So what is Calisthenics, anyway?

Calisthenics has always brought about a bemused look on the face of the person to whom you are talking when you proudly say, “I do calisthenics!”

“What’s that? Is that the baton-twirling one where  you wear make-up painted on?” Um, sort of. Let me explain:

Calisthenics is kind of like the weird cousin of dance. That cousin who dresses a bit strangely but is really cool once you get to know them – and discover you have way more in common with than you realised. (Except for counting in 8s. They will always go up to 16 and you’ll just need to accept your differences on that front).

It is a multi-discipline dance sport. In the one sport you get to do precision marching, gymnastic-based movements, brain-bending apparatus, ballet, jazz, singing and musical theatre. All. In. The. One. Class.

It is one of the best sports for developing both musicality and fundamental movement skills at the same time. Calisthenics girls are often good at a range of sports as they have great temporal and spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination and a desire for perfection. They pick up new things very quickly as both sides of the brain are well-developed at working in concert with one another. (Think patting your head and rubbing your tummy x 10 to the power of 20 and you’re close).

It is the most cost-effective form of dance because you get to do it all in one class, rather than attending separate ballet, jazz, acro and voice classes across the week.

Post continues after these awesome images by Steph Devlin Photography


Calisthenics has always suffered a poor reputation in the dance world, but as an exercise scientist and soon to be school dance teacher, I highly recommend it for the life skills, leadership, confidence and competitive edge it gives participants.

Once, I took 8 years away from the sport, as I had become disillusioned with it after attending contemporary and jazz classes as a teen and realising I couldn’t express and move through the upper body ‘because of calisthenics’. I went on to utilise this as a strength, representing Australia in team sports aerobics. Both experiences gave me perspective.

I was brought back into calisthenics by a friend who told me (probably a fib!) that she needed numbers and ‘what was I doing now anyway?’ I actually LOL’ed the first time I ‘marched around the room’ at my first lesson back. How peculiar! I thought. But strangely satisfying and addictive, like popping bubble wrap.

And this is why I am here now preaching the benefits of the sport to anyone who has gotten this far into my post. On balance (see what I did there?), calisthenics is a fantastic support that deserves more respect.

Unlike the poor light it was shown in on Today Tonight recently, it is more than sequins, b*tchiness and the pursuit of Most Graceful Girl (ah, go for it. Not interested.)

It has come a long way since I first began 30 years ago. There is a greater focus on development of high-quality classical technique and associated terminology. Governing bodies such as ACF and CASA have a visible commitment to professionalism and   appropriateness in relation to things such as age, sexualised movements and social issues. Coaches are trained better than ever.


 No clown faces here.

The painted make up look is on the way out. Somewhere in the 80s cali stage make up (which is aimed at ensuring the audience can still define the features of the performer’s face) got a little lost and it took awhile to sort itself out. It’s now ditching the paint – hooray! I wouldn’t allow my daughter on stage like that, and it seems the majority are with me on that.

On that front, I was adamant I would not be a ‘dance mom’ and allowed my daughter to discover what she wanted to do. However, witnessing her rhythm and penchant for singing, I enrolled her in Theatre Bugs. Whilst they were great, Miss Threenager refused to participate – for most of the term – and declared she would not return. One day she discovered for herself, calisthenics, deep within the DVD cupboard. The day I realised she knew how to operate the DVD player was the day I thought I was imagining I was hearing a very familiar song, but instead I walked into the room to discover her trying to emulate the Wonder Woman March of the 2007 Senior SA National team! (It was Soooo CUTE). After 2 months of “Mummy, I want to do calisthenics”, I gave in.

Calisthenics is continuing to evolve. In the last few years, clubs such as Burnside and AVV have broadened their horizons to offer discipline-specific classes (such as singing, acro, hip hop, lyrical and contemporary) and I predict there to be more clubs following suit. Rather than compete, dance forms can be allies. I believe this will strengthen participation in calisthenics and improve it’s reputation in it’s ‘dance family’.

I will allow my daughter to participate in calisthenics because she loves it, and I know she is being properly trained without being over-scheduled. There will however come a day where she will want to dip her (pointed) toe into hip hop, contemporary or maybe even capoeira, and I will have to give-in to the weekly merry-go-round of discipline-specific classes. And at that point, if she blames any of her weaknesses on calisthenics, I will bust out an annoying-mum lecture thay starts with, ‘when I was your age/ been there, done that’. Because it wasn’t calisthenics, it was me. I was never going to be a Graceful Girl. And I’m ok with that!

Calisthenics is about fun, friendship, discipline, mastery, performance and so much more. I’m glad I rediscovered it and saw it for all it is worth. I can only hope more people become enlightened to see the sport for what it really is.

To learn more about how satisfying it is to march around in a line with a bunch of people and then do lots of other stuff, check out the ACF website. There just might be a club near you, practising in a hall, waiting for you to complete their team.

This montage of calisthenics video is just the beginning of what can be found on youtube.

Not a sponsored post.

Thanks to Steph Devlin Photography for permission to use images. How could I possibly just pick one?!



9 thoughts on “So what is Calisthenics, anyway?

  1. Beautifully written Hayley! Calisthenics has done so much to shed it’s dated image and longstanding prejudices within the wider dance and general community. It is wonderful and refreshing to read something that reinforces this rather than the negative scrutiny that always falls to the lowest common denominator of pitting woman against woman. We and our beloved Cali are far better than a ‘cut-throat’ world in pursuit of a graceful title. In fact the broad base of calisthenics in Australia is incredibly removed from the pointed competition of the RSSS most graceful and an obsession with winning. It is so encouraging to now hear much more conjecture from the audience on the quality of the calisthenics work, the creativity of the chorey, the direction of our items than a simple analysis of who won or not. And that is progress.


  2. Hi. Fantastic article and explanation. Succinct and to the point.
    I’d really like to make something like an inspirational quote out of a slight variant of the excerpt below, but don’t want to do so without your permission. Something that can be posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as a photo, and hashtagged and all that business. let me know what you think. Email is
    “It is a multi-discipline dance sport. In the one sport you get to do precision marching, gymnastic-based movements, brain-bending apparatus, ballet, jazz, singing and musical theatre. All. In. The. One. Class”.


    1. Hi Bilee,
      I’m happy for you to do that and acknowledge the address of my blog or blog post in a small, but readable print in the bottom right hand corner or similar. I look forward to seeing the final product! Feel free to share it in a comment here, or my Twitter handle is @bthehumnelement.


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