There’s a buzz at Panache dance studios, in Dudley Hill, Bradford as the team of cheerleaders get ready for their weekly dance rehearsal.
But this is no ordinary cheerleading squad.
All the members of The Jewels have learning disabilities and they have qualified for the Future Cheer 2014 championships at Euro Disney. They now need to raise £20,000 to fund the cost of travelling to the competition.
The Jewels, who range in age from 20 to 59, are supported by the national learning disability charity, Hft. Started as an exercise class for people with learning disabilities three years ago by Bradford District Care Trust, the team has gone on to win national and international acclaim in the cheerleading world.
Project manager, Glenn Stocks says: “The team is open to absolutely everybody, it’s an eclectic mix of people and I think that’s what makes them very unique really. It doesn’t matter what your learning disability or physical disability is, if you enjoy cheerleading, you can take part and are welcome to join the team.”
There are 16 men and women in the squad and 16 support staff. All will travel to France to take part in the championships in March.
“We’ve got a lady that has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She’s supported to move around by a support worker who will hold the pom-poms,” says Glenn. “At the end of the competition, the team of athletes will form a small pyramid and uncouple the straps on her wheelchair and lift her up and she will appear at the top of the pyramid, which is a bit of a show-stopper.”
The Jewels are certainly no strangers to competitions. For a group that only started in 2010, they have plenty of accolades under their glittery belts. They have won the last six consecutive competitions, including the World Championships in Florida in 2011. They were the only UK team with learning disabilities to compete in the USA championships two years ago. Winning gold is an impressive accolade for any cheerleading squad, but even more so for The Jewels as they had only been going for a year.
“We managed to fund-raise enough money to get the entire team there for a week. It wasn’t just about competing internationally and representing the UK,” says Glenn.“There were lots of firsts for people, the first time away, the first time on a plane. Some people had never even left Bradford before so it was an amazing trip.”
They then swept the board at the British Cheerleading Association’s Northern Classic last year, taking home first place in both the group and solo performances in the special needs category. They have also competed closer to home in Nottingham, Bournemouth and Blackpool.
They now have their eyes set on The Future Cheer championships in the spring and need to raise £20,000 to cover the cost of transport, accommodation, uniforms, medical care and one to one support for each performer to go to Paris.
“We made the commitment that we are not going to leave any team members behind,” says Glenn. “For people that are technically unemployed and on a low income it’s really difficult to be able to fund these activities so this is why we look for the good will and support of people making donations and pledges and all the hard work of the team to make it happen.”
The social side of feeling like part of a team is very important to many members of the squad.
“People with learning disabilities can be slightly isolated and don’t have many opportunities to meet friends socially,” he adds.
Hft run a range of support services in Bradford from leisure and learning to employment services and supports more than 2,500 people with learning disabilities across England. The charity’s staff volunteer their time for free to help at The Jewel’s weekly training sessions and competitions.
Cheerleading coach Robyn Morrison will be working out the routine. The former Neighbours and Home and Away actress, who also spent eight years as an undercover police officer for the Australian police force, is without doubt an expert in the field when it comes to cheerleading. Principal of Panache cheerleading school in Bradford, she is married to rugby league coach Glenn Morrison.
“When I entered the last competition in Blackpool, I took 400 cheerleaders and all the teams competed all day. When The Jewels came on there was a huge applause. Whenever they perform, everybody just stands and cheers for them. There are people crying in the audience.” Robyn, who has been coaching The Jewels for the last two years, says they are a joy to teach.
“It’s never going to be perfect but they always surprise me when they perform at competitions. They all love being there.”
Shelley Wilkinson’s daughter Elizabeth, 20, has been with the cheerleaders for about a year. “She loves it,” says Shelley.
Susan Boxall’s daughter Michelle Robertshaw, has been with The Jewels since the beginning.
“Michelle enjoys meeting up with all her friends, doing the dances and entering the competitions. We were fortunate enough to go the States and that was absolutely fantastic.
“There’s not a lot out there but this gives them exercise and they just love dancing and competing. She loves showing off and doesn’t seem to have any inhibitions.”
Michelle, 34, has a huge smile on her face as she circles her arms to demonstrate one of the routines in the performance.
“It’s perfect,” she says. “I love doing this.”
Crunch nears for online donations
The Jewels cheerleading squad are raising money to fund the trip to Paris in a variety of ways. They hope to raise £7,500 through an on-line appeal on the crowdfunder website.
They only have until Friday to reach their target, otherwise none of the money pledged will be paid.
The www.crowdfunder.co.uk/the-jewels-2014 website includes full details about making donations.
Volunteers are also organising various events, including a sky dive.
Cathy Spiers, 47, who is a senior support worker for another Hft arts project, Unique Voices, helps every week with The Jewels’ training sessions.
She will be jumping out of a plane in January with a target of raising £500.
She said: “I enjoy being part of the team, it’s about confidence building.
“It’s opened lots of doors for people.
“We are all very much part of the team, as we have to perform out there with them.”
To sponsor Cathy, visit www.justgiving.com/Cathy-Spiers1