Imposterous! How dancers can learn to be gymnastics-savvy, Part I

17 Aug

In this episode of youdancefunny, I shall teach you how to use a background in dance to help you be a world class gymnastics snob.  Now I know what you might be thinking…”gymnasts don’t dance!” and when you only have a minute and a half for a routine along with tumbling to cram in and a rowdy audience to please, it can be hard to make a legit piece of choreography.  But once upon a time there was REAL dance.  I recently watched the 2009 USA National Championships on TV this past weekend and the sport really is in a state of disarray with the complaint being the same as it is in dance; artistry has been lost in favor of tricks.  One of the differences however, is that in gymnastics, the decline of artistry is attributed to a few factors that you’re going to have to know if you want to throw it down with the gymnastics experts or make yourself seem smarter than you actually are, next time you tune in to the summer Olympics. 

The first of these factors was the elimination of compulsories, which occurred after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  The compulsories were set exercises consisting of relatively basic skills where the emphasis was on mastery of technique, lines and execution.  Each gymnast performed the exact same exercise so that they could be scored comparatively, and on floor every gymnast performed the same choreography which always necessitated ballet training.  Since the compulsories were eliminated, most countries stopped regular barre training altogether, and we all know what that means…no epaulement, no sense of alignment, understanding of lengthening, etc.  The second of these factors was the move to an open ended scoring system after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, getting rid of the “10.0” scoring that pretty much everyone is familiar with (although to be accurate, the 2005 World Championships still used 10.0, with the open ended scoring system taking full effect in 2006).  This meant there was a vast shift on emphasis towards difficulty of the exercise, and with the top ten skills counting (which has now fortunately been reduced to eight); gymnasts with the most difficult exercises would run away with higher scores, even with sub-par technique.  The third is the difficulty rating of leaps and turns.  Because they count towards the score, gymnasts have been pushing for harder leaps to get higher scores, resulting in these ridiculous leaps that no ballet dancer would even do.  And countless sloppy turns which are much harder on a carpeted, spring floor and even harder when you have no ballet training.  This has been going on for a number of years, but became intolerable circa 2001.

So when was gymnastics pretty?  If asked, ALWAYS respond with “the 80’s and before then” making sure to insert some kind of grumbling complaint that the sport has fallen since the elimination of compulsories and the 10.0.  If necessary, tell people your parents showed you tapes of gymnastics from the 80’s, so you don’t date yourself.  Anyway, during that time period, it should come as no surprise that the Soviets dominated, just like in ballet, so this should be very easy for dance people to remember.  The Soviets were very adamant about ballet training, and in fact many of the earliest gymnasts in the 50’s and 60’s started out as accomplished dancers.  The 80’s, however is considered the peak of the sport because that was when there was the most innovation in difficulty, which was successfully combined with the artistry by the Soviets.  In fact, most of the difficult skills being done today were performed by a Soviet gymnast during the 80’s, and in many cases more difficulty was being done then, still with attention to artistic development.  Still with me? 

The Soviets were a factory of legendary gymnasts, and there are way too many for me to cover…in fact, I’m not even the most knowledgeable on the subject.  But you only need to know a few to garner the impression that you know what you’re talking about, and for whatever reason, many of the most artistic dancers to take to the gymnastics floor were lousy competitors and never made it to the Olympics, so their relative obscurity will help increase the impact of your faux expertise (I have a theory that there might be some kind of correlation between level of artistry and ability to compete…I think the soul of a true artist doesn’t have the ferocity to compete to win, but who knows why anyone is a head case).  The following names won’t be recognized by your average gymnastics fan, or even someone who has competed in gymnastics for many years, oh no; only those well versed in the history to a somewhat healthy degree of obsession will have heard of them.  You won’t outsmart these fans, but nevertheless they will be impressed if you drop some of these names.

I’m going to make this easy and give you two Tatianas and two Olgas (and there are many Yelenas, Natalias, Oksanas, Svetlanas, etc., but let’s keep it simple).  The two Tatianas are Tatiana Tuzhikova and Tatiana Groshkova.  Tuzhikova’s major accomplishment was competing at the 1987 World Championships but never made it to another major competition and is famous for being the first gymnast to perform a full twisting double layout on floor (a skill that is still rarely performed today).  It was incredibly bizarre coming from a girl who danced like a prima ballerina, and not some muscly little nugget, but this was the magic of the Soviets.

And now for a little Latin influenced contemporary dance style, we have Tatiana Groshkova, and EVERYONE loves her.  She was the first and ONLY gymnast to ever perform a tucked double full-in (which is a tucked double back somersault with two twists during the first somersault).  She had a hot streak in 1989-1990, but never made it to a World Championships or Olympics.  She was also well known for having one of the toughest, meanest, and well…bitchiest coaches, former Soviet gymnast Elvire Saadi (who now coaches in Canada).  Saadi herself was a beautiful dancer, nicknamed “the panther” because of the way she danced, but she was pretty harsh on Tatiana, who never gained the consistency to be successful. (And sorry about the commentary in the video…I think Japanese commentators talk too much but they have some of the most footage of the Soviet gymnasts because they had a fascination with them, the same way they have a fascination with Russian ballerinas today.  Parallels galore!)

And now I give you the Olgas…Olga Chudina and Olga Strazheva.  Chudina is probably my favorite, and she hardly competed at all (again, no World Championships or Olympics for her) but her ability to dance was truly unique and unsurpassed by even the best of the best, in my humble opinion.  She was a victim of politics which kept her off the 1988 Olympic team, but I’ve read that she eventually went on to dance with Anti-Gravity in New York, did some modeling and now coaches and choreographs (lucky duckies!).  The poor dear deserved better, but it seems she has done well for herself!  Just gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking, amazing and fantastic.  She is EPIC.

And now Olga Strazheva, who actually enjoyed more success than her compatriots (and was actually one of the gymnasts to make the 1988 Olympic team at Chudina’s expense…DRAMA!).  Strazheva never won any medals on floor though, and despite winning bronze medals in the All-Around and uneven bars at the 1989 World Championships, she is mostly known because of one floor routine she did…to The Rite of Spring!  Surprise! (what else are you supposed to do something groundbreaking to?)  Even in gymnastics does Stravinsky make his mark…and the Soviet choreographers did the same by introducing avant garde choreography.  The parallel that can be drawn with ballet is astonishing here because everything Nijinsky’s version did to stir the establishment and bother some people while others recognized his brilliance was repeated with Strazheva, as you can see here in her performance at the 1989 World Championships.

So there you have it…now you too, can feign prowess amongst the worlds’ elite gymnastics fans.  But if you want more to be prepared, wait for part 2, where I will discuss more contemporary dance styles, and answer the question is there good dance in gymnastics today?

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