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?

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The difficult turns are perhaps the biggest blight on elite floor routines. One could dash out of the room for a bathroom break in the time it takes some gymnasts to set up their triple or quadruple turns on floor. During these seconds-long pauses, all of the continuity drains from the exercise and whatever spell the performer had managed to cast is broken.

Watch this routine at the 2011 World Championships by all-around silver medalist Viktoria Komova of Russia.

Komova, heralded for her lean, elegant lines and flexibility, makes two significant pauses to prepare for difficult turns, even glancing down at the floor—a big dance no-no—and away from the audience as she aligns her body. Even with those pauses, Komova falls out of her spin, which likely caused her to lose the world title to the USA’s Jordyn Wieber.

Wieber, who is frequently characterized as a “power” athlete in the vein of 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson, performs very well on the apparatus.

“Jordyn Wieber is connected throughout the whole routine with her eyes and her face,” says Valorie Kondos-Field, the UCLA gymnastics head coach and former professional ballet dancer known for choreographing captivating floor routines for the college gymnastics powerhouse.

Kondos-Field says rule changes don’t entirely explain the overall decline in floor routines. “What I find to be disappointing is the quality of performance,” she says. “It’s OK to go out and tumble and not have your face, your eyes be part of the performance.” In the majority of routines, gymnasts are merely going through the motions, checking skills off their checklists and moving onto the next until the music stops.

According to Kondos-Field, the rules also offer a narrow view of dance and creativity that binds the hands of choreographers. “Sometimes you want to put in a jump on the floor that isn’t a 180 split, that sort of between a step and a leap—but if you do that, you’re going to get deducted because you didn’t hit 180,” she says. This quantification of dance leaves no room for subtlety, nuance, and light touches—every move must be taken to the cheerleader-esque extreme. “I remember one time one of my athletes got deducted for doing a two-and-a-half turn on floor because it wasn’t a double or it wasn’t a triple—who cares? It started and finished and it was poised and it was controlled,” Kondos-Field says.

Previous generations of gymnasts were freer to simply dance. Olga Strazheva’s remarkable routine at the 1989 worlds contains none of the leaps that would be valuable under today’s rules. The Soviet gymnast’s floor performance, set to The Rite of Spring, features just one turn—a relatively simple double while many contemporary gymnasts attempt this element with their leg held at horizontal—but with little preparation or hesitation.

Though capable of hitting full splits on her jumps, some of Strazheva’s stage elements don’t stretch fully, as was clearly the choreographer’s intention. Strazheva was also fully committed to the performance. In her hands, the routine was more than a collection of moves and gestures; it told a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Oksana Omelianchik’s floor exercise from the 1985 world championships is yet another example of a routine unencumbered by ill-advised dance requirements. Her most difficult dance move was a simple, beautifully done switch leap.