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Did you catch the video last Tuesday night on NBC of U.S. champion Rachel Flatt as a three year old in what must have been one of her first skating performances? The announcers, including Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton (1984), seemed to think it was very cute. I have to confess that it kind of creeped me out. There’s a little too much of the JonBenet Ramsey thing in figure skating, as Joyce Carol Oates poignantly illustrated in her recent novel My Sister, My Love (Harper Collins, 2008). Girls often start skating at the age of three or four, wearing provocative costumes, striking provocative poses.
The world of women’s figure skating is brutal. There are so many little girls who want to do it and so little chance of competitive success. Thousands of girls enter the qualifying competitions that lead to the national championships. It is unavoidable that the method of whittling down the number of competitors to something that is manageable for a single competition is somewhat arbitrary. That’s why many skating coaches prefer training boys. With boys, a coach once told me, there is a much better chance of achieving something competitively. There are so few boys that the evaluation of their performances can be more objective.
Many parents figure that the earlier they can get their daughter into a pair of skates, the better will be her chances of competitive success. So many little girls start skating at three that parents and coaches need to find other ways to get a competitive edge–hence the overabundance of sequins and rhinestones, and even make-up, on prepubescent girls. There’s more emphasis on makeup and costumes, actually, than there is on grace and style because the former are at least tangible, whereas the latter are not.
Sport or Art?
“The trouble with figure skating,” one of my readers wrote to me once in an email, “is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a sport or an art.” This sentiment is widespread in the skating community and is as old as the sport itself. The result of this ambivalence is that, more often than not, it is a miserable failure at both. The judging is too arbitrary and subjective for it to be taken seriously as a sport despite the fact that it is extraordinarily demanding and loses many participants to injury. (Former Olympic gold medalists Alexei Yagudin  said in a television interview that skaters have a saying that: “If you wake up and nothing hurts, you’re dead,” and little Tara Lipinski, another Olympic gold medalist  had both hips replaced in her early twenties.) The aesthetic quality of the performances, with few exceptions, is too miserable, however, for skating to be taken seriously as art.
Carriage is a practical rather than esthetic issue for most skaters. Poor posture increases the difficulty of certain moves and makes others entirely impossible, so skaters are schooled in good posture from the beginning of their instruction. What is not drilled into them, however, is the significance of carriage from the perspective of the spectator; so, many skaters slouch their way through what are called the “transitions” in their programs. The exception is ice dancing. Natalia Dubova, one of the most famous ice dancing coaches in history, emphasizes how essential is carriage for what she calls “the artistic kind of figure skating,” which is ice dancing. This was beautifully demonstrated in the gold-medal performances of Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. But even ice dancing performances are often marred by lifts done for the “difficulty” that translates into point value but which, for the spectator, too often translates into “awkwardness.” That is, the more awkward a position, the more difficult it is to hold, and thus the more points a team gets for holding it. This means, unfortunately, that there is actually a positive impetus in the judging system propelling programs in the direction of ugliness.
This is true not merely in ice dancing, but in all figure skating. Grace is almost completely ignored in free skating, except by a few radicals such as Janet Lynn and John Curry and, more recently, Sasha Cohen, Johnny Weir and Patrick Chan. The ISU has made it so that programs that win are usually the ones that are most tightly packed with athletic feats. These programs are still performed to music though, which given their content can sometimes actually have a comical effect. The same reader I quoted above described the impression created by the long set up that is often necessary for a particularly difficult jump as that of “a person waiting for a crocodile to sink back into the water before jumping over a canal.”
The famous dance critic Edwin Denby devotes an entire essay, “The Flight of the Dancer,” to the impression of weightlessness that can be created by ballet dancers in certain leaps. Denby describes how beautiful is the effect created by this appearance of weightlessness, but then remarks that “[i]t is a way of leaping only a few rare dancers ever quite achieve”
Almost any skater can achieve this effect, however, with what is called a “waltz jump.” You’ve likely never heard of the waltz jump because you never see them in competition. It is considered too easy to merit inclusion in a serious competitive program and yet it is one of the most beautiful moves a skater can do. I like to watch practices just to catch a glimpse of a really good waltz jump. They are a sort of precursor to the Axel jump because they have the same take off and landing. Skaters will often do them during the first few minutes of a practice before they turn to the more demanding Axel. Achieving height and breadth, or “ice coverage” as it is known in the vernacular, is the point of the waltz jump. These become necessary for the Axel in order for the skater to be able to complete the multiple revolutions required for this jump. The waltz jump, though, is just a simple, soaring change of direction from forward to backward on a large arc with all the skater’s limbs extended. The effect is that of a soaring bird.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, what is difficult in skating is often difficult because it is awkward, so even otherwise graceful skaters such as Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada have elements in their programs such as the various grabbing-the-skate moves that are real esthetic turn offs.
