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PHOTO CAPTION:  Serma Farmer, 12, stretches and tries to balance her weight on one foot during the cheernastics mini camp on Monday evening. Cheernastics, a recreational activity offered to children ages 5 to 12, is sponsored by Fort Meade's SKIES program.

July 18, 2013
By Lisa R. Rhodes

Michael Houck spoke like a drill sergeant.

"Lunge forward, hold your stomach in, reach those arms!" he shouted to a group of 16 girls.

The group was practicing cheernastics moves Monday evening in the Youth Center gym.

What may seem like a soft hobby for children is actually "a higher intensity form of gymnastics," said Houck, head coach of the cheernastics program offered at Fort Meade through the SKIES program.

For the second consecutive year, SKIES is offering a three-month cheernastics mini camp for children ages 5 to 12.

This month's sessions began July 8 and will run until July 29. The camp is held Mondays from 5:15 to 7:30 p.m.

The mini camp is an extension of the cheernastics program that began two years ago and is offered at SKIES during the school year.

Houck said the cheernastics program is a recreational activity that combines tumbling and aspects of cheerleading.

On Monday, Houck led a group of girls ages 9 to 12 through a series of drills to practice basic cheernastics moves such as handstands, lunges, leg extensions, back bends, cartwheels and handsprings.

This is not an activity for the fainthearted.

During the practice, the girls performed sprints and exercises to strengthen their abdominal muscles and improve their flexibility and balance.

Houck said the purpose of the summer camp is to improve technique and conditioning.

But for 11-year-old Caitlyn Harris, cheernastics is all about fun.

"I like that we get to do a lot of tumbling and cartwheels," said Caitlyn, daughter of Master Sgt. Shaun Harris and his wife, Laura, who reside in Meuse Forest.

Laura Harris said she enrolled her daughter in the cheernastics program because it suits the youngster's energetic personality.

"It's the perfect combination of the things she likes to do," Harris said.

Houck is also the coach and choreographer of The Maryland Twisters All-Stars, an organization of more than 500 athletes on 27 cheer teams (plus two dance teams), based in Glen Burnie and Waldorf. The Twisters have won four world championship gold medals and have captured hundreds of national titles over the past 14 years.

Last spring, Fort Meade's participants in the 9-12 age category won first place in an exhibition at a cheerleading competition held at Annapolis High School. The girls in the 5-8 age category took second place.

This year, girls in both age groups won first place in the exhibition.

In addition, both age groups won first place in the exhibition category at this spring's Cheer and Dance Extreme Extravaganza, a national cheerleading and dance competition.

Houck said his goal is to train the girls to attend three state competitions for the 2013 to 2014 year.

This past year, the girls have "improved tremendously" in their technique and confidence, Houck said.

"They are eager to progress and master the skills," he said.

Houck, whose grandparents retired from the Navy and whose mother works at the National Security Agency, said he is grateful for the opportunity to coach girls from military families.

"It's my way of giving back," he said.

Gabby Jackson, a sixth-grader at MacArthur Middle School who is enrolled in the mini camp, is just as grateful for the chance to train with Houck.

"He pushes us to be the best about things," the 11-year-old said.