Dominic Zito: Something Different Part 1

11:45 PM Arabian Punch Front 2 Comments

Maggie Nichols
Credit: USA Gymnastics on Facebook

Dominic Zito has gained a lot of fame as a choreographer on the elite scene after choreographing Jordyn Wieber's floor routine to Wild Dances. This was the routine that she used when she became the 2011 World Champion and 2012 Olympic Team Champion. Now, Zito is working with Kyla Ross, another member of the Fierce Five, who hopes to follow Wieber's footsteps and win the 2013 World Championships All Around crown. He has given her beautiful beam choreography along with an elegant floor routine. However, Zito hasn't just worked with Kyla Ross this past year. He had a total of 12 routines on display at Nationals, helped choreograph Jordyn Wieber's new routine (that we will hopefully get to see in the future), and Katelyn Ohashi's routine that she performed at the American Cup. I had the chance to chat with Dominic about his thoughts on choreography, artistry, and what it was like working with many of the elite gymnasts in the USA.

Arabian Punch Front: Tell us about yourself.
Dominic Zito: I started gymnastics at the age of 7. My baby sitter taught me back handsprings in the living room in 1 day so my mom came home and signed me up for gymnastics. I did that through 1999, Class 1 - now it's Level 10. I competed all over the US, did different regional meets, National Championships, AAU, UAA, all the different leagues. At the time, in the 90s, there were all these different leagues. I started dance at 5 or 6. I started with jazz, took tap, ballet, modern. I did that through 1997 when I was getting more serious with gymnastics. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do college gymnastics or not. At that point, I took a break taking classes with dance and I did some musicals in high school and different things like that to continue working on that craft.

In 1995, I started doing choreography for a local club and high school that the girls couldn't afford to work with the choreographer that was coming in. I said to the head coach that I can make up routines and they kind of laughed at me! I knew about gymnastics and the women's side. I don't think the other coaches knew that at the time so they said, "Show us a routine." So I just went in, they shut the doors and I showed them a floor routine and they couldn't believe that I could do what I was doing. So they gave me the opportunity to work with several of the girls whose families couldn't afford to work with the choreographer and the routines turned out really great.

The following year another gym contacted me. I think at that point, I was charging $50 or $75 a routine which is really nothing. Choreographers now charge a lot more than that. From there, I went to school. Dance started as my major. It was just too easy - what they wanted us to do and what we were doing. I just felt like I knew more about what I wanted and what I was doing and these people were just doing it for the fun. So I decided to minor in dance instead and got my major in Marketing. I danced in college for the Cleveland Opera. I studied everything. I graduated with a Modern base and I studied a lot of Martha Graham style and Twyla Tharp.

I've done every style of dance you can think of. I've taken classes. I love everything. I really enjoy tap. I didn't have a lot of opportunities to work on tap since I was doing so much gymnastics and once the choreography got started, that was my 2nd job while I was in high school and I worked at a pizza shop.

That's how I got into gymnastics. That's how I got into dance and now I'm working with Olympic gold medalists which is crazy!

Arabian Punch Front: How would you describe your style?
A lot of people ask me that question and I honestly don't feel like I have a specific style. I feel that I bring out an entertaining value in each athlete I work with and people will always say, "I saw your routine on TV" or "I saw your routine at Nationals last week." There's a musicality with it - the movements matching the music, I talk about a lot - and eye contact; I think people can pick out my work. And I use a lot of 'on the ground.' I like to do something different and interesting on the ground. That's where the modern base [comes out]. I use down on the ground, around on the floor, rolling into a pose. I try to do something interesting.

So, my style varies. You can look at Emily Gaskin's routine and then look at Lexie Preissman's. To me, they're completely different. I feel like the athletes I work with, I feel like all their routines I try to pull out their own character and utilize the music in a way their comfortable. I mean Kyla Ross, Jordyn Wieber - not everyone's comfortable moving the same as me or with one another. The artistry and the movement, I feel like I do so much differently with each girl and I don't feel like I have a specific style. People pick out my work because of things like the eye contact, the sharpness, and then it goes to supple, the level changes. I think I'm all over the board depending on what the athlete requires.

