SAFFORD — Gila Cheer now has a new location and a new head coach Taylor Banks, who took over in July.

“It was definitely like, when you’re little, they always ask you what you want to be when you grow up. I always wanted to be a coach or dance teacher. The fact that I get to do both is unreal,” Banks said.

The interesting thing is there’s more to cheerleading than pom-poms and shouting spirited cheers at sporting events. Cheerleading is highly competitive, full of college scholarship opportunities and offers prestigious careers.

“The number one thing I have found is girls are so competitive,” Banks said. “They like the structure. It’s not just coming here and having fun. They like conditioning. They like getting better. They like gaining new skills, and they like going to Phoenix and coming home with hardware. They like coming home with trophies and banners and titles. We were in the parade for Cinco de Mayo, and they liked throwing baskets.”

A basket is the stunt where a team holds one girl up in a tower formation, and then tosses her into the air before catching her in a “basket” of arms.

“They liked really shocking people how strong they were and how high they could throw girls,” Banks said.

Since cheerleading involves various stunts that can be very painful if botched, this is a sport not for the faint of heart.

“We had a first-time flyer, and she fell straight to her back and got the wind knocked out of her. After she caught her breath, she said, ‘OK, let’s do it again.’ They have no fear. There’s no fear in these girls,” Banks said.

The stigma is cheer is more of a hobby and there’s no pay in it. While NFL cheerleaders bring in only $50 to $150 per game, there are other opportunities, including college scholarships.

“Our assistant coach, Tiara, got a full-ride scholarship to EAC through cheer. After I graduated from high school, I danced for an arena football team. Even in semi-pro, I had a paycheck for it. I know other girls in the Gila Valley who went on to dance for the Lakers and the Suns. You make a lot of money doing that. There’s a lucrative future in this,” Banks said.

In addition to team cheer, there are competitive cheer teams with trophies and prestige at stake.

“There are so many unclaimed cheer scholarships,” Banks said.

With widespread options available around the country, there are cheer opportunities right here in the Gila Valley.

“What I really enjoy about what we do is not only does it give them opportunities to perform in front of the community, but they get to go up to Phoenix and compete against girls that are gyms twice this size with professional choreographers, and we’re holding our own against these teams,” Banks said.

“I also like giving them the opportunity to socialize outside this town. I grew up in this town, born and raised. There’s so much more than here. And you never know if those girls you meet at competitions, that could be your college roommate one year.

“Lastly, I like to give these girls an outlet to be competitive. I like giving girls one more option and to be able to take that and make a future out of it. I get to empower them in my own way.”

Gila Cheer has moved to a larger facility of 5th Avenue in Safford, across the street from the U.S. Post Office and next to Eastern Arizona Computers.

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