Why Today's Gymnastics Routines Insult Dance

Simone Biles at the end of her gold medal-winning routine in Rio

Gymnastics have been my favorite part of the Olympics ever since I was a kid. Particularly the floor exercises. I was never a gymnast myself (I don't count the year I spent falling off a balance beam in elementary school). But while growing up in the 80s and 90s, this event was the closest thing I had to watching dance on prime time TV.

Today, though, the sport seems to be growing further and further away from dance.

Just like in most sports—and even dance itself—the level of virtuosity in gymnastics seems to rise every year. The athleticism and power on display in Rio right now is jaw-dropping. Personally, I'm convinced that Simone Biles is superhuman. How else could a body jump that high and turn that many times in the air—and then land on two feet flawlessly?

But as the flips have become more stupefying, the dance moves have become more perfunctory.

That's largely because, in a controversial move, the points system was overhauled in 2006 to emphasize more difficult acrobatic skills, and decrease the importance of artistry. The sport is technically still called "artistic gymnastics." But the value placed on elegance and grace has all but disappeared.

Laurie Hernandez, photo via nbcnewyork.com

Out of the Americans, Laurie Hernandez is by far the best dancer of the bunch, with her sassy, musical moves. Rather than just going through the motions to show off skills that help her rack up tenths of a point, she actually grooves. Still, I wish she would point her feet more articulately. I wish her movement was slightly less jerky.

The quality of the gymnasts' dancing is grating not because I'm spoiled by watching professional dancers. What bothers me is how obviously little attention is paid to the gymnasts' dancing, even though the sport still feels the need to include it. The way it's used is offensive to the art of dance. Rather than incorporating dance and tumbling together as cohesive choreography, gymnasts and their coaches now treat dance sections as a time to rest. So most gymnasts simply hit a series of awkward poses with little attention to the music.

It's not the athletes' fault. Points are awarded based on whether a split hits 180 degrees or a turn is fully completed. The system leaves little room for nuanced movement. Athletes can be deducted for a lack of musicality, interpretation or expression, but judges rarely take off points for something so subjective. They focus on more obvious markers of skill instead. Valorie Kondos-Field, a gymnastics coach and former ballet dancer, told Slate in 2012, “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.”

What's doubly insulting, is how, as Roslyn Sulcas pointed out in a blog for The New York Times during the London Olympics, only female gymnasts are asked to dance. Men are allowed to approach the sport as straightforward athletes, while the women are decked out in sparkly leotards and makeup, and are expected to "perform" in a pretty, feminine way, with smiles on their faces—that is, until they start a tumbling sequence, a.k.a. the serious part of the routine.

To the International Federation of Gymnastics, I beg you: If dance is going to continue to be part of gymnastics, really incorporate it into the sport. Have men show off their bravado, too. Give the gymnasts more serious ballet training, and coach them on how to perform their dance sections well. Or take dance out of gymnastics completely. Stop insisting that it be included as a superfluous side show to the floor routines. Aren't these gymnasts doing enough already without asking them to briefly shake their hips in the corner, too? Let the athletes actually rest for a second, catch their breath, then turn around to dazzle us again with another brilliant tumbling pass.

 

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021