I can lock myself in my basement at times for three hours and just try to hone in on finding this piece for this person. Some people, it comes very easy and some people it takes me a long time. I feel like I know what I want in my mind, and I can’t always find it. —Utah assistant coach and choreographer Meredith Paulicivic
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series chronicling the relationship between music and its influence in the world of sports.
SALT LAKE CITY — Breanna Hughes takes a deep breath as the deafening roar from the Huntsman Center crowd gradually quiets to a light whisper.
She salutes the judges flanking each side, grinning brightly under the LED lights dangling from the rafters as she begins her floor exercise routine. It’s at that point she morphs from a Utah gymnast to an Egyptian princess before the eyes of 15,000 spectators on this particular afternoon as her floor music blasts through the arena. In fact, one by one, each member of the team competing turns into one character or another as the rotation continues.
Sabrina Schwab stars as a jilted lover searching to fill that void; Samantha Partyka becomes a politician with skeletons hidden in her closet; Maddy Stover is a ‘20s flapper girl and so on and so forth.
“It really just helps you get into the character and get into your dance and be able to portray it,” Hughes said.
The whole concept is new to the Utah gymnastics team this season with first-year assistant coach and choreographer Meredith Paulicivic piecing together the routines. As an aid to get her gymnasts excited for their routines, Paulicivic assigned a character with a backstory that fits the floor music so that the routine tells a story.
While it may just appear to be a standard floor routine, each gymnast essentially becomes an actress once her individual floor song plays.
“It’s helpful to memorize what’s next because in your head you’re saying ‘well, first this happens, then this happens,’ so it’s not like you have to memorize just movements, but you’re memorizing your story, which then helps your dance,” Schwab said.
During one point in her routine, she will look at her teammates, symbolizing the moment she seeks Utah, and she flashes a “U” with her hands and places it over her heart at the end to embody the love found at Utah, completing her character’s storyline.
“Before we even started learning our floor routines, (Paulicivic) would tell us our character, so even from the beginning we could start to channel that and try to portray that,” Hughes adds. “It just makes it so much easier to go out there and do your dance and really showing everyone what we’re doing instead of going through the motions.”
Each character, however, is created by the floor music and finding the right floor number can, at times, be a task more daunting than one might suspect for a routine with the maximum allotment of 90 seconds.
Getting into character
When Paulicivic, a former Utah standout gymnast in the early ‘90s, joined the staff for the 2016 season she brought a wealth of unique visions and ideas for floor choreography with her.
And a whole lot of music.
“I probably listen to thousands and thousands of hours worth of music,” she said, as a Red Hot Chili Peppers' ditty hums over the speakers in the background before a team practice begins. “I can lock myself in my basement at times for three hours and just try to hone in on finding this piece for this person. Some people, it comes very easy and some people it takes me a long time. I feel like I know what I want in my mind, and I can’t always find it.”
When that isn’t enough, she enlisted the help of a music producer to fix the missing pieces in a floor song. In one case, Paulicivic believed something was missing from Hughes’ floor song, so she asked for more cymbals.
The producer countered with 50 options to find the perfect sound to complete the floor song and thus, complete the routine.
“It’s been great to have somebody like that that can hear my vision,” Paulicivic said. “So he really helps me out a lot, and he’s starting to get inside my head and understand the way I like things plugged in and extra instruments and sound effects that I like.”
Even when potential perfect songs are found, they may not mesh well with the gymnast or even sound great condensed into 90-second instrumentals. Paulicivic estimates she has scrapped around 20 percent of any music gathered because of various issues.
However, ideas come from all over the place, and it’s a never-ending cycle of trying to find the next song and create the next routine. A self-described “space nerd,” Paulicivic sifted through four to five hours worth of the “Planet of the Apes” soundtrack to find 90 seconds worth of music to fit a piece she choreographed for Baely Rowe.
“You just don’t know where something’s going to come from,” Paulicivic admits.
Many times it’s the gymnasts coming to her with material, though sometimes it’s notes given from others, and it’s not uncommon for her to write down anything that pops up along the way and save it for the perfect situation.
It’s also not uncommon to find gymnasts sharing music with one another, trying to find the perfect song for each other.
“It’s a communal thing,” Stover said. “We all pick and choose how we can help each other out with music.”
Trying to capture personality
A floor song, however, doesn’t need to represent a character. For the most part, the songs a gymnast selects match her as well as the style of her movements. Mikaela Jones, a senior at BYU, essentially culminates her career into a 45-second span to begin her routine.
The Saratoga Springs, Utah, native grew up listening to the Backstreet Boys, and the start of her floor routine reflects that nostalgia. Her floor routine music not only samples the group’s 1998 single “Everybody,” the choreography also matches the dance moves found in the music video. That is, for the first half of the routine at least.
“Being a senior this year, I just wanted to have a really fun routine and one that would be a crowd-pleaser,” Jones said. “(One) just really fun for my teammates, one really fun for me to do and for the crowd to get into.
“And I’ve always liked those songs,” she adds, breaking off into laughter.
