Reconciling Art and Sport!
This elegant form of gymnastics came into being as an illustration of expression through movement toward the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded on the visions of Jean-Georges Noverre* andFrançois Delsarte**, the discipline uses dance elements to develop aesthetic expression and grace in the human body.
Is Rhythmic a new discipline? Not quite. Scholars recently concluded that the sport can be traced back more than 3,500 years to ancient Egypt!
Emile-Jacques Dalcroze*** of Switzerland followed in the footsteps of her precursors, adding music and rhythm to a growing concept. Later, Rudolf von Laban, Marie Wigmann and Henrich Medau also pushed ahead as pioneers in a sport that would, in the early 1920s, be coined Modern Gymnastics. The discipline became one of eurhythmics, finding its inspiration and artistic expression in music; its choreographers conveyed the discipline’s unique language through a boundless imagination.
But it was above all the exquisitely beautiful American dancer Isadora Duncan**** who rebelled against the established order and dogma of classical ballet to bring about a radical change in the manner in which art and sport would intertwine in Rhythmic Gymnastics. She is the mother of modern and contemporary dance as we know it today.
Daughter of Russia
Rhythmic Gymnastics as a competitive discipline evolved toward the 1920s in the USSR. It quickly developed in a variety of schools, and its first high-level national event was held in 1942.
In the past, Women’s Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympics included some exercises with apparatus. For example, in 1928, in Amsterdam, a team of 10 gymnasts competed on vault or rings and with group-free exercises with hand apparatus (1- NED; 2-ITA; 3- GBR). In Berlin 1936, teams with 8 gymnasts competed on vault, parallel bars, balance beam and group free exercise with hand apparatus (called optional team drills; 1-GER; 2-CZE; 3-HUN). Rhythmic group exercises with hand apparatus have been used in team competition by women in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games and at the same time it was also a separate event. The members of the group were obliged to compete in apparatus (vaulting, uneven bars, beam and floor).
In 1956, the FIG decided to exclude group exercises with hand apparatus from international competitions.
Consequently, Rhythmic would have to wait until the late 1950s for true recognition, and it was through the persuasive commitment and dedication of two FIG women, Andreina Gotta (ITA) and Berthe Villancher(FRA), that the discipline came into its own in 1961. After Men’s and Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, Rhythmic became the third official FIG competitive discipline.
The premiere World Championships in Individuals were held in Budapest (HUN) in 1963 with the participation of twenty-eight gymnasts from ten European countries. The first World Champion title was awarded toLudmila Savinkova of Russia.
The premiere World Championships in Groups were held in 1967 in Copenhagen (DEN), the European Championships in 1978 in Madrid. Ms Gotta wrote that same year that “this sport has conquered global frontiers, garnering both admiration and interest. Our ultimate aspiration is to see Rhythmic Sport Gymnastics admitted to the Olympic Games.”
Six years later…!
Group exercises with small hand-held apparatus were introduced to the Artistic Gymnastics programme at the Olympic Games in Melbourne (AUS) in 1956; six gymnasts performed with the Rope, some decorated with flowers. The use of hand-held apparatus would eventually disappear from Artistic Gymnastics, but would progressively resurface in Rhythmic.
The first Olympic Games to fully include Rhythmic were the Los Angeles (USA) Games of 1984. Individual gymnasts alone were admitted, while the top nations of the Eastern Bloc boycotted the event! With the exception of Romania, not a single Eastern European country made the trip. The very first Olympic title went to Lori Fung of Vancouver (CAN). In 1996, Atlanta (USA) would welcome the premiere Group competition, in which Spain would triumph over Bulgaria and Russia.
The Modern Era
Over the course of its development, the discipline would go from Modern Gymnastics to Rhythmic Sport to Rhythmic Gymnastics. Initial domination came from Bulgaria and the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when after the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc, Russia, Byelorussia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Bulgaria divvied up the medals. On their heels, Spain, Italy, Greece and Brazil.
Rhythmic Gymnastics grew in both popularity and universality. Germany, Switzerland, Israel, China and Japan were the emerging nations at the 2010 Worlds. The time had come for the discipline to broaden its horizons toward other schools and cultures in an attempt to counter a repeat performance of the 1980s, an era in which Rhythmic had lined up its gymnasts in a long and boring monologue, spurring the creation of the 4 Continents Championships – an event free of the unattainable Europe.
The discipline has now come full circle, and today pursues its quest for new markets. It remains seductive and engaging, bewitching a public that continues to grow in both size and expectation.
* Jean-Georges Noverre (FRA), dancer and ballet mistress (1727 – 1810)
** François Delsarte (FRA), singer, instructor, motion theorist (1811-1871)
*** Emile-Jacques Dalcroze (SUI), composer, instructor and chansonnier (1865 – 1950)
**** Isadora Duncan (USA), dancer (1877 – 1927)