The balance beam is often regarded as the most difficult event in women’s gymnastics any level of competition. At only four inches wide and four feet off the ground, there’s barely enough space for a person’s foot to fit on the beam let alone enough room to flip and dance.
It encompasses everything that makes a great gymnast, said Georgia head coach Danna Durante.
“You need to be graceful,” Durante said. “You need to be powerful. You need to be dynamic. You need to have great control and great rhythm and great flexibility. It’s all of these great things and a seriously intense focus. It is 70 seconds or 80 seconds of grace and rhythm and fast and sharp and slow.”
Like vault and bars, each beam routine starts and ends with a salute to the judge. Failure to present at the beginning results in a zero for the routine and forgetting to do so afterwards means deductions for everything you do after landing the dismount until you remember.
A beam routine, like the uneven bars, starts initially from a score of 9.5. To get the start value up to a 10, gymnasts must connect elements and do difficult skills to make up the remaining five-tenths in bonus.
Each routine is timed and must last between 30 and 90 seconds. Any routine that goes over the time limit gets a one-tenth deduction from the final score. Time starts as soon as a gymnast touches the apparatus and stops once her feet hit the ground after her dismount. Time is also paused should a gymnast fall and is resumed once she remounts the beam.
Falls completely off the apparatus are half a point off the gymnast’s score. After a fall, a gymnast has 30 seconds to remount the beam. If she fails to get back on within the time restraints, she won’t be allowed to continue her routine. If a gymnast clutches the beam at any part of her routine in order to not fall off — not because it is part of the choreography — the deduction is three-tenths.
Each routine also has certain skill requirements, including an acro series (may not include the mount or dismount), one leap or jump that has at least 180 degrees cross or side split, a minimum of a 360-degree turn on one foot, an aerial or salto dismount, and a dance series of at least two elements, according to the Junior Olympic Code of Points 2013-2017 and 2014-2015 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Rules Modifications. Failure to include all of these requirements is five-tenths off the final score for each missing piece.
The acro series must comprise two tumbling elements with one having flight. A skill with flight is where, for a moment, the gymnast’s hands are not on the beam and she is suspended in the air. Things like back flips and front flips are considered flight elements. The other element in the acro series doesn’t have to have flight but can if the gymnast desires. Acro series don’t have to be just two skills but can include three or sometimes even four elements in a row. However, if there is a pause or wobble between skills, there is no connection and, thus, no series. The most common series on beam is a back handspring layout step-out, which you’ll learn about later.
In terms of acro skills, each routine must have a skill in at least two of the following three categories: backward moving, forward moving or side moving. Back handsprings are backward-moving skills while front tucks are forward-moving skills and things like cartwheels are side-moving skills.
Judges want to see diversity and not the same routine over and over again. Just like fans can get bored watching from the stands, the men and women in blue blazers feel those emotions too. So when a gymnast with a repertoire like Georgia junior Brittany Rogers comes around a sigh of relief escapes the judges’ mouths.
“I can do a front aerial, but I’d rather do a three-quarter twisting back handspring,” Rogers said. “So it all depends on the person and the risk you’re willing to take. If I can do those different skills correctly, why not?”
The leap or jump of at least 180 degrees includes straddle and split jumps as well as split and switch leaps. Most gymnasts fulfill this requirement with a leap although many do more than required and add in two or more.
Similarly, gymnasts must perform a dance series, which, like the acro series, includes a connection of at least two dance elements in a row. Most gymnasts perform a leap into a jump or two jumps together. However, the requirement can be satisfied by doing two turns in a row or any combination of leaps, turns and jumps.
With dance elements in a routine, a gymnast cannot perform more than two elements in one “shape.” The shapes in gymnastics are cat, sheep, wolf, straight/beat, pike, tuck, straddle, ring and split. These shapes will be explained in the dance section of the dictionary.
With so many skills in the code of points to choose from, it can often be difficult to compose a routine that works just right. A lot of the reasoning that goes into which elements are picked comes down to comfort in the end.
As a taller gymnast, Rogers plays to her strengths and performs more skills that require upper body strength than those that involve the legs and having to jump high off the beam.
“Because I’m so tall, it’s weird to say, but I don’t get a lot of height,” Rogers said. “I’m not a powerful athlete to begin with. My upper body strength is better than my lower body, so skills like holding that three-quarter twisting back handspring are my strengths. But it all depends on what kind of athlete you are and where your strengths are physically.”
To get on the beam, a gymnast can choose to perform an actual skill listed in the code of points or merely mount the beam. The mount does not have to be an official element. However, some gymnasts may decide to use their mount as an opportunity to get a required skill out of the way early on. But it can pose some risks starting with a hard element right off the bat.
Gymnasts may use the help of a mat or spring board to get on the beam. However, the aid must be moved immediately after the mount is performed so as to prevent any safety hazards during the remainder of the routine.
A beam routine isn’t just about the skills. The choreography is just as important and can be what sets a routine apart from all the others surrounding it.
“What’s your wow?” Durante said of the beam’s compounding factors. “It could be a layout and double tuck dismount — that’s pretty wow. But it could be a dance piece, it could be a handstand, it could be that mount like [Oklahoma’s] Chayse [Capps] does, or it could be the moonwalk like Mary Beth [Box] does.”
Apart from skill requirements, there are also a couple of dance and artistry essentials that can be taken off for by the judges if not fulfilled. Gymnasts cannot pause for more than two seconds before skills or risk getting a deduction for rhythm of routine. Within the choreography, gymnasts must show level changes, meaning some movements must be performed high on the beam (standing up), some semi-low (squatting or with bent legs) and some low on the beam (sitting, squatting, or lying on the beam). There must also be dance moving forward, backward and sideways and choreography must take up the entire length of the beam.
Finally, every routine must end with a dismount. In college, dismounts must be of “C” difficulty or above or an easier “B” dismount, but done in combination with another skill. This means a gymnast can’t just hop off the beam when she’s finished performing all her other elements.
But even if the skills and that “wow moment” are there, a gymnast still needs to have confidence to work on four inches of wood.
“Shoulders down, chest up, chin up, finishing your skills and showing that you’ve completed that skill as best you could and not trying to cover it up by wobbling into a different dance,” Rogers said. “They are looking for poise and expression, not a monotone routine, not a robotic routine.”
Confidence and a calm demeanor can go farther than big skills. A gymnast’s athletic ability can be the strongest in the world, but without mental strength to stay on the beam when things don’t go as planned, the routine is over before it has even started, according to Durante who scored four perfect 10s on beam as a gymnast at Arizona State.
“I liked to have a conversation with myself,” Durante said. “Some people it’s one word. Some of them just need this look in the eye that says let’s go you got it. Tricia Woo, who I think was a phenomenal beam worker at Nebraska, needed a joke before. It should look effortless like it’s on the floor.”