Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on the Art of Figure Skating: Being Uptight Is Bad

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

One of the greatest figure skating moments remains the "Bolero" dance done by Torvill and Dean of Britain. Almost amaturishly, they struck the perfect note, they barely understood how or why, it still is a great dance and outstanding in many ways. This week, solo women skaters take to the ice. The winner will be the one who is the most relaxed and happiest. The loser will be the one trying too hard. Michelle Kwan could never win because she was always incredibly tense.

From the NYT:

Until last year's world championships, Irina Slutskaya of Russia had a reputation for wilting under pressure. Sasha Cohen of the United States became known for following flawless short programs with collapses in the long. And Carolina Kostner of Italy built expectations after finishing third in last year's world championships but now must keep her poise in an arena full of flag-waving, horn-blowing countrymen.

In women's figure skating, the line between Olympic gold medalist and frustrated also-ran is thinner than the blades the skaters balance on. The pressure comes from being the main event at every Olympics, and how the favorites handle that usually determines who wins and who watches their Olympic dreams crumble.
Singers, musicians, orators, circus clowns, anyone who appears in public gets the jitters. I know, I have. There are various cures for this but one thing most people agreed upon was, it is a form of Buddhist meditation. If you are concentrating on what you will be doing excessively, you will fail.

So, the day of any performance, I would mess around doing housework or drawing pictures or vigorous walks in the park or even better, if warm, a swim in the sea. It is the old trick, ask any horse this, if you practice a hundred jumps just before going into a hunting class competition, the horse will crash into the second jump barrier. For some reason, anxious coaches push the "practice to death" methodology. The most important thing any skier or skater has to do before a competition is stretch the muscles and relax the major muscles and rest. Yes, freshness after resting.

With dancers, it is even greater. Since one must reach deep inside for some sort of emotional meaning, some inner strength, this means staying away from the choreography for a critical 24 hrs before a performance. Do something different.

BREAKING NEWS: Sasha Cohen is falling apart, just as I suspected she would.
From the Washington Post:Cohen, 21, who finished second to Kwan in four national championships, seems due for the major title that has long eluded her. Historically, however, she has killed her chances with big mistakes.

Though she fell hard attempting a triple flip in practice Monday, she looked relaxed, doing a run-through of her program without attempting any jumps to save her energy for Tuesday.
She is very uptight. The fact that she fell is recognized by skaters as "oh-oh, doom!" Falling down shakes one up. It is a physical shock. It is like a car crash. For several days even after a small fender-bender, one is much more cautious. When a skater falls during a performance, almost always, they cut down on the number of triples and combination jumps.

In the very old days, only 15 years ago, skaters had to excell in school figures. I used to skate those. They were the equivalent of meditation on ice. You have to make a full circuit first on the inside edge then the outside edge on one foot and the only monentum one can get is the single swing of the trailing leg at the apex of the 8. Not only that, one had to repeat the 8 more than once and the lines must line up! No one does this anymore, it is rapidly becoming a lost art and what I feared would happen is happening: classical form and shape is disintigrating and nervousness is rising.

It is more than that. From the Washington Post:
A few days ago, I wrote a defense of figure skating as a sport, because it's basically gymnastics performed on a pair of butcher knives. The same is true of ice dancing; it requires unbelievable timing, perfect coordination and staggering athleticism, while balancing on sharpened blades slightly more than an eighth-inch wide. The original dance portion, when numerous couples fell, left audiences both aghast and uproarious, but it also demonstrated the degree of difficulty in the sport. While it may look easy, thanks to the waving fabric, it's actually really, really hard to suspend a woman in midair with one arm, while whirling on blades at 30 miles an hour.

This is the picture of the most spectacular of the blow outs. Ice dancing in much more exciting but for the wrong reasons. It is more akin to watching NASCAR races. Will they crash? Will anyone die? Pairs skating has become this for so long that it has near zero artistic value left. The violent, athletic side dwarfs the artistic impulse to the point that people really don't like watching it anymore.

Ice dancing, thanks to Torvill and Dean's famous performance, has been rapidly rising as the more popular event, second only to women's solo. But it is now going down the same path as pairs, increasingly dangerous and amazingly ugly moves done to terrorize or wow the audience. In the Tovrill/Dean Bolero, I will note several things after reviewing it again after not seeing it for many years. Torvill is softly padded. Comparing her to the dancers in this Olypmics, they are all very stringy and hard edged. I remember Torvill being critisized for her padding but this is what made her dancing so charming. She had a real vulnerability coupled with the strength of her bulk, both joined in a unity of purpose. When drawing her in the opening picture above this article, I was struck by how she was skating backwards while her body was in a double arc, her head thrown back and her back arched forwards while her legs were lightly bent, her arms held away from the body in a natural curve.

A complex form of simplicity itself. It was an emotional shape working on us on several intimate levels.

Ice dancing has become increasingly violent. Even Dean, who accidentally stumbled upon the magic of what makes great art, lost it because he wanted to win competitions instead of extend his art and thus, lost both. He also brought about something I wanted for years: the music and the skating as a whole. I hate music that skips suddenly and ear-jarringly from one slice to another as they go fast/slow/fast. Again, this was lost over the years and we are back to the butchered music.

And speaking about lost---Cohen is following the exact same path poor Michelle Kwan trod. She isn't going to any parties, she isn't meeting anyone, she is staying in isolation as much as possible so she can concentrate on doing the same old same old over and over until is becomes so stale, her very limbs, her feeling will rebel and betray her on the ice when she tries to concentrate them on her goal of winning.

The winner is nearly always the one who is carefree and happy. The one who runs around, having fun. And ultimately, that is what all sports ought to be: fun. The minute they aren't, it is slavery and oppression and destructive of the mind and soul

Which is why Miller, the wayward skiier is so funny. Everyone yelled at him about his having fun and making light of everything and lo and behold, he becomes grim and angry and crashes all over the place. Gads. Who cares if one wins or loses? It is how you play the game and why that matters.

Lighten up, everyone.

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Art of Figure Skating
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