Born to Perform
By Anne Pautler
Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM
Precision, strength and grace are crucial to every event in gymnastics competition. But floor exercise in particular provides room for creativity — and Coach Valorie Kondos Field’s Bruins have taken it to a whole new level.
The rebellious kid sister sneaking into a club. The costumed Brazilian dancer leading a parade. The secret agent moonlighting undercover as a lounge singer.
Is this a casting call? An acting exercise? Not even close.
This is UCLA gymnastics on floor routine.
No one does floor exercises like the Bruins, who are renowned for their ability to paint a scene while running, jumping and somersaulting through the air. Such storytelling elements are a hallmark of UCLA gymnastics, says Amanda Borden, a Pac-12 network commentator and Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics. She points to “routines uniquely designed for each athlete” as one of UCLA’s key strengths.
“It’s really like all of our routines match our personality,” UCLA gymnast Mikaela Gerber says. “We all have little quirks in our personality and our routines match those really, really well.”
Every gymnast tells a story
For Coach Valorie Kondos Field ’87, the character sketches and story lines began as a cure for expressionless faces. A trained ballet dancer, she was playing piano accompaniment at a gymnastics studio when she noticed something odd. The athletes could strike beautiful poses, but there was nothing happening on their faces.
“As a ballet dancer, as soon as the music comes on, you’re performing,” Kondos Field explains. “And that performance includes your face, whether you’re onstage or in a rehearsal room or in class.” When she arrived at UCLA, she began crafting story lines to evoke feelings that would translate to the gymnasts’ faces.
In her first year of coaching at UCLA, she recalls, “Everybody laughed and made fun of me.” But they stopped laughing when they noticed that the choreographed routines stood out — and so did the gymnasts performing them. Since 1991, when Kondos Field became the head coach of UCLA women’s gymnastics, her imaginative routines have allowed her student-athletes to shine. Each move, gesture and expression is carefully chosen to tell a story or sketch a character.
Kondos Field encourages her gymnasts to contribute, as well. Sophina DeJesus ’16 and her sister Savannah, a computer science and engineering student at UC Merced, developed a hip-hop routine that took the Internet by storm in February. Millions marveled at seeing DeJesus hit the quan, whip, nae nae and dab at a gymnastics meet.
The secret agent: Danusia Francis
For the 2015 season, Kondos Field transformed British gymnast Danusia Francis ’16 into a Bond girl by creating a floor routine to the theme music from the James Bond movies. Known for her flexibility, Francis leaves the audience gasping when she nonchalantly swings her leg behind her head, never disturbing the perfect point of her toes. When she “shoots” with toes or fingers, the UCLA student section obligingly clutches at imaginary “wounds” and falls over.
After practicing and performing the Bond routine for an entire season, Francis was ready for something new in 2016 — but it was hard to let go. The answer was to let the secret agent go undercover. Most of the 2016 routine uses sultry music from The Weeknd’s Oscar-nominated “Earned It.” But in the last 30 seconds of the routine, the music shifts and the lounge singer tosses her curls, becoming the Bond girl again.
Even on beam — at less than four inches wide, a very small stage indeed — Francis is known for putting on a show. Her flexibility and playful personality shine through. She ends each beam routine with a unique move, a side aerial into a full-twist dismount. “The dismount we all wait for,” Borden called it on air. In both 2014 and 2016, judges scored her routine a perfect 10. She capped her UCLA career with a share of the 2016 NCAA individual championship on beam.
The Brazilian dancer: Sadiqua Bynum
Sadiqua Bynum ’16 is only 5’4”, but when she takes on the character of a Brazilian dancer, she conveys an impression of tall elegance. The Daily Bruin’s Tuanh Dam described Bynum’s routine this way: “Donning a colorful, festive Brazilian outfit … [she] acts as the grand poobah of the parade, gathering the entire country and leading them towards the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games.”
All year, Bynum’s role on floor routine was as the anchor: At home meets, she was the last performer in the last event. Three times in 2016 she won the meet for the Bruins — against Alabama and Utah, and on the road in the Pac-12 championships. In her final season, she had 11 scores of 9.9 or greater on floor.
