Over the past year, The Couch Gymnast has been featuring an ongoing historic series on the gems of floor choreography. Our resident historian Chris has analysed some of the greatest floor creations in gymnastics, divided by theme.
Here are the episodes in the series-with video- so far. If you would like to read them, click on the title.
Some of us grew up during a gymnastics time, when artistry was still flourishing. For the younger generations of gymnastics fans the current domination of the athletic part might seem rather normal. In a series of small articles on floor choreography I would like to have a look at some examples of really good choreography – in order to fully realize what gymnastics has lost and to consider what exactly makes a floor choreography outstanding and artistic. For this purpose I would like to present some great floor performances of the past and present. In the different entries of my series I envisage to group each time some gems of floor choreography on the basis of a particular theme or type of music. For me the 1980s and early 1990s are the heyday of artistic floor performances. Many (but not all) examples will come from this period. My lists of examples are of course never exhaustive. And if I do not mention a particular gymnast in one category, sometimes it is because I wanted to save her routine for another part of my series.
Deciding what is a really outstanding and artistic choreography is – despite the forementioned FIG recommendations – a very subjective and difficult task. My subjective choices are based essentially on two criteria: integral entity and continuous flow of movement.
After watching a particular floor exercise I asked myself whether and why it left an imprint on my memory to the extent that I can actually re-watch it in my inner eye. And I realized that those exercises that were engraved more easily in my memory are not just a sequence of movements but formed together with the music something like an integral entity. They seemed to tell a story, instead of being just an incoherent enumeration of words, and were punctuated by some unique and original signature moves. In addition, I consider that in a good floor performance the movement should continuously flow, that one element should smoothly link to the next.
Let me now add another characteristics of a great floor exercise: performance. A routine can be well composed from a pure choreographic point of view but performed without soul, without expression. The artistic element of a floor performance is definitely also about living the routine, about creating the impression that the gymnast enjoys her performance, about keeping eye contact with the audience and judges. The following routines illustrate this ‘performance’ component particularly well. All the chosen gymnasts really ‘sell’ their routines.
One of the most popular types of music used for floor exercises throughout the history of gymnastics is folk music. Folk music often is very lively and has a distinct rhythm that invites the audience to clap along. Many of the folk pieces used by gymnasts are well-known and popular around the world, such as e.g. Kalinka, Hava Nagila, or Alexis Sorbas. While folk music is frequently used by gymnasts, really outstanding choreographies and performances to folk music are less numerous. To me good folk choreography cannot be limited to following the rhythm of the music and hopping around with arms akimbo and flexed feet. It needs to go a bit deeper and make an effort to combine the requirements of gymnastics with elements taken from traditional folk dances. Let’s have a look at some particularly good examples.
Mime is a form of theatre/performance, where the actors represent characters through gestures and body motions, without use of speech. Some gymnasts took up the challenge of going further than only reflecting the rhythm and general mood or spirit of the music in their floor performance. They tried to play and mime a particular character evoked by their music, using specific gestures and bodily movements in their choreographies. Let’s have a look at some examples of such mime acts on the floor carpet.
Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci were the first gymnasts to become famous for their playful floor performances and cute little girl image. They shaped a whole tradition of floor choreography. Playful routines are typically performed by younger gymnasts and have helped many other cute little pixie gymnasts to win the hearts of the audience. Often such cutesy routines have something puerile or cheesy to them, but it does not need to be like that. Some of the following examples show that a good playful exercise can involve as equally demanding choreography and artistic qualities as any other type of floor routine.
Avant-garde is generally defined as something that is exceeding the boundaries of what is considered as the norm or the status quo. To me a floor performance is avant-garde, if it is very different from the routines we are used to watch, if its choreography is extremely innovative and contains unusual dance movements that defy established gymnastics esthetics. Often this goes along with a special musical choice.
