Friday, November 11, 2011

In Soviet TV Land, a disco ball refuge for fallen ballerinas

Continuing my tour through Cold War-era Eastern bloc nations, I’m reporting now from ground zero, Soviet Union state-controlled television. And it’s marvelous!

Welcome to Ритмика, which, if Google translation can be trusted, translates to “Rhythmics,” a half-hour TV fitness show that blends backwater ballet and training camp calisthenics inside a bright white disco ball. It’s a strange animal, this show, and totally worth trying out if you like a) Soviet electronic music, even the chintzy stuff, b) Russian ballerinas and/or pretending to be one (click that link -- girl’s like a real-life Navi, just not blue) and c) testing your choreography-pickup skills. 

Hosted by a young lady who suggests a less-bulky He-Man, these programs are short and sweet, and they have no patience for hand-holding or heavy instruction. She and her leotard-clad troupe of thin-limbed backup exercisers get right to business, and half the fun is following along with their peculiar, oddly elegant combinations. 

It’s not enough to lean from side to side and stretch the adductor muscles, no no. Toss in some flair and feeling and grace, for god’s sake! Add an arm combination and an artful back curl, and maybe some footwork! And don’t forget about your head! What’s it doing? It can’t just be there. Stretch it back, and tilt the chin, and if I have to tell you to keep your chest lifted one more time you may as well not bother coming back.

It’s not really oppressive like that, no, but the show makes it seem like you’re supposed to know how to add that level of ornamentation automatically. There’s a lot of back-arching and head-tossing and implicit attention to epaulement, and the dancers all make it seem so effortless you forget that they grew up in a nation with its own centralized ballet and gymnastics feeder system, where if you’re talented enough you can look forward to a childhood spent in strict, rigorous training getting your prepubescent limbs stretched and shaped into an ideal physique. And if you’re not, you can drop out of ballet school and become a “Rhythmics” backup dancer!

The combinations are fussy, but they're fun practice for picking up choreography and being aware of your whole body -- for turning your workout into a little mini-performance. These "Rhythmics" lads and ladies even make jogging in place look like the prancing of legwarmer-wearing Tibetan antelopes, so you have to put a spring in your step if you want to catch up. 

Fortunately, it's not hard to do, at least in terms of intensity. The middle of the workout includes a 5- or 6-minute chunk of high-energy aerobics, after which a 10-second timer encourages you to check your heart rate, but the rest of it is light to moderate in difficulty. Also, that high-energy section is where the soundtrack gets its most cartoony, and I highly encourage skipping to 2:27 in the video above to hear it. The rest of the time it's flimsy, disco-inspired Euro electropop, which is an aural exilir I can't resist, even when it seems like the soundtrack to "Wacky Races." 

At first glance, I laughed at this workout and bookmarked it as a Friday Fit-Fart. Now, I'm still laughing, but I'm joining them in their sparkly white TV realm, where you never have to worry about wrinkles or cellulite because you're lit too brightly. Where your comrades are former ballet hopefuls who've softened the fall off the Vaganova ladder with synthesizers and vodka. Where you get to do this:

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