Cheer, cheer for the All-Stars!

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By Jenna McKenna

Three nights a week - on winter nights when you can almost see your breath indoors, as well as on summer nights when every breath condenses in a river of sweat - you'll find the girls - and a few boys - in the steel building on U.S. Highway 27 in Williston, twisting and twirling, flipping and flying.

They come from Williston, Chiefland, Bronson and Cedar Key to Levy County All-Stars to learn the skills of competitive cheer. Part dance, part drill team, part tumbling, competitive cheer is a sport that combines the power and agility of a great running back with the grace and charm of a pageant winner. On this cold January night, the LCA peewees are practicing a routine that has to be perfect for their Feb. 10 performance at the Florida State Fair.

"Minis on a mission! Hey, Scooby - 5,6,7,8," calls head coach Tosha Beckham as 11 little girls and boys scurry to their assigned spots. Tiny Amanda Quintana is at the point of the formation, which is shaped like a rack of tenpins.

Running the kids through about four eight-counts, over and over and over, Tosha watches carefully to see how the kids balance, height- and skill-wise. She rearranges the triangle time after time, reassigning kids to new spots and re-running the eight-count.

Amazingly, the children, their ages ranging from about 4 to 9, don't seem to get confused, even though a new position means different cues and different rotations. Kids watch each other out of the corners of their eyes to make sure they don't miss their marks.

Once in a while, the rigor of keeping focus gets the better of one or two of the kids, and Tosha sends them off to run one or two laps of the room. They come back, panting and giggling, and return to their roles.

Gym owner Gigi Beckham says she founded the gym in 2001 as a way to help more girls harness their energy into competitive cheering, and improve the skill level of area cheer teams. After years coaching cheerleading at Bronson and Williston schools, she decided to broaden her offering to include all the kids in the area. In a way, it seems almost like a remembered obligation to her childhood self.

When Beckham was 13, she moved from the outskirts of the vast city of New Orleans to the tiny town of Cedar Key. She had been deeply into gymnastics during her upbringing in Louisiana, but rural North Florida was a much smaller place. There were no gymnastics classes in Cedar Key.

"I did cheerleading because it was the closest thing there was to gymnastics," she recalls, laughing. "Although some people didn't like the way I went about it. They told me, 'We're going to sew ruffles on your underpants, as much as you like showing them off!'"

A kindergarten teacher at Williston's Joyce Bullock Elementary, Beckham taught three of her daughters, Tosha, Katie and Haley, everything she knew about cheer and tumbling. Her own girls' experience and their own talents have been both a driving force and a compelling influence on how LCA operates.

Tosha, the eldest of those three, did cheer and dance for six years altogether at her alma mater Bronson Middle/High School. Although the dance and tumbling skills didn't come as easily to her as they did to her pinwheeling baby sister Haley, her unstoppable ambition and determination turned her into a smart flyer at first, a dependable base, second, and finally, an authoritative coach.

Gigi recalls taking Tosha to a cheer school in Ocala to get her caught up on skills before her freshman season started, but even that class was beyond her skill level.

"She cried through the whole class, and I told her on the way home that I'd never put her through that again," she recalls. "She told me, 'No, Mom. I'm going back there. But first, you're going to teach me.'"

Sisters Katie and Haley, several years younger, were lucky enough to grow up in the cheer academy atmosphere that ensued, so much so that Katie has portions of the USASF (U.S. All-Star Federation) regulations manual memorized and Haley throws front tucks like Steve Nash throws yo-yo passes.

With their combined skills and experience, they lead the team of juniors that roars into the practice area the instant the peewees clear out.

The juniors' routine is more complicated, with more difficult tumbling and stunting allowed. A big graduation last year means the juniors are rebuilding, and the skill levels vary wildly. As the groups work on their lifts, Tosha and Gigi monitor the girls alertly, looking for dangerous errors.

As with the peewees, Tosha rearranges flyers and bases until she's confident she's got the best and safest combination. At one point, she calls everyone to a halt and reminds the flyers that their bases are only human, and the best way to inspire their confidence and esteem is to cut the smack talk.

After two hours of leaping and landing, tossing and catching, the girls' hair is plastered to their sweaty necks, even as the adults in the room keep adding sweaters. Parents show up - "Gramma, look!" squeals one girl, then does the round-off back handspring she's just perfected.

"See you guys tomorrow," Gigi tells the girls as they head out the door into the frosty night.

Levy County All-Stars will compete at the Official Florida Cheer and Dance Championship at the Florida State Fair on Sunday, Feb. 10. For competition schedule, see http://www.varsity.com/Index.asp?article=3357. For more information, call Levy County All-Stars at 352-528-9158.