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Male cheerleaders in action at Wisconsin-Marquette football game, 1939.
Male cheerleaders in action at Wisconsin-Marquette football game, 1939.Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Male cheerleaders in action at Wisconsin-Marquette football game, 1939.
Howard University cheerleader Alfreda Young leading cheer during football game, 1946.
Sixty high school cheerleaders with crepe-paper pompons whip up football spirit, 1947.
SMU cheerleader leaping high into air at University of Texas football game, 1950.
Cheerleaders at Florida State University, 1952.
Duke cheerleaders cheering among the fans in the bleachers, 1952.
High school girl cheerleaders wearing sweaters and skirts leaping high in the air during their vigorous cheers at the basketball game, 1953.
The girls of Central Catholic High School performing their cheerleading act in the gym, 1953.
Cheerleaders parading prior to a football game between Queens College and the University of Toronto, 1954.
Cheering section of cheerleaders in Spokane Coliseum, 1954.
Hempstead High School cheerleaders chanting a cheer as they encircle the school's tiger mascot during game with Uniondale High, 1958.
Cheerleaders at Little Rock high school game with Louisiana high school team, 1958.
Students participating in a cheerleading practice, 1958.
Cotton Bowl cheerleaders, 1960.
Lawrence High School cheerleaders during football game, 1960.
A group of cheerleaders rooting for their team, 1964.
Cheerleaders training under Bill Horan, of the American Cheerleaders Assn.; Florence Alabama State College, 1965.
Notre Dame cheerleaders work the crowd during the 1966 "Game of the Century" against Michigan State, 1966.
Cheerleaders cheering for a high school basketball game, 1971.
Male cheerleaders in action at Wisconsin-Marquette football game, 1939.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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19 Spirited Vintage Photos of Cheerleaders in Action

Updated: Nov 10, 2015 10:50 AM ET | Originally published: Nov 02, 2015

“Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” So went the very first organized cheer at an intercollegiate football game, a rallying cry meant to break the University of Minnesota squad’s losing streak. Though college football had begun in 1869, and all-male pep clubs had long sung fight songs to inspire their teams to victory, it wasn’t until the turn of the century—on this day, Nov. 2, in 1898—that a fan named Johnny Campbell led the cheer that would earn him the title of America’s first cheerleader.

Like Campbell, the majority of early cheerleaders were men—in large part because squads did not begin opening their ranks to women until the 1920s. The gender balance shifted further during World War II, when an increasing number of women filled positions vacated by men who had been drafted to fight in the war. By the 1960s, the sport became dominated by women, as National Football League teams began to organize professional squads.

LIFE magazine covered cheerleading in abundance, from the magazine's inception in the late 1930s until it ceased publication in 1972. Cheerleading’s mid-air splits and synchronized pom-pom shakes were a win-win subject for a magazine that traded in stimulating visuals and glimpses into everyday American pastimes. Here, in celebration of the sport’s 117th anniversary, are LIFE’s greatest images of America’s purveyors of pep.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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