Gymnastics Vs. Dance

Thanks to a summer filled with 200+ kids in beginner dance and music camps, intensives, lectures, and demonstrations I have absolutely seen my fill of that hideous gymnastics trick, the chinstand. I’ve also therefore, seen my fill of little girl underwear since they do these backbreakers regardless of the fact that they’re usually outfitted in crocks and a dress.

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It’s always interesting to be able to observe kids and their behaviors, who comes from what kind of school, how certain structures affect their ability to function independently or in a group, and of course, parents. I always learn so much about what NOT to do to/with kids during the summer.

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This year I noticed a new trend in the little gymnast kiddos that have come to learn to sing and dance.I had one student that really stands out to me-my little ‘Shawn Johnson’ came eager to lean, attentive, and oh-so-flexible. She was probably the only one in class that enjoyed the stretch portion, the part where I made them do the plank or push-ups. I looked at this little capable body that was constantly mid-cartwheel, backwalk-over, or doing a full split and thought to myself, ‘hooray! A star is born!’ And that was when I realized…

A stretched-out hamstring does not a coordinated, musical person make. A spine that is capable of bending in weird ways does not mean the mind will be any quicker in picking up footwork for steps, say..like the grapevine -or other steps your average clumsy uncle at a wedding can accomplish that are for some reason, hard for these little bendy straws to grasp.

I also noticed that my students with experience in gymnastics couldn’t help themselves from constantly showing their tricks; splits, flashy jumps, and yes, those dreaded chinstands. These flashes of brilliance would erupt out of nowhere and quickly retreat away into an awkward body struggling to stomp on the beat. They wanted to do these amazing things over and over and then weren’t any better at picking up basic dance steps.

I will say that the gymnasts usually had better focus in learning the dances, loved the idea of being in the front, and seemed to enjoy challenges more than the non-gymnast kids. By the end, they usually ‘got it’ the best, probably because they were the most determined to make their bodies do what I asked.

And vice-versa, young kids that take serious and quality dance lessons are not necessarily flexible. They are focusing on learning positions, technique, posture, grace, spacing, blocking. in the early stages. Their heads are so filled with these specific ways of holding the body that they seem to forget that dance, and ballet in particular, is supposed to be more than correct, supposed to be physically dazzling. If I were a bird, you would know me in the wild by my bird call, ‘higher leg! higher leg!‘ or perhaps, ‘dance like you love it..‘ because I so often see the concentration on their faces which is ok for gymnastics and not at all ok in dance.

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Nina Ananiashvili as Odette in ABT’s Swan Lake/ David Hallberg as the Prince in ABT’s Cinderella- images from Nancy Ellison’s ‘In Classic Style’

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It seems to me that gymnastics and dance do indeed help each other, but mostly by complementing each other’s missing parts. Gymnastics seems to teach fearlessness while dance teaches organization. Gymnastics teaches big wow moments while dance (early on) teaches many steps and positions that must be memorized in particular spaces set to music. Both teach balance and athleticism, determination, and body control.

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the stunning Herman Cornejo in ABT’s ‘The Dream’

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If I’m honest, I don’t much recall my gymnastics lessons at a kid. I remember what we did, oh sure. But I don’t remember what I was feeling, besides rushes of adrenaline and the strong desire to ditch the barres and beam and jump on the trampoline. I remember feeling proud of what I could do, if I mastered a new flippy-thing. (I did seem to like the acrobatics from this review of mine translated into Chinese)

What I remember from ballet lessons, early on, was the sense music and performance, of being a different character that changed between a sharp frappe at the barre to a graceful adagio in the center. I of course remember if a teacher praised execution or if I learned a new step but for me, dance was always more of a wholistic experience. I could sink my entire being, my body imagination soul into dance in a way that I personally never did with gymnastics. I think this is the truest difference that I see in gymnastics and dance done at their highest level:

In gymnastics, I see the emotions of fear, determination, pride- all things that cannot occur without deep love that somehow does not resonate in the physicality of the sport. What I see is physical spectacle.

In dance, I see the performance, while the fear, determination, pride embedded within the physicality are hidden- the emotional, mental, and physical tools used to accomplish the steps are dressed up as if it’s just who this character or performer is. Effort is shown for the sake of tone or message, not for simple exertion.

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Roberto Bolle and Alessandra Ferri in ABT’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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These two forms don’t seem to be mutually exclusive but also don’t seem to help each other in early training as much as I would have originally thought.

One thought on “Gymnastics Vs. Dance

  1. Pingback: FLEXN Evolution Review; Why the theater is the best place for activism | BODIES NEVER LIE

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