[EDITOR'S NOTE — Each week, this feature section, “Movers and Makers,” will feature the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank.]
WARREN — Cheer Image Iconz is a community-based competitive cheerleading program in Warren working to redefine the status quo of competition cheer while entering a new era in its 13th season.
Andrea Hudson started Cheer Image Iconz in 2007. Hudson has since recruited co-director and assistant head coach Mickol Franklin, lead choreographer and assistant coach Lucinda Franklin and strength and conditioning coach DeVonte' Parker.
Hudson told Mahoning Matters that her team of coaches develops the athletes at every level, from stunts to choreography, without any outside assistance.
“We don't have the expendable income to be able to bring in a choreographer to ... teach [our athletes] how to do the routine, and then we fix it throughout the season. No, we sit down, we coach, we choreograph, we get certified to be able to teach how to do stunts, to teach how to do tumbling,” she said.
“I don't want any of our athletes to have to go elsewhere to be on our team, to be able to do the things that we require them to do. So if we can't teach you as a coaching staff, then we need to go back to the drawing board to figure out how we can improve our coaching to be able to coach you,” she added.
Cheer Image Iconz, 1264 E. Market St., costs $30 a month per athlete, or a pair of siblings can pay a discounted rate of $50. Hudson said keeping the cost affordable is a crucial part of the organization’s overall mission.
“When my daughters were little I couldn't afford for them to do dance. So I wanted to make sure [Cheer Image Iconz] was something that was affordable for parents and that [they get their] money's worth,” Hudson said.
Cheer Image Iconz doesn’t do cuts or eliminations, and instead of tryouts, the organization does “evaluations,” Hudson explained.
“Everyone is placed on a team whether you have six years' experience or no experience at all, because I never wanted any young person to feel that they weren't good enough,” Hudson said.
Hudson said it can be challenging to bring a new athlete on the squad midway through the season once routines have been established, but in 2021 Cheer Image Iconz is looking to offer classes, like cheer prep and tumbling, as an alternative way to athletes involved.
Another main priority for Cheer Image Iconz is teaching athletes the importance of responsibility.
“[For] our junior coaches, we didn't pick the athletes who were straight-A students; we didn't pick the athletes who never got in trouble. We did pick the ones who normally no one would pick just based [on] behaviors at school. That wasn't the intent, but those were the ones who said, ‘Can we be junior coaches?’” Hudson said.
“It holds them accountable,” she added. “I’m like, ‘You can't get in trouble at school. You’re junior coach. So what do you think your younger athletes are going to think if they see a junior coach in the principal's office, or a junior coach getting suspended, or a junior coach fighting?’
“I say, ‘How do you think that's gonna rub off on them?’”
Cheer Image Iconz recently went through the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Women in Entrepreneurship Summer 2020 program and won the $5,000 WE Launch grant.
Hudson, who lost her job amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said she went through the program to transition Cheer Image Iconz from her hobby to a new career and learn the tools to make the organization a sustainable business.
“Going through those 10 weeks was one of the scariest things, because I had to look at it now not as a volunteer thing, but as a business,” she said.
“The support that I got in that program was just amazing. It's just, it's kind of like being in a room with like-minded people … and I was never forced to be in a room with like-minded people. Going through the program made me look at myself different and made me say, ‘OK, you can do this,’” she added.
After years of being “homeless,” as Hudson put it, and using different community spaces to practice, Cheer Image Iconz moved into its first studio space in August 2020. Hudson said she’s using the WE Launch grant to pay the first year’s rent at the new studio space.
Breaking the mold, building a sisterhood
Hudson didn’t initially seek out building a community-based competition cheer team. She grew up cheering and spent a few years coaching, but stopped to start a family and begin a career. Cheer Image Iconz began as Hudson saw a need in the community.
“About 12 years ago, I was doing summer camp for inner city kids, and I would notice that a lot of the girls would [do] tumbling and jumps and really were good, just rough around the edges. I would ask them, ‘You're not trying out for your school team?’ and they were like, ‘No, they don't pick girls like us.’
“I'm like, ‘What does that mean?’ and they're very open, as you know, 12- and 13-year-olds are, and they [said], ‘We're considered the ghetto girls, and they don't pick us to join the school teams,’” Hudson said.
“So from there I said, ‘I'm gonna pick you.’”
“I was one of the girls that always made the cheerleading team. So I wasn't aware that there were other girls that felt that way and felt like they didn't belong,” Lucinda Franklin added. “Seeing it now, it makes me feel good to know I’m there for someone.”
In Hudson’s opinion, what makes Cheer Image Iconz stand out from other cheer organizations is that it doesn't “fit the typical box of what cheer is” and is oftentimes the only Black squad at competitions.
“When we go to competitions even over the years, you know the things that we've had to go through … just because we didn't fit that stereotypical look of what a cheerleader should look like, what a routine should look like, what owners should look like — we stand out,” she said.
“I did not want to put them in that box. I want them to still represent [themselves],” she added.
Racial obstacles at competitions
Working to diversify competition cheer hasn’t come easy, though. Hudson told Mahoning Matters that Cheer Image Iconz has had to overcome obstacles at competitions, from lack of sportsmanship from other teams to challenging unwarranted point deductions from judges.
“I have to know that handbook like the back of my hand. I have to know and be ready to challenge a deduction,” Hudson said.
In a past competition, judges deducted points for handbook approved stunts Hudson knew her team could do. Her coaching staff challenged the deduction and made the judges review the competition footage. The deduction was taken off.
“It ended up putting us in a position where [if we had] not challenged that, we would have lost. It was a big point deduction,” she said. “Had we not said anything, that was the difference between first and third.”
Hudson, Mickol Franklin, Lucinda Franklin and Parker collectively agreed that racial disparities still exist in the world of competition cheerleading.
Hudson said as recently as last year, her squad has been met with comments like “here comes the ghetto” at competitions.
“We've been doing this for 12, 13 years, and there's been a little change, but not really from when we first started and that's to me, that's sad.” Hudson said.
“I'm a firm believer that representation matters,” Mickol Franklin said. “We lean on each other … because there were times we've gotten to competitions [and] no one has clapped for us. So not only do we cheer on ourselves, but we also cheer on everyone else.”
According to Hudson, Cheer Image Iconz has won multiple sportsmanship awards for its efforts in encouraging other squads during competitions.
“We don't ever want another team to feel that way. That's why before every team goes on, we say good luck from Cheer Image.”
But despite the outside noise, Cheer Image Iconz athletes stand together.
“I think it's a great experience for them, especially starting off so young ... they build a bond with the girls that they cheer with throughout the years who also stick in with the program,” Parker said. “It keeps them occupied [from doing things] that they shouldn't be doing. This gives them extra chances, something to do, and it also can lead to great scholarships for college.”
“What we bring to each other is much more. Unless you're in it, you won't understand,” Mickol Franklin said.