The Olympics are in full swing, and women’s gymnastics—kudos Americans! (Boo to Russians for their tears, there was no crying in the Brezhnev years, unless they were tears of steel)—is heating up prime time. Perhaps the most popular event of the summer Olympics, it has always featured the peculiarity of “dancing” during the floor routine. And the dancing is always embarrassingly bad. As much as we are pro-performing arts here, sometimes it may be best to leave the art alone. Thus we asked our former intern and editorial assistant Mara Miller, once a gymnast herself, to explain the origins of this Olympic oddity.
For about a decade before track & field availed itself as the easier sport, I was a gymnast. My pigtailed teammates and I had leathery hands, absurd six-packs, and no fear. Except for the one thing that made us all want to hide under a mat, or maybe fabricate an injury for that day.
My personal resentment for dance came from my general inability to do it correctly. My oversized big toe would never point in the right direction. I would always stick my tongue out when I did a leap off my weaker leg. I couldn’t make my hands into the right shape—they either looked like oven mitts or claws. And our lovely, delicate instructor, as you can imagine, made me feel great about all these things.
So we disliked dance because we were kind of clumsy. But also because we were just itching to get back out on the bars or the vault and do something dangerous already. We wanted to flip high in the air, not prance around like ponies. Though these days, as I watch elite gymnastics on TV and wince right along with the uninitiated at the stilted tour jetes and angular wrist-flipping, I at least want to issue an apology: I’m sorry we dance like constipated toy soldiers.
But I also want to demystify why that is.
Modern gymnastics was invented as a training regimen for military men, and by 1896, it was an Olympic sport. Women’s competitions were added, as in most sports, as an afterthought—some as early as the 20s, but in the Olympics, not until the 50s.
While the men aimed to demonstrate power, the women focused on poise and artistry. (Keep in mind, this was a time when there was no women’s 800 meter race in Olympic track & field because, at two laps, it was considered too taxing for anything with ovaries.) A woman’s floor routine involved some tumbling, plus leaps, turns, and a lot of weird lunges and leg-holds copied from the men’s side but done, ideally, with feminine grace.
More ballet worked its way into the sport as many dancers became gymnasts and inflected their floor and beam routines with the kind of rhythm and beauty you think of when you remember Nadia Comaneci.
But recently, women’s gymnastics has grown much closer to men’s: there are more flips, more twists, more danger, and more difficulty. And as scoring has evolved to match, squeezing lots of difficult elements into a routine has become priority number one.
So when you watch women’s gymnastics and wonder what the hell they’re doing out there, generally, it’s as many of the most challenging elements as they can, without wasting precious energy on anything else.
Problem is, dance hasn’t been written out of the curriculum, so to speak. Women are still required to perform a certain number of “dance elements,” like leaps and turns. They also must link everything together in a (hopefully) coherent routine that fits the gymnast’s style and her music.
Music, if you want to call it that. Yes, it is chosen with human ears in mind (usually stick-up-the-butt Romanian judges). Gymnastics used to be silent, even for women, but around the 60s someone decided that if the women were going to grace the mat in leotards, there should probably be tunes involved. At first, it was all piano, and competitions would furnish pianists to plink out accompaniments while the gymnasts performed.
Even once cassette and CD players made pre-recorded music possible, piano stayed the norm for years. Compulsory routines, which are pre-set routines of foundational skills that gymnasts at lower levels must perform, required especially monotonous music. At higher levels, where gymnasts can design their own routines, coaches attempted to put together mixes, but they often ended up choppy and decidedly un-musical. And I can’t imagine that helped in the development of a sportwide dance sensibility.
So the music itself—always 90 seconds long, lyricless, and with changes in tempo for tumbling and pauses—sometimes facilitates the special brand of gymdanstics.
And the scoring system emphasizes precise completion of each skill, which accounts for the wrist-flick, the chin-nod, or the chest-puff that often punctuates a routine at each stuck landing. To get credit for a skill, you must execute it fully from start to finish and show control of your body in the ending position. Those staccato movements say to judges, “There, I did it.”
If elite gymnastics confuses your eyes, consider its college cousin. The former might look stiff or perfunctory, but once those ladies hit the NCAA, any semblance of dance degenerates into booty-shaking madness. With their whip-wielding eastern-bloc coaches no longer over their shoulders, college gymnasts sometimes let a little too loose. Though I must say, the college athletes often show a better feel for their music, a better connection to the crowd. Remember, the athletes you watch at the Olympics are mostly teenagers, trying to wrangle growing limbs and compel well-developed muscles to be elegant.
Basically, women’s gymnastics is trying very hard to have it both ways—to maintain an air of grace, via dance or something like it, while growing increasingly powerful. And most of the time, it works. I think it’s still a beautiful sport, only now it’s more badass.
Get more of Mara at the affecting site www.theeffecteffect.com. And enjoy the nice video that has been compiled of bad gymnastic choreography: