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August 15, 2008 4:24 PM

Eye, Media

Flipping Out

Shawn JohnsonBob Rosato/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images I usually like watching women play sports. Until the Williams sisters came along and sucked all the fun out of it, I always preferred women's tennis to men's. I loved the way rallies built...


Shawn Johnson
Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
I usually like watching women play sports. Until the Williams sisters came along and sucked all the fun out of it, I always preferred women's tennis to men's. I loved the way rallies built into a crescendo, a kind of opera of anticipation.

But the same cannot be said for the women's gymnastics at the Beijing Olympics, which had me cringing all week long. It wasn't just the obvious physical damage the sport has wrought on its best-known practitioners, whose "gnomish" bodies -- as Guy Trebay put it in the Times Thursday -- are "more muscularly developed and yet at the same time troublingly arrested" than ever.

Or those perfect little ponytails. Or that nearly everyone seemed to be doing the same routine over and over and over. Mostly, it was the fact that someone decided to teach the women of the U.S. Olympic team the moves of the street.

Put simply, these "young ladies" (as they were often referred to by the inane commentators) were some of the worst dancers I have ever seen. When they got jiggy with it on the balance beam, it was like watching hip-hop by way of Béla Károlyi. Even Mariah Carey can get her groove on better than these girls.

The first move that drove me off the deep end was the funky chicken thing. I noticed this when one of the girls came out of a cartwheel and popped her chest out and in, as if imitating a back-up dancer in a Janet Jackson video. The problem was, the skill set acquired from gymnastics is generally not transferable to expressive dancing, and so the girl looked more like a malfunctioning robot.

Then I noticed the curious interpretation of what I call "Britney Spears' rump shaker move." This came (on more than one occasion) at the end of a dismount and involved the playful -- but never truly defiant -- tushy wave to the judges. In general, I believe a move like this should be choreographed for those with something to shake,  as opposed to a group of gymnasts whose growth was stunted by too much exercise and too little food.

Third on the list of infractions was the gangsta-lite shoulder bop, a variation on a move popularized in rap videos and now seen mostly in exercise DVDs featuring women like Raquel Welch.

But the last straw came when I caught a glimpse of the Running Man -- a hip-hop dance popular with the suburban set when I was bar mitzvah hopping some 18 years ago. And seeing it resuscitated was just too painful. If you had "U Can't Touch This" MC-Hammered into you for six months straight around 1990, you would surely never want to see silver medalist Shawn Johnson perform its most famous moves from the balance beam. By the time Nastia Liukin won the gold medal, edging out the favorite Johnson, I'd stopped watching.

The parade of bad dancing smacked of people trying too hard -- like Hillary Clinton's pained efforts to smile and connect with her audience on the nights Barack Obama had trounced her in the caucus states. For a while you watched it like it was a car wreck. Eventually, you just had to change the channel.

The way I see it, if everyone on the U.S. Gymnastics team is going to look exactly, frighteningly the same, there's not much point in trying to make what they do kinesthetically multicultural.
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