The Holy City Has Cheerleaders - Minus the Sexiness

by Tanya Thomas on  April 22, 2010 at 10:17 AM Lifestyle News
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A dozen dancing girls hit the hardwood floors of a Jerusalem basketball court on a recent spring night with an unusual goal -- show nothing sexy.
 The Holy City Has Cheerleaders - Minus the Sexiness
The Holy City Has Cheerleaders - Minus the Sexiness

These are the Hapoel Jerusalem cheerleaders, and their defiantly flat performances are the result of a long-running saga that has spawned an unlikely alliance of Orthodox Jews and feminists taking on professional sports.

Critics want them off the court and the league will not cave in. The result is a sexless, covered-up performance.

The dispute highlights a frequent problem in the Jewish state, where the sensitivities of the religious minority clash with the more worldly views of the secular majority, particularly in Jerusalem with its large religious population.

The two worlds are now colliding on a basketball court.

Clad in footless white tights and tops resembling maternity frocks, the cheerleaders dutifully performed their time-out numbers.

They twirled and jumped, but there were none of the gyrating hips, flashes of thigh, glimpses of cleavage or smouldering looks commonly seen in the routines of more famous troupes like the Los Angeles Laker Girls, or even the sensuous dancers of local rivals, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The row has been on the backburner for more than a year since Israel's top basketball league decreed cheerleaders mandatory for every team.

Some clubs, like Hapoel Jerusalem, objected, saying cheerleaders would offend many of their fans who are observant Orthodox Jews.

The league responded with a 'have fun or else...' policy and imposed fines on teams who refused.

Things have come to a head in recent weeks as politicians of different hues have taken up the issue, in what the Israeli media have dubbed "the coalition against cheerleaders."

"It's a combination of two camps that are often hostile to each other, the religious and the feminists," said lawmaker Uri Orbach of the religious Jewish Home party.

Orbach, who petitioned Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat, says he has nothing against cheerleaders in general, but is opposed to fining clubs that don't want them.

"The reasons are religious ones -- the (lack of) modesty bothers many of the fans. When they go to a basketball game, they don't want to see girls in minis dancing," he said.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, women are required to dress modestly, covering up their arms to their wrists and legs to the ankles. They also refrain from wearing trousers or tight clothing.

But Orbach also cited feminist reasons for joining the 19 women's groups that appealed to Livnat.

"In my eyes, it is chauvinistic that a crowd of mostly men needs to pass the time-outs watching young girls dancing and shaking. That seems pretty repulsive to me," he said.

At a recent game in Jerusalem, most fans sat impassively as the troupe performed. There were no jeers or catcalls, but many said they would prefer a cheerleader-free environment.

"It is not right that the league administration forces the club to use things that cause unpleasantness for much of the crowd. It is an embarrassment and outrageous," said 19-year-old fan Avishai Slonim.

The cheerleaders say they understand the sensitivities and try to adapt.

"That's why the girls are dressed in long tights, with hair gathered. Their appearance is very respectable. Their movements don't project any sort of sexuality," said Yael Brainess, their trainer and choreographer.

"They do lots of acrobatics and create energy, not through feminine movements, but more through strength," she said, adding that they have received positive feedback from the fans.

However, some say the restricted performances do a disservice to the sport of cheerleading.

"It's a bit primitive for God's sake," said Anna Tarasova, a former Jerusalem cheerleading coach and now head of the Tel Aviv dancers. "The girls need to dance and give a good show."

Following the petitions, Livnat appealed to the league, which agreed to do away with the fines, replacing them with financial incentives for teams that do use cheerleaders.

"She did it from the feminist side of things. She told them it was unacceptable to have fines and girls under the age of 16 performing," said Livnat's spokesman, Ran Lior.

And it appears that the undisclosed bonuses for clubs using cheerleaders was enough to entice Hapoel Jerusalem to maintain their troupe, even though they publicly disavow any connection.

"They are the cheerleaders of the (league) administration. The moment they stop sending them, we won't have them," said Hapoel spokesman Dan Shoshani.

But that will not be happening any time soon, according to league spokesman Hagai Segal, who played down Hapoel's objections, saying it was now voluntary.

"We send them and if they have them, it's a sign that they want them," said Segal, who also brushed off concerns from religious fans.

"In life there are always things you don't like. I don't like it when the fans chant: 'War, war, war,' but what can you do? You can't please every one," he said.

And so it seems Jerusalem's cheerleaders, unloved, unwanted and definitely not sexy, are here to stay.

Source: AFP

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