‘Will you be wearing a leotard?’ George asked when I told her I would be doing artistic gymnastics. The nearest I’ve come to a leotard, as a child and an adult, has been the few months I spent in ballet classes when Tanya’s School of Dance offered weekly sessions at my primary school. I was not destined to be a ballet dancer and my mother wisely sidestepped a leotard investment.
As I do in so many situations, I followed my mother’s lead: the world does not need to see me in a leotard.
Artistic gymnasts have to perform a routine of 60-90 seconds. It doesn’t sound a long time but each routine involves a different bit of apparatus: balance beam, uneven bars, vault, floor. And that’s where my anxiety kicked in. Gymnastics involves a lot of agility and dynamic movement, and I’m not blessed with those skills.
When I arrived at the class, the younger gymnasts were busy: leaping over the vault, tumbling across the mat, spinning around the bars. The room looked like a kid’s playground with loads of stuff to climb on and fall off. I sat on a bench and contemplated the task ahead: 90 minutes of gymnastics.
Instructor Mel introduced herself: ‘I’ve heard all about you. Don’t worry. It’s a friendly class and we’ll make sure you get to try everything you need to.’
Reassured, I joined the class for the warm-up. There were almost as many men as women in the class and, although some people had been gymnasts as children and had now returned to the sport, some had only discovered gymnastics when their own children took it up.
I took my place at the end of the line for the tumbling mat, and tried to copy whatever movement everyone ahead of me had made. I managed some jumping and bouncing and a bit of plank-walking (keeping your body and legs straight while moving forward using your toes and hands). I even managed a forward roll which took me off the mat into the line of people waiting to tackle the next move on the tumbling mat.
Then things got complicated: handstands, cartwheels, handstands and forward rolls, and more. I watched, from the safety of the bench.
Warm-up completed, people headed to different pieces of apparatus to practice their skills. Mel asked coach Lauren to accompany me, and Georgia joined us. Georgia explained she’d be taking part in the London Marathon in a couple of weeks and didn’t want to risk injuring herself so was happy to help me out. I was grateful but worried about falling on Georgia and causing her an injury.
I told Lauren the balance beam was the one exercise I’d been looking forward to, so we made our way to a balance beam on the floor: ‘Hold your arms out at shoulder level, look straight ahead, and put one foot in front of the other.’
After a couple of walks, Lauren decided I was ready to have a go on the beam raised off the floor. I climbed up and, with Lauren holding the tips of the fingers on my left hand, started to edge out along the beam. Lauren noticed I was scrunching my toes and told me to try to place my feet flat on the beam. I did and I noticed my balance improved.
At the end of the beam, Lauren told me to take small steps to turn around. I did and found it easier and faster walking back to the other end of the beam. Lauren stopped holding my fingers and, after a few more walks, suggested kicking one leg out in front then lifting up one knee to balance on one leg. I managed to do the kick and the lift, and discovered that if I dropped and relaxed my shoulders, my balance improved.
I fell off, once.
Next: the uneven bars. I held my breath as I watched Mel demonstrate how to swing up onto the top of the lower bar then leap from a standing position to the higher bar.
Lauren showed me how to grip the bar and I hung like a dead weight. ‘Try to raise your feet off the floor,’ Lauren suggested. I tried. For a fleeting moment there was air between the floor and my feet. Buoyed by my success, I tried swinging backward and forward and there was some rocking. Dragon boat paddling and kettlebells may have given me some solid upper body strength but the core strength needed for work on the uneven bars was beyond me.
We moved on to the trampoline and, hoping to get a pass, I explained I’d already completed the trampoline gymnastics. Lauren would not be swayed and I found myself demonstrating all I knew: bouncing, star jumps, my own style of knee tucks. Another class member tried to teach me a seated drop. The drop went well.
During the class I’d been eyeing up people tumbling across the mat and my time had finally come. I confessed to Lauren and Georgia I couldn’t do a forward roll. Unfortunately they’d both seen me do my variant of a forward roll during the warm-up.
Lauren broke the forward roll down into a series of moves: ‘Stretch your arms above your hand, bend down and put your hands on the mat, push your bottom in the air, tuck your head in, and roll forward. Try to roll onto your shoulders not your head.’
Not much instruction to remember but each time I hit a block when I reached the bit before the actual roll. We talked about how it becomes more difficult to do things when you get older because you become more aware of risks and injuries. Lauren dragged over a small, sloped mat: ‘Maybe this will help.’
Maybe it did. I managed a forward roll.
My final exercise was the vault. Lauren and Georgia demonstrated how to run, bounce off the mini trampoline, crouch on the block, jump onto and off the vault, to land on the mat. I had a cautious attempt. I couldn’t get my feet up onto the block so landed on my knees and scrambled across the block to stand on the vault. I jumped off the vault and sank to my knees.
Lauren made some suggestions: ‘Bounce harder on the trampoline to get up on the block. When you jump off the vault, hold your shoulders back because that will help stop you tipping forward and falling on your knees.’
I did what she said and managed to stay standing when I jumped off the vault – although crouching on the block remained a move too far. Oddly, this became my second favourite exercise and I enjoyed the sequence of movements and the accomplishment of landing on my feet, with my arms in the air.
I went back to the class for a second week – some exercises went better than the first week, others didn’t.
Leotards will never feature in my wardrobe but I’ve set myself the task of learning to do a forward roll and an unsupported handstand.