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Natalia Karamushka: From Soviet Team to Center Stage
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Three decades after earning international success as part of the mighty Soviet gymnastics team, Natalia Karamushka is sharing her passion for artistry and creativity as a choreographer for dancers.

Karamushka, Yelena Naimushina (tied for second) next to champion Yelena Davydova at the 1978 Chunichi Cup

Three decades after earning international success as part of the mighty Soviet gymnastics team, Natalia Karamushka is sharing her passion for artistry and creativity as a choreographer for dancers.

Karamushka, a native of Kharkov, Ukraine, achieved her best international results in 1978, competing at both the junior and senior levels. She finished second all-around, first on balance beam and first on floor exercise in that spring's junior European championships; and tied teammate Yelena Naimushina for second place all-around in that fall's Chunichi Cup in Japan. (Soviet Yelena Davydova, who went on to win the 1980 Olympic all-around title, placed first.) Also in 1978 Karamushka placed second all-around, behind Marcia Frederick of the U.S., at the Golden Sands International in Bulgaria; and third all-around at the Kosice International in Czechoslovakia. She placed 10th all-around at the 1980 USSR Championships.

After Karamushka retired from competition, she studied dance. She has been working as a choreographer for studio, stage and television performances in Belgium and her home country. She is currently based in her hometown.

Karamushka admits that the mandates of contemporary gymnastics require an emphasis on risk, but she is adamant that today's competitors and coaches can still learn from the aesthetic mastery that she and her Soviet teammates demonstrated so many years ago. IG recently spoke with Karamushka about the importance of choreography in her life, and its relevance to current gymnastics.

Karamushka today as a dance instructor in her native Ukraine

IG: You did not become a gymnastics coach, as do many former gymnasts, but instead chose to become a choreographer. What led you from sports to choreography?

NK: I tied up my sports career in 1980. I left elite gymnastics because of my back injury. I fell from the uneven bars during one of the trainings prior the USSR Championship that took place in Minsk, prior the Olympic Games in Moscow. Having missed the Olympic Games, I was alone for a long time, and could not find myself, as I was really uptight. I think this feeling is familiar to each athlete, when your cherished dream and efforts fall to the ground in a few moments! For five years, I simply lived an ordinary life, without sports.

One day, listening to music, I suddenly felt something inside, and my memories came alive. I remembered everything - our trainings, our choreography, my girlfriends on the USSR national team, our wonderful coaches and choreographers who were with us, and my favorite thing, gymnastics. I understood that I would return, and this was my goal – that my life would be dedicated to sports and dance. I was far away from sports for five years. Big changes started in our country, and they concerned not only economic and political spheres, but also elite sports. No one needed our knowledge and achievements. There were no conditions for trainings, there were no gyms... Many coaches started emigrating, and I happened to be alone. I also lost contact with my coach, Valentin Valentinovich Shumovsky.

But, in my time on the USSR national team, I had the opportunity to observe and train with outstanding coaches and choreographers. I had the pleasure of seeing these wonderful realizations of floor exercise routines, and these wonderful images and storylines which were created by these talented and outstanding choreographers for us Soviet gymnasts. It was always pleasant to me. I loved music and dance very much, so therefore I decided to start working as a choreographer. I received an offer to work with dancers in ballroom-dance sport, and I understood this was my role, to work in the field of sports dance. I started making compositions, including gymnastics elements and acrobatics, and working with classical choreography, demi-classic, sports aerobics and modern jazz. I can tell you certainly that I am an expert in these kinds of dance.

Natalia Karamushka as a gymnast for the Soviet team

IG: Gymnastics today is more difficult than when you competed, but many people think gymnastics of the past was more beautiful than gymnastics of today. How do you think the former beauty can be restored, considering the demands of current rules for difficulty?

NK: Yes, I see now that gymnastics has changed very much, and certainly the rules, too. Gymnastics became full of difficult elements that do not always correspond with the beauty and grace of this beautiful sport. My opinion is that I would keep the performance of difficult elements on two apparatuses – vault and bars. I would make more graceful exercises and acrobatic elements on the beam. As for floor exercise, each gymnast has to have excellent choreography, musicality, self-actualization, femininity and identity. I would like to see beautiful gymnastics, and to enjoy this fine sport.

IG: In your opinion, what kind of dance training, and how much of it per week, is needed to perform best on beam and floor?

NK: I think that modern gymnasts need to practice different kinds of choreography to achieve good results. This is includes classic at the ballet barre, demi-classic and various dancing performances. They should pay much attention to artistry, flexibility and musicality. You can reach all this by practicing every day no less than two hours.

IG: What was it like choreographing in Belgium, and why did you return to Ukraine?

NK: Belgium is a wonderful country, and I liked being there very much. I went by invitation, to consider the working conditions. But I think I am more requested in Ukraine than in Belgium. Nevertheless, I am always looking for new opportunities for works with people. It is always interesting, and gives the chance to develop as a choreographer and person. This experience gives me much for development and self-improvement.

IG: Outside of choreographing, what are your goals as a dancer?

NK: I am in professional activity all my life, but before I never thought of dancing. Now I have a huge desire to "Come on and dance!" My dream is to get on a show or in a competition. Unfortunately, there are political changes in my country. I would like to perform very much, but I don't know where, and how to achieve the dream. If my dream came true, I would be immensely happy.

IG: How much contact do you have with your former teammates?

NK: Now we are on different sides of the world, but we continue to communicate by means of the Internet. Despite the years and distances, we continue to support each other. My closest friends are Masha Filatova, Natasha Shaposhnikova, Natasha Yurchenko, Tanya Arzhannikova, Lena Davydova, Valeria Zhidunova and many others.

IG: What moments in your gymnastics life were the most joyful?

NK: Music and gymnastics were my love since earliest childhood. All my first steps, success and failures, and the first correctly done elements are moments of my happiness. I remember my trainings and competitions. From the first march onto the gymnastics podium to the last performances, I have great feelings of pleasure and happiness. It was wonderful!

IG: What can today's coaches and gymnasts learn from the Soviet style of gymnastics?

NK: Soviet gymnastics was unique. The Soviet gymnasts were welcomed and loved all over the world. Their performances were notable for sensuality, musicality and emotionality. I wish this to the modern gymnasts.

Solo dance from former gymnast Natalia Karamushka in her studio

International Gymnast magazine's recent features on Soviet gymnastics include:

"Rebuilding Brazil" – Alexander Alexandrov interview (January/February 2013)
Nikolai Andrianov tribute (May 2011)
Leonid Arkayev interview (July/August 2011)
Leonid Arkayev/International GymnasticsHall of Fame induction feature (June 2011)
"Catching up with Irina Baraksanova (July/August 2010)
Lyubov Burda Andrianova interview and IGHOF induction feature (June 2013)
Albert Azaryan//Hall of Fame induction feature (June 2013)
"True Original" – Yelena Davydova update (July/August 2010)
"Catching up with Natalia Frolova" – feature (November 2011)
"Good Karma" – Natalia Kalinina update (July/August 2013)
"Forty Years Later" – Olga Korbut update
Yuri Korolyov interview and IGHOF induction feature (June 2013)
Larisa Latynina tribute (October 2012)
"Athlete Retreat" – Vitaly Marinitch/US Olympic Training Center feature (October 2011)
"The Artist" – Valentin Mogilny update (June 2012)
"Pipe Dream" – Alexander Pogorelov update (September 2010)
"Angular Precision" – Elvira Saadi update (April 2013)
"Perfect Harmony" – Yelena Sazonenkova update (January/February 2013)
Natalia Shaposhnikova/IGHOF induction feature (June 2012)

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