Gymnastics is an individual sport. When a gymnast salutes the judges, she is out there alone. Sure, she might have teammates who are cheering for her, a supportive coach backing her up, family up in the stands rooting for her. But in the literal sense, she performs her routines alone.
But it wasn’t always like this, at least not on the floor exercise. Up until the late 1980s, when a gymnast stepped out onto the mat, she wasn’t alone: there was another person performing with her, perhaps out of the spotlight, but part of the performance nonetheless.
I’m talking about the pianist.
Here’s a commentator talking about the Soviet pianist before all-around champion Ludmilla Tourischeva started her floor routine during the event finals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich: “An important peripheral person in all of these competitions is the accompanist. Each team brings their own and the performance and the music must be perfectly joined together.”
For many gymnasts, their connection to their pianist was an important one. The career of Olympic silver medalist Kathy Johnson Clarke spanned both the live piano and the prerecorded music eras. And she won her only individual world championship medal—a bronze medal on the floor exercise—performing with pianist Carol Stabisevski. Stabisevski previously served as the pianist for the Romanian national team. He was the man playing as Nadia Comaneci pranced through her floor routine in 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. He defected to the United States the following year and almost immediately started playing for the Americans.
Johnson Clarke described the experience of working with Stabisevski quite movingly in an email:
Performing floor exercise with a live pianist is like no other experience and one that I cherish nearly above all others! I cannot explain in words the feeling as I would not, could not do it proper justice. Carol Stabisevski had been the Romanian pianist then became ours when he defected after the American Cup. He created my floor music for the ’78 World Championships and I can honestly say it was the single most memorable routine and string of performances in my career. It literally felt like we shared a heartbeat, like he breathed oxygen into my performance. It brings tears to my eyes talking about it.
Johnson Clarke also wrote beautifully about the Chinese pianist that she got to know through competition:
I also loved the Chinese pianist, Joe (that’s what we called him), and he actually played for our team during compulsories at Worlds in either 1981 or 1983. I’d have to think more to be certain which. I have a wonderful story about how he started playing my music as I did a dance through at the ’79 World Cup in training. Carol hadn’t traveled since it was only me competing and USGF [United States Gymnastics Federation] couldn’t afford to send him to Tokyo. I had no idea where the music was coming from. I knew it wasn’t my tape, because it was just a little different and my coach there, Wade Jackson, had been on his way over to the table to give them my cassette to play. When I finished I looked around and the Chinese pianist (I have to believe it was Joe – we hadn’t met him yet) stood up from the piano bench and bowed to me. I bowed back and smiled! Wonderful memory! I believe it was he who stepped in and played music for Nancy Theis Marshall when her tape broke at a meet. He just made up something as she went. It was really cool! Seriously, it was a privilege, and quite magical, to perform with a live pianist.
Until 1996, gymnasts performed two different sets of exercises at major competitions. The first round was the compulsory exercises. The gymnasts all did the same exact routines, which were made up of basic skills on each apparatus. What distinguished the routines from one another was the execution. The second part was the optionals, where gymnasts did their own routines and usually performed a much higher degree of difficulty than in compulsories. When the change to recorded, orchestrated music for optional exercises was announced in 1979, Johnson Clarke was ambivalent. “I loved full orchestrated music, but the connection with a pianist and the subtle nuances that can happen organically and spontaneously was indescribably unique and special!” she wrote.
Live piano would continue to be used for compulsories through the 1988 Olympics. Switching to recorded music, however, was probably inevitable. It opened up greater sonic possibilities for gymnasts and choreographers. It also made things simpler for countries that might not easily be able to bring a pianist to major competitions. This was the direction that things needed to go in.
But after reading Johnson Clarke’s response to my query about what it was like to perform with live piano accompaniment, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for that era. Which is weird, because I was barely alive for it. So I reached out to two figures from the piano era of choreography and performance—Carol Stabisevski, the pianist, and Geza Pozsar, the choreographer who worked alongside him in Romania (and again in the United States) to create iconic routines for gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Teodora Ungureanu, and many others. I spoke to both men for about an hour each and they shared so many great anecdotes and stories about their lives in gymnastics. (They also both sang at various points during our conversations. I had a big, goofy smile plastered on my face throughout both calls.) I wanted to include as many of their stories as possible.
