Thursday, July 30, 2009

History of Rhythmic Gymnastics

Modern rhythmic gymnastics is a graceful discipline that combines ballet and modern dance with gymnastics to form a flowing, graceful version of the very physically challenging sport. Performers use a collection of props such as hoops,  ribbons, and batons, in a choreographed routine set to music. Dance is emphasized more than gymnastics in this sport, and that is where it varies from artistic gymnastics, which is performed on apparatuses like the balance beam, vault, and parallel bars. It is currently an Olympic event where gymnasts perform in both individual and team competitions.

There are different forms of rhythmic gymnastics in the competitive arena. Competitors will perform floor routines that display flexibility, strength, and agility using only movement and no apparatus. The athletes execute jumps, leaps, turns, and flexibility exercises but no flips or tumbling type movements. These routines are not part of the Olympics, but they are included in national events in the U.S and other countries.

 Routines that use apparatus are another form of this art. The ball, rope, hoop, ribbon, and club are the five official apparatus in rhythmic gymnastics. They each have their own standards of use in competitions, and four are chosen for competitions by the International Gymnastics Federation every two years. During an individual routine, the performer uses one apparatus at a time, while in group competitions a team will perform a routine together, manipulating up to two apparatuses in tandem. 

Currently this demanding sport is a standard in international events such as the Olympics and World Championships, but its current form is the result of a long line of athletic visionaries who molded it into what it is today. Many people from different countries had a hand in creating this elegant and artistic discipline.

Rhythmic gymnastics is a sport that has been around for a very long time. While gymnastics itself dates back to ancient Greece, the rhythmic variety was developed in the 19th century by Peter Henry Ling. He was not the creator of the style, however. Three gentlemen by the names of Neverre, Delsarte, and Bode have that distinction. Ling enhanced their creation and called it “aesthetic gymnastics”. The idea was to allow gymnasts to express emotions through the artistry of dance as well as master the physical challenges of gymnastics.

Ling's development of aesthetic gymnastics inspired an American woman, Catharine Beecher, to open a school to teach this new form of dance-inspired exercise. Beecher  took Ling's  ideas and created what she called, “ grace without dancing”, which she began teaching at her school, the Western Female Institute. Beecher's students practiced a less rigorous form of this discipline, performing calisthenic exercises combined with dance moves at varying levels of difficulty.

More than forty years later, other countries began to take up this graceful exercise and develop their own disciplines. In Switzerland, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze formed eurythmics, which was an exercise program for musicians as well as dancers. His idea was to use physical movement to enhance his students' musical education. French instructor George Demeny began his program of exercise set to music with the goal of improving students' posture, physical conditioning, and dexterity. In the 1900s Finland  and Sweden added elements to the movement that were further developed by Ernst Idla, who made the sport more demanding and difficult. Finally, the apparatuses were introduced to this medium by Henrich Medau.

All elements of modern rhythmic gymnastics came together in 1929, paving the way for a new international competitive sport. The Soviet Union hosted the first competitions on the 1940's. The discipline was officially recognized in 1961, and the first World Championship competition for the sport was held two years later in Budapest. At this time, gymnasts competed as individuals and not in teams. It was not until 1967 that group competitions were introduced.

Rhythmic Gymnastics did not enter the Olympic forum until the 1984 summer games hosted by Los Angeles. The first woman to earn the gold medal in this sport was Lori Fung of Canada. At this time only individuals competed at the Olympics, but in 1996 group competitions were finally allowed. The judging of this event has undergone a transformation over the years just as like sport itself. Currently it is judged on a thirty point scale with ten points possible for each of three categories: artistic, execution, and technical.

Throughout its development, rhythmic gymnastics was primarily a female oriented sport, with competitions only open to women and girls. However, it began to spark the interest of male athletes in the 20th century, especially in Asia where many people practice strenuous and graceful martial art disciplines. Male routines involve powerful martial art inspired  movements and tumbling rather than the dance movements of feminine styles. In competitions, the men are judged by strength and agility rather than flexibility. This is similar to many of the martial art competitions popular in these countries.

While the FIG does not recognize male competitive rhythmic gymnastics, it has a very strong following in the U.S, Canada, and Russia along with the Asian countries of Japan and Malaysia. Japan was the first nation to establish official rules for its events in the 1970s. Stick gymnastics was the first masculine incarnation of this sport,  originally developed as a means of improving physical fitness. These competitions are very intense at the high school and college level in Japan, but so far there are no male Olympic events. The country has spent the last 30 years developing the male competitions with many official venues, and it is working with the FIG to gain official recognition and eventually join its female counterpart at international events.

Regardless of gender, this sport has empowered many people to push physical and creative boundaries in the spirit of artistic expression. What is known today as rhythmic gymnastics is a combination of extraordinary dexterity, grace, and competitive spirit. It began with the inspiration of many different like-minded visionaries who saw unlimited potential in the human body. Even the vast oceans could not contain the ideas of these individuals, and a whole new medium of athletics grew into an Olympian sport.