Skating fills a unique niche, a blend of artistic expression and athletics: somewhere between dance, poetry, and theater. When figure skating projects art, the negative-space perspective of the sport is exactly concordant with the positive-space; skating is as abstract as possible while simultaneously as concrete as physically attainable.
Deep inside the bowels of the sport however, the grounds are brewing bitter. Behind the scenes at your local rink the spirals gloss past a quietly seething dismay. Attendance at the local competitive events verges on nonexistent -- when I last attended a local event I sat with only the six parents from the present flight of skaters and a handful of loyal club members. Skating must be a particularly lonely sport.
Although figure skating is still popular (membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association is near its all-time high) life at the local rink veers far from glamorous. Local ice time mostly is incessant practice of elements and programs, sometimes with the coach, more often alone with a handful of other skaters at a freestyle session, and almost invariably amongst ladies, with maybe one or two gentlemen skating around.
Young skaters tend to get drawn to the sport by the glitz of high-end televised IJS competitions. At elite levels however the travel, costume, boots, blades, and coaching fees make the cost prohibitive except for a lucky few. Similar to gymnastics, the sport of figure skating imposes tightly constraining physical limits upon the body types that might be athletically successful. Performance is married to managing one's center of gravity, angular momentum, and balance, and wide variance from the optimal body kinematics renders many advanced moves impossible.
When skaters encounter the difficulty of IJS competitions, the mismatch of their body ideal, and the realities of rink life, while the parents recognize the expense, the deeper understanding of the underlying physics of the sport disenlightens them. Experienced skating students thus find somewhat of a "credibility gap" between what they have seen on televised competitions versus what they might achieve locally.
Figure skating is mostly a ladies sport; of the U.S. skaters aged 13 to 18 (the serious competitive ages) ladies outnumber men seven to one, and many of those men are in pairs or dance. Hence overwhelmingly a local competition is ladies skating solo. In IJS events they are mostly skating jumps trying to accumulate points. Yeah there's a sit spin quickly up to a Biellmann and a camel spin to a donut in there somewhere, yet the constraints of scoring prevent any programs from being particularly inventive. Watching a local event is mostly skate-jump-skate-jump-skate-jump followed by a couple minutes of wrestling out the score. Repeat sixty times. Yawn. This is why nobody attends local IJS competitions any more.
There are, however, other artistic things to do on ice; as IJS has squeezed the ladies solo side of the sport into local irrelevance these alternative activities have grown in popularity. "Showcase" events scored on 6.0 present duets, small ensembles, theatre on ice, interpretive (extemporaneous), dramatic and comedic skates. The Professional Skaters Association is an entryway to shows such as Disney on Ice or similar private touring ice companies, and sponsors an annual Open event exhibiting skaters that is free to attend. American Ice Theatre is creating innovative contemporary ice dance ensembles, and private sponsors such as Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton present annual artistic or fundraising events.
Although glimpses of these are on YouTube and Instagram, aside from the British television show Dancing on Ice the other alternatives lack media exposure (it seems there is probably an opportunity here for some enterprising sponsors).
Since these artistic alternatives don't receive much promotional coverage, a better, although longshot possibility, is that the sport of figure skating could change the way they run local competitions to allow for greater variety and creativity within the solo ladies competitive events.
Modifying the skating protocol does however present somewhat of a Catch-22 situation. By tradition or culture, local competitive IJS events tend to mimic the international procedures with high precision. Flight assignments are similar, event staggering, warm ups, rink announcements, down to the details of scoring and judging all follow very structured timings and procedures. What makes sense in terms of a televised worldwide elite event may however be counterproductive for attracting audiences at a local level.
Local events could become much more interesting and achieve broader appeal if we could rework this standard top-to-bottom protocol. Clubs could vary the procedures at local IJS events to allow for relaxed judging and faster turnaround between skaters. Rinks could use automated motion-capture scoring to reduce the burden of hosting teams of judges. The scoring metrics at local events could be changed to de-emphasize the jumps. One could argue that it shouldn't make that much of a difference what methodology you choose to measure athleticism. The point is to promote safe and challenging physical goals, raising the bar for people that are athletically competitive.
