Beyond the Beam – An Overview of Acrobatic Gymnastics

I can still clearly remember the first time I saw a high level acrobatic gymnastics routine. I’m not talking about on YouTube or some reality show, but in the flesh. The distinction is important because you can’t casually dismiss the extraordinary feats taking place in front of you due to camera angles or creative editing. I stood completely riveted, mouth agape, and would only allow myself to breathe again once the smaller girl of the group had descended from her seemingly death-defying balance hold. As my gaze shifted downward to my own small daughter who would soon be trying out for the sport, I tried to imagine her being launched 15 feet in the air relying solely on another child to catch her. The image quickly conjured up some serious heart palpitations and sweaty palms and so I did what any other rational parent would do. I turned to her and asked, Have you considered rhythmic gymnastics?”

Needless to say, it was too late. She was already hooked.

As our foray into the world of acrobatic gymnastics began, I discovered that like myself, many Canadians had never heard of the discipline. I became accustomed to questions like “So, is that basically like cheerleading?” or “But they still do the beam and the bars, right?”

You see, although recent years have seen an increase in the sport’s popularity, acrobatic gymnastics (commonly referred to as “acro”) is still relatively unknown as a gymnastics discipline in Canada. While the sport enjoys a long and rich history dating as far back as the ancient Egyptian period, it only became an official discipline of the International Federation of Gymnastics (“FIG”) in 1999. Since that time, recognition of the acro discipline has quickly gained traction, particularly in Europe and Asia. In Canada, acro is also emerging as a new and exciting discipline within gymnastics communities; however, widespread awareness has not yet reached the same proportions as it has abroad.

In light of this, I have put together a list of some of the most frequently asked questions:

What is acrobatic gymnastics?

Acro is a gymnastics discipline that involves gymnasts working together in partnerships to perform dynamic, balance, and/or combined routines that consist of acrobatic skills, tumbling, and choreography. These routines are all set to music and performed on the gym floor. The partnerships can consist of mixed pairs (1 male and 1 female), women’s groups (3 females), women’s pairs (2 females), men’s groups (4 males), or men’s pairs (2 males). Within these partnerships, there are base and top positions. The base gymnasts traditionally support, lift, and throw the smaller top gymnast to perform complex acrobatic skills. At the competitive level, the partnerships are judged on their execution and the difficulty of the skills. Artistry is also evaluated at certain levels.

What are some of the required skills of an acrobatic gymnast?

This depends on the gymnast’s position within the partnership. In general, strength, agility, flexibility, and balance are all highly valued skills within the discipline.

To put this into context, I once saw an acrobatic top in a 270 degree split with a back arch so severe that I suggested to her parents that they seriously consider reaching out to an exorcist.

As for the strength and balance required at the higher levels, imagine the following. Pick up a child by the waist. Now raise the child above you until your arms are fully extended above your head and their body is perpendicular to yours. Holding the position, climb atop the two inch back of a not-so-sturdy kitchen chair and slowly extend one leg behind you so that you are effectively balancing on one leg. If the child is less than 90 lbs, have a family member or friend hand the child a 30 pound bowling ball just to give you the full sensation of the weight you need to sustain. Have you dropped the child on his or her head yet? If not, tryouts are typically held in the Spring.

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of acro?

I won’t recite the widely known and well-documented benefits and drawbacks to gymnastics in general, because they apply as equally to acro as they would to any other discipline. What I will tell you is something you can’t find out on Wikipedia.

One of the greatest benefits of acro comes from working in partnerships. The relationships the gymnasts form with their partners creates some of the most enduring and rewarding friendships. The gymnasts learn to trust and rely on another person and they are an extraordinary support system for one another. In cases where gymnast personalities may conflict, they also learn an important life skill. That is, the ability to work with others you may not always get along with in order to achieve a common goal.

In many partnerships, the bases are often several years older than the younger top. This dynamic has the added benefit of creating a built-in role model for the younger gymnasts and fosters leadership and patience skills among the older gymnasts.

