Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Evolution of Artistry in Women's Gymnastics: 1964

Remember the 10.0 system? Wasn't it perfect?

The 2013 World Championships in Antwerp were the sixth World Championships under the open-ended scoring system. Over the system's short lifespan, many have criticized it. The detractors have posited that the new Code has rendered the sport too confusing for the layperson, that it has mangled execution, that it has killed artistry, among other things.

But wait! Is that really true? Did the open-ended Code kill artistry? When did artistry die? And while we're on the topic, what is artistry, anyway?

In a long series of posts on artistry in women's gymnastics, I am going to look at how the FIG has defined the word artistry over the years. As we will see, the word has always been polemical. It has always been difficult to define. It has always been subject to the question of taste. And it has always been in a state of flux.

I must confess that I've been thinking about this topic for over a year now, and I've struggled to find the best way to present my nerdy research. In the end, I decided that it would be best just to dedicate one post to each Code. That way, you can see the rules, and you can watch the routines that happened under that Code without the post becoming elephantine.

I expect to look at one Code every week. It'll be like a nineteenth-century serialized novel--like The Pickwick Papers of Dickens or Fortunata y Jacinta of Galdós. Yup, it doesn't get much nerdier than this!

Definition of floor: "These exercises must make use of the entire body, contain artistic movements and leaps with vitality, with poses, with balances, with change of pace, with expression."

Strange: No definition of what "artistic movements" entailed.

Please note: Back then, artistry was not synonymous with expression. Artistry had to do with a type of movement. The Code never explained what kind of movement, though. DRAT! (Don't worry, the next Code will expand on this more.)

Use of floor space: "The space of 12x12m available to the gymnast shall be utilized in its entirety."

A word on choreography and music:
The compulsory and the optional exercises shall be executed with accompaniment of music using a single instrument. The nature of this music must conform to the exercise presented. The musical phrase must be closely connected with the composition, give it more vitality, aid in the relaxing part, underline the harmony of the movements, the elegance and the personality of the performer; in short, provide the impetus needed for a more perfect artistic execution.

What I find so fascinating is that the gymnast's movements were supposed to carry the routine--not the music. In the 1964 Code, music was supposed to be an added bonus--one that brought out a little something extra in the routine.

Just an idea for the coaches of elite gymnasts: Make your gymnasts do dance throughs without the music and see if your gymnasts can captivate you with just their movement and facial expressions.

Artistry related deductions:
  • Lack of rhythm or unsuitable music……… Up to 0.50
  • A single musical instrument shall be permitted for the musical accompaniment, both for recorded music and for live accompaniment. Musical accompaniment not in keeping with regulations……… 1.00

Teaser: In future iterations of the Code, the women's technical committee will expand on the notion of "unsuitable" music.

Comments on difficulty and execution:
  • "Any exercise involving force and strength shall be considered undesirable."
  • "[The difficulty] shall be adapted to the make-up of each individual gymnast, in order that the execution shall be free and graceful."
  • "Individual optional exercises must contain five elements of difficulty, one of which must be of superior difficulty. For the sake of general beauty of movement, and in order to avoid any regrettable excesses, it is expressly recommended not to exceed that level."
Yeah, I'll talk about some of these comments more fully in the "routines" section.

Oh, and for those who like to gripe about the state of women's hair, there was a deduction for you:
  • Lack of neatness in the presentation and bearing of the gymnast…… Between 0.10 and 0.20
  • Careless presentation…… Between 0.30 and 0.50

All right, it's time to look at how this Code of Points manifested itself in routines. As I did with the men, I'm going to look at the 1966 World Championships because I know the 1964 Code was in effect at that meet. In Dortmund, Zinaida Druzhinina won bronze at the 1966 World Championships:

It's hard to focus on her dance because her tumbling was so crooked. Sorry.

Vera Caslavska won the silver in Dortmund.

Vera was ahead of her time. She was doing 4 tumbling passes before it became popular. (5 if you count the series of aerial cartwheels.)

Natalia Kuchinskaya won the gold at the 1966 World Championships.

Listen to the commentator swoon over the fact that Natalia was just 17. The fascination with the younger gymnasts was beginning several years before Olga Korbut won over the world in Munich.

General comments: Please note how all three gymnasts drew on a conventional concept of "femininity" in their routines. They did so, in part, through their music choices. In case you didn't notice, they all selected rather light classical music. I mean, no one performed to Rachmaninoff's heavier, perhaps more "manly," Prelude in F minor. Such music would not have allowed the gymnasts to be "graceful" or "elegant" like the Code desired.

On top of that, all of these women smiled during their floor routines. Bitch face was not an option in 1966. Remember that floor choreography was supposed to represent the "personality of the performer," and in the world of gymnastics in 1966, one's "personality" was not to be aligned with coldness. On the mat, the gymnasts conformed to the smiling, exuberant mold of womanhood. That's what the judges expected from a "graceful," "elegant," kempt woman who showed no signs of "force" or "strength."

In short, floor exercise in the 1960s was a rather Victorian enterprise, as far as feminine ideals were concerned. Now, I recognize that I wasn't alive in the 1960s. I also recognize that I have never been a woman. But I can imagine how perplexing the 1964 Code must have been for the competitors. Seriously, think about it. The gymnasts in 1966 had to perform 3, if not 4 or 5, tumbling passes (some of which were just as difficult as the passes that the men performed), while constantly dancing, while still maintaining the appearance of delicateness, while still saying to the judges, "Yes, I conform to your retrograde ideals of womanhood."

That had to have been a precarious line to walk.


  1. Live music! What a concept that is. Sometimes we have that privilege in flying trapeze. It is not even comparable to performing to recorded music. Like you'll be in the air, and the second that catcher grabs your wrists, the drummer embellishes with a symbol crash. It's just makes the whole performance so much more energized and alive. We are always thrilled to find ourselves on a show that is high budget enough to include musicians. I cannot imagine it, logistically, in gymnastics, but the possibility would be amazing.

  2. Interesting that you bring up the idea of having gymnasts do a run through of their routines without music to see if they can still captivate. As a dancer for 20 years, this is very often something we did. I have, in fact, performed many times on a large stage and in front of a full house without music. It is often the most captivating type of dance performance one can do. It forces you to be completely in the moment and be aware of every single fiber in your body. It is both terrifying and electrifying to do a solo without the cover of music.