To increase variety, IJS flights could be interleaved with "showcase" skating of female-pair duets, small groups, and light-entertainment events with props. In other words, showcase, ISI, and IJS don't have to be held as separate events.
Parents need the supportive recognition that even at local events with lesser cost, their daughters can gain appropriate value from solo skating. It's time to support a skating system that encourages more dance, poetry, and theater. And for the sake of the sport (and the audience) fewer jumps would be better.
Unless you are skating to Flight of the Bumblebee or something equivalently vigorous, most likely your program has a couple dips or pauses in the music, a couple of spots where you can catch your breath and strike a pose. Hey dear, don't just stand there! This is the place for captivating subtle hand expressions and audience mental capture. Smile, make your point, complete the flourish of the music or hint where you are heading next. At a pause in your music, your artistic expressiveness shouldn't lull.
My daughter once pointed out to me that if the athleticism of skating is in the legs, then certainly the grace of skating is in the arms. Indeed regardless of their program, you can pretty much identify who is skating just by watching her arm style.
If you were to break it down into micro-analytic pieces you'd have to say that a skater's arm style (her armamentation?) consists of camber, clock angle, motion control, rhythmics, and dynamics. Getting all of these "right" is quite a challenge.
Start with camber: how straight, uplifted and parallel your arms are with the ice. You develop this from your shoulder strength. Droopy arms? I like the weight machines where you sit facing the pad, grab the handles and then pivot up the cylindrical pads with your elbows (straight shoulder presses seem to me to be too hard on your spine). Train for strong shoulders to keep those arms elevated.
Once your arms are up there it still takes lots of practice to anchor your awareness so that your body movement doesn't destabilize the arm positions.
Clock angle is how the arms extend from your trunk when viewed from above. Naturally the expectation is that they point at 3 and 9 o'clock (straight out sideways). I have occasionally seen a slightly closed arm, say at 2 o'clock instead. Far more common though seems to be arms that are correctly "opposed" and yet twisted to the body, at 4 and 10, for example. Unless you saw yourself on video though I don't know how you'd even become aware of such a thing. It seems common enough that I figure most coaches don't bother to correct it.
Now that you're 3 and 9 and elevated parallel to the ice, we can think about movement. Go watch some ballet and pay attention: arm movements are both meticulously deliberate and tightly controlled. Except for specific reasons of expressive pose they aren't frozen in place: they always have either slow rhythm or directive intent. Except on your spiral I don't want to see you glide with your arms outstretched and fixed like airplane wings. Nor do I want to witness you windmilling or flapping your arms like a bird the entire time either. Your arms should strive for ballet aesthetics.
Finally your arm movements should vary in speed: they should have dynamics. Sometimes your arms move slowly, sometimes they move more quickly. But it's also nice when the change in dynamics is smooth: the transition from slow arms to fast arms should be gradual. For you calculus fans out there, the second derivative of arm movement speed is best when very small.
Many of the young teen ladies at the rink get torn between their art and their desires to achieve certain technical aspects of their performance. This conflict seems to span four dimensions. On one axis you have the battle toward artistic expression, on another vector you get the strivings for technical accomplishments, on the third axis you have the whole issue of body shape, and finally you encounter the issue of fitting in with society's expectations for a young lady (at their age mostly their parents' expectations, but there can also be peer "drama" here as well). It is a rather complicated formula of flavors, and the most successful skaters have a lot on their plate.
How does the mixing and matching of forces create the personality of the skater? The big popular shows with hundreds and thousands of viewers -- the finals that you see on TV -- really don't do anything for the skaters. It is art of course, and it is a performance with all of the inherent issues of performance-art. But it is too big and noisy for the skaters to gain much critical value out of the process for themselves.
The small practice sessions though (the club events in front of the parents) are really where learning and social processes transpire. For one thing, the club events are small enough that the skaters can pay attention to the thoughts of the audience. They get immediate feedback about the impact of their performance. But more important is the peculiar characteristic of the audience itself: these observers see hours upon hours upon hours of skating. They know every move and they pay attention to the flexing of every muscle and the impact of every jump on each joint and bone. They are not easily impressed and they aren't distracted much by costuming flash... they comprehend the amount of effort and practice that goes into each and every move. And they all have the skaters' best interests at heart.