Carol Stabisevski found his calling at a party. It was in the early sixties, and he was a student at the Institute of Physical Culture in Bucharest. He was playing piano at a Saturday night dance when Adina Stroescu, the head of the gymnastics program at the institute, remarked on his skill. “You should be playing for floor exercise for gymnastics,” she told him.
“After that, every time she saw me, she said, ‘Play for gymnastics,’ and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”
After graduation, Stabisevski took a job at the institute as an assistant professor. This is when he really got involved with gymnastics, playing floor music for some college gymnasts. He also started attending gymnastics meets where he met Eugen Filipescu, an accomplished pianist who played at times for the national team. It was Filipescu who taught Stabisevski one of the most important things about playing piano for gymnasts. “‘Don’t watch your fingers. Watch your gymnast.’…That’s what he taught me,” Stabisevski recalled.
“Playing piano for the floor exercise, you’re one on one with a gymnast and with a piano. You try to get out of the piano whatever the gymnast needs,” he said.
Filipescu defected to the West in 1972. Stabisevski would be the one to fill his mentor’s shoes, at least until his own defection. But before Stabisevski left Romania for the United States, he played for one of the greatest gymnasts of all-time: Nadia Comaneci.
Creating music for Comaneci and the rest of the Romanian gymnastics team meant working closely with Geza Pozsar, the group’s official choreographer. Stabisevski traveled to Onesti, the town the team trained in, to work with Pozsar and the gymnast. He often shared a room with the choreographer while he was in town. “We did not only floor routines for the girls, but also every day, we had a dance class. He played the piano and I did the routines for the girls for bar work,” Pozsar told me. “It was good teamwork.”
“We started with Carol every morning at eight o’clock for about forty-five minutes,” he said. “Then we worked on floor routines with piano, compulsories in the morning. Evening workouts were the optional routines with the piano.”
Pozsar noted that “Carol was very good at figuring out what kind of music [worked for] different girls.” Selecting music for a floor routine has always been something of a team effort with the coach, choreographer, and (hopefully) the gymnast all offering input. But during this era of gymnastics there was another person who was part of the team, a person who understood music better than almost anyone else: the pianist.
To put together the routines for Comaneci and the rest of the team, Stabisevski and Pozsar worked together on arranging the music and creating the choreography. “1976 Olympic Games, it was the combination of our cooperation at that time. Geza was my brother in this action,” Stabisevski recalled. “We tried to get music that reflects Canadians or North Americans.”
This sort of musical pandering to the home crowd was a tried and true tactic in women’s gymnastics. Less than ten years before Montreal, Vera Caslavska included in her floor routine the music of Mexico’s national dance—el jarabe tapatío, also known as “The Mexican Hat Dance”—much to the delight of the audience in Mexico City. (To read more about Caslavska and her podium protest in 1968, check out this newsletter.)
Ungureanu ended up with a Romanian song, “Sanie cu Zurgalai.” Like many folk songs, it invited audience participation, which was something that the team’s coach, Bela Karolyi, was very keen on, according to Pozsar. The routine and performance, like Ungureanu herself, is very underrated.
For Comaneci, who was coming off a big win at the 1975 European Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Championships and was entering the ‘76 Games as a favorite for the all-around title, the two men chose a lighthearted, upbeat, youthful feeling number—which made sense given that Comaneci was just fourteen at the time. A large portion of the ninety-second floor exercise was choreographed to the calypso classic, “Jump in the Line,” made famous by Harry Belafonte.
“Piano for gymnastics was made with accents and surprises,” Stabisevksi said, referring to the end of Comaneci’s floor routine where she points her finger perfectly timed to the final note from his piano.
The first time Carol Stabisevski met Kathy Johnson Clarke, he asked her to show him some movements. “In my mind, it was already clear what kind of music I [would] play for her, because I saw her move,” he said. “It was a beautiful collaboration between her [and me].”
