Female Gymnasts Used To Be Fantastic Dancers. How Did the Floor Exercise Get So Graceless?

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 30 2012 10:14 AM

Out of Step

Female gymnasts used to be fantastic dancers. How did the floor exercise get so graceless?

Alexandra Raisman
Team USA's Alexandra Raisman on the floor during the women's team qualification at the London Olympics.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Gymnastics fans, like politicians campaigning in the heartland, like to look to the past as a better, purer time. Instead of pointing to two-parent families and white picket fences, gymnastics adherents yearn for more classically trained, balletic athletes who could dance and express as well as they could tumble. Is this a case of faulty memory, or is it true that the women’s floor exercise has transformed from lovely performance art on par with Cirque du Soleil to a graceless exhibition of athleticism at the expense of beauty?

The short answer is that this nostalgia is appropriate—gymnastics dance and performance quality has noticeably declined. By comparison to the ‘80s and ‘90s, the last decade’s worth of exercises are high on difficulty and tumbling but low on elegance and refinement. Instead of putting together complete routines, coaches, choreographers, and gymnasts treat the moments between tumbling passes as opportunities to rest, filling them with static poses, ill-timed to the music.

Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle, though remarkable on the uneven bars, won the world title in 2009 on floor exercise with a routine whose performance bordered on apathetic, all disconnected arm movements and awkward butt wiggles. Though the audience claps along to the music, Tweddle moves as though she can’t hear it at all.

She is hardly alone. At the 2000 Olympics, Simona Amanar, Romania’s tumbling wunderkind, medaled with a routine that was astonishing both in terms of its flipping virtuosity and the carelessness of its dance.

While there have always been bad routines—someone cue videos of the 1978 Romanian world championship team please—on the whole, gymnasts who stood atop the winners’ podiums in the ‘80s and ‘90s managed to blend incredible acrobatics and musicality. So what has changed between those halcyon days and the present?

When it comes to the dance dearth, the biggest problem is not the gymnasts but the Code of Points. This rulebook is regularly updated to accommodate changes in gymnastics and to encourage (and discourage) its evolution in certain directions. Most notably, it was revised in 2006 to eliminate the Perfect 10 in favor of open-ended scoring. While the death of the 10 has allowed for more objective evaluations of routines, the removal of the scoring ceiling has meant that every moment a gymnast spends on the mat is treated as a scoring opportunity. Now most gymnasts do four tumbling passes instead of three—the better to ring up valuable points by executing more difficult maneuvers. This means they have even less time to dance in the 90 seconds they’re out on the floor.

Furthermore, in the Code’s latest iteration, gymnasts must count eight elements towards their difficulty score (down from 10 in the last quadrennium), and at least three of these moves must be of the “dance” oeuvre, meaning leaps and turns.

On its face, building dance into the difficulty score seems like it would help promote artistry and performance. This means that a gymnast like American Alexandra Raisman, who is an astounding tumbler, cannot dominate the apparatus solely on the basis of her ability to flip and twist. She must do something of value in the dance department, too, an area where she is noticeably weaker.

Coaches and gymnasts, however, don’t treat dance elements as opportunities to connect with the music and audience. They regard them same way they do the tumbling skills—as a way to rack up tenths. Just as gymnasts cram the hardest flips into their 90-second floor routines, they also try to do the most difficult dance elements, regardless of whether or not they fit the music or the mood. Also, many of these “dance” skills exceed the gymnasts’ ability to perform them with anything resembling ease and grace.

Gymnasts frequently run as far for their leap passes as they do for a full twisting double back. And the fact is—they have better odds of doing that difficult pass than the switch leap with a half twist or the quadruple turn on one leg.