An interview with Dr. Kyra Gaunt about viral floor routines in the NCAA.
|Dvora Meyers||Mar 26||3||2|
Since 2014, five or six gymnasts, depending on who include in the tally, have had floor routines go viral on social media, and all of them have been women of color. And of those 5-6, all but one have been Black women. While the media coverage of the gymnasts and their viral floor routines have noted the race of the gymnasts and has often made it central to the discussion of their achievements as individuals, there hasn’t been, at least to my knowledge, an analysis of the overall trend clearly taking shape here—that it is women of color, and primarily Black women at that, who are driving this particular phenomenon.
There’s an obvious question here: Why are the gymnasts who are powering this sudden explosion in the visibility women’s college gymnastics all women of color?
(In case my intent isn’t obvious, I don’t mean this question in a pejorative sense, as though there is something wrong with this trend. It’s most definitely a very good thing! I am simply trying to understand it better.)
While I’m able to ask the question, I’m in no way equipped to answer it. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to even hazard a decent guess as to perhaps why this is happening. But fortunately, I have interviewed someone who is able to offer insight into this phenomenon.
Meet Dr. Kyra Gaunt, a professor at the University at Albany (SUNY) and ethnomusicologist whose scholarship has focused on the intersection of Black girlhood, music, and digital media. She’s the author of the award winning book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop.
(A quick shout out to Joe Schloss, also an ethnomusicologist of some renown and good friend of mine, who suggested I reach out to Gaunt when I told him my idea for this newsletter. If you’re at all interested in learning about the history of breaking, check out his book Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip Hop Culture in New York. )
I reached out to Gaunt, who agreed to speak with me for this piece. To prepare for our conversation, I sent Gaunt all of the floor routines that had gone viral and also some other examples of floor routines that, while competently performed, were not as engaging or well-choreographed as the viral ones so that she could have an idea of what the majority of college gymnastics floor routines actually look like. Let’s just say that most are not as choreographically complex and well performed as Nia Dennis’ or Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routines.
“We’ve always had Black culture as kind of a tastemaker,” Gaunt told me. All of the routines that have gone viral have not only featured Black gymnasts or POC but have also featured music from Black artists and have taken moves from Black social dances.
The centrality of Black music and art to American pop culture is oft remarked upon but that doesn’t make it any less of an important point to bring up when discussing the virality of these videos. But in that history of Black art of being foundational to American pop culture is also the story of appropriation of that art by white people, who then go on to profit off of it far more than the people who created it. The classic example is Elvis Presley being called the “King of Rock and Roll” when really Chuck Berry, an African American singer/songwriter and guitarist, should’ve been hailed as such. Berry should’ve been at least as popular and successful as Presley if not more so. (Presley did, at times, acknowledge his debt to Berry, Fats Domino, and other Black artists.)
But in the case of the viral floor routines, we don’t have white gymnasts performing to hip hop music and using moves from Black social dances and skyrocketing to social media stardom though many white gymnasts do use hip hop tracks in their routines. It’s the gymnasts of color, and mainly Black gymnasts at that, who have been the beneficiaries, which is a nice change of pace.
(It should be noted that, for the most, the gymnasts haven’t profited much or at all off of their newfound popularity due to NCAA amateurism rules around eligibility. Katelyn Ohashi, the viral megastar of 2019, talked about how people and institutions profited off of her viral moment yet she couldn’t take a dime in this New York Times video op-ed. The rules are now being changed to allow college athletes to earn money off their name and likeness.)
“I think there are a number of factors that play into why it probably is a thing. One is the Black Lives Matter movement that overlaps with this period from 2014 to now, and the ‘black girl magic” hashtag,’” Gaunt said.
The timing of LSU athlete Llomincia Hall’s viral floor routine is significant for another reason, Gaunt noted: 2013 is the year that YouTube made a contract with the Billboard charts for its views to be part of the streaming for gold and platinum records. “So it’s a pivotal year...the Harlem Shake was able to go viral as a result of that,” she said. “It’s also the year of twerking.”
“That was when this trend of learning dances and having songs go viral because of the gesture of the dances associated with the music began in that summer of 2013.” While a viral floor routine set to music and a pop song that comes replete with its own particular dance move is not perfectly analogous, it’s hard not to see how the machinations of YouTube and the record industry wouldn’t have some spillover effect on floor routines set to popular music and uploaded to social media.
But this is not just about corporate behemoths and algorithms. It’s also about who is doing the sharing. “Women are dominant in a lot of the social sharing spaces,” Gaunt said, noting that Black women, in particular, are often tastemakers on those platforms. The things that Black women choose to share stand a good chance of taking off on social media and being appreciated outside the Black community.
Then Gaunt posited a theory of hers that might help explain the viral floor routine phenomenon. “Black women are the interface that drives the profit and the attention economy on every platform and it began with YouTube,” she started.
Specifically with Janet Jackson and the “wardrobe malfunction.” During the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Justin Timberlake infamously exposed Jackson’s nipple during their performance and the FCC, the Bush Administration, and people who say they’re worried about children but also support slashing social welfare programs, all got a case of the vapors. Jackson’s career was irreparably damaged by the incident but Timberlake just went “la di da” and went on with his career.
This all happened before YouTube so if you missed seeing the incident live, you simply missed seeing it. The clips that appeared on the evening news were edited for the sake of the children.
Around that time, three PayPal bros, who were working on a dating site called “Tune In, Hook Up” that wasn’t really taking off. “What they did find was that people wanted to see Janet Jackson's nipples from the NFL Super Bowl the year before, and that they could provide that by putting it on their website and that's how they went. That's how they made YouTube a profitable venture.”
