Turns out there’s more to college cheerleading than just rah rah rah.
Throughout high school, Torgovnick had nothing but disdain for school spirit, blowing off every mandatory pep rally. Cheerleaders weren’t on her radar, until one of her classmates fell from a human pyramid, bled all over the gym floor and suffered a concussion. Suddenly, the rebellious writer-to-be thought the whole cheerleader thing was kinda interesting. Fast-forward a decade or so, when Torgovnick’s editor at Jane magazine assigned her a story on the rise of cheerleading-based injuries, and the reporter was sucked into a subculture whose members were more obsessive and competitive than she had ever imagined. A book on the college cheerleading scene was essential, she decided, so she followed cheerleaders and their squads at Stephen F. Austin University, Southern University and the University of Memphis through the trials and tribulations of tryouts, the 2006-07 football season and finally the NCAA Nationals competitions. Just as Stefan Fatsis did in Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (2001), Torgovnick strategically incorporates her subject’s history into the narrative, giving context and even a bit of gravitas to what otherwise could have come off as the print version of a reality show. Also like Fatsis, she finds value and even some charm in off-center, damaged individuals, such as Casi, the anchor for the human pyramid, or Mary, a gaunt former coke sniffer. By the time readers finish “The Cheerleader’s Dictionary,” which closes the book, they’ll have gained real appreciation for the sport—and yes, it is a sport.
One of the more successful pieces of narrative nonfiction this year, distinguished by Torgovnick’s impeccable ear and canny, original choice of subject matter.