For the past nine days, Tucson has played host to a troupe of traveling gymnasts in two UA performances of a longstanding Danish tradition that mixes art with exercise.
The National Danish Performance Team is composed of 28 athletes between the ages of 20 and 27, split equally between sexes, and three coaches, many of whom have been studying gymnastics for over 15 years.
Danish rhythmic gymnastics has been evolving as an art for over 80 years, when it was developed to encourage young people to keep fit and healthy. Today, over 1.3 million Danes, or approximately a fifth of the country's population, practice the sport, said team coach Morten Louring.
Unlike traditional gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics adds elements of modern dance and theater to the more familiar aspects like vaulting and tumbling to create a unique and engaging performance.
Visiting the UA
This is the first time the team has visited Tucson since beginning its biennial tours in 1993, and the UA was a natural choice for the performance, said Mia Hansen, who coordinated the team's Tucson appearances.
"We specifically chose Centennial (Hall) because the staff here is so great," Hansen said. Hansen is a board member for the Cultural Exchange Council of Tucson, the main sponsor for the Tucson leg of the tour.
But Hansen also stressed the importance of showing these young performers a small slice of American college life.
"We also chose the UA because of the importance of the university atmosphere," Hansen said. "Most of our other contacts have been with gymnastic clubs."
Hansen said she felt it was important for the team get a first-hand look at how amateur athletes are treated in America.
"In Denmark, you are expected to take care of yourself. There aren't the facilities or financial support at (Danish) colleges that we have here," Hansen said. "Most college sports there are club sports."
Wednesday's performance, choreographed by team coaches Heidi Tegner and Christian Vilhelm Stjernberg, was a combination of gymnastics floor show and modern ballet, telling the tale of two lovers torn apart by a wicked villainess and accompanied by a wide range of music from classical ballets to hip-hop to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The show had the audience teetering between raucous laughter and quiet awe as the team moved seamlessly between spirited performances and death-defying feats of aerial acrobatics. The night concluded with a standing ovation.
Hanging with 'host' families, showing off in Tucson
The team's stay Tucson was the longest stay for the tour. Team members stayed with host families and got a small break from their grueling schedule of 15 countries in 10 months.
"My host family has been really good; it's almost feeling like home," said Rasmus Sinding, 23. "My host mom reminds me a lot of my mom."
The extended stay also helped foster the kind of cultural exchanges for which the program was created, Louring said.
"It's very nice to be here for more days," Louring said. "We have many more opportunities to see different areas and people and groups."
Some of those experiences included teaching gymnastics workshops at a number of Tucson high schools, including Cholla High Magnet School and St. Gregory College Preparatory School, as well as the Boys and Girls Club of Tucson.
"We wanted the team to get to know Tucson and be exposed to a wide range of kids," Hansen said.
"In the beginning, I was shocked that the kids weren't that fit and didn't want to do anything," Sinding said. "I really had to push them."
Sinding, like many Danes, has been practicing rhythmic gymnastics from an early age, and said he was not accustomed to seeing so many sedentary children.
"But they did really good in the end," Sinding said. "I like that, when you can touch (people's lives) like that."
The team also made time in their schedule for a break-dancing lesson at Scrappy's youth club.
"It was nice to see them working down there (at Scrappy's)," Louring said. "The point of the program is not just to perform, but to have contact with the locals and exchange ideas with them."
The team also had the chance to exchange ideas and techniques with the UA Cheerleading squad in a joint practice early yesterday morning.
"It's been really great. They're really nice guys and we both learned a lot," said Ryan Littleton, an accounting senior.
The Danes we exposed to the blend of gymnastics and spirit that is the hallmark of American cheerleading, like throws and basket tosses, which the team had previously seen only on TV and in films.
"There are a lot of techniques we are not used to, like the throws. I've never been thrown before (today)," said Anne Berg, 22, who played the role of the villainess in the show. "Now we have new techniques to go home and practice."
The cheerleaders also had an opportunity to take pointers from the Danes.
"We had a chance to show them our skills and stunts, but they helped us in areas where we're lacking like tumbling and different choreography," said Ashlee Gerfen, a pre-pharmacy freshman. "It's been a really good learning experience."
Following the warm-up, the performers had a chance to see more of the campus, including tours of University Medical Center and the UA athletic facilities, before preparing for their half-time appearance at last night's men's basketball game.
The team will resume its tour with stops in Tempe and Henderson, Nev., before leaving the states for performances across Africa, Asia and Europe, but its experiences in Tucson will not be forgotten, said tour manager Johannes Bjerre.
"We'll come again in 2008," Bjerre said.