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Published on 23 May, 2014 in Time Out Delhi

Arman Safa Khan is on a mission to popularise gymnastics and martial arts in the city

Gymnastics has never been popular in India. Not until 2010 at least, when Ashish Kumar – then all of 19 – became the first Indian gymnast to win a bronze at the Commonwealth Games. In interviews since, he’s said that if the Gymnastics Federation of India had not been so stingy with funds and provided him all the training he required, he would have had a good shot at the 2012 London Olympic Games (the cut-off mark to qualify for the Olympics is 80 per cent; he scored 79.3).

The state of Indian gymnastics has only gradually improved since. Last month, Indian gymnasts returned with a haul of seven medals, including three golds, from the International Com­monwealth Championships in Perth, Australia. They also bagged three silvers and a bronze.

Although these feats proclaim a promising future, gymnastics in the city continues to languish. In an attempt to popularise the sport among a younger audience, the Delhi Dance Aca­demy, known for its performances and fitness programmes, has brought in Arman Safa Khan, an Olympics-qualified gymnast and an instructor from Afghanistan. Twenty-four-year-old Khan, who’s also a martial arts expert, has been conducting gymnastics and self-defence classes in Kabul and Delhi for the last three years. Back home, he was also a national-level fencer. Over email, Khan told us what it takes to be a good gymnast.

How do you plan to popularise gymnastics in the city?
Gymnastics is the mother of all sports and involves dancing and choreography at advanced levels. It is certainly challenging to introduce it and get people interested, but when children see the capabilities of a gymnast, they get excited. We do a lot of promotional activities in public parks, such as free-running or parkour sessions with the students. A lot of young kids and teenagers have shown interest in the classes after seeing us perform cartwheels and handstands.

How are gymnastics and martial arts viewed in Afghanistan?
Both gymnastics and martial arts are popular in Afghan­istan. There are lots of clubs which promote it and the country provides exceptional infrastructure for training. An increasing number of young people have started participating actively in recent years. That’s exactly the kind of culture I wish to establish here in India. The Delhi Dance Academy provides the entire infrastructure needed, both for beginners as well as intermediate gymnasts.

What is the right age to begin training in gymnastics?
Seven is the ideal age to begin training. The human body is most malleable, and muscle memory formed at that age stays for life. One can begin training in adulthood as well, but only until 25 years of age. Arjun (33) and Anant (29) – directors at Delhi Dance Academy – started learning from me and were able to execute flips, somersaults and rolls in a matter of four months.

What does it take to become a professional gymnast?
With a good trainer and regular practice, it takes five to seven years to become a serious gymnast and begin competing at state-level competitions. There are various levels a gymnast has to undergo, from learning basic rolling techniques, simple jumps, flips, somersaults, handstands, strength building exercises, use of simple mach­ines like parallel bars, rings, balance beams and pommel horse, and moving on to extensive choreography routines.

What safety measures are taken in the classes?
Safety is our top priority at the Delhi Dance Academy. We use helmets, elbow and knee guards, shock absorbent wooden flooring and cushioned mattresses. The equipment helps lower the chances of injury. Injuries are normal in this sport, but as long as the body becomes stronger and more flexible, the injuries reduce. Good training and the right technique is the best way to avoid an injury.

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