How the skater interacts with this smaller audience then influences her choices, which then determines her path. Each skater faces a choice of focus between art and technical merit. It isn't exactly a trade-off one-for-one; it is possible to advance both (and in fact the best skaters do advance both). At the middling stage though -- that point where a skater has reasonable control of her body, a fair number of moves and skills, and some experience performing on the ice -- you quickly see that a skater tends to drift toward one seasoning or another.
They can drift toward the flavor of being technically competitive, where they battle each other to see who can spin the fastest or do the most complicated laybacks or be the first to land a triple Axel consistently. Or they can drift to the aroma of showmanship, where they provide graceful entertainment to the audience.
Sometimes a gal is "pre-selected" for the competitive bent, either by her body build or by the influence of her parents. The more robust girls -- the large-boned -- have natural impediments to achieving much of the technical expectations. And yet they often are adequately compensated by being blessed with a certain amount of grace and artistic expression. Some of the more lankly gals don't have a lot of grace, but their physics allow them superior technical ease. So all in all it’s a big complicated stew.
While watching some intermediate skaters in Pasadena, I was most impressed by a particular gentleman who stroked more smoothly than I had ever seen. I will see if I can describe it in enough detail to give you a sense of the effect of this approach. The technique seems to extend somewhat beyond what one would learn straight up in a stroking class. I saw an article about this type of skating once by a Russian ice dance team (it may have even been called Russian stroking), but I can no longer find its reference. In any case let me describe the impression I got and you can take it from there.
If you were to take a high-speed camera and some LED lights marking an outline of a skater's boot on a single solitary stroke, and then graph them onto a piece of paper, I expect (for the typical skater) you would see a slanting line extending downward at more or less constant velocity, of approximately a fixed angle of descent. It would look like a wedge, or the hypotenuse of a triangle, until the skate hit the ice. This is well and good and is rather what one would expect from managing the leg muscles at a constant rate of extension. I doubt it is mechanically optimal and it doesn't look particularly elegant.
Now picture a graph of a curve that starts more steeply and then gets shallower, approaching the floor axis more and more gradually. In math we say that the curve has an asymptote, like a graph of y = 1/x. Is it possible to have each stroke appear this way? In my lifetime I have seen perhaps two people in person skate like this, and it is quite a striking visual effect. It makes it appear that they are achieving very high transfer-of-energy productivity to the ice, with little or no wasted impact friction.
Once in a while I get to thinking about the state of the "sport" and although I am now actually outside looking in, I do still get somewhat cheesed off at skating today compared to my recollections of its grace and class when l was younger. At the same time, aside from joining the cacophony of bloggers who feel the same and create electronic messages that flow into reader's brains, is there much else that I can do about the present morass? Well yes, unfortunately so. I could found an alternative to ISU.
As I am by profession however a software geek and nominally by free-choice a writer, let's consider this for now just a thought experiment. Would it be possible, what might it achieve, and where would we encounter the major challenges. After reading this if you, as a studious parliamentarian, feel so motivated as to actually carry out these tasks then you have my blessings (and more power to you).
So I hereby propose the Youth Performing Skaters Organization -- the YPSO if you will. Its targeted beneficiaries are youth aged 8 to 20 who regularly skate artistically in front of an audience. Its charter is to promote the long-term comfort, safety, and satisfaction of the participants (including their parents, coaches, and audience members) and to guide the harmonization of rules and services promulgated by the national level skating organizations that may overlap in scope.
Yeah I know, boring bureaucratic hogwash. Yet it's focused to specific ends that the present hierarchy isn't. So say that you're all on board with this. Now what? Well to actually establish such a thing you need to bootstrap a group of relevant and interested experts and participants and create some actual bylaws. I suppose you could do this with a Kickstarter project or some such tool; say you set a funding goal of having a hundred prospective members each providing $1000. Donors who agree to abide by the charter and who pass a certain amount of vetting become "charter members" and get to create the bylaws.
