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UCLA gymnasts are dynamic storytelling in motion

The gym floor becomes their stage as UCLA’s top gymnasts spin stories with their amazing moves

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UCLA gymnast Danusia Francis
Ian Spanier/UCLA

UCLA gymnast Danusia Francis played a James Bond girl during the 2015 gymnastics season and reprised some of those elements for the 2016 season.

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. That was no less true this past season when the gymnastics team took command of the floor. Such storytelling elements are a hallmark of UCLA gymnastics, said Amanda Borden, a Pac-12 network analyst 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 said. “We all have little quirks in our personality, and our routines match those really, really well.”

For coach Valorie Kondos Field, 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 explained. “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 recalled, “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 and her sister Savannah, a computer science and engineering student at UC Merced, developed a hip-hop routine that took the internet by storm last February. Millions marveled at seeing DeJesus hit the quan, whip, nae nae and dab at a gymnastics meet.

Here are some of the stars and the characters they played:

The secret agent: Danusia Francis

For the 2015 season, Kondos Field transformed British gymnast Danusia Francis into a Bond girl by creating a floor routine to the theme music from the James Bond movies. Known for her flexibility, Francis left the audience gasping when she nonchalantly swung her leg behind her head, never disturbing the perfect point of her toes. When she “shot” with toes or fingers, the UCLA student section obligingly clutched at imaginary “wounds” and fell over.

After 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 used sultry music from The Weeknd’s Oscar-nominated “Earned It.” But in the last 30 seconds of the routine, the music shifted and the lounge singer tossed her curls, becoming the Bond girl again.

Even on beam — a very small stage indeed at less than four inches wide — 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 Francis’ 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 is only 5 feet 4 inches, but when she takes on the character of a Brazilian dancer, she conveys an impression of tall elegance. “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,” wrote the Daily Bruin’s Tuanh Dam.

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 this year 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. She began as a Bruin 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 said she reached for her cell phone. The distinctive marimba ringtone, long an iPhone default, was an important part of Cipra’s music. Her “cell-phone routine” showcased a rebellious little sister who’s managed to sneak into a dance club.

The Daily Bruin’s Dam described the storyline this way: “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 mimed putting cell phones to their ears, pretending to be Cipra’s mysterious caller.

In real life, talking to her parents is part of Cipra’s 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 said.

Leader of the Pac

With 17 regional titles, 13 conference titles — including 2016 — and six national championships, Kondos Field was the obvious choice last February 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 said.

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.”

Said Francis, “Miss Val, she really instills in us the idea of entertainment. And I believe that separates us.”

Read the complete story in the July 2016 issue of UCLA Magazine.

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