Southern Hip-Hop Meet Gymnastics: On Diversity in Gymnastics

Gabby Douglas, Olympics 2012, all around finals, photo credit of David Eulitt/Kansas City Star

I really can’t stand sports for the most part, but the sports I do like are the so-called “girly” ones: figure skating, artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and dancesport. Like my beloved ballet, they display grace and power, usually with sequins and glitter. In my mind, it can’t get better than that. I am all about trampling the patriarchy with unicorns, rainbows, lots of pink, and a perfectly pointed toe.

But many of these dazzling forms of athleticism and grace in American athletics have been historically very white. But, more recently, that has gradually been changing. Gabby Douglas wowed at the 2012 Summer Olympics when she won the all around event—the first for a black American woman—and last summer, Misty Copeland was named principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre, the first in the company’s history. And before we move on, it is important to note that these women are standing on the shoulders of giants: Dominique Dawes was a member of the “Magnificent Seven” who won the first team gold for the United States at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and Janet Collins was the first black artist to perform on the stage at the Metropolitan Ballet in 1951. But progress has been slow going when considering the history and cultural legacy of these athletic and artistic forms of expression, which is why any time something like this happens, I squee:

The gymnast in the video is Sophina DeJesus, an athlete from UCLA, and she scored a 9.925 out of 10 on her floor routine. DeJesus, along with Simone Biles and Lloimincia Hall, are changing the face of gymnastics. In her article about Gabby Douglas’ Olympic win, Aisha Harris puts it thus:

“If Gabby Douglas ran track or played on the U.S. women’s basketball team, I might not know her name. Because of the sport she’s chosen, her race is a huge part of her identity.”

Gymnastics, ballet, and figure skating love their gender roles—gender roles usually limited to “princesses” and “little dolls.” Further, until 2004, female figure skaters could only wear skirts in competition, and only female gymnasts perform to music and have dance requirements in the floor routine wheres male gymnastics just do tumbling passes. In classical ballet, only women do pointe, even though men can perform en pointe just fine. These adages are all about an aesthetic limited by a very narrow representation of gender—appear graceful, artistic, even delicate, all while performing a routine that requires phenomenal power, skill, coordination, and agility. Convey said representation via a thin, petite, often nubile female body. This aesthetic is not only limiting to the bodies performing in a routine, but it is also limiting to what these bodies are allowed to do within these routines.

This what makes DeJesus routine so significant. She is a brown girl in a white-dominated sport, incorporating quintessentially Southern hip-hop dance moves in her routine. Southern hip-hop is a dance form that defies many traditional (read: white) conventions of femininity. And like many elements of Southern hip-hop culture, it has been degraded, demonized, co-opted, and rarely celebrated as a form of artistic expression. Seeing a performance like this receive excellent marks is exciting because it shows that the gymnastics world is opening up to more diverse forms of expression.

For another example, check out Llomincia Hall’s, of LSU, 10.o floor routine:

Pretty amazing, no? Talk about “sticking it” to the man.

For some further reading for all you dance and gymnastics geeks out there, check out the following:

Ginnis Tonik

Ginnis Tonik

Smashing the patriarchy with glitter, pink lipstick, and cowboy boots. You can follow her on Instagram @ginnistonik