On the flip side, one of the most challenging aspects of acrobatic gymnastics is working in partnerships. This stems primarily from the difficulties that arise when one partner is absent, injured, or unexpectedly quits the sport altogether. Although there is no limit to non-partner based training that a gymnast can keep busy with, the fact remains that acro is a partner-based sport and without a partner to train with, progress can be difficult.Fur

thermore, partnerships are judged and evaluated as a group which can lead to enormous external pressure being placed upon a gymnast. Not only are they responsible for their own performance, but they may also feel accountable to their partners if they don’t meet expectations. For instance, I once had an acro top explain to me that being told to stay tight 20 times a practice is a little bit like having someone continuously tap you on your shoulder all day long. But with a hammer. On your head.

How far can you go with the sport?

Acro is not yet an Olympic sport. However, acro is included in the World Games, the European Games, and has its own Acrobatic World Championships held in even-numbered years.

Many acrobatic gymnasts have also gone on to work as professional acrobats for various performance companies including Cirque du Soleil.

We’ve Come a Long Way – An Overview of Aerobic Gymnastics

If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of aerobics conjures up images of a sweatband-wearing Richard Simmons gyrating around in a poorly produced 80’s VHS exercise video entitled something along the lines of “Let’s Party off the Pounds!” With this in mind, I had no idea what to expect the first time I encountered aerobic gymnastics.

As the first toe-tapping routine began, I quickly realized that this high intensity gymnastics discipline was unlike anything I could have imagined. It was high energy, full of complex lifts, and impressive displays of agility, flexibility, and coordination. Not to mention that it was all perfectly timed to one of my all-time favourite Beyoncé jams. Let’s just say that this discipline has come a long way since the fitness craze upon which it originated.

By gymnastics discipline standards, aerobic gymnastics is still relatively young having joined the International Federation of Gymnastics (“FIG”) in 1995. As a result, it is not yet widely known in many countries, including Canada, although it has been steadily gaining in popularity. This has been particularly evident following the addition of its newest category in 2011, aerobic-dance. It has also been gaining global popularity with many programs operating recreational school-based classes in addition to the existing provincial, national, and international competitive programs.

In order to provide a bit of background, here are a few questions commonly asked about aerobic gymnastics.

What is aerobic gymnastics?

Aerobic gymnastics is a discipline that combines aerobic and dance choreography with fitness and gymnastics elements. It involves high-intensity continuous dynamic movements that require flexibility, strength, and coordination, all performed and choreographed individually or within group routines set to upbeat music.

There are several categories within aerobic gymnastics. These include: men’s individuals, women’s individuals, mixed pairs (1 male and 1 female), trios (any gender), groups (5 gymnasts of any gender), aerobic step (8 gymnasts of any gender), and aerobic dance (8 gymnasts of any gender). At the competitive level, the gymnasts are judged on their execution, artistry, and the difficulty of the skills.

Why are aerobic gymnasts so happy all the time?

I’ve been to an aerobics fitness class. These classes are nowhere near as challenging as what these athletes accomplish and I can still barely muster up a smile.

Fun fact: According to the FIG rules, aerobic gymnasts competing in aero-dance must show an enthusiastic attitude during the whole routine, “with genuine and pleasant facial expressions.

Aerobic gymnasts in general are required to smile and present confidently as it is a factor considered when evaluating presentation.

Where is the sport of aerobic gymnastics headed in the future?

Aerobic gymnastics is already becoming increasingly popular world-wide and within Canada. These sports programs can typically be offered at a low cost as they require little to no equipment and the health benefits associated with aerobic exercise are widely recognized.

Like acro, the goal of aerobic gymnastics is to be recognized as an Olympic sport. In the meantime, along with provincial and national competitions, competitive aerobic gymnasts may qualify to compete at the annual Aerobic Gymnastics World Championships, the World Games, and the Aerobic European Gymnastics Championships held in uneven years.

Article by  Stephanie Clendenning


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