There is poetic justice in this, though, because the judging system that is destroying the sport was developed by the International Skating Union, which has long used the money brought in by figure skating to subsidize speed skating, the real love of many of the top ISU officials and the current president, Ottavio Cinquanta, a former speed skater. The ISU is effectively killing the goose that has been laying the golden eggs.
Frozen in Time
The ISU isn’t the only thing that is killing the sport. The sport itself is far too conservative. Not only are skaters’ programs less pleasing to watch, television viewers are treated to the very same program repeatedly throughout the year. Skaters, with the exception of ice dancers who do three programs, skate only two programs throughout an entire competitive season. That means if you watched the Grand Prix competitions, you’ve already seen all the programs. What wasn’t particularly appealing the first time around does not become more so with repetition. I’ve suggested to skating insiders that the sport might be helped if skaters expanded their repertoire of programs from two to say half a dozen. The reaction, however, is always the same–this would be far too demanding for skaters. No matter that ballet dancers, according to Toni Bentley, a former member of the New York City Ballet, learn dozens of dances every season (Toni Bentley, Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal). Skaters train the same two programs day in and day out for between four and six hours a day for an entire year. No wonder they sometimes looked bored during performances. No wonder they are sometimes boring to watch.
Not only do skaters practice the same programs day in and day out, they use the same music other skaters have used before. “It’s ladies figure skating,” the announcers intone as the first few strains of Bizet’s “Carmen” begin to waft through the air, “so you know there will be at least a couple of Carmens.” The announcers seem to find this amusing. It is not amusing to spectators. It is mind numbing. The music is also usually dated. Skaters skate not to the music of their peers, but to the music of their parents–or parents’ parents’ parents. Coaches, who often chose the music, choose it out of an abundance of caution, though, at this point, most judges are young enough to be rock and roll fans. So we watch the incongruity of a teenager skating to Bizet rather than to Limp Bizkit. It’s like watching a reluctant child play the piano for his parents’ dinner guests. Young TV viewers watch while listening to their iPods, or tune out completely and watch snowboarding instead.
Finally, why are there so few medals in figure skating? There are dozens of Olympic medals awarded, for example, to skiers and swimmers for different sorts of skiing and swimming events, but only one medal in figure skating, that is, one medal for ladies, one for men, one for pairs and one for ice dancing. Why can’t the short and long programs, the original dance and the free dance each have its own medal? There could even medals for individual jumps (then Plushenko could bring home one for his quad and quit whining) and spins (then Asada would have a medal to show for that bloody nose in her short program). There could be events where skaters have to make up programs on the spot to music selected at random, without the benefit of a high-priced choreographer. There are already low-level competitions that award medals for what are called “interpretive programs” that have narrative themes and that restrict the difficulty of jumps in order to spotlight other skating skills. Why not have such events at the international level as well?
Signs of Life?
Skating must grow or die. Despite all the talk about the imminent death of skating, and I’m guilty of such talk myself, there are signs of life in the discipline. Yu-Na Kim’s (or should I say Kim Yu-Na’s) long program was a thing of beauty not so much for the athleticism of all the jumps as for the wonderful footwork toward the end of the program and for the graceful way she used her upper body. Also, the appearance of former world champion (1987) and Olympic silver medalist (1984 and 1988) Brian Orser on the coaching stage heralds good things to come. Orser, one of the most brilliant and talented skaters in the history of the sport, was a beloved show skater for many years and only recently turned to coaching. Yu-Na is his first student. Orser has written movingly about his disappointment at failing to win the Olympic gold medal in his “battle” with Brian Boitano in 1988 (Orser: A Skater’s Life, 1988 and “Which Brian are You?” Skate Talk, 1997). Well, he has his gold medal now. There is reason to hope that Orser will bring us more wonderful skaters and inject much needed life into the discipline.
There were two programs at this Olympics that demonstrated more than any others the untapped potential of skating–the short program of the Chinese team Xue Shen and Hongo Zhao and the original dance and free dance of the Canadian ice-dancing team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. I’ve followed both these teams for years and never failed to find them inspiring. Despite all the hype for their closest rivals, these teams are in a class by themselves. The former are particularly impressive because they are both now in their thirties. They were always my favorite pairs team, but even I was apprehensive when I heard they were coming out of retirement to pursue the Olympic gold that had eluded them, despite their three world titles, during the first phase of their competitive career. My fears were unfounded. They were amazing. They and Virtue and Moir showed that figure skating, at its best, no matter how athletically demanding, is an art and has the same edifying quality that all great art has. They gave us a little glimpse of what skating could be, and will be when it sheds its biases, prejudices and conservatism.