After spending six seasons working with Power Cheer Toronto, Chris Cunningham was ready for a change. Earlier this year he moved to Berwick with his partner and in June, became the all-star manager and director at Integrity Cheer Empire.
“So far lots of changes right down to the name,” said Cunningham at the club's headquarters at 5 Sanford Dr. in the industrial park near Exit 5A: Windsor.
“It used to be Integrity Cheer Elite and we've moved on to Integrity Cheer Empire,” he explained. “This is what we're calling the revival of the gym and starting anew. It's a refreshing chapter, or season eight, of Integrity Cheer Empire.”
West Hants Middle School teacher Nadine Brown founded the club eight years ago in order to provide youths with an extracurricular activity. She's watched it grow and expand over the years, and felt now was a good time to rebrand.
“It's great. After eight years you need a change, you need a refresher. The fact that we're growing with our gymnastics program and all of our recreational programs is an added bonus to that,” she said.
The club offers both cheerleading and gymnastics and has a membership of more than 200 athletes who hail from communities in the Valley to Hants County and the outskirts of Halifax.
“The big thing with this gym is that in the past years, they've sort of been in the middle of the pack and my goal here... is to elevate this program to a place where they are the top option for cheerleading in Nova Scotia, based on practice, pace and training, and experience. That's what I want for these kids,” said Cunningham.
He said he wants to foster an environment that allows teammates to bond outside of practice and that they incorporate cheerleading as a part of their lifestyle “and not just an activity that they do.”
The club has an enclosed, quiet, parent viewing area that allows people to watch as the children progress throughout the season.
“We are zero tolerance for any sort of drama so it's always a very positive place, which is very important in a female-dominated sport – to keep it a very positive place to be,” he said.
Although it's a female-dominated sport, Cunningham said they have a fairly even male to female ratio for coaching staff, and there's quite a few young men competing in the more advanced co-ed teams.
Cunningham opened a pro shop featuring Empire clothing and accessories when he arrived at the club. He said he's particularly pleased with how it's been embraced by the parents and the students.
“I'm a true believer in 'look good, feel good' and I really think that if the kids look the part they'll perform the part and I've already seen the changeover. That store has been a fantastic addition to our program,” said Cunningham.
On the cheer side of the program, they currently have Prep (introductory) teams to Level 5 teams.
While he wants all teams and levels to do well, Cunningham said all eyes will be on their two Level 5 teams.
“I would like to be the first program in the Valley to take a team to worlds and to be successful,” said Cunningham.
“Hopefully, over the next couple of seasons, we are able to field and foster our first ever co-ed worlds team out of this location.”
Brown said she's excited for what lies ahead for the non-profit organization and hopes more people will take the time to learn about what they offer.
“Even though we've been here for eight years, we're still a sport and an activity that so many people don't know anything about,” said Brown.
“I think if they just come in, there's an excitement. It's really different than anything else you would do. It's a great combination of athleticism and performance. It's just got something for everyone — people that like to tumble, people that like to jump, people that like to dance. There's just so many facets to it.”
For snowboarders who enjoy doing tricks, for example, Brown said using the foam pit would be a safe way for them to perfect their stunt.
On Thursdays from 7:20-8:30 p.m., the club hosts an open gym night where anyone can come in, sign a waiver, and try out the equipment.