Rhythmic gymnastics combines dance and minor acrobatic elements with the handling of a piece of apparatus. It is designed to be beautiful while also demonstrating athletic ability.

Rhythmic gymnastics first grew out of a Swedish system of free exercise developed in 1814 by Peter Henry Ling. He promoted "aesthetic gymnastics," wherein students could express their feelings and emotions through body movement. In the 1880s, Emil Dalcroze of Switzerland developed what he called "eurhythmics," a form of physical training for music and dancers. His training method involved exercises done to music, designed to promote grace of movement, muscular flexibility, and good posture. These two schools combined around 1900 into the Swedish school of rhythmic gymnastics, which added dance elements from Finland. Shortly thereafter, Ernest Ilda of Estonia established a degree of difficulty for each movement, listing them in tables for reference. After World War II, scoring methods based on Ilda's tables were developed in Europe, creating the competitive form of what was then known as rhythmic sportive gymnastics. It was recognized as a sport by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique in 1962; the first World Championships were held in Budapest the following year with ten European countries in attendance.
Rhythmic gymnastics was introduced to North America in 1906 thanks to a Finnish-Canadian athletic club in Toronto, but it didn't gain much popularity. During the 1960s, the club's coach, Evelyn Koop, took her teams on tours of Canada, giving exhibitions and conducting clinics. Preferring to call the sport "modern gymnastics," the Canadian Modern Gymnastics Federation was created in 1969 as the governing body there. It was renamed the Canadian Modern Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation in 1971, and finally became the Canadian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation in 1981. In the United States, the sport is governed by USA Gymnastics; that organization also supervises artistic gymnastics in all fifty states. The U.S. didn't make an appearance at the rhythmic World Championships until 1973, and continues to be one of the lower-ranked countries in a sport dominated by Eastern Europeans.
Rhythmic gymnastics was recognized as an Olympic sport in 1984, and the team competition was added at the 1996 Olympics.

All rhythmic gymnasts must be able to work with five separate pieces of apparatus.

  • Rope - Made of hemp or any synthetic material, the rope's length varies according to the height of the gymnast. It should have a knot at each end rather than handles, and ten centimeters of each end may be wrapped with a non-slip material. The rope can be the same diameter throughout or thicker than the middle, and it may be any color (gold and silver became allowed for all pieces of equipment in 1997). The gymnast should swing and toss the rope, and use it to make figures in the air. The rope should be both taut and loose at various times throughout the routine, and must be used by one hand and by both hands. Certain elements are required, including skipping through the rope and coiling it around the body; it should appear wire-like for most of the routine.
  • Hoop - Made of a rigid non-bending material such as wood or plastic, the rope should have an inside diameter of 80 to 90 centimeters and weigh at least 300 grams. The hoop's cross-section may show a variety of profiles, including round, square, rectangular, and oval; it may be smooth or rough. Any color is permitted, and all or part of the hoop may be wrapped with adhesive tape in a matching or contrasting color. Like the rest of the different types of apparatus, the hoop must be tossed and caught - gymnasium ceilings have a minimum height of forty meters. The gymnast must move through the hoop and roll it along the floor; it is also commonly used in walkovers and rotating spins.
  • Ball - Made of rubber or plastic, the ball has a diameter between 18 and 20 centimeters and must weigh at least 400 grams. Pictoral drawings are not permitted, but the ball may have geometric patterns on its surface, which may be any color. The ball is the only apparatus for which no grip is permitted; instead a more sensuous relationship between the body and ball is desired. The ball is the easiest apparatus with which to perform traps and must also be tossed; it should be rolled on both the floor and the body.
  • Clubs - These may be made of wood or plastic, and should be between 40 and 50 centimeters in length. Each bottle-shaped club must weigh at least 150 grams, and consists of three parts - the body (bulbous part), neck (slim part), and head (spherical part, no more than three centimeters in diameter). The club may be wrapped a non-slip material and may be one or more different colors. The clubs are used to perform mills, rolls, twists, tosses and catches, and as many asymmetric figures as possible. Exercises with the clubs require a highly developed sense of rhythm, advanced hand-eye coordination, and great precision; they are well-suited to ambidextrous gymnasts.
  • Ribbon - The stick may be made of wood, plastic, or fiberglass, with a maximum diameter of one centimeter and a length between 50 and 60 centimeters. It should be cylindrical or conical, and ten centimeters of the end may be wrapped with non-slip material. The ribbon itself is made of satin or a non-starched derivative, four to six centimeters wide, and must have one single six-meter piece. Any suitable material may be used to attach the ribbon and the stick together, and the whole piece may be any color combination. The ribbon must be used to draw pictures in the air (spirals and snakes are common), and must encircle the gymnast (not necessarily touching her body) at some point during a routine. It may be thrown in all directions, and at some point the entire apparatus (including the stick) must be tossed.
The main difference between rhythmic and artistic gymnastics is that acrobatic skills are prohibited. Pre-acrobatic elements such as somersaults, walkovers, and cartwheels are allowed, but aerials and handsprings are forbidden and would be penalized. There are two types of competition - one for individuals and another for groups of five gymnasts. Individuals use just one apparatus at a time, but teams perform two routines - one where all five girls use the same apparatus, and another where three girls use one and two girls use a different piece; all group routines must involve exchanges of apparatus. An individual routine is 60 to 90 seconds, and a group routine is two to two and a half minutes. The basic individual routine is worth 9.60 points, but juniors (ages 12-14) may earn 0.20 points of bonus and seniors (age 15+) may earn 0.40 points of bonus. Deductions may be given for not using the entire floor space (thirteen by thirteen meters), or for stepping out of bounds. The basic group routine is worth 19.20 points and may receive 0.80 points of bonus. Two different panels of judges evaluate the routines. One panel examines the routine's composition, including the elements incorporated and the choreography used to assemble them, while the other panel looks at execution, including facial expressions, fluidity, and presentation. Each year, one apparatus is not used in competitions; they rotate each year.
All work is accompanied by music, which may have vocals but no lyrics. Short pauses in the music are permitted within the piece, but the gymnast should not pause the routine or strike a pose during the silence. Rhythmic gymnasts wear leotards during their routine, which may be any color and have patterns or designs. They may be with our without sleeves, but spaghetti straps are not permitted. In group routines, all five girls must wear exactly identical leotards. The gymnast's hairstyle must be neat and tidy, and she may perform in bare feet or wearing special rhythmic slippers. Points are deducted if the gymnast's appearance is not up to snuff.

Olympic Champions
Individual - Lori Fung of Canada (1984), Marina Lobach of the Soviet Union (1988), Alexandra Timoshenko of the Unified Team (1992), Ekaterina Serebryanskaya of Ukraine (1996), and Yulia Barsakova of Russia (2000).
Group - Spain (1996) and Russia (2000).


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