January 23, 1989 12:00 PM

The tension is building in the Dallas Convention Center. Officials are bustling about, while coaches nervously pace the floor. In the stands, the crowd of 6,000 is on edge, straining to catch sight of its favorite competitors. Injured combatants hobble on the sidelines, grimacing in pain and disappointment, their chance for glory shattered, at least for this year. And now, suddenly, it’s time for the cheerleaders to get the crowd going, heating up team spirit to a fever pitch—not for the football team this time, or for the basketball team, but for themselves. The cheerleaders, 4,700 of them, are in Dallas for their very own national championship.

It is an eardrum-popping, mind-numbing spectacle. For two days, from 7 A.M. to 9 P.M., the Convention Center is thumping with disco-rap music as teams from 400 high schools and junior highs in 30 states compete in eight divisions. Most teams have at least 10 members, some as many as 18. They dance, build pyramids and tumble a lot; indeed, they are as much gymnasts as simple cheerleaders, which accounts for the leg and arm braces on many contestants—and for the occasional set of crutches on the sidelines.

But cheerleading is more than just jumping and yelling, according to the event’s sponsor, Lawrence Herkimer, president of the National Cheerleaders Association and owner of a $25 million-a-year cheerleading supply company. “Cheerleading instills a lot of moral responsibility,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about these kids going out and getting on drugs or running around drinking. The girls are on pedestals, and once they get there, they don’t want to risk falling off.”

The girls (and the boys who make up 10 percent of the contestants) take the National Championships as seriously as the Olympics. “Everybody in school would just love you if you won,” says senior Julie Aberman of Las Vegas’ Nevada Valley High School.

Last year’s best large varsity team was Tulsa (Okla.) Union High School. This year, though, Tulsa Union senior Shanna Hughes isn’t optimistic. “Our chances are slim to none,” she says. For one thing, “our coach won’t let us do any dancing with our legs apart or anything that looks kind of, well, you know….”

Several teams have adopted a dancing style that is just a little kind of, well, you know, although Tulsa’s keep-it-clean approach doesn’t stop it from taking one of the most coveted awards: Senior Monica West is crowned Best Cheerleader.

The Notre Dame of cheerleading teams is Henry Clay High School of Lexington, Ky., which has won the large varsity title four of the past six years. Coach Donna Robinson sends her team of 15 girls onto the floor with a rousing round of high-fives. Once their performance is over, there’s another flurry of high-fives. After two days of splits and skits, squeals and giggles, the results are announced: Henry Clay has won again.

Back home in Lexington, a throng of admirers—along with four local TV crews—shows up at the airport to welcome the conquering heroines and shower them with roses. Coach Robinson is justifiably proud. “This is one of my most inexperienced teams,” she says, “but they got out there and clicked when they needed to. They pulled together as a team, and that is a great feeling.” Something, in fact, to cheer about.

—Michael Neill, and Anne Maier in Dallas

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