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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Omelianchik embodied the spritely music—from her smiling face to the lightness and quickness of her steps. While none of her dance was exceedingly difficult, it suited the music and the gymnast perfectly. Nearly none of it could be properly credited under 2012 rules.

Many will argue that today’s athletes must master a higher level of difficulty, which leaves little time to focus on performance basics. In the last decade, however, difficulty has largely stagnated in women’s gymnastics, especially when it comes to floor exercise. Way back in 1985, the USSR’s Irina Baraksanova performed three of the four tumbling passes regularly seen in 2012 routines while also demonstrating artistry, poise, and proper dance fundamentals.

Omelianchik and Strazheva weren’t slouches in the tumbling department either, both performing some of the most difficult acrobatics of their respective eras. To use that fraught terminology, they (and many others) showed that gymnasts could “have it all.”

Many of the gymnasts that I’m highlighting as exemplars of dance trained under the USSR’s banner. This is not an accident. The Soviet gymnasts, the world’s best for nearly two decades, pushed the sport forward. In Russia, ballet is a national tradition and this spilled over into their gymnastics. Their emphasis on performance forced many other countries to excel in the artistic arenas (as well as the acrobatic) merely to keep pace.

Aurelia Dobre and Daniela Silivas, two Romanian gymnasts who defeated the Soviets in the late ‘80s, demonstrated superior artistry and expression. Similarly, American Shannon Miller showed exquisite attention to detail to dominate in the early ‘90s against former Soviet athletes.

The current crop of Russian women are not necessarily the heirs to their country’s dance tradition. Though more elegant than most 21st-century gymnasts, their work can be as disjointed and poorly expressed as that of their more muscular rivals as they try to accumulate valuable tenths. (Reigning floor world champion Ksenia Afanasyeva does bring attitude and style to her routine, however.)

No other country seems likely to step into the void left by the former Soviet Union even if each team has a gymnast here or there who’s a credible dancer. As for the majority who can’t dance—well, technically they’re supposed to be deducted for it. Lack of musicality, interpretation, and expression are punishable offenses in gymnastics. That deduction is rarely applied, however. Kondos-Field believes that judges, who can easily spy a missed handstand or a step on a landing, are reluctant to deduct for something so subjective. “I think they would be more open to rewarding than [deducting],” she notes.

Maybe the carrot, rather than the stick, is the way to go. Still the question of subjectivity remains—how can you evaluate dance and artistry while maintaining gymnastics’ integrity as an Olympic sport? Would the same judges who are tasked with assessing the form on handstands and release moves be asked to judge the artistic value of an exercise, or would we need another panel of judges? (There are already two panels that look at each exercise.)

The difficulty in answering this question is perhaps why gymnastics has evolved in an athletic direction. As unpleasant as it may be for the fans that are able to recall a “better time” in performance, acrobatics just might be the future of the sport. And for those of us who miss the artistry—I guess we’ll have to buy a ticket to the ballet. Those guys have always been better dancers than gymnasts, anyway.

Dvora Meyers is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Tablet, and others. She is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.