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

19 Aug

Are there more contemporary styles of dance in gymnastics?  Absolutely.  In the late 80’s/early 90’s, a very special, truly one-of-a-kind gymnast came along, by the name of Stella Umeh.  She is by far one of the best dancers to ever take to the gymnastics floor, and she brought with her an aesthetic that was vastly underappreciated at the time (isn’t that kind of true with all modern dance?  Like, if it doesn’t anger the establishment then you haven’t done enough).  She also hails from Canada, which was never a gymnastics powerhouse and was more than likely a victim of politics and racism.  One of the highlights of her career was winning the 1994 Commonwealth Games All-Around title, after which she retired from the elite scene and accepted a scholarship to compete at UCLA (more on that later!).  Pretty damn good for a girl who got started in gymnastics because her mom got lost and ended up stopping at a gymnastics club to ask for directions.

Not only did Stella use percussive music (which was virtually unheard of), her floor routines were choreographed by her sister who would turn on the music, have Stella improvise and they would clean things up from there.  This resulted in the most exhausting floor routines known to man, because the movement would basically never stop and continue from phrase to phrase (As it should be…today we just get a lot of crappy posing).

As I mentioned before, Stella went on to compete at UCLA in 1994, which was also around the time when gymnastics dance started to get really crappy.  Some of the best dancing then appeared in the “underground” so to speak, which was NCAA gymnastics.    Stella continued to have her sister choreograph for her, but she was recruited by one of my idols, the one and only Miss Val (short for Valorie Kondos-Field) to compete for UCLA.  Miss Val was actually a professional dancer herself before having anything to do with gymnastics.  From her bio at the UCLA gymnastics website (Read her full bio here):

Kondos Field’s professional journey has been a unique one. A former professional ballet dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, Capital City Ballet and Washington, D.C. Ballet, she initially got her start in gymnastics at Agilites in Carmichael, Calif. by playing the piano for floor exercise music. From there, she became a dance coach, and under the guidance of current University of Minnesota co-head coach Jim Stephenson, learned the fundamentals of the sport. In 1983, she was hired to be UCLA’s assistant coach and choreographer.

She is now the head coach, and THIS is the recipe for success people.  While Umeh had artistic reign over herself, Miss Val was busy creating routines dances for the other members of the UCLA team.  Even though her background is in ballet, she does EVERYTHING including jazz and modern, and even recently recruited a gymnast a few years ago (Ariana Berlin) who is a hip hop dancer, and included some popping and breaking in her routines.  And it’s REAL hip hop…because it should be noted that there’s a lot of Billy-awful “hip hop” routines in NCAA gymnastics.  Come to think of it, there’s a lot of lackluster dancing in general, because not every college can be in a situation like UCLA, and have access to a really great choreographer, but there’s much more of the good stuff in NCAA rather than international elite (which basically consists of unstylized poses with flexed wrists and hyper extended fingers).  Pop quiz (assuming you read my previous entry) but what is one of the factors that this can be attributed to?  If you answered “NCAA still uses the 10.0 scoring system”, you would be correct.  If you had no idea, it means you’re not a cheater because I don’t think I mentioned anything about the NCAA scoring system.  Oops.

Anyway, lots of Miss Val’s work is legendary, consistently amongst fans’ “favorite floor routines” lists, so I shall give you a sampling of her works.

Something a little jazzier, performed by Jamie Dantzscher to music from the Tomb Rider soundtrack:

Something a little more modern (coincidentally, Kate Richardson is another Canadian.  Her Leah Homma, and Yvonne Tousek are among my favorite UCLA gymnasts, all Canadian.  Miss Val has a knack for picking out Canada’s best)

Miss Val was once asked what her favorite routine was, and I believe she responded with a routine she did for Heidi Moneymaker (now a stuntwoman) set to Taiko drums.  One of the best things about Miss Val too is that she picks a diverse array of music.  The Taiko routine is the second routine in the video below (although Heidi’s other routines were also fantastic).

Now if Miss Val is the queen of choreography, there is another coach, Kristen Smyth (head coach at Stanford) who deserves an honorable mention.  Smyth was a gymnast and danced professionally for a few years in the Bay area, and while her body of work as head coach at Stanford hasn’t been the strongest, one of the most legendary floor routines of all time was choreographed by her for Liz Reid while an assistant coach at Arizona State.  This routine is held in even higher regard to much of what Miss Val has done.  A definite must see:

So there you have it…a crash course in the history of gymnastics dance.  Although far from in depth, at least you have an ace up your sleeve to make you seem like a gymn-snob, and that’s always fun to do once in a while.  Or at the very least, now you have something to help you procrastinate if you feel like trolling around youtube for great dance combined with the cheap thrills we get from awesome tumbling, while avoiding the sheety stuff.  Lots of UCLA and Stella Umeh to see, and so little time!

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One Response to “Imposterous! How dancers can learn to be gymnastics-savvy, Part II”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Imposterous! How dancers can learn to be gymnastics-savvy, Part I « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - August 21, 2009

    […] 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 […]

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