Thursday, April 25, 2013

Flashback: 1989 National Champ Event Finals

I love these old school videos that USA Gymnastics keeps uploading to YouTube. They're hopelessly 80s from the segment music to the leos to the uneven bar routines. This event has come a long way since the golden age of the sport (which is the 80s, in my opinion). While you can make the case that certain ultra-difficult moves on beam and floor that are highly rated today were being done 20 years ago, you cannot make the same case for the bars. Uneven bars is a completely revolutionized event today when compared to what it was in the 80s.

Bart Conner, however, remains unchanged. Has that man aged in the past two decades? Has he struck some sort of Faustian bargain to keep from aging? Or does he have a grotesque Dorian Gray-like portrait stowed in an attic in Oklahoma somewhere? I simply must know.

Also interesting is the discussion of judging with Muriel Grossfeld at around 24:48 in the video.

Witness to Domestic Violence

Several months ago, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, my friend and photographer extraordinaire became a witness to a largely hidden crime--domestic violence. She had been documenting one man's reintegration into society after stints in prison, but on one fateful night, she ended chronicling his attack on his new girlfriend, a young mother.

I interviewed Lewkowicz for Jewcy about the incident and the reaction to her photos, which were published in Time and on fotovisura--you can read it here--but I wanted to post a part of our conversation that was removed for length considerations from that piece.

When I asked her about positive responses to the photo essay, she responded thusly:

I’ve gotten a ton of emails from abuse survivors or people who work as advocates for abuse survivors. I got one message from a 21-year-old guy in Hungary who said that he had once seen a guy beating his girlfriend on the street and he hadn’t done anything, and in his discomfort he kind of laughed about it with his friends later on, to trivialize the event so his feelings wouldn’t bother him. He said, “You know, it’s not funny to me anymore. I looked at your pictures and I don’t think it’s just a problem for women or feminists. It’s a problem for everyone.” This one kid saw those pictures and it changed his attitude—what more can I ask for?

I had a guy write to me and he had been speaking to a group of veterans who are transitioning into civilian life and he showed them the essay because domestic violence is a huge problem in the military community. It is pretty comorbid with PTSD. He said that after he showed them the pictures, a guy came up to him and broke down sobbing and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I need help.” He told them that he had been beating his wife for a year since he’d been back from the war—I forget which front he was on. They sent him home with crisis counselors and sure enough, she had a fractured arm that she hadn’t had a cast put on because she didn’t want to get him in trouble. He ended up giving himself up and being taken into custody.

In some ways, only half the problem is solved. The chances that this guy is going to get proper counseling or proper psychological care that will really help him understand this stuff is nil. Which brings us right back to the problem that I first endeavored to document—we set people up to fail and then when they do, we act like we’re shocked. We as a society have to take responsibility for the monsters we have a hand in creating. People need to be responsible for their actions but circumstance plays a huge part in how people’s lives go.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Where do gymnasts go after the Olympics?

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, hosted at UCLA in Pauley Pavilion--the site of the 1984 Olympics and Mary Lou Retton's and the men's team's winning performances. It was my first time attending the championships or any NCAA meet more significant than a simple dual meet, which I used to go to regularly back in 2005 and 2006 when I lived in the Los Angeles area.

From those meets and from television, I knew that NCAAs, while a serious competition, were also something of a party. I just had no idea how much fun it would be to watch others having that much fun. Every routine was greeted with a bevy of high fives, hit or miss. The individual athletes (without teams on the floor) were greeted enthusiastically by the teams they rotated with in the qualifications in a show of wonderful sportswomanship and camaraderie. And then there's the dancing--on sidelines to the radio or as their teammates are performing. (In the case of UCLA, one of the assistant coaches/trainers really gets into in. At the end of event finals, he was up on top of the vault, shaking and shimmying.)

I wrote about this joyful competitive atmosphere for Slate in the essay, "Post Olympic." Check it out here. (New York Magazine also did a little blog piece on my story, which you can find here.)

Gabby Douglas featured in a Ted Talk

I was watching a Ted X Talk video posted by a friend about race when Dr. James Peterson brought up Gabby Douglas as an exemplar of what he calls an "All Black Everything Moment." (You should watch the whole thing, but Douglas is mentioned around 5:10.)

Gym fans, I know--he gets some of his facts wrong. Douglas won two, not three gold medals. And she's from Virginia, not Marlyand. But these errors don't blunt his overall point about African American success--namely that black success is achieved despite racism, not because of the absence of it. And this success can obscure suffering. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dancing With The Stars Week 4: Aly Gets Emotional

This week, Aly Raisman and Mark tackled the newly added dance category--contemporary--which required her to dig deep for Feelings. Cut to: montage of Aly training for the Olympics and talking about the difficulty for the Olympics.

It was nice seeing clips of Aly doing what she does best--gymnastics. But this would be short-lived. Sigh.

This week I disagree with the judges, who gave her 9s--I really don't think that contemporary suits Aly at all. I really disliked this performance. Last week I noted that she is best when paired with her partner and fares poorer when moving solo. Most of tonight's routine had dancing alongside Mark instead of partnered with him and her flaws as a dancer were all the more glaring as a result.  Though one of the judges astutely noted that contemporary doesn't necessitate a perfection of movement, something that Aly spent her entire career striving for, it does demand "perfection of emotion." (Though she did lovely roundoff, back handspring, layout step out.)

But I do think there should be some ease and naturalness of movement if not perfection. I don't mind messy; but it seemed so difficult. As for the emotions evinced--it also felt as forced as the movement. Instead it felt like EMOTIONS. Like she is shouting from the rooftops.