It’s the classic Top 40 hit: “Capitalism profiting off of Black people while offering them little in return.”
(Given this unfair history, it’s all the more satisfying that UCLA’s Margzetta Frazier blew up online after performing to a medley of Janet Jackson songs. Jackson actually FaceTimed with Frazier. Happy tears were shed by all.)
“All Black bodies, but particularly Black female bodies, are kind of an interface through which we think that things are cool,” Gaunt explained. “Black girls had to suppress this expressive tradition in their bodies to be a part of gymnastics,” she continued. “Before, you needed to fit into what white girls were like or whatever ideal Nadia Comaneci [represented].
“If you’ve been watching gymnastics for a little bit as a consumer of the Olympics, it’s pretty close to ballet...For that very thing, you expect a kind of disciplining of the body, disciplining personality.”
While disciplining of the body is something of a prerequisite for doing gymnastics well at a high level, the disciplining of the personality that Gaunt referenced is by no means required to do complex skills. Rather, the disciplining of personality is often imposed on the gymnasts by coaches and other powerful figures as a means of controlling them, a phenomenon that has been well documented in gymnastics over the last four years.
In these viral floor routines, Gaunt sees a different approach being modeled for gymnasts
“Watching these videos, there's something special about being able to see people live in their kind of full expressive truth. Not that that kind of dancing is, quote, unquote, natural; it’s that it is expressive of being a part of a larger community of women who are really not wanting to limit their identity to a standard of how women should be in public,” she continued.
And this is not the kind of thing one tends to think about when watching women’s gymnastics. The viral floor routines, as I and others have noted, subverted many of the expectations that many have of women’s gymnastics if they only watch the sport once every four years at the Olympics. (As I pointed out to Britni de la Cretaz in her piece about viral floor routines at Refinery 29, the fact that many college gymnasts perform “fun” routines to pop music is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s been something of a norm in NCAA gymnastics for decades.)
When the expectation—that all gymnasts are white and perform only with a balletic bearing and style—clashed with the reality that many high level gymnasts are Black and some gymnasts perform African American social dances to popular music, it resulted, in some instances, in viral popularity online. People were sharing the routines, not just because they were incredibly well-done but also because they were surprising in a good way.
“Black women open up spaces for people to consider there's a different way to be free,” Gaunt said.
I want to apologize for not sending a newsletter out last week. There are a lot of reasons for it but chief among them was a paralysis brought on by the recent controversies swirling around Substack, which is the platform that this newsletter exists on. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading all of the takes, most of which were published on Substack, reading Twitter threads on the topic, and talking to other writers to try to work out what to do.
For those of you who do not live on Twitter—good for you!—here’s a quick rundown of what has happened: Substack allows anyone to sign up and send out a newsletter to followers for free. It’s a really easy to use platform and I think the result is clean and aesthetically pleasing. If/when a writer decides to turn on paid subscriptions, Substack takes a 10% cut of the revenue. That’s its basic business model.
By this description, Substack would appear to be only a tech company that provides a platform to writers and nothing more, and that it doesn’t have an obligation to moderate the content that it appears on its platform. But Substack has also been in the business of content curation and making editorial decisions. Via its Substack Pro program, it has been luring well-established writers with large followings with advances—sometimes as large as $250,000 as Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias received—to start up newsletters on the platform. If the writer decides to accept the grant, Substack will take 85-90 percent of their subscription revenues in the first year. After that, the writer’s arrangement is the same as it is for the rest of us—you keep 90 percent of the subscription revenue while Substack’s cut is at 10 percent.
(Disclosure: I received a $2,500 no strings attached grant last year from Substack shortly after the COVID-19 lockdowns began.)
Now here’s the main issue: Substack won’t publicize that list and so far, many of the writers who have chosen to make this information public have been, by and large, cisgender white men, many of whom seem to use their newsletters to mostly rail against “cancel culture,” which is, as David Klion writes in last week’s Jewish Currents newsletter, “the derogatory term for what a previous generation called ‘political correctness’ and what many of us on the left would describe as basic sensitivity to the dignity of marginalized communities.”
And the existence of the Pro program belies Substack’s claim that it is merely a platform then it’s fair to demand that it step in and deal with noted transphobe Graham Lineham, who has already been booted off Twitter yet has a Substack newsletter where he, among other things, posts pre-transition photos of trans people, which is a horrible violation of their dignity.
There have been several smart pieces written about the situation. Some have pointed out that the Pro program is similar to how book publishers award advances to authors, and I tend to mostly agree with this point—except that we know who the authors are if not the particulars of their deals so there’s at least a little bit of transparency there. And if you’ve published a book, as I have, with any of the major publishing houses, you’ve worked with a company who has published some of the worst people in the world, too. This is not an excuse for Substack’s behavior; more like a sad commentary on the state of media in general.
Some writers have chosen to leave the platform and others are mulling an exit. Some have decided to stay while being vocal against Substack. I’m not yet sure what I am going to do. While I’m not making a ton of money on this newsletter—nowhere near enough to live off of—it helps with a couple bills and that’s really not nothing, especially right now given *gestures dramatically to the world.*
I welcome feedback from subscribers about this matter. And I realize that some of you might wish to continue supporting me but don’t want to pour any more money into Substack’s coffers as I work through this matter. If that’s the case, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One last bit of business: Yesterday my interview with Simone Biles was published over at Texas Monthly. You can read it here.