The admiration goes both ways. Johnson Clarke shared with me an email she sent to Stabisevski last year, thanking him for their collaboration. “You created a piece of music so special, so perfectly suited to me, and so moving to my soul, it truly became a part of me, and a part of who I am today,” she wrote. Johnson Clarke was coming off a serious elbow injury. The music and the choreography in that routine were supposed to tell the story of her injury and comeback. “We showed the pain, the struggle, the rise, and ultimately soaring in flight after being so low. Like a bird with a wounded wing struggling to fly,” she wrote. “I remember asking you what the song was. Did it have a name? Where did it come from? I only remember you saying something like, ‘It’s from an Anthony Quinn movie.’ Hahahaha. To this day, I’ve never heard anything like it so it remains a mystery to me.”
The creation of a piece of music for a floor routine was an ongoing process. “Every time I had the chance to make an improvement to her floor routine with the music, I was very, very happy,” Stabisevski said. “I listened to all of the suggestions she had.”
He would continue to make tweaks to the composition as needed, even up until the last moment. This is one of the advantages of having a pianist performing live, instead of a recorded piece of music. You can make changes to the former quite easily, but with recorded music, it is next to impossible to make a last-minute change because the music has already been arranged and cut.
The collaboration between Stabisevski and Johnson Clarke led to a sublime experience for both at the 1978 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Strasbourg, France. 1978 was a year of breakthroughs for American gymnastics. Marcia Frederick became the first woman from the United States to win a world title. Kurt Thomas won the gold on floor exercise, and also introduced the “Thomas Flair” to the world on pommel horse.
And then there was Johnson Clarke on floor exercise. “I remember feeling so privileged to have the pianist who played for Nadia, Teodora, and all of the Romanian greats I had seen in Montreal playing for us, playing for ME!” she wrote in her letter to Stabisevski.
It was a special moment for Stabisevski as well, despite his impressive résumé. “Everybody on the team had tears in their eyes,” he recalled. “She expressed the music I made for her. And she expressed the music in a way that she improved the music. She improved the music with her floor routine.”
Later, he confessed to Johnson Clarke that he had been so nervous before her performance that he left the arena to smoke a cigarette in order to calm himself. “I thought, ‘But you played for Nadia at the Olympics as she made history in front of the world! This had to pale by comparison!’ I look back now and understand just how especially sweet it was that it mattered and meant so much to you,’” she wrote in her note to him.“He was a master and we shared a really special moment in time,” she said.
The last time that Stabisevski sat down to play music for gymnasts at a major competition was at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Although it had been nearly a decade since the gymnasts performed their optional floor routines to piano, compulsory floor routines were still done with live accompaniment. Stabisevsi was there to play for the American team. Six gymnasts, six floor routines, one piece of music played six times.
But, he insisted, it wasn’t exactly the same each time. “The compulsory music is the same song but the interpretation is different for each gymnast. I had to make sure the gymnast got the best out of the music I played,” he said.
After those Games, Stabisevski was done. Or, more precisely, the sport was done with live piano. (And after 1996, it would be done with compulsories, too.) When the change from live piano to recorded music was finally announced, people asked Stabisevski what he was going to do. “Well I have my job, no problem with me. But what is gymnastics going to do without the watchful eye of the pianist? That was my question.”
The pianist could assist the gymnast, finesse the notes if she fell behind the music, speed up if she was moving a little too quickly. To play for a gymnast (or for a dancer, for that matter) you need to think quickly on your feet. Or fingers.
But Stabisevski understands that for many gymnasts, performing to recorded popular tracks is more exciting than dancing to just a piano. “The gymnasts love that music. It doesn’t matter if it’s Carol on the piano or Bon Jovi on the microphone,” he said, laughing.
Gymnastics is not quite up to Bon Jovi lyrics. Although vocal sounds are now permitted, music with discernible words are not. But give the sport a few years and it may end up going the way that figure skating did. Gymnastics followed figure skating to a point-based scoring system, after all.
But you can’t form a bond with recorded music. It can’t help you feel a little less alone out on the floor the way a pianist can. Recorded music doesn’t have your back.
“I often share with people who didn’t have the privilege of performing WITH someone inspiring your every move, gesture, look, step, hop, leap and tumble with a perfectly played note and who drove the rhythm, feel and flow of the routine was a close to sharing a heartbeat as one could get in sports,” Johnson Clarke explained in her email. “It was a relationship between the gymnast and piano player,” Stabisevski said. And now, “Something is missing.”
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author of The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score from Nadia to Now. Sign up for her Substack Unorthodox Gymnastics to read more of her work.