Bynum loves the light guitar melodies of her music and the surprising trills of sound that she translates into turns and other movements. “I have a little, like, sassy walk in it, and I like that a lot,” Bynum says. She began her UCLA career in 2012 as a walk-on and ended in 2016 as a first-team All American.
The little sister: Angi Cipra
The first time Angi Cipra did her floor routine in competition, Pac-12 commentator Borden says she reached for her cell phone. The distinctive marimba ringtone, long an iPhone default, is an important part of Cipra’s music. Her “cell-phone routine” showcases a rebellious little sister who’s managed to sneak into a dance club.
Dam’s description in the Daily Bruin read, “A call interrupts her night out. Answering the phone, Cipra searches for her mom in the audience before continuing her dance moves.” At Pauley, teammates and audience members mime putting cell phones to their ears, pretending to be Cipra’s mysterious caller.
In real life, Cipra isn’t dodging calls from home. Talking to her parents is part of her pre-meet routine. A junior during the 2016 season, she has a year of eligibility remaining. “I love the hard work. I love the feeling you get when you’ve learned a new skill or you’ve hit a great routine,” Cipra says.
Living up to the legacy
Mikaela Gerber invariably leads off on balance beam, and often on floor as well. Her floor exercise is a legacy routine made famous by Yvonne Tousek ’05, who twice competed in the Olympics before coming to UCLA. Tousek, like Gerber, is Canadian; they even trained at the same gym. So Gerber was more than ready to learn Tousek’s routine.
Legacy routines are another innovation Kondos Field brought from ballet to gymnastics. In ballet, there is great emphasis on tradition. For more than a century, every dancer in the role of the Black Swan has done 32 fouettés (whip turns) in Act 3 of Swan Lake. They’re copying Pierina Legnani, who originated the role in 1895. “It is an honor to dance the same steps,” Kondos Field explains.
But to gymnasts, legacy was a strange idea. “They don’t want to use someone else’s routine because that means it’s not ‘special,’ ” Kondos Field says. “And so it took me a while to switch that mentality with them.” Now her gymnasts consider it an honor and a compliment to learn a legacy routine, because the coach chooses athletes who can match the personality and skills of the original gymnast. “I do adapt it to the current student-athlete and what they’re doing,” she says.
Leader of the Pac
With 17 regional titles, 13 conference titles — including 2016 — and six national championships, Kondos Field was the obvious choice for Pac-12 Coach of the Century in women’s gymnastics. “Huge honor … unfathomable. I can’t really wrap my mind around it,” Kondos Field says.
A friend and disciple of Coach John Wooden, another UCLA Pac-12 Coach of the Century, Kondos Field calls gymnastics “an amazing, weird sport. It’s a sport that the human body can’t naturally do, so no other great athlete can come in and just ‘play’ gymnastics.”
Borden considers Kondos Field’s greatest accomplishment to be her leadership. “She’s a powerful female leader,” Borden says. “She takes athletes who have been told exactly what to do all of their lives and finds their unique strengths. They become confident young women.”
Says Francis, “Miss Val, she really instills in us the idea of entertainment. And I believe that separates us.”
Dance is in Valorie Kondos Field’s blood. A former member of the Sacramento Ballet, Capital City Ballet and Washington Ballet, Kondos Field has infused her gymnasts’ floor and beam routines with bold inventiveness, astounding athleticism and breathtaking beauty since 1983, when she was hired as the team’s dance coach. Today, UCLA has earned the reputation of having the most unique and artistic routines in the nation, and Kondos Field is recognized as one of the top beam and floor choreographers in the sport.
But while you may be familiar with the Bruins’ rise to the upper echelon of collegiate gymnastics, did you know these fun facts about their head coach?
• Kondos Field never took a gymnastics lesson in her life. Diagnosed with scoliosis as a child, she had been told by doctors that dancing would help correct her curved spine, so she studied ballet instead.
• Once her reputation as a choreographer had been established, Kondos Field did not limit herself to mere humans. She also created routines for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and assorted sea creatures as a freelance choreographer for Disneyland and SeaWorld.
• Kondos Field was portrayed by Jennifer Beals in the 2015 film Full Out, about former Bruin gymnast Ariana Berlin ’10.
• The NCAA championship that the Bruins won in 1997 was not only Kondos Field’s first championship, but also UCLA’s first-ever national title in women’s gymnastics. And that was just the beginning ...