Arabian Punch Front: What does artistry mean to you and how do you relate that to the gymnast?
Well, I work with every level - level 6 to elite. I do choreography with the little babies that are 7 or 8 years old and just starting so artistry is different for me with each level. Overall, artistry is a component of the musicality - matching the music, the overall performance - engaging the movements and displaying that to the audience, the movement quality - making smooth transitions, going from high to low such as a jump to the floor. All of these are components of artistry. And then above it all is the technical aspects. Their stepping, their turnouts, their turns. All the technique needs to be within the routine as well as the entertainment of the movement and the performance. All the movements from the eyes to the fingertips. All of this has to be artistry and be brought together. So artistry is one word but there are so many components of it that people don't even understand.

How do I get the girls to be artistic? Obviously the technique is there. Their turns are usually perfect at the elite level or hopefully they are. The musicality - I help them match the music. Every pose they do, every step, I try to have it right on. Even if there's a subtle beat in the background, I do something big on that and it brings out that beat in the music. So it goes hand in hand - the movement and the music. The musicality is something that makes a routine unique and interesting. Like Jordyn Wieber, how she hit all those different beats. I don't know if another choreographer would have choreographed it the same, using those same beats. But I think that made her routine very artistic. The movement quality, the transitions going from smooth and supple to sharp. You'll see that a lot in Kyla's routine. That's artistry. Feeling the music, making it her own with the sharpness, the strong movements but still exhibiting the control within the routine to get in those good tumbling passes.

Creativity, obviously, is huge. You can't have the same pose over and over which we've seen from other choreographers, not just in the USA but internationally. It's important to not just use your arms and your legs... but your head! A lot of gymnasts don't turn their heads! They don't turn look out into the audience and make that eye contact. I really try to do that with a lot of the elite girls and bring in the crowd. Everybody wants to see that and it makes the routine, overall, artistic. So all these components create one word - artistry.

Arabian Punch Front: Could you tell us about Ragan Smith and that ending pose?
DZ: With everything, music is always the most difficult part for any of these elite routines. People don't always understand the hours spent looking, searching, and cutting it only to find out that the athlete doesn't like the music. That happened several times with Kyla, Jordyn not too bad. Ragan had about 10 options and she wasn't too picky. Martha made the final decision. She picked 2 pieces she enjoyed. This one, "Putting on the Ritz" was probably the cutest of all of them but she left it up to me and her coach, Elena Piskun, to make the final decision. We went with "Putting on the Ritz." She was a blast to work with. She's a cute little thing and she's eager to learn and she's so bubbly and fun.

She has several different transitions throughout the routine. There's a cute part in the middle where she crawls on her back. She crosses her legs and walks on her back like a little bug and that's what we were going for there. First, they looked at me like I was crazy. "Just cross your legs like this and walk on your back." "Does that look right?" And I'm like, "Yeah, it looks really cool." A lot of these movements, these girls don't feel comfortable doing, but after a while, and the more praise that they get, "Oh, that's interesting," then they get into it and enjoy it.

She does like a cartwheel chest roll down through middle split and rolls to her back. What's interesting is her coach is Elena Piskun from Belarus and she competed at the '96 Olympics. Ragan actually had the same ending pose that Piskun competed in 1993 at the American Cup. I was a fan of Elena's when I was younger. You know, her, Shannon Miller, and Kerri Strug, and that was her ending pose. First, I just had it with her legs straight. Then Elena's like, "That looks familiar" and I said, "I know! I got inspired from you and being at the gym. Do you think we can cross her leg and I can use your pose because I really liked it." And she said absolutely. So, it's really Elena's pose. It's a different overall ending but it's that final ending pose.

Elena Piskun's routine here

Next, I wanted to talk about Emily Gaskins. First off, is she a trained ballet dancer?
She is not a trained ballet dancer. The girls at Cincinnati do take ballet very often. They have class at the gym, the elites. She actually came to Cincinnati with that music from her gym in Florida. Her old coach in Florida was a Bulgarian '88 Olympian. She had a completely different routine. I would say we completely changed it, adding all the new stuff in. But with the music, the first thing I thought of was Lilia Podkopayeva from 1996. And I wanted to display something along those lines of the passé turnout, to the toe point, piqué turns. I just wanted to do something.. I was inspired by Lilia's routine back then and still now. When I heard the music, I thought this was something we could do with Emily. Honestly, no, she is not trained, we just made her look like that through the choreography.

It's been a process. I'm there about every other week working with the Cincinnati girls so I'm glad you noticed that. We're still working on her shoulders. Sometimes her shoulders get a little athletic and they lift a little but she's doing great. She's someone to watch out for too. That's for sure.

