Monday, September 21, 2009

History of Acrobatic Gymnastics

Acrobatic gymnastics is a competitive group sport where pairs or teams of gymnasts perform acrobatic routines. Like many other hybrid gymnastic disciplines, it combines dance and traditional gymnastics, but it adds another level of difficulty with the inclusion of acrobatics. This sport is also known as “ACRO” and has been recognized since 1999 by the FIG, the international authority for competitive gymnastics, but it is not yet an Olympic event.

Fans are often spellbound while watching ACRO events due to the astounding feats performed by the athletes. The routines performed push the boundaries of other gymnastic styles, demonstrating superior skills in balance, grace, and stamina. No apparatuses are used in this style. There are three types of routines involved in competitions: balance, dynamic, and combined. The balance routines specifically demonstrate strength, flexibility, and stamina. Acrobats must hold each other up in difficult poses and formations for a specified time frame in sync with slower music. Dynamic routines involve springing movements, leaps and flight to more fast paced musical scores. The emphasis is on strength, power and grace as somersaults and flips are demonstrated in these routines. As the name implies, the combined routine showcases both of the first two categories.

There are various levels and age groups involved with the competitions. Age categories are age-group for 11-16 year-olds, junior level for ages 12-19, and senior level for those 15 and older. There are no individual competitions; pairs and groups of up to four athletes make up the different categories. There are female, male, and mixed pairs, female groups of three performers, and male groups of four gymnasts. Not only does the group have to display cohesion and camaraderie in their performance, but they must also project a balanced appearance because judges can deduct points for too much variation in height. Differences in size are necessary for mixed groups, as the base must be able to support the top performers, but the aesthetics are also important.

Judging is much like other gymnastic disciplines. The panel is lead by a Head Judge, and the rest of the panel consists of judges for each category of artistic, execution, and difficulty. The artistic judges only score the aspects of the performers' ability to move to music, their diversity of movements, and the choreography of the routine. The execution judge’s score the technical component only and the difficulty judge assess the value of the skills demonstrated using an official guide known as a code of points. The maximum points for each category are 10, and the overall total score a team may receive is 30. 

Acrobatic gymnastics has its roots in modern artistic and rhythmic gymnastics whose history began in the 19th century with many visionaries who saw the potential for artistic expression within the sport of gymnastics. Three men by the names of Bode, Delsarte, and Neverre began to develop the foundation for rhythmic gymnastics in the late 1880s, which inspired Peter Henry Ling to create its precursor, aesthetic gymnastics. An American woman named Catherine Beecher founded her Western Female Institute to teach a similar style.  Emile Jaques-Dalcroze of Switzerland later formed his version called eurythmics, which was intended to help musicians and dance students learn basic musical principles. Frenchman George Demeny added his influence as well, with exercises set to music used to improve his students’ physical conditioning, posture, and dexterity. In the 1900s Ernst Idla and Henrich Medau further polished the disciple, adding apparatuses and more challenging physical requirements, forming today's modern version of rhythmic gymnastics, which is the parent of acrobatic gymnastics.
The arts of acrobatics and gymnastics are much older skills. Ancient Egyptian art depicts athletes performing skills similar to modern acrobatics, as do Greek artifacts of antiquity. In fact, traditional gymnastics is rooted in ancient Greece. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and dedicated to the Greek God Zeus. Images on ancient pots show men performing gymnastics and even acrobatic feats. In those days many activities were considered gymnastics that are not related as such today, like wrestling, running, jumping, or swimming. However, Greek athletes trained in a square area called a “palestra”to musical accompaniment, which sounds very much like the floor routines of the various gymnastic varieties performed today.

The Chinese have performed acrobatic feats for several millennia. Chinese acrobatics are recorded as far back as the Neolithic period, although the more refined Chinese art form dates to around 2000 years ago, around the time of the Western Han dynasty. It was further developed in the Tang dynasty to become more like the modern acrobatic displays in China today. Wushu is a Chinese art very similar to ACRO in which a group performs together dynamically to display feats of strength, agility, and balance. Unlike official acrobatic gymnastics, wushu often involves certain martial art elements.

Many other countries have had their own cultural applications for the discipline over the ages. Europeans enjoyed court performances in the Middle Ages, where juggling and singing were often mixed with tumbling to entertain royalty and commoners alike. Circus performances became very popular in the 1800s with tightrope and trapeze artists performing in front of crowds in both America and England.

In the late 19th century, acrobatics became popular as a sport, and many European athletes began to compete in different events. The Soviet Union introduced acrobatics as an official sport in the 1930s. About forty years later, the United States began competing in this sport at the World Championships in Moscow. The first U.S World Championship gold medal for ACRO was won in 2002 at the games in Germany.  Since then, the U.S has brought home over 150 medals for the sport.

Acrobatic gymnastics may be one of the most demanding artistic disciplines in the sports world. It combines strength, agility, flexibility, and grace into one very dynamic performance. Unlike any other gymnastic discipline, ACRO is a display of ultimate human trust, testing boundaries of the partnership and group dynamic, as team members are responsible for one-another's safety during the performance.  Audiences are captivated by the depth of expression and sheer physical prowess demonstrated in these competitions.