Glory and glamour are made in the drabbest of surroundings. In a cavernous gymnasium-sized warehouse among factories in backstreet Glenfield one morning last week, I sat and watched young teenage girls fly.
On one cinderblock wall a banner proclaimed somewhat cryptically that "All Star brings USA to New Zealand". Naturally enough, it was heavy on the red, white and blue. Otherwise the colourless surroundings were relieved only by the flashes of brightness that makes these all-stars shine: fluorescent yellow predominated; the woman in charge was wearing a sweatshirt of intense pink, with "PINK PINK PINK" written up the sleeves in case you missed it.
The spongy floor made it hard for a visitor in street shoes to avoid giving a good impression of a falling-down drunk. But the three-and-a-half dozen youngsters who were there to work were in their element: away from the hard tarmac of real life, they were in a place where they would jump, tumble, cartwheel, spring and ... yes ... fly.
On the count of instructor Kimberley RamsayReid, one girl - always the lightest of each group - runs full-tilt at her teammates and flings herself at them.
As if on an invisible string, she ascends and lands on a platform of upstretched hands. In strict synchrony with half a dozen other groups doing just the same thing, she flings one leg up to the vertical, against her ear; the next minute, the other thigh is perfectly horizontal so the leg forms a perfect hip-to-knee triangle; she links arms with the girls atop the next group; there are swirls, airborne pirouettes, heart-stopping drops that must surely end in disaster and suddenly, everyone is standing motionless and at attention.
"That's pretty good," says RamsayReid, in a tone that suggests that what looked sublime to me is not very good at all. "But this is a competition of perfectness." A whiteboard off to the side underlines that determination: each of half a dozen routines has to be executed flawlessly three times before they get to move on to the next.
RamsayReid beckons one group forward, pushes another back, so they'll be like dots on the five-face of a dice. "Spacing is a big deal on the scoresheet," she says.
The competition and the scoresheet she's talking about are a very big deal indeed. A group of 70, including parents and supporters, left at the weekend for the US, where they will defend their title at the World Cheerleading Championships at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
No, I didn't know this country were the world champs either. The group, which rejoices in the resonant name Team New Zealand, are the first outside North America to take the title and will be competing against 30,000 cheerleaders from 70 countries.
A punishing training regime of 16 hours a week since January got tougher last week, when the performers spent as much as 12 hours a day in boot camp, pushing their lithe and improbably flexible bodies to greater and greater heights, both literal and metaphorical. And all that practice comes down to a routine in which they have just 150 seconds to impress the judges. "One slip," says RamsayReid, "one slight mistake, one dropped arm, and you're out."
This is not cheerleading as sports fans might know it: short-skirted young women waving pom-poms and cheering the exploits of the on-field blokes. These girls are nobody's handmaidens, RamsayReid explains to me during a short, breath-catching break in proceedings. What they do is high-end team gymnastics and acrobatics.
Sideline cheerleading started as a male undertaking (as in many areas of American life, the absence of men in wartime created space for women to step into their roles). Today, though, it is overwhelmingly female; barely one in 10 are male, although eight of the 42 competing in Florida are men. "Obviously they have more strength and more wow," says RamsayReid.
RamsayReid founded the sport here 12 years ago, chucking in a job as a tax lawyer with a big city firm to do it because she wanted to follow her passion.
Her company now has 10 gyms throughout the country.
How, I ask her, does a team from New Zealand get to beat the world at such a quintessentially American undertaking. It seems as improbable as beating a Chinese competitor at table tennis.
"We work really hard," she says simply. "It's going to be hard to keep that title but we're going to give it a go."
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