The routines that I call “lyrical” are typically performed to slower paced music. Distinctive features of a lyrical exercise are beautiful lines, grace, elegance, as well as flowing movements. Attention to detail and polished execution are all the more important, as in a slow routine errors become even more noticeable. The lyrical routine usually does not captivate the audience by the cheerfulness it radiates, like e.g. the playful routine, or by a distinctive rhythm that invites to clap along, like some folk music routines, but it is rather emotionally touching the audience with the gravity of the feelings it conveys.
Over the years many gymnasts have utilised Spanish-themed classical or popular music. Not rarely these pieces are influenced by traditional Spanish folk dances and rhythms, such as e.g. ‘flamenco’. In particular in the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona Spanish airs were very popular among gymnasts and yielded some magnificent choreographies, some of which I will present below. To me a good Spanish-themed choreography must get across the often dramatic and passionate mood of the music, and – where appropriate – use some traditional Spanish dance elements.
Many of the floor routines that I have already presented in other thematic categories of this series are ‘balletic’ in the sense that the gymnast’s body carriage, alignment, and extension throughout her routine reveal that she had classical ballet training. Here I want to focus on some floor performances that don’t use ballet only as a way to enhance general appearance and presentation but that incorporate moves or whole sequences of moves that are specific to classical dance (regardless whether these ballet moves are performed with proper technique or just imitated) and deliberately evoke a classical ballet performance.
Some floor exercises performed to a waltz have already been included in other categories of this series, notably Anastasia Grishina’s 2010 routine as an illustration for the artistic criteria of fluency and integral entity, Irina Baraksanova’s lyrical routine, and Meng Fei’s balletic routine. In this part of my series I will present some more performances set to the characteristic triple meter waltz beat. Although I am aware that not all waltzes were composed as dances, I will watch out for choreographic elements that evoke waltz dancing, such as e.g. the basic waltz step or the aspect of constant turning in different directions.
Tango music generally exudes strong feelings of sensuality, passion, and romance, including the romantic element of the dramatic and the tragic. While the original Argentine tango is a completely improvised dance and consists more of smooth and fluent movements, ballroom tangos are more codified and also contain sharp and staccato movements with theatrical effect, such as e.g. a quick foot flick or a sharp head snap. All tangos are dominated by complex footwork. The characteristic tango steps have a gliding or sneaking character, as dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk. Let’s have a look at some floor exercises set to tango music and see to what extent they develop the tango theme.
Given that Bulgarian gymnasts today are not even close to the best of the world, it is hard to imagine that in the 1980s Bulgaria used to belong to the top gymnastics nations. The Bulgarian team placed fourth at the 1983 and 1985 World Championships, and fifth at the 1987 World Championships and the 1988 Olympic Games. In addition, Bulgarian gymnasts Diana Dudeva and Boryana Stoyanova won several individual medals at European Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games, including Stoyanova’s vault gold at the 1983 World Championships. On floor the Bulgarian gymnasts during this era not only impressed with stunning difficulty but also with original and beautiful choreographies, some of which I would like to present.
Jazz music has been constantly changing and evolving since it was born. Therefore it is not easy to define what constitutes jazz music. Some basic common characteristics of jazz over its history are syncopation, off-beat rhythm, and improvisation. Another important feature of jazz is interaction of jazz players with the audience. Due to its radical difference from classical music the early jazz was also perceived as very avant-garde. Accordingly, when looking at examples of floor exercises performed to jazz music, one might watch out for a very individual, innovative style. One might expect rather ‘relaxed’ dance (in contrast to classical ballet body lines) with a special focus on the hip area. There should also be a noticeable emphasis on rhythm, on the performance aspect, and on interaction with the audience.
Probably the majority of floor exercises nowadays are performed to rock music, pop songs, show music, movie soundtracks and other types of ‘modern’ popular music. While performances to this type of music are numerous, it is more difficult to find outstanding choreographies. Given the large variety of musical styles covered in this chapter, the following examples are more than selective:
This last part of my series on floor choreography is dedicated to talented junior gymnasts, who unfortunately never really got the chance to shine- either because they faced too much competition within their home country or because injuries put a premature end to their promising career. Each of the junior floor routines that I chose to present here has something special and stands out from the mainstream.