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Men in Rhythmic Gymnastics? On Gender Stereotyping, Classical Ballet and What the Future Holds

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Hello everyone,

Rhythmic gymnastics (RG) is one of the very few Olympic sports which is a women-only sport. The International Olympic Committee has increased its efforts to implement gender equality across all Olympic sports. Therefore, there is a very real prospect that RG might find itself in a situation where expanding the sport to include male disciplines at a professional level will be required for it to retain its Olympic status. This is a very exciting prospect and I would like to tell you why and what this means for the sport.

The path to gender equality in sports, and specifically at the Olympic games, has been a long one for women, and is still continuing to this day. Women historically faced a lot of prejudice and discrimination, for example in ice hockey, where they were not allowed to compete at the Olympic games until 1992. This is because of gender stereotyping - certain sports were traditionally viewed as ‘manly’, or ‘masculine’, and others – as ‘womanly’, or ‘feminine’. Gender stereotyping works both ways - excluding women from a particular sport, because it is seen as ‘manly’, or excluding men from a sport because it is seen as ‘womanly’ is therefore, really the same thing. It is like the two sides of the same coin. If we are trying to eliminate and overcome gender stereotyping and discrimination against women in sports, it is only right that we do the same for men.

Male rhythmic gymnastics is currently very underdeveloped. There are efforts to advance male RG in only a handful of countries, most notably Spain and Japan, and those efforts are wildly different from each other. There is so far no centralised or coordinated discipline to define male rhythmic gymnastics internationally. In Spain, male rhythmic gymnasts resemble their female counterparts in body movements, apparatus use, artistry, and overall aesthetics (for instance, highly embellished leotards, lyricism, etc). In Japan, male rhythmic gymnasts have their own aesthetics and body work, which features a lot of acrobatic elements such as somersaults. The apparatus range in Japanese male RG includes rope and clubs, similar to female rhythmic gymnastics, but also rings and stick. The purpose of this post is, however, not to provide an in-depth review of what is currently the state of male-only rhythmic gymnastics, but to give you my view of what male RG could be like, what introducing men to RG can really mean for the sport, and how this can be approached to give the best outcome.

I personally believe that the best way for men to thrive in rhythmic gymnastics is to create their own distinct discipline, presence and style, rather than emulate the female version of this sport. Rhythmic gymnastics is characterised by the use of a hand-held apparatus, flexibility and musicality, and is also heavily influenced by ballet dancing. The latter makes it possible for male rhythmic gymnasts to draw inspiration from professional male ballet dancers. Male and female classical ballet dancers are not only artists, they also train like Olympic athletes – they are incredibly strong, flexible, and can perform astonishing jumps, turns and balances - many of which have been lent to rhythmic gymnastics. Ballet dancers tell stories through body movements, gestures and acting. So, if men can do classical ballet, why can’t they do rhythmic gymnastics?

In the first instance, it might be useful to introduce men to the sport through mixed pairs (i.e. a man and a woman performing one routine together). This could not only allow men to explore and define their own individuality in the sport, but would also be received better by the audiences than male-only disciplines (due to the gender stereotyping and prejudice which is prevalent, unfortunately). The reason I think mixed pairs could work for the sport, is once again because of classical ballet. There is a dance in classical ballet called the pas de deux (meaning ‘step for two’) – a dance duet where the steps of the two dancers are coordinated and convey a meaning. Some of my favourites are from the ballets The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote. It is not hard to imagine that an RG routine consisting of two gymnasts of different genders and physicalities, with apparatuses and music, can be the source of endless possibilities. This could provide opportunity for innovation and creativity in the sport, and show something new that we, as audience, have not seen before.

Men should be allowed to compete in RG – not only would this bring the much needed gender equality in the sport, but also it will develop the sport further, it will drive progress and make RG even more exciting to watch. We are sitting at a junction in the history of RG and I for one hope they will choose to move forward and we will be able to witness the evolution of this beautiful sport and how it moves forward with the times.

Thank you for reading.

See you next time,

Melody RG

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