The Origins of Rhythmic Gymnastics
Updated: May 22, 2021
Have you ever wondered how rhythmic gymnastics became the sport that we know? What influences were at play in the early days before its emergence? In this post, I will provide you with an overview of the main ideas and methodologies that played the most crucial role in that process. I will focus on the historical figures who had the most influence within the fields of physical education, gymnastics, and dance, and made the most significant contributions to the creation of this beautiful sport. The first evidence for gymnastics exercises comes from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece but I will fast forward to the 18th, 19th and 20th century, and tell you about the changes in society, ideas and art, that led to the emergence of modern rhythmic gymnastics. I have incorporated a lot of pictures and videos to make this material easy to digest.
1. Reforms in Classical Ballet – Plot and Meaning Through Movement
I will start this journey as far as the 18th century, with Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) - a French choreographer and ballet master whose ideas transformed classical ballet of his time. He proposed reforms to the art to replace what he believed had become obsolete in classical ballet. Noverre had a vision and a dream as to what classical ballet should be like. His ideas included that ballet plots should be logical and based on truth, dance steps should be an expression of the plot, and that the composer, choreographer and designer should work collaboratively throughout the creative process to ensure all elements of the ballet fit together. His ideas were instrumental to the development of the concept of ballet d’action - a ballet in which the plot is the single fundamental around which all the other elements (choreography, costumes, sets, music) come together to create a harmonious whole. In his seminal work, Les Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets (Letters about the dance, and about ballets) published in 1760, Noverre writes about the expressive potential of dance and body movement to create dramatic emotions: ‘I think . . . this art has remained in its infancy only because its effects have been limited. . . No one has suspected its power of speaking to the heart’.
2. Delsarte’s Method
Moving into the 19th century, French artist and coach François Delsarte (1811-1871) became particularly interested in the ‘bodily expression of emotions’ as a coaching technique for actors, painters, dancers and orators, to convey ideas through body positions and gestures. Being an artist himself, Delsarte was frustrated by the lack of a systematic approach for teaching acting and noticed the mechanical and inauthentic delivery of actors on the stage. He created a system of laws and principles of the various ways in which the body expresses emotions. His method of expression was described systematically and displayed in diagrams and charts. Delsarte named it a ‘science of applied aesthetics’ and he also referred to it as ‘the innate science of all art’. His ideas were influential during the Physical Culture Movement (see Part 3) and played a pivotal role during ‘The Renaissance of the Dance’ at the start of the 20th century, when Expressionist dance came about (see Part 7). Delsarte, while not a dancer himself, is considered the father of modern dance.
3. The Physical Culture Movement – A Strive for A Healthy Body
The Physical Culture Movement began in the end of the 19th century and gained increasing popularity in the first half of the 20th century in Germany, the UK and the US. It was a movement of physical and health training for all, and incorporated strenuous exercises to improve body strength, flexibility, appearance, health, and general fitness. In its early days, it was primarily popular in colleges to keep students healthy and fit, and later – providing a lifestyle alternative for people with sedentary jobs. It was often referred to as ‘German gymnastics’, as the first systematic physical exercises were developed by German sports educators Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (1759-1839) and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852), who are referred to as the ‘grandfather’, and the ‘father’ of gymnastics, respectively. Exercise props such as Indian clubs and medicine balls, wooden wands and dumbbells were commonly used during the training. The Physical Culture movement was heavily influenced by the Delsartean method and the exercises were intended to be performed with harmony, beauty, and artistry, in accordance with his System.
4. Finding the ‘Rhythm’ – from Delcroze’s Eurhythmics to Bode’s Rhythmic Gymnastics
Rhythm (from Greek - to flow) is defined as ‘a strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound’. Rhythm is different from beat. To put it in simple terms - beat is the regular ‘ticking of the clock’, while rhythm is the pattern of musical notes and how they are combined. There was a renewed interested in rhythm in the early 20th century among musical theorists, such as August Halm, Ernst Kurth, and Hans Mersmann. This interest is attributed to the new ideas of motion and time in physics and philosophy that emerged around that time.
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) was a Swiss composer, musician and arguably the most influential music educator of the 20th century. At the Geneva Conservatoire he invented a methodology for teaching music through movement which he termed eurhythmics (from eurhythmy, in Greek – beautiful and harmonious movement). At the core of his method was the development of a connection between the mind and the physical instincts (body awareness), to achieve musical expression. He taught his students how to understand musical structure, rhythm, and expression through body movements. Delcroze argued that developing motor skills in response to music early on allows dancers to achieve artistic excellence later in their careers. As he explains in his famous work ‘Eurhythmics, art and education’ first published in 1920, his aim was to develop a "connection between instincts for pitch and movement… music and character, music and temperament, [and] finally the art of music and the art of dancing.” See below a video of a demonstration from 1966 of Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics methodology.