I'm not saying that Aly isn't progressing--she is--but I felt this routine and genre highlighted her weaknesses as a dancer. I'm hoping for better next week.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Where Have All The Yang Bo Jumps Gone?

File this under: things you write when you have a deadline for something very important.

Has anyone else been wondering where have all the Yang Bo jumps gone? Now, granted there were never that many to begin with but there was once a time when they were practically de rigeur for every Chinese beamer. Some other, non-Chinese gymnast chimed in with Yang Bos of their own, too.

But take a look at the master's, Yang Bo herself:

But 2003 World Beam Champion Fan Ye also did a fairly spectacular version of the jump.

Be sure to read this part to the tune of Paula Cole's "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" (Remember Paula Cole? She sang the theme song to Dawson's Creek and didn't shave her pits.)

Oh, you throw your head back, toss balance out of whack,
And hope to get your feet back on the beam.
Spine shaped like a big C
Eyes away from the balance beam,
And hope you land it perfectly.
I will do the sheep jumps,
If you do the ring leaps.


Where is my double stag,
Where is my straight leg,
Where is my arched back?
Where have all the Yang Bos gone?

Okay-that's all I've got. I hope my verse doesn't get lodged in your brain like a Britney Spears pop song.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Researching for "A Prairie Home Companion"

Yesterday I had the honor/excitement to watch some of my work onstage at the New York Town Hall as part of the NYC recording of "A Prairie Home Companion." For the past week, I've been working as a freelance researcher for the radio show, walking around Brooklyn, observing the goings-on of The New York Times' most favorite borough, and lending some of my street cred. This was the most fun I've had in awhile working on a project.

Check out the whole program, now up and streaming on their site.

But I'm Not A Feminist!: How Not To Advance Your Cause

I'm always pleased when I see a marginalized person argue for greater respect, for their rights. Better that they speak up for themselves than to have others speak on their behalf.

So when I came across Rivkah Lambert Adler's piece in The Times of Israel, decrying the lack of spatial parity in her Israel Orthodox community, I was predisposed to be supportive. She was asking for simple fairness--if she pays the same ticket price, why must her seat be so much worse; why are the spaces allotted for women in communal spaces inferior? (By the way, this holds true in both American and Israeli Orthodox community--I apologize if the title implied that it was Israel specific.)

But then Adler's piece takes a turn--it goes from asking those in power to be more respectful of women, of not treating them like second class citizens, of using communal spaces much more equitably to discrediting other women and feminists for asking for too much.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that I want to wear tefillin or serve as a ba’al tefilla or be called up to the Torah for an aliyah. I’m not inherently opposed to separate seating during services. Please don’t conflate and thereby dismiss what I’m saying because my point is based on gender. I’m not revealing my disdain for being a Jewish woman and I have no secret desire to be a Jewish man.

She does this as a defense mechanism to shield herself against criticism. She's basically saying--Guys, I'm not like one of those feminists who really wants to be a man. I'm just asking for a little respect here.

But in doing this, she is allowing the Orthodox powers that be to define the terms of the debate and the limits of progress. She could've left the discussion open-ended by merely arguing forcefully for the thing she wanted--equitable treatment in communal spaces--but she chose instead to discredit other women and their goals and agree to limits that will leave Adler and women like her in a subservient role. In this role, she will continually find herself in the position of having to ask for "respect."

I have more to say (naturally!) over at Jewcy. Read the rest there.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

1980 AIAW National Women's Collegiate Gymnastics Championships

God bless USA Gymnastics for posting this video from the 1980 AIAW event finals. For those of you that don't know, the AIAW was the league that preceded the NCAA in collegiate gymnastics.

I love everything about this video--the music, the leotards (Catalina Ponor would consider them downright demure), the softball commentary. It's amazingly dated.

Just sit back and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Aly Learns How To Count Music

Last night, Aly performed the Viennese waltz with Mark Ballas and like Shawn Johnson before her (the waltz was actually her first DWTS dance, I believe), she must surmount the "love" hurdle--namely, that she hasn't ever been in love and must somehow figure out how to impart that sort of emotion, sans experience of it, to the audience.

Frankly, I think they overstate this issue with the younger competitors. These performances don't really get beyond superficial expressions of anything so whatever Aly has gleaned of love from movies, television, books, and being a human being these past 18 years is probably enough to fake it through a 90 second dance.

The bigger challenge, however, was learning how to count music. "I literally didn't know what counting music was before this show," Aly said as she struggled with the different count for the waltz--counts of 6 instead of 4 and 8, which is more typical for most dance. I find it amazing that counting music and steps hasn't been drilled into Aly. This is a basic of dance training. I don't fault Aly for this--clearly her training in this area has been very lacking. This doesn't surprise, especially after seeing this picture last year from dance training at the Ranch. (Can you find all of the things wrong in this photo?)

I didn't like how the dance started with Aly and Mark standing side by side, dancing individually. Her partnering skills and footwork seem to be coming along and she can rely on Ballas' finesse to carry where she is still lags behind. But thus far, she doesn't really have the grace, ease, and sharpness in her in her movements. Once they moved into the partnered part of the dance, the performance improved immensely.

Once again, I didn't see the other dancers. I was out with friends, having my first leavened meal in 7 days. (I've adopted the Reform Jewish custom of observing the biblically mandated 7 days instead of the rabbinic 8.) As a result, I don't know how Aly stacks up against the rest of the dancers but I can't imagine she'd end up in the bottom with this effort.

What did you guys think of this performance?