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‘None of These Girls Are Dancers. None of Them’

We talked to Dominic Zito, choreographer for Team USA gymnastics, about teaching Simone and Aly to shimmy

Today, teams of intense, muscle-bound young women from around the world will compete for the all-around gold medal in women’s gymnastics. To win, they have to flawlessly hurl themselves through uneven bars, spring and twist off of a vault, and flip into perfect poses on a narrow beam. And then they have to dance.

The women’s floor exercise is the only gymnastics event set to music, and the only event in which the athletes can lose major points for failing to bust some sufficient moves. Between 2012 and 2016, the official rules for the floor exercise changed to increase the impact of music and choreography on the final score — now, Simone Biles or Aly Raisman could fall short of the gold for a mistimed shoulder shimmy, or a failure to seem like she’s having enough fun.

The music itself — usually an anonymous track of generic world music or bite-sized classical — is subject to its own set of strict rules. It has to be instrumental, and can only include human voices that don’t resolve into words. Humming, whistling and moaning are all okay, as is the word “hey,” but anything else is grounds for major demerits. The music also has to change rhythm multiple times over the course of the 90-second exercise, to allow the gymnasts to gracefully switch between tempos. Beyond that, though, anything goes — including, for Ragan Smith, one of the Olympic alternates this year, the Addams Family theme song.

This is all a little nuts, considering that the men’s floor exercise is performed in total silence, with all the seriousness of a tennis match. So we got in touch with Dominic Zito, the official USA Gymnastics National Team Choreographer, who picked the music and choreographed the routines for every American gymnast competing in Rio this year, to ask how he adds all that razzle-dazzle to the gymnasts’ raw power.

Who decides which song goes with which gymnast?
Usually we all just want to please [national team coordinator] Márta Károlyi — as long as Márta’s happy we go with it, because she’s part of the main selection committee who makes the team.

What does Márta like?
She wants the crowd clapping; she doesn’t want boring balletic routines. For the choreography, everything needs to be picture-perfect, clear and exact. She’d love it to be entertaining, too, but she wants those photographic memory moments.

And she wants the music to always be recognizable but current, like a piece that maybe was done in 1976 but then covered by a newer musician.

Why recognizable?
First for fans, but second — I mean, judges aren’t usually in their 20s, so if it’s something they like and can relate to, that can help.

What kind of songs do you like?
Personally, I don’t like movie themes. I don’t think playing these dark, slow, dramatic things for little girls is appropriate. And it’s boring. It can work, but it needs to be with the right athlete; it can’t just be thrown on this little blonde.

How does the song selection process work?
For the past two years, Márta, myself, and Rhonda [Faehn, the vice president of USA Gymnastics] sat together, went through the list of girls in contention for making Olympic trials, and then picked out a couple genres for each, to make sure the everybody who made the Rio team had a different theme and a different genre.

What counts as a theme? What counts as a genre?
We can do like a Spanish theme, and then a genre like salsa, samba, something like that. Traditional, classical—anything along those lines that will differentiate the athletes from each other when they compete.

What did you end up picking for the Rio team?
Let’s see, Gabby is doing a salsa, and we have traditional Russian folk for Aly Raisman. Simone this year is all Brazilian, she’s a Brazilian bird. Madison is doing tango, Laurie is doing a kind of dance-swing. And we have more for the alternates — Addams Family for Ragan Smith, I’m sure you’re familiar with that.

Yeah, why the Addams Family song? That seems like a strange choice.
Ragan is something like 4-foot-5, she’s very tiny, and we did a song from West Side Story last year that I thought was just too big and dramatic for her. I wanted something cute, and like I said, recognizable is good.

So, in ‘88, one of Márta’s athletes, Phoebe Mills, used the Addams Family song, and Kim [Zmeskal-Burdette, Ragan’s coach] came up with the idea of trying it. I thought she was kidding at first, but from the international perspective, judges have come up to me saying it was the best floor routine they’ve seen in decades, and that the music selection was perfect with her.

How much does the music and choreography play into scoring?
Oh gosh, I mean every time you’re off a beat, that’s already a 10th [of a point] off right there. And there’s the corner deductions — you can’t just stand on two feet, you have to show body movement, you have to have choreography that leaves the corner. And in the beginning of the routine, you need an 8-count of just choreography, too, so you can’t just run in.

Wow, it’s that particular?
Yeah, it got really specific after 2012; the artistry deductions completely went up.

Why then?
I think it might have been because of our girls — we were so good at tumbling that they tried to make the artistry more difficult in the deductions.

But we attacked that, and we’re definitely showing more artistry as a whole, way more than in 2012 and 2008. I don’t think it was very important back then. I watched some of the videos and was like, it doesn’t even match the music.

How do you even find the right music?
All I do is search for new music — when I’m on a flight, in the car — it’s nonstop. People will text me, “What about this song?” all the time. I look up artists, or I go to “world” on iTunes and search for instrumentals and listen to all kinds of weird things.

Or a lot of times I’ll look into the past and see what was popular in 1976 or 1980 or ‘84 and find a modern version of it. Or I’ll hear something in a commercial on TV, even. You can always find ideas.

Do you end up Shazaming things a lot?
You know, I have in the past, but not recently. I think that’s actually how Gabby found her music last year — she heard a Shakira piece playing in a mall, and she Shazammed it and sent it over. I should start again.

Do the gymnasts often come up with their own music?
No, Gabby’s one of the only ones that picks out what she likes — she has a favorite style, that kind of salsa-Latin flair, which actually helps.

How about the dance moves? Do they come up with any of those on their own?
No. None of these girls are dancers. None of them. So it takes days, or weeks — I fly to their personal gyms around the country every month, and then we go through the whole routine.

They don’t know how to tilt their heads, or press their arms back as much as they should, so everything — every head move, even how they move their eyes — it’s all choreographed as much as we possibly can.

Do you have a signature move you like to work into routines you choreograph?
I don’t — the routines are not about me — but what I like to do with each athlete is work in something interesting in the routine, so they have a signature move. Like Simone’s ending, where she bounces down into her pose, or Madison has this chest roll we put in at the end: something memorable for the crowds and judges.

Once you pick the music, is it locked in for all the training?
Oh, no, the music selection is such a really long process. We’re making changes with the music and choreography right up to the last minute.

A lot of the girls are so in shape now that they ended up ahead of their music, because they can just go that much faster on the passes. With Simone, we kept having to add small things to the choreography as she got better and better leading up to the Olympics, just to fill up the time.

Why isn’t there any hip-hop in the Olympic routines?
Márta would say save that for college, where it’s more fun and laid-back. On the international stage they don’t want that collegiate look.

Why don’t the men have any music or choreography for their floor routines?
I have no idea. When I was a gymnast, I always wanted to have music in my floor routines, but it wasn’t allowed — just tumble and finish.

I agree.