Cheerleaders defend U.S. title 

Hips snapping, arms swinging, heads tossing, the San Francisco Police Activities League Seahawks Midget Cheer and Dance Squad is preparing to defend its national title from last year. Their music? Beyoncé’s "One Night Only." Their costumes? "Red velvet," choreographer Nitty Thomas said, "because red velvet is very fierce."

Competing against 45 teams today and only permitted to perform once during the Pop Warner National Cheer and Band Competition in Orlando, Fla., the 14 members of the PAL Seahawks Midget Cheer and Dance Squad will be judged on everything from their facial expressions to their technical mastery of dance.

"It takes a lot of hard work and practice to win Nationals," head coach Mona McCarthy said. "It’s the costumes, the music, the right attitude — it’s a combination of all those things. We try to make sure they enjoy the dance so they can have extra energy and be enthusiastic."

"It shows we can amount to something as young as we are," dancer Jazmen Gregory, 15, said. "You have to realize everybody’s different and has their own flavor and style," added teammate Raquel Kraft, 15. "You have to mix it all together but you also have to be yourself."

The PAL Seahawks Cheer and Dance Squad started 23 years ago as part of a larger city- and nationwide effort to get kids off the street, and has been a positive force for participants. "We compete against each other so we can get better individually," said Jalil Jackson, 15, the only boy on the team. When given a dance solo, with the rest of the Midgets dancing backup — partially because he was the only boy, partially because he was an emotive dancer — Jackson asked for a dance partner. He got Asia Butler, 15, and Thomas had them salsa. "I wanted others to have a solo, too," Jackson said.

"I used to be so stiff," dancer Julia Debartolo, 14, said. "It’s just changed me. I have more self-confidence, I’ve raised my grades — it’s changed my outlook. It’s like I have another family."

Although the Midgets don’t cut anyone from the team, eligibility requirements are strict. The dancers, from the Western Addition, must be between the ages of 12 and 16 and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. The season runs from Aug. 1 to Dec. 11 and the squad practices two hours, three times a week. There is also a three- to six-hour commitment to cheer for the football team every Sunday it plays. "We do expect them to excel," coach Karla Veal said. "We check in with them during the week and they have to follow through with their responsibilities outside of dance. It all creates a whole person."

The Seahawks Cheer and Dance Squad has competed in the national competition since 2000, when the dance division was first introduced. They have placed in the top five every year, including last year, when they won. Four coaches work with the Midgets: McCarthy, coaches Veal and Tsenari Perryman and choreographer Thomas.

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