Her routine begins as a mixture of gymnastics and childhood memories set to the tune of the infectious ‘90s hit. It’s a routine she’s used to, considering she learned the dance moves from the music video years ago with her mother, Cindy, while Cindy taught dance classes.
“I took some things from that to incorporate into my floor routine,” Jones said.
In fact, BYU assistant coach Brogan Evanson, who heads the team’s floor choreography, didn’t need to teach much choreography in the routine. Jones spearheaded that.
“She did the majority of the choreography,” Evanson said. “She knows the group, she knows their moves, and that’s what was speaking to her when she was putting it together.”
It’s the choreographer’s job to sort dance and gymnastics in a rhythm that flows well, and that’s difficult if the song fails to match the personality of the gymnast.
“You have to be really careful that you’re doing something that works for your gymnast’s style,” Paulicivic said. This includes tracking down movement patterns from previous routines on video, getting tips from the gymnast and getting a better understanding the gymnast’s personality.
“I think that’s the trick in it, and that’s the challenge in it, looking for something that’s new and exciting, fits their personality and I think each kid, especially the longer you work with them, you just have an idea of the story that they have or the way the body moves or if they’re dynamic or if they’re elegant. So you use all the information that you have and you go from there.”
So how do gymnasts find the right song to match their personalities?
“If you’re super bubbly and funny person, usually you get a little bit more upbeat music,” Hughes said. “If you’re a little bit more dramatic then you have a little bit more dramatic music and more dramatic dance.”
She adds it’s not necessarily a defining factor in the process.
“I’m a little bit more of the bubbly, spunky one, so that fits into the flapper era,” Stover said, of her personality. Her floor song samples Parov Stelar, an artist known for mashing together older swing music and modern dance. That’s where her character is added in because it closely fits Stover’s style as a person and as a dancer.
Back at BYU, Makenzie Halliday features a medley of hip-hop music in her floor routine, which dates back to music she’d dance to in middle school. She also finds inspiration in songs on the radio.
“I feel like my floor routine expresses my personality pretty well,” she said.
Of course, the main goal is to score well. That means finding a way to connect the gymnast's performance to the judges in one way or another. That starts with a choreographer understanding what works and doesn’t work in a routine and for the individual gymnast.
Some routines may work for one gymnast but not for another, and routines are not exactly universal.
“I think it ultimately comes down to making the routine flow, and that starts with the music flowing together,” Evanson said. “But ultimately, the girls out there like expressing themselves and trying to get the attention of the judges and get the crowd involved. So when they can express themselves well to the music no matter what the variety is, I think it ends up flowing together well because the girls represent it well.”
Getting the crowd involved
Though the floor tune isn’t allowed to contain audible words, anyone not participating is allowed to chime in, so gymnastics teams have incorporated music as a way to connect with their fans. A prime example of this came from Cedar City, Utah, where former Southern Utah University gymnast Alyssa Click, who graduated in 2014, sampled a unique song that fit her name during her routine.
When Click reached her first tumbling pass on her routine, her floor music would cut from a sultry Michael Buble cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” to a riff sampling the hard rock band Saliva while her teammates and audience members belted the first line of the song’s chorus, “Click, click, boom!”
The routine itself centered around Click’s personality but also connected the audience with her.
“It really turned out a lot better than I expected,” she said, chuckling as she recalls the idea to merge the hard rock riff into her routine. “It really built a connection with the crowd and myself. It was just a really cool feeling because it brought up the atmosphere of the crowd and connects you. You were like one with the crowd and made performing like 100 times better.”
Former Utah State gymnast Sarah Landes, who graduated in 2015, sampled Corey Hart’s ‘80s hit “Sunglasses at Night” where her teammates would flip on a pair of shades as she competed and cheered her on.
Any spectator would be hard-pressed to find a team not participating one way or another as a gymnast performs her floor routine. It may be cheers or wearing sunglasses, but often it’s dancing along to parts of the scripted choreography that come out in parts of the floor song.
“It just makes it more fun knowing their routine and just participating in their routine,” Halliday said. “I know that’s the same when I’m out there and the girls on the sideline are doing my routine with me, it just makes it so much more fun.”
Music’s influence in gymnastics
It's Stover's turn on the floor routine and as she tries to remain loose waiting for the signal that the judges are ready, she's singing along under her breath to Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" blaring from the PA system.
The music fades out as Stover's name is announced from the arena's public address announcer and she's ready to go.
Music, however, isn’t confined to just the floor exercise in gymnastics. Gymnasts are surrounded by it in practice and during meets on routines before the floor exercise. It's in this brief moment that each gymnast has the opportunity to alleviate any stress leading up to a routine.
It's a small return to normalcy before putting all the hours of practice into use.
"Music is a big part of our team," Stover said. "We're always playing it during practice, and one of our key phrases is 'you're going to compete like you practice,' so we always try to do things we do in practice in a competition setting. So we have music playing in our warmups consistent to the playlist we listen to in the gym, and it always helps us get a little bit loose, relaxed and brings a fun vibe to a little bit more serious situation.
"I think music for all of us is a big part of our pre-meet rituals and how we get into our zone."