recognized presence at the University.
“If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that if you really care about something, don’t let someone else determine its success factor,” Feldman-Piltch said. “We’re going to find a way to make it work.”