Could you tell me about the music because it's a very different style for Lexie and I'm curious how that music selection came about. The whole routine seems a lot more mature and seems like a kind of transformation.
Well, thank you. We started off with the Italy trip. And Martha wanted an All American floor routine for Lexie so we did the all american routine. I did a mix of a couple of fun little pieces. And they left for Italy and Martha didn't like it anymore. So, we went back to the drawing board and Mary Lee and Martha suggested I email them on the trip so that when they come back, she'd be ready to go with music and I could go to the gym and put the choreography together since it was pretty late in the season. What Martha suggested was she wanted something abstract, something Cirque du Soleil-ish, and interesting. So I put together, again, some pieces and emailed them over and that piece was what Mary Lee and Martha decided on. And I sent over all different kinds of options from upbeat and fun to this. I was a little surprised they picked it as well. I thought it was a different piece for Lexie, something she's never done before. They've always been very upbeat and fun and smiley. And she's grown as an athlete over the past year. I think it fits her so well - it draws in the crowd, again artistic. And I'm really pleased with the music choice. It's honestly something I didn't expect them to pick but I'm glad they did because it was really fun to work with.

The choreography for Lexie is a more mature style. We wanted a little bit more of chin down, eyes up and a little bit more of an intense face for the first 2 sections of the floor routine. You'll see that if you look back at it. Throughout the middle I wanted her to get her normal smiley Lexie Priessman face happening and the choreography behind it - again, the musicality, the floor part, and hitting all those beats with interesting, clean, precise poses is what we did on the floor part. And throughout the routine she needs a lot of breathing. The passes she's doing now are so difficult - full twisting double layout, double double, 1.5 to full in. So, throughout the routine, we had to have key points to breathe and also that's something I had to choreograph in so we didn't have to make too many changes when she adds the tumbling. That happens a lot. I usually put in too much choreography and not enough breathing time for the athletes.

But the choreography behind it... We wanted something to look a little bit more Cirque du Soleil-ish and a little more grown up. I mean, she's older now, she's a senior, and I think it was the perfect floor routine for her for the season.

I'm glad you mentioned the Cirque du Soleil piece for the music because it almost has an eerie feel to it.
Lexie and I laughed because the beginning kinda reminds you of UFOs coming in.

When you first hear it, you wonder, "What's going on?!" but now I've watched it multiple times.
Again every time I see a new routine from other athletes that I didn't work with, the first impression is always, "Oh, I have to see it again." Everything grows on people. Everyone's first reactions of new routines aren't usually the best but after they see it several times, they're kind of like, "Oh, I really like it now." I'm sure you do the same thing, right?

I do. I do! The first time, I thought "What's going on" but now, on like the 20th time, I love it.
Yeah, don't change it!

Yes! It's unfortunate that Lexie's injured because it's one of those routines that I'd love to see on a World stage and love that to be a routine representing the USA.
Hopefully, she gets to do that next year.

I wanted to ask you about Maggie Nichols. She's one of my favorite seniors right now and I really love her floor routine. She seems to be one that really feeds off the crowd so if you could just talk about her music selection and what it was like working with her.
Hers was pretty quick. I got a call from her coach and we had to get music picked out and approved by Martha. It was difficult to find stuff. The piece she's using right now was actually one of the first one's I sent to her. They wanted more options so I sent them more options and Martha brought it down to 2. I liked this one more than the other one so we went with this one. She moves incredibly! She's so fun tow work with and she'll do anything. She'll wiggle, she'll shake. She gets into it. She's not afraid to, which is awesome. I've been back to Twin City Twisters and we've added a couple more shimmies, a shake, and a different ending on the floor just trying to make it better. I agree, I think she's great. She's doing the routine awesome and feeding off the audience, like you said.

Read Part 2 here


  1. You asked if Emily was a trained ballet dancer, I would like to clarify the response.
    I trained Emily in the art of classical ballet for 3 years before she started training in the level of gymnastics currently. She not only was trained in classical ballet, she also performed in various shows involving other genres of dance.
    At a young age, Emily demonstrated focus and maturity beyond her years.
    It gives me great joy when I see her execute her gymnastic floor routines with grace. Not only does she perform with an understanding of her body lines, she performs it as an artist while perfecting the precision an elite gymnast needs.
    Kind regards
    Viky Andreatta Smith
    South Florida

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I truly enjoy watching Emily and she is easily my favorite floor worker in the US. Her routine is exquisite and I love the way she performs. I can't wait to see what she'll do in the future. She took my breath away last year and continues to do that with each and every routine.