San Francisco revels in its uniqueness. Last month it added another unique aspect: it just might be the only city on earth with officially designated cheerleaders, as voted by the Board of Supervisors.
Cheer San Francisco has been performing gymnastic feats since 1980. It didn’t begin in San Francisco, but down the Peninsula in Hayward, as an all-male gay organization. After performing just for fun at LGBT sporting events, the group realized its potential as a money generator for worthy groups. Now, 35 years later, they’ve doled out over $300,000, according to the group’s communications director, Nguyen Pham of San Francisco.
There are currently about 40 adult members. Most are well past the limber age traditionally associated with competitive gymnasts. And while it's still best known as a "gay group”, neither that designation nor the all-male description applies today; CheerSF has about as many female members as males and the number of straight participants is growing.
While performing at Pride Parades is still the highlight of their performance calendar, they’ve expanded well beyond them. Audiences have seen their routines at events sponsored by Macy’s and Goodwill, at street fairs, and at a Cal-Stanford game. They were even on the “America’s Got Talent” TV program in 2010.
Beneficiaries of their efforts include non-profits working in areas such as HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and foster care. The group’s whole purpose, says Salvador Tovar of San Francisco, “is just giving back.” And he’s quick to add that by helping others, he’s also helping himself.
He had a passion for gymnastics and cheer squad in high school, but says it wasn’t a socially acceptable pastime for boys at that time. Seeing CheerSF for the first time was a revelation for him.
“They were performing at the Castro Street Fair,” Tovar recalls. “And I saw them, the whimsicalness of people going in the air, and the cheerleading. And the crowds watching them! And I said, ‘Hmm, maybe this is my call to action. This is where I can go ahead and try to join a community of cheerleaders!”
He was accepted at the annual try-outs and now considers his teammates as family.
Part of a good family is trust, which is essential when you’re either being tossed and twirled high into the air, or you’re responsible for catching that person.
“They’re pretty trusting right away because they know the people who make it on this team,” says Belinda Lau of San Francisco. “You know, we prove ourselves to protect, and basically – yeah, to save them,” she says with a laugh.
Trust and protection are especially important with this group because of the unconventional locations where they perform. If it’s a conference room or a ballroom, as with many corporate events, the floor is probably carpeted, but there may also be a low ceiling with chandeliers. Outside -- at street fairs, marathons, and parades -- they compete with weather (good and bad) and unforgiving street pavements, not to mention overhead MUNI wires and over-enthusiastic spectators wanting to join in.
Lau has been with CheerSF a couple of years. When asked about the appeal of this particular group, she echoes Salvador Tovar: “I wanted to do more than performing at this point in my life. It’s not about competition. It’s about giving back to the community. And this seemed like the perfect way to combine all my interests.”
Annual try-outs for CheerSF are set for Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at Head Over Heels Athletic Arts in Emeryville. Check their website for more specifics.