Like its sister sport of Artistic Gymnastics, Rhythmic Gymnastics has its roots in antiquity and even outdate the Gymnastics of the Ancient Greeks. Traces can be found in Ancient Egypt, where aesthetic expression of the human form was encouraged and beauty elevated to cult status. Ancient Egyptian pottery, tombs and even some of the pyramids account for some of the earliest recorded evidence of Gymnastics, with women depicted in backbends and even dancing in groups with balls. The classical poet Homer, who frequently described sports and games of the era in his epic works, took notice of the people of Faiakes, whose performers danced with a ball to music.
After the Renaissance introduced ballet to Italy and the rest of the Europe, the revolutionary changes of the Industrial Age brought demand for physical education as the economic value of a healthy workforce was understood. Competitive pursuits were not encouraged for women, but group calisthenics, particularly routines performed to music, were socially acceptable and encouraged in the 19th century. Activities such as Swedish Gymnastics were commonplace for all classes.
Georges Demenÿ (1850-1917), a French physiologist and photography pioneer of Hungarian origin, was a significant contributor to physical education for women, arguing for the benefits of using a special system of exercises to stretch the muscles and develop flexibility. His system included exercises with hand-held apparatus, such as wreaths and sticks. Another significant contributor was Frenchman François Delsarte, a musician and educator who believed exercise was key to poise, beauty, health and success. The Delsarte "system of expression" was promoted as beneficial in improving performances in singing, dance and theatre. His ideas on movement and aesthetics form the basic principle of Rhythmic Gymnastics today: expression through movement.
Further social changes brought about modern dance, which was born as a rebellion against the rigors of classical ballet amid a need for individual expression. Heavily influenced by Delsarte, American dance icon Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was key to the development of the sport as the creator of modern dance as we know it today. Duncan broke all the taboos, giving due importance to natural movement, beauty and freedom of expression, and her performances were met with acclaim. So did the Swiss Émile-Jaques Dalcroze (1865-1950), a musician and teacher whose ideas were inspired by a mixture of music and dance. The institute Dalcroze founded in Geneva continues to teach rhythmic gymnasts using the eurhythmics methods he first pioneered.
In the 1920s, Dalcroze's theories found a ready audience in the newly established Soviet Union, which in its earliest days began creating Women's Gymnastics groups at businesses, factories, and educational institutions with the goal of improving health and efficiency. In 1934, Moscow's Institute of Physical Culture founded a eurhythmics department, known as the Department of Artistic Movement and Acrobatics, while in Leningrad, the P.F. Lesgaft Institute of Physical Culture created a similar School of Artistic Movement.
In 1911, Rudolf Bode, a German educator from Dalcrzoze's school, founded the Bode School for Rhythmic Gymnastics (Bode-Schule für rhythmische Gymnastik) and promptly began educating hundreds of teachers. The school, which still exists today, was a major contributor to the technical development of Rhythmic Gymnastics. Influenced by the masters at the Mariinsky Theater, in 1946, this activity became a formal sport in its own right, practiced exclusively by women and known as Khudozhestvennaya Gimnastika (literally "Artistic Gymnastics"). Group routines with wooden clubs was an Olympic event for women from 1928 to 1952, when it was dropped by Women's Artistic Gymnastics and became its own discipline. The first national competition was held in 1949.
First dubbed "Modern Gymnastics", the sport of Rhythmic Gymnastics held its first World Championships in Budapest in 1963, the same year Rhythmic became a FIG discipline. The competition was dominated by Soviet Lyudmila Savinkova, who won the All-around, Free Exercise (no apparatus) and Hoop, the three events contested at the beginning. The Ball, Clubs, Ribbon and Rope events were added later (though Rope was eliminated from the apparatus rotation for individual gymnasts at the world level in 2011).
In 1951, the sport was born in Bulgaria, which developed a rival school of Rhythmic Gymnastics with a different approach and an emphasis on risk as opposed to the classical dance of the Soviet school. In the 1970s, the Soviet gymnasts were eclipsed by Bulgaria, which took the sport to new heights aesthetically and where the 1980 generation of champions is still known widely as the "Golden Girls". The Individual All-around in Rhythmic Gymnastics made its debut at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The Group event was added 12 years later in Atlanta, where the Spanish team - dubbed Las Niñas de Oro - won the first Olympic Group gold.
The Soviet Union - followed by the independent nations of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine - has been the dominant force in the sport since the late 1980s. Russia has crowned five consecutive Olympic champions in Yulia Barsukova (2000), Alina Kabayeva (2004), Evgeniya Kanaeva (2008 and 2012) and Margarita Mamun (2016).