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We high school teachers are often short on cash, and sometimes, to supplement our income, we volunteer to do things we hate: proctor the ACT, for example, or patrol the Homecoming dance floor on the lookout for excessive juking and drunk teenagers. But in terms of sheer personal suffering, nothing can ever top the year I spent “coaching” my school’s junior varsity poms team, a season that ended in disaster to the beat of a Christina Aguilera song.
It all started when the athletic director at my school approached me:
“Would you like to be our JV poms coach?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” was my initial response.
“We’ll pay you $3,500,” he promised.
“But I don’t really even know what poms is,” I told him. “It’s like cheerleading, right?”
“No,” he hissed, looking nervously around the empty hallway. “And don’t ever let those poms girls hear you say that. Cheerleading is cheerleading. Poms is dancing. In costumes. In synch.”
“But the only dance moves I know are the first five steps of the Irish jig and the Cupid Shuffle.”
“No problem,” he reassured me. “All you have to do is stand around and supervise. The captains teach the girls all the routines. Easiest money you ever made.”
And so I agreed.
This was my second year teaching, which explains the rookie mistake: What made me believe that supervising a group of 14-year-old synchronized dancers could ever be easy or drama-free?
The time commitment was huge -- if I divided that $3,500 up based on the time I spent practicing with these girls, it would probably average out to about 12 cents an hour. The season was 10 months long, we had practice three times a week, and we had to dance at every football game, basketball game, and pretty much any other school event that coincided with my having any sort of healthy social life whatsoever.
Those three day at Poms Sleepaway Camp, for example, which fell on the same weekend as Lollapalooza, are three days of my life that I will never get back.
I could have been standing in Grant Park, beer in hand, watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers play against the backdrop of a purpling Chicago summer sky, but instead I was sitting in the bleachers of a gym in Whitewater, Wisconsin, watching a spindly blond taskmaster exhort a crowd of exhausted teenage girls to exaggerate their “facials” -- the duck lips, teeth-baring fake grins, and open-mouthed orgasm faces that poms girls must perfect for their routines.
But the main event over the course of our season was the UDA Competition (UDA stands for Universal Dance Association, in case you were wondering). This is what the girls had been practicing for all season, and even though I hated the job, I’d grown really fond of the girls themselves and I hoped that if they could only win a trophy, then maybe I’d feel like our season was worthwhile on some level.
The weeks before the competition were intense. For our routine, the captains chose the song “Candyman” by Christina Aguilera -- a song I had to listen to so many times, if I heard it now I would be struck dead-eyed and shell-shocked, rocking myself slowly and sucking my thumb until the last synthetic trumpet petered out.
Vicious infighting began to ensue about who go to be in the front row, and who got to pop up out of the formation at the end. An outside choreographer was hired. Jazz hands were waved. Sequined costumes and silver top hats were ordered. I became intimately acquainted with the glitter aisle at Michael’s Arts and Crafts.
Eventually, competition day arrived. All the parents were there as well as hundreds of others. I handed the judges our CD and the girls filed out on the gym floor in their jazz ensembles. My heart was pounding.
That was when Christina Aguilera ruined everything.
I always thought that the lyrics of the song were “He’s a one stop shop, put the cherry on top, he’s a sweet sugar candy man!” Now, do these lyrics make sense? Of course not, but I figured, it’s Christina Aguilera we’re talking about here, not Bob Dylan.
But now, as the lyrics were blasting over the loud speakers for the first time, I heard the words more clearly: “He’s a one stop shop, he makes my cherry pop” -- and of course, we had choreographed the dance so that on the words “Cherry POP!” all of my 14-year-old dancers, dressed in their skimpy leotards, hopped forward, thrusting their hips out and humping the air.
Mind you, we were the only Catholic school at the competition.
We did not win that day, as we were penalized severely for having “lewd and inappropriate lyrics.” The team, most of whom were sobbing, were furious at the captains for not scrambling out the lyrics; the parents were furious at me for not catching it, and we all went home empty handed and dejected, the lining of our lungs coated in maximum-hold hairspray.
From this experience, I learned the world of junior varsity poms is just as hypocritical as the rest of our media aimed at young adults -- as long as you bleep out the inappropriate language, it’s perfectly OK to let a bunch of young girls thrust their hips, half naked, to a crowd full of adults.
But that’s not why I turned down the job the following year. Thirty-five hundred bucks is nothing to sneeze at, but I had learned that in poms, just like in life, you can only fake it for so long.