Of course you'd want to assure a fair mix of representative interests: singles skaters, pairs, dance, ice theater, and their respective coaches. Some trainers and sports medicine folks. A couple language and cultural boffins. Some marketing and media types. A few rink owners, a renewable energy representative. And some skate parents, naturally.
So there you go, now you have a group of folks to work with. You next need to mutually create and agree to the bylaws that specify how YPSO will run, keep and suspend members, organize standing committees, hold meetings, resolve problems, yada yada. A good six months of wrestling with best practices and attorneys, certainly.
Then comes the real work.
YPSO will need some initial regular fundraising, with all the politics that implies. It will need to deal with the rules and legalities for a disciplinary committee. It will need to develop a scorekeeping methodology and scoring software. It will need to handle contract negotiations with vendors and media. It will need to establish accounting for startup travel costs and justification for a future budget. It will need to handle auditing and credentialing, copyrights and IP legal matters, and create policies that promote comfort, health and safety. Finally it can think about curation and musing of the art form.
Heck I'm not saying it would be easy, and after the bylaws are established you've still probably got a solid two years of work before you produce anything influential, but it's a start. Of course it's easier to blog concerns and flay one another with comments, but when blades scritch ice the Doing will trump the Writing. Just saying.
A comedy routine is one of the most difficult light entertainment routines to skate. Several factors contribute to this difficulty. For one, you will understand the basis for comedy either from your innate personality trait -- if you're the class clown -- or you will develop it from a keen sense of pratfall and irony (as few class clowns take up skating this means most comedic routines develop from pratfall and irony).
And one of the tougher things to do is to "pretend" to muff a skating move. Seriously, a mistimed pratfall on ice is dangerous. And skating irony tends to be very "inside" -- it relates to plays on existent moves. Only a narrow window of side possibilities exists however to parody a skating move, although often props come in handy here. Yet skating with props also present their own difficulties: props tend to either dynamically alter your center of gravity or confound speed dynamics by adding wind interference. In any case skating a comedic routine means dealing with physics outside of the ordinary; it expands the range of what you might otherwise attempt and rather forces you to stress the boundaries of your familiar physics.
Despite the challenge of skating a comedic routine, it is valuable in how it broadens your aura. First it opens you up to self ridicule -- it destroys the common fault of taking yourself too seriously. One of the first steps in accepting others is to admit your own imperfections. Making a fool of yourself is a sure way to get there. Once you obsess less over your own activities you become more observant of the little foibles of others, and hence become more able to refine yourself.
Finally, skating for laughs improves your audience awareness. Unlike a dramatic program where you are concentrating on expressiveness and performing to the music, you need to tune a comedy routine in front of observers. How else do you know if you are being funny? One thing you learn rather quickly is that we each are rather poor at assessing how entertaining we actually appear to others; a part of developing a sense for this awareness comes from learning to "love" a different part of an observer's brain. Once you become unfixed on your own self obsessions you grow into more social, sociable skating. And it's the most difficult things you do that help you grow.
When I visit local competitions, nobody is in the audience outside of some parents and a few skaters from the club. This makes sense if you view a local meet the same as say, a little league baseball game -- the little league stands are also just filled with parents and siblings. There's a little league game every weekend, the sport is there to burn off energy and teach the young kids good sportsmanship, and if you miss the game this time you can go next week and it will still be the same.
But a skater attends a local competition maybe three or four times a year. It takes months of practice to reach reasonable competency on a skating program, and there's the added expense of coaching and a skating costume. Practicing for the event is a five-hour-a-day endeavor, six days a week. Sorry, even a local skating competition is much more like a college baseball playoff game than like a little league weekend scrimmage.
The other place where this analogy breaks down is that the skill gap between little league compared to MLB is magnitudes wider than that same gap between a local skating competition compared to, say Worlds. For example I've attended some local Open competitions where a budding elite world-class skater would show up and skate, either to get in a good competition-mood practice session, or to motivate the friends in her club. Can't say though I've ever heard of a little league game where Kershaw pitched an inning or two.
