What is Rhythmic Gymnastics?
You’ve probably seen it – maybe on TV or on YouTube. Watching lithe gymnasts create impossible shapes with their movements, manipulate hand-held apparatus like it’s an extension of the body.
And you’ve probably wondered how, just how did this sport come to be.
A Brief History of Rhythmic Gymnastics
Gymnastics in general has a long history in multiple cultures. Early records and art works from ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome depict gymnastics-type activities.
Although gymnastics-type activities were often used to prepare soldiers physically for warfare, most modern gymnastics sports evolved from 4 main sources: military, education, medical and performing arts.
The clubs apparatus used by modern day rhythmic gymnasts evolved from “Indian clubs” that were common in gymnasiums 200-300 years ago. These clubs comprised various sizes and weights, and were used to physically condition soldiers for sabre swinging. This apparatus was fairly common in many physical education equipment rooms until 30 or 40 years ago. Some can still be seen in older gyms around the world.
In China, 2000 years before Ancient Olympic Games, ritual mass Gymnastic exercises as part of the art of “Wushu” were practiced.
Many cultures developed performers that included tumblers, vaulters, contortionists and other aerial acrobats. As the use of gymnastics to train soldiers declined after the fall of Rome, gymnastics-type movement was more commonly seen as a form of entertainment.
Source: Chinese ceramics of acrobats
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, rhythmic sequences of calisthenics, devised by Per Henrik Ling, were used to improve posture of miners and factory workers during the Industrial Revolution. Some of the exercises and systems of training (like Pilates and physiotherapy) they developed were also used in the rehabilitation of injuries especially after the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Many medical practitioners were also educators so the use of these exercises also cropped up in physical education.
Physical education exercises in formal education were the primary source of gymnastics skills that we would recognize today. In the late 1700s, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn of Germany developed some of the more common apparatus associated with Artistic Gymnastics, like the horizontal and parallel bars, the balance beam, and jumping events. Modern gymnastics excluded traditional Greek and Roman events, like weight-lifting and wrestling, instead emphasizing form rather than personal rivalry.
While this style of gymnastics flourished in Germany in the 1800s, in Sweden, a more graceful form of the sport, stressing rhythmic movement, was developed by Johann GutsMuths. Women’s Colleges in particular incorporated many gymnastics activities including Swedish calisthenics and use of hand apparatus to promote fitness, rhythm, grace and poise.
Women first competed in Gymnastics events at the 1928 Games in a team event, but it was not until 1952 that individual apparatus was used at the Games.
The first Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships was held in Hungary in 1963 and was introduced as an individual sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and as a group sport at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Canadian Lori Fung became the first Olympic champion in 1984. In 2006, Alexandra Orlando won six gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, AUS, becoming Canada’s most-decorated athlete at those Games. In 2012, Canada’s senior group made history by becoming Canada’s first-ever group to compete at the Olympic Games, placing 11th overall.
Rhythmic gymnastics is performed to music and uses five apparatus: rope, hoop, ball, clubs, and ribbon performed (although rope is slowly being removed from international level competitions). Musical accompaniment was originally limited to piano. In fact, gymnasts brought their own pianist to competitions until the early 1980s. Musical accompaniment expanded to include multiple instruments in the late 1980s and voice in 2013.
Gymnasts compete on a 13 x 13m carpet. Individual exercises are limited to 90 seconds per apparatus and emphasize mastery and agility – the apparatus should move as if it’s an extension of the body. In group exercises, 5 gymnasts work together for a maximum of two and a half minutes per exercise. The choice of the apparatus is determined by the regulations and for each Olympic cycle. These routines are characterized by incredible feats of collaboration and precision.
Originally, rhythmic apparatus like hoop, clubs and ribbon sticks were made of wood. In fact, rhythmic gymnasts competed with wooden apparatus up until the mid 1980s. Thankfully, modern-day rhythmics equipment is made of various synthetic materials, like plastic, rubber or fibreglass, so splinters are no longer an issue.
Rope, while no longer used internationally, is still used by recreational, local and regional level competitive gymnasts. It is typically made of hemp or nylon and has a knot at each end of the rope. The length of the rope is measured to fit the gymnast’s body. Rope skills typically involve lots of large leaps, skipping through, and lasso or cowboy like movements (where the gymnast holds on to one end of the rope to circle and twirl the other end).
Hoops are made of plastic, measuring 80-90 cm in diameter, depending on the size of the gymnast. Hoop skills are dynamic, characterized by large throws and intricate catches. Hoop can also be rolled over and around the gymnast's body.
Ball is made of rubber and is weighted to ensure smoother rolling of the apparatus on the body. The diameter is typically 18-20 cm, although gymnasts can add or take out air depending on how ‘squishy’ they prefer the ball to be (a softer ball is easier to catch and roll, but harder to bounce). Ball skills often incorporate intricate rolls with body movement or large throws with elaborate catches.
Clubs are 40-50 cm in length and can be solid plastic, rubber or a combination of materials. Clubs are typically held at the head (small knob), which one club in each hand. The gymnast emphasizes ambidexterity with the clubs – whatever you do with one hand, you need to be able to do with the other. Clubs skills are typically fast and complex, making it the ‘ninja’ apparatus of rhythmics.
The ribbon measures 3m for beginner and recreational gymnasts and up to 6 m for senior gymnasts. The ribbon itself is made of satin and is attached to a fibreglass stick. The ribbon creates snakes, spirals, and circular movements, all initiated by the gymnast who is handling the stick to which the ribbon is attached.
Check out The Making of Apparatus that Make RG Unique on the International Gymnastics Federation’s website (don’t forget to watch the video of what RG looked like in 1952)!
Rhythmic gymnastics is truly a unique sport. It can be learned at any age, 2 & 3 year old tots up to 80 year old adults and performed in a variety of venues (both competitive and performance based). And it’s a great way to develop multiple athletic abilities, like speed, flexibility and strength along with agility, balance and hand-eye coordination for both girls AND boys.
Curious to find out more about RG’s fascinating history, check out this article on Melody RG.
Gymnastics Canada Foundations Introduction Manual, Chapter 5 (History of Gymnastics)