Dominic Zito has been choreographing gymnastics routines since he was 13. Since 2013, the 34-year-old has been the official choreographer for the U.S. women's national team.
A former gymnast in his native Cleveland, Zito was a competitive dancer from 1991-2004 and a professional dancer for the Cleveland Opera from 2004-06. He got his start in choreography when Kittia Carpenter (Buckeye Gymnastics) was judging the Ohio State 9/10 State Championships in 2001. Zito was head coach at Westside Gymnastics, and she asked him who choreographed his team's routines. Zito did.
"She called me the next day and asked if I would come to Buckeye and choreograph their routines," Zito says.
The floodgates opened from that point. Mary Lee Tracy called, and soon Zito was doing routines for prominent clubs across the U.S. But after he did Jordyn Wieber's routine in 2011, "my career really took off."
Zito was getting calls from Valeri Liukin, Liang Chow, Donna Strauss, Sarah Jantzi, Jenny Liang and Kelli Hill.
"I choreographed many national team members before I ever met Martha Karolyi or attended a training camp," he says.
Zito has done routines for Simone Biles, Kyla Ross, Ragan Smith and a host of others.
Following are excerpts from his lengthy interview in the December issue of International Gymnast.
IG: Ragan Smith's routine to The Addams Family was brilliant. Does that routine rank in your own top three?
DZ: Yes, Ragan Smith's floor routine was one of my top three favorites. Kim Zmeskal-Burdette and I worked together on Ragan's 2015 and 2016 floor routines. [Neither] Kim nor myself have an ego when it comes to choreography, and we both want the best possible routine for the athletes, and I think we are a great choreography team. Kim and I spent endless hours and months working on it to make sure everything was perfect. Kim and I were worried we wouldn't be able to top the West Side Story routine from 2015, but we did! Ragan's routine turned out to be one of the most memorable routines from 2016, and that's exactly what we were going for.
IG: Simone Biles wouldn't be considered balletic, so how do you choreograph for her?
DZ: Correct, Simone Biles is not a classically trained ballerina, but I think she honestly could do anything she puts effort into. I still wish fans and spectators would understand that ballet does not define artistry. The Samba/Latin style Simone has used was perfect for her at the time.
You never know what she will decide to use if she returns. We actually tried several styles and genres in the past three years, including a routine we started to "Malaguena," which Simone actually picked out in our music selection meeting.
IG: How hard is it to get gymnasts to use facial expressions during their floor routines?
DZ: I choreograph many of the gymnast's facial expressions and eye contact/focus. The athletes usually don't know where to look or are not sure what emotion they should display in the various sections of their floor routines, so it is important to pay attention to detailing that during the choreography process and after. Some gymnasts are better than others about adding in their own facial expressions, but a lot of times they are focusing on their skills and lose the engaging interaction that makes routines the full package. I have found that the more comfortable the gymnasts become with their gymnastics skills and dance elements, the more fully they perform.
IG: On constraints posed by the Code of Points...
DZ: I would love if the time limit was raised from the 1:30 maximum to allow more time for the athletes to showcase more choreography/artistry and utilize the entire floor like a stage, instead of dancing close to the corners or around the perimeter. Regardless, the USA is still doing an amazing job, demonstrating both great tumbling, dance elements and choreography.
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