A great deal of this difference in the sports naturally flows from the paucity of participants in figure skating (compared to baseball), and the compressed timescale over which competitive participation is viable. Skaters and little ballplayers can start at five and six years old, but you don't see a lot of Grand Prix skaters past the age of 25. A good number of MLB gents are in their late 30's.
Also different from baseball, there are no minor-league clubs in figure skating: everything is based upon individual athletes who affiliate with a local club forever (until the USFSA sponsors them globally). Ashley Wagner skates for Wilmington when she is a twelve year old novice as well as when she is the national champion runner-up. As a skater, this puts you in the "big leagues" pretty much as soon as you qualify for Nationals.
So why are local skating competitions so poorly attended? Besides simply a lack of marketing I can understand several other reasons: it's because watching the competition is cold and boring, it takes so long, there isn't enough variety, and the seats are hard without a backrest. If you're not an aficionado then there simply isn't much to see here. Frankly, in the United States figure skating's present appeal as a sport is rather limited.
It didn't always used to be that way. Back fifteen, twenty years ago you would get a reasonable crowd at the local competitions. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and neighbors a short drive away would all show up to enjoy the music and skating. It was more like coming to watch an inexpensive amateur Ice Capades. People could spend a couple of bucks for a couple of hours of artistic entertainment.
When done right, the negative-space artistic perspective of the sport is exactly concordant with the positive-space version. More than just a balance between physical agility and artistic expression, there is the baseline point that the act itself, the expression of lacing up leather attached to steel and stepping onto frozen water in specialized attire to move the ether with your music and balance both defines the purpose of art and makes a mockery of it at the same time. It is as abstract as abstract can be while at the same time being as physically concrete as is physically possible. Everything about it should be impossible, and yet it happens anyway.
A reader recently inquired whether I would ever be interested in becoming a figure skating judge. Even though I love watching skating, the short answer is No. Nope, no thank you. The long answer will stretch out below for paragraphs and paragraphs.
I have considered the possibility of judging; I definitely have my ideas for how I'd like to see the sport performed. I feel that figure skating judges perform a civic service, much as a lifeguard helps out at a public pool, or an attorney might provide pro bono work for a worthy cause. Without judges the sport would only consist of recreational shows.
I did judge an event once -- sitting in the stands opposite the actual judges -- using my own scoring system. It was not an enjoyable experience. I got some nasty glares from the actual judges: apparently my thoughts were too distracting! The main challenge however is keeping a full mental inventory of what you are watching without letting your eyes drop to a scoresheet; then you jot it all down after the skater finishes. It's mentally quite taxing.
Yet judging supports scoring which encourages both accomplishment and commitment. Quite like any creative art, the presentation of a blank canvas lacking guidelines or limitations can be quite intimidating. The scoring system provides that scaffold: the outline for building a creative skating program.
And the judges have these boffo electronics and nice event hospitality rooms! If you watch closely you may catch the camaraderie as they enter and leave their stations. Occasionally you even get the pleasure of brushing shoulders with former national champs, now doing a round of judging themselves. I've even had the privilege to sit behind a group of a dozen aspiring judges to observe as they were mentored through a competition with phony scoring equipment and thick trainee manuals.
Have you ever walked into a Starbucks half a world away only to be comforted by the same color schemes, attention to decorating details, and identical social atmosphere? The same seasonal stickers on the windows? You know how they do that? Have you ever seen a 'bux training manual? The managerial teams there are a pyramid of conforming non-conformity.
ISU judging is no different. USFSA has a well established program for growing judges, see here for example. On one hand, it's quite an accomplishment. On the other hand it's an extremely narrow perspective of the world. Make no mistake about it, ISU grooms judges up through a tightly controlled and socially restrictive culture that inculcates their exact desires.
I can see where it just has to be that way, but that is not for "me." Am I a bit of a rebel? I love skating for its artistic outlet, and I am always overjoyed with the opportunity to muse. But judging? God bless the judges, but no thanks (wink).