Where I’m from, cheerleading is a sport. All across the U.S. there are hundreds of thousands of cheerleaders ready to pep up and kick-start any event, starting from as young as around 5 years old. When we lived in San Diego, California and my daughter was six and seven she was a cheerleader for a Pop Warner football team, which consisted of little boys ages six to eight playing American football. During that time, she even competed once in a sports arena in front of 2,000 people and I can still picture her in her little uniform and pompoms cheering her little heart out as the equivalent of the team captain at the competition. She was damn cute and it was amazing to see how serious the sport was taken, even for girls as young as my daughter.
Cheerleaders aren’t commonplace in Spain, so for the past decade I had sort of forgotten about them. So you can imagine my surprise when I moved from Barcelona to Bangalore and discovered that cheerleaders and IPL cricket were like daal and rice – never without each other. How cool, I thought. Until I saw them. Although in normal cheerleading clothes, cheerleaders in India are generally anything but normal. And by normal I mean INDIAN. Except for a few rare occasions, Indian cheerleaders are not Indian at all, they are imported white girls! With a population of 1.2 billion people, presumably almost half of that number being women, why is India – the outsource king of the world – outsourcing a sport that they obviously like to watch and that makes them smile? My gut says it’s not because Indians can’t dance!
Now, to be perfectly honest, because I felt that they were only adding to the negative stereotype of white women in India, I was very anti-White Mischief for the better part of a year. That was until I saw them perform in person for the first time at this season’s first IPL RCB after-match party. When they came on stage I was judgmental and preparing to make fun of them to my mates. But then I realised that they were actually very sweet looking girls (yes, still sexy) and that they had just up’d the vibe of the party threefold with their peppy dance number.
A few days later I was chatting with an Indian buddy of mine about them and he was convinced that they were strippers and escorts brought here to cheer. Ho-ly COW! Seriously? I couldn’t believe my ears. I couldn’t believe he didn’t know the difference! If my sweet daughter keeps on dancing and cheering at university and later makes it onto the squad of a professional cricket team, would my friend seriously be thinking the same thing about her? To my ears, it was honestly crazy talk. It started me wondering, how many Indians actually believe that? And how could I help to shine a different light on these young women? I’d like people to see them for who they REALLY are inside instead of some made-up stereotype because they dance and wear a cheer uniform…so I went and had tea with them. These girls are smart, have huge hearts, warm personalities, volunteer their time to charity and can dance your socks off!
Melissa Burke is 26 years old and team captain. Born and raised her whole life in Cape Town, she’s studied dance since the age of five. She started with modern dance and learned quickly that she preferred to go it solo and not with a partner so she studied jazz and hip hop primarily as she grew up. After high school, Melissa went on to university to study psychology and organisational psychology and next year plans to return to complete her honours and start a career in child psychology because of her passion for helping the young. Melissa started cheering professionally back in 2006 with a pro-rugby team but it wasn’t until 2010 that she cheered in the world of cricket. She water skis, wake boards and last year took a course in meditation, which she continues to practice here in India – at first freaking out the other girls just a bit who’d walk in and unknowingly think something was wrong with Melissa, who appeared to be in a trance! “As team captain my top priority is keeping the girls together and safe. With everyone so far away from home, I want to make sure that everyone is happy.”
Nadine Theron is the youngest member of the team and quite a remarkable young woman. She speaks Afrikaans and comes from a small but very tight-knit family who hails from a town with a population of around 40,000 called Welkom in South Africa. At 20, she’s currently in her third year of college as a photography major, continuing her real-life photography experience here in India. With her equipment at hand everywhere she goes, Nadine told me that her favourite shot in India so far is of an older mother and daughter who started laughing as she snapped their photo and she treasures the shots because they hold so much character. At the age of four she started acrobatics training and is the only member of the RCB cheer team who does acrobatics, including front and back flips, to pump up the crowd at matches. Nadine holds her associate teachers certificate to teach acrobatics to children. “I come from a really small town where I live with my family and I want to see the world. This experience has been wonderful.”
Kaylé Koegelenberg is 22, from Windhoek, Namibia…the town where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pritt’s daughter was born. She’s lived in Cape Town for the past 13 years, has 2 brothers and 1 sister and speaks English, Afrikaans and Dutch. She’s been dancing since the age of five and has played so many sports, including hockey, that I couldn’t write them all down! After graduating with a degree in fashion design, Kaylé worked for three years at the South African equivalent to India’s Shoppers Stop but found that the cut-throat world of fashion in South Africa wasn’t her cup of tea. She’s now going back to her sporty roots and plans to be a group trainer and also teach children how to swim. This is her second year with White Mischief and says, “It was hard to get back to normal life in Cape Town last year and being back here again reminds me there really is more to life than the fast paced world we live in and I’m thankful for this experience.”
Daniella De Silva, AKA Danimal, is the team joker. She’s 21 and from Johannesburg but has being living in Cape Town for the past four years with her family. She’s a triplet along with her brother and sister but has a total of three brothers and two sisters with whom she Skypes and BBMs constantly. She started taking gymnastics classes at five and then modern dance classes at six, which she continued along with hip hop through high school. Although she studied and became a makeup artist and has won awards for it in South Africa, Daniella’s real passion is acting and she will stay back in India and move to Mumbai after IPL is done. She hopes to make it big in Bollywood one day and work alongside Shahrukh Khan. In Hindi, she’s learned to count up to 23 so far, and is picking up the language quite quickly with a zealous and fun passion for pronunciation! “India feels like my home away from home…and honestly I never want to go home to South Africa. Here I’m always happy to smile for the cameras.”
Back home most of the girls are involved in at least one, if not more, charity organisations. Melissa helps build new schools and improve the infrastructure in townships (slums) and hopes to work with premature babies as a kangaroo therapist. Kaylé believes in giving her time, not money, and donates her time to underprivileged children’s homes. She’s now going through orientation and background checks in order to spend MORE time with those kids teaching them to play hockey, although she admits that struggling to generate funds to buy one hockey stick for each kid is a challenge.
Here in India, although the girls do have official public relations obligations, one thing that touched me the most about them was the activities that they schedule into their own free time, away from the cameras and the limelight. In Kolkata they spent time at Mother Teresa’s Mother House charity where they all felt in awe of the impact she’s had on the world. They also visited and donated their own time to an orphanage, which they all said left a lasting impression on them and has touched them more than any other experience to date in India.
No one likes to be falsely labelled or judged. Sadly, I did it before I heard how ridiculous I must have sounded when I heard my buddy make his outlandish claims about women he’s never met. Thank goodness my “fight for the underdog” and “women’s equality” gene kicked in because if not I would have never spent a fun afternoon with Melissa, Nadine, Kaylé and Daniella – who for me were ambassadors for all of the white cheerleaders in India. These girls adore India, respect and are friends with the players and their wives and girlfriends, have a good head on their shoulders and dance their hearts out cheering for our one common goal – an IPL victory!