The Acro Invasion

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Gymnastics has always had an affinity with dance. The extreme suppleness is something common to both. We love a “split” penchee or jete that goes beyond parallel, developpes past the ears, not to mention an incredible bendy back.

Over the years gymnastics and dance have given a lot to each other – from choreography for gymnastic floor routines to shared training techniques. Two of the world’s greatest ballerinas, Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem, did gymnastics as children, and undoubtedly benefited from the headstart it gave them in flexibility.

But until now the two were kept firmly in their own boxes. Dance is an artform and gymnastics is a sport. In fact, the word “acrobatic” or “gymnastic” when applied to choreography is often used as a pejorative. Not so any longer on the amateur competition stages – particularly among young, preteen contestants in the so-called “lyrical” or “free” variations. There gymnastics and dance seem to be merging. To the dismay of many, “acro” – in the form of leg mounts, back flips, somersaults and cartwheels, handstands with oversplit legs – is taking the place of the usual pirouettes and arabesques, all to the roars of appreciation from the audience. At this year’s Genee, run by that bastion of classical ballet, the Royal Academy of Dance, Dame Monica Mason was moved to complain that there had been far too much floor work, too much gymnastics and acrobatics and too many split legs.

Where has this come from? Well, the land of Youtube is the main source. A more precise answer is America, where “acro” has been around for a long time, originating from vaudeville. America has a huge competition circuit with many rich prizes. Its “success at all cost” culture and “you can win anything” mentality is very appealing to aspiring young dancers. US culture is conveyed through TV and social media, and such shows as Dance Moms. Young Australian kids see Youtube footage and Instagram pictures of children their own age doing all sorts of impressive acrobatic moves to aspirational songs and witness child acrobat-dancers like Maddie Ziegler and Kalani Hilliker becoming international celebrities. It's not surprising that we have an audience of young dancers who think this form of dance is the key to success.

Claudia Dean, who was a dancer with the Royal Ballet in London and is now a coach and competition adjudicator, is not impressed with the trend, having just adjudicated huge eisteddfods in Brisbane and Melbourne.

"A lot of it comes from social media and Dance Moms," she confirms. "They believe that's what's required. In my day it was more about choreography. Coming from my background, where I've mixed with true creative geniuses, I see acro as an easy way out. It is much harder to create real choreography to music than to chuck in a cartwheel. They wouldn't be doing a forward flip if they were dancing from the heart."

As far as helping contestants win the competition: "I actually would not give them a place,” she says. “It ruined the solo for me."

One could say that today’s trend to “acro” dance is just another stage in the development of the art form – dance has always absorbed popular forms. Many teachers enjoy the variety and excitement it adds to routines. Others accept it as just another style and have added lessons in acro or gymnastics to their school curriculums. But the problem is that all those acrobatic moves are leading to a new rise in serious injuries, with children attempting difficult gymnastic poses and extreme forms of stretching and risking immediate and long term physical harm to their bodies.

As reported by Michelle Dursun in the accompanying article, physiotherapists are reporting an alarming rise in injuries that are not normally associated with dance, such as back injuries from back bends and tumbles and dislocated hips from overstretching. Many of these injuries occur when students do their own stretching and experimenting at home.
Another problem with Youtube culture is that it is creating a generation of students who believe that competitions are the endgame of dance. They think that winning with their three minute solo is the sum total of success. Yet, while many competitions provide useful experience and feedback for the contestants, dancing is not just about winning solos.
Furthermore, acro choreography of the sort seen on Youtube has very little to do with the professional dance world. It really only exists in amateur competitions. Very little professional choreography in today’s ballet or contemporary dance companies employs scorpions or backflips. Company directors are looking for dancers who can blend into their existing group and perform what the choreographer demands.

Elizabeth Old is the associate artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, which has a youth ensemble for students from 12 to fourteen. Of all Australia's professional dance companies, ADT is the most athletic, and would seem to require gymnastic skills from its dancers. However, when Old is asked if she would be impressed by gymnastic skills displayed in auditions, she said she would not. “You have to look at health and safety,” she says. “When I see Youtube clips of kids doing back flip after back flip, I just think in a few year's time that child is going to have fracture of the spine and by 25 they won't be dancing anymore. It frightens me.”

Paul Malek is concerned that children are learning acro (often poorly) at the expense of good dance technique. He is the artistic director Transit Dance & Origins Dance Company in Melbourne as well as a teacher and adjudicator.

“I have auditioned a lot of dancers over the last seven years, and in these auditions, everyone is so capable of flipping, or kicking their face or jumping in second,” he says. “But the majority cannot draw their foot up their leg through retire with accurate articulation when you ask them to developpe to second. When they are learning choreography, they struggle to pick up any movement that is foreign to them and connect them with fluid and seamless transitions. This is extremely concerning when you think: where they will go on and dance as a professional if they are missing basic elements that are the base standard in the global professional dance industry?” 

Last but not least, students and their teachers need to remember that dance is an art form. Gymnastics and acrobatics may have a lot to give to dance, and they may have artistic characteristics of their own, but they are not art. Acrobatics and gymnastics are amazing displays of physical strength and flexibility, but that is all they are. They often are no better – and no more attractive – than contortionists. Leg mounts might make you gasp, but in a dance context can be crass lapses in taste.

Such physical prowess should always be used at the service of the art form, not in place of it. Dance is a profoundly expressive form of communication and beauty that goes a lot further than just how much a dancer can split her legs. 


Furthermore . . .

Elizabeth Old
"Students need to be reminded that shows like Dance Moms are entertainment, they are not reality. If they want reality they should look up Youtube clips of the great ballerinas. Many students today can't even name the top ballerinas."

Beverly Fry
artistic director of the National Theatre Ballet School in St Kilda, Melbourne
"Dance is obviously getting more acrobatic, especially in new and contemporary ballet. But this is completely different thing to acro. Acro is not an art form. In my opinion it doesn't belong in dance competitions – it has a place but not in that context. It's all about the tricks, not the art.”

Paul Malek
"I can see hundreds of young dancers flip and the majority just kind of getting it right but it's not very pretty. This can only be sustainable if we as teachers are promoting it to be what is needed for a child to succeed. If winning a competition at 10 outweighs being a professional dancer at 20, then I think we have our priorities a little backwards."

Lucas Newland
Managing and Creative Director
Brent Street, Sydney
"Acrobatic tricks are not usually relevant to dance choreography and should only be used as a skill intertwined with the correct style, feel and transitions. Dance is supposed to make your audience feel something, not just show off of acrobatics or even ‘dance tricks’. Brent Street uses acrobatic classes to help strengthen students to become more versatile in advanced dance choreography. Let's leave the gymnastics to the gymnasts and the contortion to the contortionists."

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