A contemporary of Delcroze, and his pupil for two years was Rudolf Bode (1881-1970)
- a German movement theoretician and practitioner, whose ideas influenced the German body culture, or Koerperkultur. Bode was interested in the natural movement of the human body, and its response to rhythm. In his seminal work - Rhythm and its Importance for Education, published in 1920 – Bode lays down the foundation of rhythmic gymnastics. Bode had a ‘conviction that the … boundaries dividing art and physical education today will soon be a thing of the past’. This symbiosis between art and physical exercise gave rise to rhythmic gymnastics.
5. The Swedish System - Ling Gymnastics and the ‘Idla Girls’
We cannot discuss the origins of rhythmic gymnastics without mentioning the huge contribution of Swedish educator Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839). While learning modern languages in Denmark, Ling took up fencing. It was during the conditioning class at the end of the training, when he realised that certain body movements helped relieve the gout pain in his arm. After experiencing ‘the movement cure’, Ling was determined to bring it to more people. He trained as a medical doctor, to understand the anatomy, physiology and
mechanics of the human body. He was interested in the holistic nature of human body movement and the benefit it has for the health of the body and mind. He became a pioneer in physiotherapy, invented the Swedish massage, and developed a Swedish system of gymnastics which he divided into four categories: pedagogic, military, medical and aesthetic. Swedish gymnastics during the Physical Culture Movement were performed in groups of people as a collective exercise, with an emphasis on the capabilities of the group, rather than individual excellence. See below videos of Swedish Gymnasts performing in 1937.
Earnst Idla (1901-1980) is considered one of the pioneers of modern rhythmic gymnastics. Idla had medical training and became a gymnastics coach in his home country Estonia, building on the established Ling methods with his own ideas about gymnastics training. He emphasised on harmony, rhythm, dance and music. He incorporated running drills in his training methods and insisted that running is an exercise that engages the whole body, not just the legs. He fled to Sweden in 1944 as a refugee and established a gymnastics group called Idlaflickorna in Sweden. His students, known as ‘the Idla girls’, performed all over the world their famous routines with balls. Idla first became interested in the ball as a gymnastics apparatus back in 1922, when he was a sports teacher in Elva, Estonia, at a time when ball sports such as volleyball and basketball became increasingly popular in the country. Idla noticed the versatility of the ball and the various ways in which it could be handled. He noted: “The ball is a tool that defies us and can make the most unforeseen deviations. It has its own movement and character”. See below a video of the Idla girls performing free-hand and with balls in 1948.
6. Heinrick Medau and Modern Gymnastics
Heinrick Medau (1890–1974) was a German teacher and musician who entered the world of gymnastics rather accidentally, through job secondment.
He was trained in the methods of Delcroze and Rudolf Bode. He was familiar with the Swedish system of gymnastics and went on to develop his own ‘modern method’ of gymnastics in which music had a central role, and body movement was organic and fluid, and promoted poise and good posture. When he opened his own school in Berlin in 1929, he taught his method while playing the piano, similar to ballet classes. Handling of the clubs, ball and hoop was developed during the practice. Medau has been credited with having a major contribution to the formation of rhythmic gymnastics as a sport in the 1960s. See below a footage taken in Glasgow, Scotland in 1954, featuring a demonstration of Medau pupils performing rhythmic movements with clubs, balls and hoops (external link to the National Library of Scotland Website). The Medau School and System were introduced to the United Kingdom in 1930s and still exist today.
7. Isadora Duncan – the Icon of Expressionist Dance
Early 20th century saw the emergence of the expressionist movement – a revolution across all forms of art – visual arts, music, dance, literature, movie, theatre, architecture, etc. It was a modernist movement popular among the artists from the avant-garde who were interested in experimentation and breaking the rigid rules of Classicism. The objective of expressionist art was to express subjective emotional experience. In dance, it was a rebellion against the strict rules of classical ballet. There was an emphasis on freedom of the spirit and natural movement, improvisation and breaking of the conventions. A prominent name is that of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). She was an American dancer who spent most of her life and career in Europe where she was celebrated. Her style of dance was influenced by no other than Delsarte and his ideas of bodily expression of emotion. Isadora Duncan is considered to have had significant influence on the development of the sport of rhythmic gymnastics. Her artistry was influenced by Ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures and she often performed in Greek tunic and bare feet. Isadora Duncan has been called ‘the mother of modern dance’.
8. Rhythmic Gymnastics as a Sport and at the Olympic Games
Rhythmic gymnastics was first recognised as a sport in 1961 by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), but at first it was called ‘modern gymnastics’ and was later renamed to rhythmic gymnastics. The first World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships took place in 1963, and groups were introduced in 1967. RG became an Olympic discipline in 1984 and groups – in 1996.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this historical overview of the ideas which pre-dated and directly led to the creation of rhythmic gymnastics as a sport. Let me know in the comments below if you would like me to write more posts about RG history. If you liked this post, consider pressing the little heart icon below, so I know what topics to write more on. I will be back next time with a post about current rhythmic gymnastics, and I will make sure to write after the World Cup in Tashkent later this month. Thank you for reading.
See you next time,
Rhythm in 20th century music theory
Bode - Rhythm and its Importance for Education
Physical Culture - Encyclopedia Britannica
Physical Culture Founded on Delsartean Principles, 1891
Physical Culture Movement - trio