In a world where children seem to be fixated on social media, the chance to build face-to-face relationships is the greatest benefit of being involved in All Star Cheer, Amanda Brandt said.
She and her husband, Phillip, opened Cheer Tech gym in September in Grand Forks Industrial Park. They started the competitive cheer program after the former Red River Valley Gymnastics, now Red River Valley Athletics, abruptly discontinued its program last spring.
At Cheer Tech, children can pursue a sport that helps them develop physical skills as well as other attributes, Brandt said.
All Star Cheer stems from cheerleading, but it's different; its main components are stunts, tumbling, jumps and dance, she said.
"From what we've already seen in today's social-networking, social-media, Facebook, SnapChat kind of life kids are living, this is a chance to get real connections with their peers," Brandt said.
She and her husband are retired from the U.S. Air Force and teach at UND's Aerospace School.
"But at the end of the day, it's really just that human connection-getting off your cell phone, getting off your tablet, coming for those four to five hours a week and making personal connections, having a common goal and working with your peers to accomplish something-that's what I think is great about any sport."
All Star Cheer is somewhat different from other sports, though, she said.
"This sport really pushes you," she said. "With certain sports, if you're good at it, you're good at it. With this one, you have to be good at a lot of things.
"What I really love about this sport is, a kid that's strong with the dance part might not be strong at the tumbling, and the kid that's not strong at the tumbling might be a really good stunt person. So they learn to appreciate each other's strengths, and not just get down on everybody for the things they can't do."
About 55 kids are enrolled in Cheer Tech programs, including tumbling and competitive and recreational cheer, guided by five coaches, she said.
Amy Havelka of Manvel, N.D., said she has seen her daughter, Zaylee, 8, who started in cheer at age 3, gain positive traits and, most importantly, "self-confidence," she said.
"She is not afraid to set a goal and go for it," Havelka said. "She's a team player, and there's a trust between all (the team members). It's just amazing."
Saving cheer for the community
Havelka and many other cheer parents were disappointed when the Red River Valley Gymnastics competitive cheer program ended.
"We were just devastated," Havelka said, adding Zaylee felt "crushed, defeated, deflated" and thought her cheer career was over.
"It's the one sport she loved and excelled at," Havelka said. "It was the saddest day when that closed."
There was "no way" the Havelkas, who have four other children, could enroll Zaylee in the nearest cheer gym based in Fargo as some other parents did in the wake of the closure, she said.
The Brandts eventually found another venue for a gym in a proposed commercial development off of 32nd Avenue South near South 33rd Street, but later learned that the building "was not going to be available soon enough for us to be ready for our competitions," she said.
The 8,000 square-foot space they leased at 4950 10th Ave. S. is "super perfect," she said. It features a 50-foot-long tumble track attached to a 20-foot mat, a specialized spring-loaded floor and a spring-less "dead floor."
The facility also has become a popular spot for members of cheer and dance teams from local high schools and UND, as well as dance studios, to practice, Amanda Brandt said.
"It's such a blessing," Havelka said. "We owe it to Amanda and Phil."
Good showing in competition
At a recent cheer competition in Minneapolis, the three Cheer Tech teams performed well, Amanda Brandt said. The tiny and mini teams each received first place awards, and the youth team finished eighth in its division.
"This is the first time (the youth Ttam) really put it on the line," she said. "At 10 and 11 years old, to come out and try a new sport is fantastic."
Team members had fewer months to practice this season than their competitors, most of whom had started cheer years later, she said.
Amanda Brandt expects interest in cheer will grow, especially when the sport debuts at the Olympic Games in summer 2020.
Meanwhile, the Cheer Tech gym "is turning out how we envisioned it," she said.
"It really has become a 'center of cheer' in the community," she said. "It's really exciting."