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Meanderings on my current passion.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Figure skating has not been a lifelong dream. As a kid, I roller-skated, (street skates and a few trips to a local rink) and I remember annual excursions to the Ice Follies and Ice Capades with great fondness, but once we moved out of Renton and into the "country" of the hills outside of Kent, most such events went by the wayside, along with skating of any kind. Any temptation to try ice skating never had a chance, since the nearest rink was some two hours away, and it was the "home" rink of one of  my all-time least favorite people, who was the only "figure skater" I knew. Besides, once we moved, my days were pretty well filled with cleaning stalls and multitudinous general house and horse chores.

What I really regretted was the unavailability of dance lessons. I wanted to take ballet. Badly. I loved to dance. I'm one of those people who will dance anytime, anywhere to any music, real or just in my head. My brothers used to accuse me of ruining the gas mileage of the cars with my rocking. If music is happening, I'm physiologically incapable of holding still. Well, ballet classes didn't happen, (at least not when I was a kid. Once I was on my own, I managed to get a few precious months in.) but that didn't stop me from dancing in the privacy of the pasture or the living room or the woods.

My ballet idol was Rudolf Nureyev. (My first childhood idol was Sandy Koufax, but that's another story!) There's never been and never will be a dancer to compare with him. Like any phenomenon, his achievement was not completely due to his (admittedly) Supreme Gift, not even of that gift combined with personal drive and focus, but rather the result of an intersection of that gift and determination with a whole set of social, politcal and state of the art circumstances that will never happen again. I had the thrill of seeing him dance in person, not once, but several times. In addition to that phenomenal gift, he had that priceless ability to help everyone on stage transcend their norm.

Why, you might ask, am I talking ballet on a figure-skating page? I dunno. Since when do web pages make sense? However, ballet is a key component to the best skaters. Ballet, like figure skating, is an exquisite blend of art and athleticism. The skills set for both are extremely complimentary.

More to the point, talking about Rudi gave me an excuse to put pictures of a good looking guy on this page. What more did I need? And while we're talking GLGs, I should mention skating's equivalent of Rudi, JohnCurry. Nureyev came on the ballet scene at a time when the male dancer was pretty much a prop for the ballerina. (yawn) The only exceptions were the character dances. Rudi injected sex and stage command into the role of premier danceur, and the art has never been the same. He gave men the freedom to be beautiful.

John Curry did much the same for male figure skaters. His love of ballet and modern dance permeated his style. His story is complex and fascinating, but bottom line, his insistence on remaining true to his vision combined with his acceptance of the fact that in order to make that vision viable in the eyes of the skating world he would have to master the jumps as well and win Olympic Gold created an Olympic and World champion whose vision changed the male skater's options forever.

John Curry is also the reason I became fascinated with figure skating. Well, John C and the great Canadian skater, Toller Cranston. Oh, I'd watched it before and enjoyed it, but it wasn't until John Curry and Toller Cranston From Beverly Smith's book and the 1976 Olympics that I really began following it. That year, John took Gold and Toller came from...I think it was fifth...after the short program to take the bronze medal.

Curiously, Toller, who injected the most amazing moves and positions into his routines, was not a classical dancer, by training or by inclination. His choreography, which he did himself, was from the soul. He felt the music like no one before or since. He must have been a solid jumper as well, because what always killed him in competitions were the figures, which at the time were a huge part of the overall score. But I honestly don't remember his jumps. What I remember is sitting in front of the TV, jaw dropped in wonder as his body sang to the music.

So...why do I say John was the one who changed Men's Figure Skating? Because what John brought to the table was quantifiable. Men can take ballet and learn the moves and incorporate those moves into their skating. The Russians are proof positive of that. Yes, those with a natural artistic "gift" will be able to utilize those lessons more beautifully and effectively than those without the "gift," but they are quantifiable skills.

What Toller brought to the competitive and later the professional table, was himself. What he had cannot be replicated. Oh, there are those who can learn some of the moves, and he does good choreography for other skaters, no one has ever begun to match what he did on the ice. He was truly unique.

You might be wondering why I'm talking exclusively about male skaters, and why they, rather than female skaters, are my focus, both as a skater and as a long-time consumer. The answer to that is really pretty simple. Female skaters rarely surprise me. Male skaters do. Constantly.

To become great, male figure skaters have to break a cultural mold. Men, in this day and age, are given brute force in the form of hocky and football as the ideal. The ways in which men overcome that culturally induced challenge are the result of individual psychological battles and the results are as varied as the individuals involved.

Men have to find an internal truth and be true to that truth in order to become great figure skaters. Figure skating is an inherently graceful sport. To achieve good edges, the fundamental, underlying key to good figure skating, the body must be both fluid and controlled. The better your edges, the more lyrical you become. The better your body control, the better your skating. The corallary is, the better your skating, the more beautiful and graceful you become.

It takes real guts for a man to pursue figure skating and to overcome that culturally-induced notion of what he is/should be. Adult skaters, especially those like CJ and myself who begin skating past the half-century mark, face the same sort of personal challenge. Figure skating is a sport for the young, or so our culture would have us believe, we've been sitting on our behinds earning a living for years. We're stiff. Our joints are getting less flexible with each passing second. We're old, our bones are fragile, we're supposed to be sitting back and talking about the good old days...

Personally, I'd rather talk about next year's adult nationals, or the next skill test that I'm preparing for.

And now, it's time to go watch the Cup of China! Later!