Like many other children, I began gymnastics at the age of five after my parents became terrified that I’d injure myself flipping off the couch or attempting somersaults on the backyard trampoline (there were no nets and pads back then). I fell in love with the sport from the beginning. I was able to flip and turn to my heart’s content. I was learning new skills and eventually stringing them together to create full routines.
Those that have watched me grow up in the sport know that ballet was a huge part of my career as a gymnast. Even before I started gymnastics, I was taking ballet. In fact, I wanted so badly to go with my older sister to ballet that I called my grandmother and begged her to talk my mother into allowing me to go. She did just that and even paid for my first lessons!
As a shy child, ballet class was my first opportunity to begin to understand how I could tell a story through movement. Even at a young age, I loved the practice and precision of each move. Those basic classes helped me with body awareness, flexibility, and timing. Of course, I loved the slippers and tights and really loved recitals. For a shy child, I had no problem showing off to a room full of people….as long as I didn’t have to speak to anyone.
Making the transition to gymnastics did not mean leaving ballet behind. In fact, it was my dance background that helped me understand who I was as a gymnast. During that time, the primary gymnast body type was more of a powerhouse like Mary Lou Retton and then Kim Zmeskal, and the floor routine was energetic, even cutesy.
I can recall one choreographer trying to get me to shake my hips and my shoulders and “be cute.” Instead I just broke down in tears. I knew it wasn’t me. I knew that if I didn’t love it and didn’t feel comfortable, then the routine would fall flat with both the audience and judges. Ballet was my comfort zone. I wanted violins and dramatic movements.
I wasn’t particularly powerful. I had these skinny legs and knobby knees. I wasn’t the most flexible or the most naturally talented. However, I loved gymnastics and soon found that I could combine those skills learned through ballet with my gym training to create something incredible.
Ballet had given me a basic understanding of posture and how important it is to have a solid foundation for larger skills. Ballet helped me understand “grace” in a way that I may not have understood through gymnastics alone. As I grew in the sport, I continued with ballet at least once a week. I found that incorporating what I learned through ballet allowed me to excel on balance beam and floor exercise. I was able to differentiate myself through my dance and attention to detail.
When someone asks me about my favorite moments, it’s difficult not to think of my floor exercise routines. One of my favorite quotes from a commentator was, “Shannon just pulls in every note”. My goal with the choreography was to stay true to myself. I may not have had the most or even best training, but that foundation through ballet allowed me to connect my movements to the audience, to truly tell a story.
While I became known for the artistic portion of my gymnastics as much as for my difficulty in skills, I don’t consider myself a great dancer, but rather, a lover of dance. I will always be grateful for my grandmother who gave me my start, for my parents who helped me follow my dreams, and for my coaches who understood the importance of ballet to my overall training and success.