My daughter is hanging from the higher uneven bar, swinging her legs in faster and faster arcs around the low bar. When the class ends, I ask what she was doing.
"I'm practicing for a cast wrap," she explains with exaggerated patience. "If you have enough momentum, and pike right, when you let go of the top bar your body will continue around the bottom one."
In the past few years, enthusiasm for gymnastics has soared as high as young gymnasts on the bars. How can a parent who doesn't know a cast wrap from a cast-on in knitting select the right class? "Too many kids get hurt in gymnastics to choose a class carelessly," says parent volunteer Mary Ellen Shaw, an aide in an Alexandria Recreation Department gymnastics class.
Gymnastics instruction is offered by recreation departments, Ys and private clubs or studios. Generally, community groups are limited to beginning-level instruction, primarily for fun and recreation, while private clubs offer beginning-level to advanced classes but are more oriented to gymnastics as competitive sport. In neither case are there licensing requirements for teachers.
Watch a class. "Look into it. Go and see what's happening," Shaw and other gymnastics teachers and parents agree. Class size, teaching ability and equipment are usually listed as the most important things to watch for.
"Eight-to-onew is the right ratio" of beginning students to instructor, says pat Pyle, co-director of the eLeetes Gymnastics Center in northern Virginia, and there is general agreement with this figure. Unfortunately, few community groups can afford to sponsor classes with such small enrollments and may have as many as 15 to 20 children per class.
When the class is too large, children spend too much time standing in line, waiting for a turn to perform. According to John Jarboe, director of Tumbling Hills Gymnastics Camp and gymnastics coach and instructor at Montgomery College, one criterion of a well-run class is "the child participating, active throughout the class period."
Another area of general agreement is that a competent teacher teaches basic skills first and well. Even a seemingly simple forward roll must be practiced until it's as smooth and near-perfect as possible - and mastery of the skill will pay off when it's transferred to the balance beam. Repetition is a must, says Ruth Ann McBide, director of Maryland's MarVaTeens, adding that "lead-ups to advanced skills must be done first."
Look for "some organization in terms of curriculum. Objectives should be spelled out as to skills, goals, progression - things your daughter will be learning," counsels Jarboe.
Look out for instructors "who take children through the skills faster than they are ready," cautions Nancy Joyner, Alexandria physical education and recreation department instructor.
Most instructors make some use of "spotting" - holding or supporting a student - to introduce new moves. Spotting requires knowledge and anticipation of each step in a gymnastics movement, as well as physical strength, says Joyner. While children can be taught to spot each other in class, be critical of the teacher who casually asks an unprepared child - or adult - to spot a complicated move.
Classroom appearance and atmosphere are easier to evaluate. Are children dressed in unrestrictive leotards or shots, hair short or tied out of the way? Each session should start with warmup exercises to "prepare muscles that - like rubber bands - will snap if not used properly," Joyner says.
Are children enthusiastic or bored? Even if the class is larger than ideal, "the child should at least be stimulated to be mentally alert, to watch and listen," says Jarboe.
Does the teacher explain body dynamics that help or hinder moves? "I really like this class. My teacher doesn't just say 'good, good,' no matter what I do. She tells me what I'm doing wrong," my daughter reports.
"Checked out the credentials" of instructors, advises Kay Borror, director of the Northern Virginia Karons.
"Experience and qualification is important," but "it's not necessary for the instructor to be a gymnast," says Jarboe. And McBide agrees that teaching experience is more important. Adults, not junior leaders, should teach, she says. "At the lower levels, kids don't want to be pushed. They want to have fun. You teach differently than when you coach."
Many recreational programs are limited to tumbling, but equipment used in girls' gymnastics includes the uneven bars, balance beam and vaulting horse. Trampolines, often included in instructional programs, are not used in competitive events.
Equipment should be sturdy and well-spaced, with enough protective crash matting around to protect children in case of falls, says McBide. Small tumbling mats, however, slide dangerously themselves, and most gyms now use non-skid 40'-by-40' floor mats. Unfortunately, "some recreation programs must use school equipment which is very inadequate. This is certainly dangerous," Jarboe says. One otherwise excellent program has a horse that must be held to keep it from toppling.
Class fees vary from a dollar or so an hour in recreation programs to several dollars per hour at clubs. Both have advantages and disadvantages on the introductory level.
Clubs may not always assign better teachers to begineers. "So many people are sold on a coaching staff because they have produced Olympic-level competitors. It might not be these people that work with your children, but someone much less experienced and qualified," Jarboe points out.
Others charge that some clubs neglect beginning training to concentrate on competitive teams. "My child got barely five minutes of instruction in class," says one Virginia mother, indignantly.
One little girl agrees. "When I was in a regular class, "I thought they paid more attention to the team.I still do," she explains. "Now that I'm on the team, the coaches know every move everyone can make, what your problem areas are, even your good and bad sides for a cartwheel."
On the other hand, clubs offer more continuity in instruction than community group classes. And, insists Pyle, unlike recreation departments, "clubs have a philosophy and end goal - whether it's high school or club team gymnasts, or simply girls who enjoy gymnastics."
As gymnastics grows in popularity, a corresponding move to certify instruction is also growing. The United States Gymnastics Safety Association, composed of coaches and owners of gymnastics clubs, has been formulating safety and instructional standards that are expected to be released this October, according to association president Raleigh Amyx.
The reluctance of insurance companies to insure uncertified clubs is likely to hasten general adoption of the standards.
Kay Borror recalls, "when I opened my gym, some parents just sent their children with a check in their hand. They didn't know me. I don't think that's wise."
Learning gymnastics can be an emotional as well as physical "high" for your child. A careful choice of class, besides imparting skills, can lead to what Pyle terms "a self-satisfaction spot for every child."