Five-ring Circus

Out of Step

Female gymnasts used to be fantastic dancers. How did the floor exercise get so graceless?

Alexandra Raisman
Team USA’s Alexandra Raisman on the floor during the women’s team qualification at the London Olympics.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Gymnastics fans, like politicians campaigning in the heartland, like to look to the past as a better, purer time. Instead of pointing to two-parent families and white picket fences, gymnastics adherents yearn for more classically trained, balletic athletes who could dance and express as well as they could tumble. Is this a case of faulty memory, or is it true that the women’s floor exercise has transformed from lovely performance art on par with Cirque du Soleil to a graceless exhibition of athleticism at the expense of beauty?

The short answer is that this nostalgia is appropriate—gymnastics dance and performance quality has noticeably declined. By comparison to the ‘80s and ‘90s, the last decade’s worth of exercises are high on difficulty and tumbling but low on elegance and refinement. Instead of putting together complete routines, coaches, choreographers, and gymnasts treat the moments between tumbling passes as opportunities to rest, filling them with static poses, ill-timed to the music.

Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle, though remarkable on the uneven bars, won the world title in 2009 on floor exercise with a routine whose performance bordered on apathetic, all disconnected arm movements and awkward butt wiggles. Though the audience claps along to the music, Tweddle moves as though she can’t hear it at all.

She is hardly alone. At the 2000 Olympics, Simona Amanar, Romania’s tumbling wunderkind, medaled with a routine that was astonishing both in terms of its flipping virtuosity and the carelessness of its dance.

While there have always been bad routines—someone cue videos of the 1978 Romanian world championship team please—on the whole, gymnasts who stood atop the winners’ podiums in the ‘80s and ‘90s managed to blend incredible acrobatics and musicality. So what has changed between those halcyon days and the present?

When it comes to the dance dearth, the biggest problem is not the gymnasts but the Code of Points. This rulebook is regularly updated to accommodate changes in gymnastics and to encourage (and discourage) its evolution in certain directions. Most notably, it was revised in 2006 to eliminate the Perfect 10 in favor of open-ended scoring. While the death of the 10 has allowed for more objective evaluations of routines, the removal of the scoring ceiling has meant that every moment a gymnast spends on the mat is treated as a scoring opportunity. Now most gymnasts do four tumbling passes instead of three—the better to ring up valuable points by executing more difficult maneuvers. This means they have even less time to dance in the 90 seconds they’re out on the floor.

Furthermore, in the Code’s latest iteration, gymnasts must count eight elements towards their difficulty score (down from 10 in the last quadrennium), and at least three of these moves must be of the “dance” oeuvre, meaning leaps and turns.

On its face, building dance into the difficulty score seems like it would help promote artistry and performance. This means that a gymnast like American Alexandra Raisman, who is an astounding tumbler, cannot dominate the apparatus solely on the basis of her ability to flip and twist. She must do something of value in the dance department, too, an area where she is noticeably weaker.

Coaches and gymnasts, however, don’t treat dance elements as opportunities to connect with the music and audience. They regard them same way they do the tumbling skills—as a way to rack up tenths. Just as gymnasts cram the hardest flips into their 90-second floor routines, they also try to do the most difficult dance elements, regardless of whether or not they fit the music or the mood. Also, many of these “dance” skills exceed the gymnasts’ ability to perform them with anything resembling ease and grace.

Gymnasts frequently run as far for their leap passes as they do for a full twisting double back. And the fact is—they have better odds of doing that difficult pass than the switch leap with a half twist or the quadruple turn on one leg.

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.

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.