Who You Calling Cheerleader?

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One recent Saturday on Staten Island, Brooke Winkler surveyed the pack of teenage girls before her with an expression of barely suppressed fury. Just 20 minutes before the start of its game against Morrisania Educational Campus, from the Bronx, the Susan E. Wagner High School stunt team was fumbling its way through practice. The girls’ landings teetered, their timing lagged and one flier couldn’t seem to maintain her balance. And then there was the matter of congeniality.

“I need you all to smile!” barked Ms. Winkler, 27, a team coach and a math teacher at Wagner. “You look like you want to die out there!”

The girls had every reason to smile. The Wagner Falcons of Staten Island are the reigning city champions of stunt, an increasingly popular variant of cheerleading that focuses on its technical and athletic components. Introduced by the Public Schools Athletic League in 2014, stunt is less rah-rah and more basket tosses.

With a 9-1 record this season, the Falcons are tied for second place heading into the playoffs in early June, where seven other teams will compete for the title. Yet even as the Falcons perfect their form with daily two-hour practices and a pair of games each weekend, their most trying contest revolves around legitimacy.

“When we walk through the hallways, people always tease us that stunt isn’t a real sport,” said Crystal Knapp, 16, a sophomore on the team. “But look at us — we’re athletes. We work hard.”

High school wiseguys are hardly their only detractors. In spring 2014, the N.C.A.A. Committee on Women’s Athletics denied stunt a bid for consideration as an “emerging sport.” Around the same time, competitive cheer, not to be confused with stunt, was deemed an “official high school sport” by the State Board of Regents.

Although stunt has yet to receive the same status, a committee met last month to evaluate its potential for the 2017-18 season, said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. And when the stunt program began in New York City two years ago, it gained more traction.

The program has grown to approximately 470 participants playing on 33 teams, from 120 participants in 2014, said Donald Douglas, the Public Schools Athletic League’s executive director.

Stunt competitions unfold with no less seriousness than high school basketball games. Teams perform identical predetermined routines, “so you can see who’s more perfect,” Ms. Winkler said. The arrangement is meant to enable more objective scoring, but it carries the daunting consequence of exposing any minute flaw.

Wagner was forced to confront a blemish of its own in the opening routine of its game against Morrisania, when one girl stumbled out of the wobbling arms of a teammate. It proved to be Wagner’s only blunder. For the rest of the game, their tosses were precise, their tumbling synchronized and their pyramids as exquisitely constructed as any in the sands of Giza. Even as their eyes betrayed their nerves, the girls kept grins plastered across their faces.

The playlist for the contest was a collection of mostly retro techno music selected for its adherence to the sport’s eight-count rhythm and, it would seem, the ability to induce mass frenzy. At one point, a remix of “Rock and Roll All Nite” transitioned into a remix of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” which transitioned into a remix of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” A more contemporary song that brusquely commands listeners to “Shut Up and Dance” played no fewer than two dozen times.

“I’ve learned to block out the music,” said Martyna Kulikowski, the team’s captain, “but that doesn’t mean I like it.”

With women’s sports on the rise, cheerleading has grown crowded with a variety of iterations all vying for accreditation, among them game day, spirit and stunt. Advocates hope Title IX privileges are in the future. Though the athletic league technically considers stunt a coed sport, only a few teams include boys. The Wagner team is entirely female.

“In cheer, you’re rooting for someone else, usually boys,” Ms. Kulikowski said. “In stunt, everyone else cheers for us.”

Sprawled across the stands between games, the Falcons allowed themselves a few moments to unwind, snacking on doughnuts and chatting. “Being a teenage girl is stressful, and stunt is a sort of escape for a lot of them,” Ms. Winkler said.

Wagner’s second competition of the day proceeded smoothly, as the Falcons defeated Stuyvesant High School, from Manhattan, without losing a single routine. Still, some of the team’s most ardent supporters struggled to watch the action.

“This is the hardest part of my week,” said Natasha Dunn, whose daughter Kayla is a junior on the Falcons.

Even as she kept her iPhone camera steadily trained on her daughter, Ms. Dunn winced at the sight of Kayla being tossed in the air like a mound of pizza dough. Her concerns were understandable. Nearly two-thirds of all catastrophic injuries in female youth sports occur in cheerleading, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wagner has avoided any major disasters, but the team has not been immune to stunt’s dangers. Last season, one girl’s teeth went through her upper lip after she was elbowed in the face. Another girl broke her pinkie finger. Both were back at practice the next day.

“It’s not just bows and pompoms, these girls are tough,” Ms. Winkler said. “Stunt breaks so many gender stereotypes, and I love that.”

EMAIL: fitcity@nytimes.com


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