Rant: What’s Up With Figure Skating?

It’s partly a symptom of having so many information outlets and so little to report that we get endless stories on the Vancouver Winter Olympics. We get not just the competitive events and their qualifying events, but back-stories, athlete profiles and a look back at the honorable history of every sport represented in The Games. From downhill racing to curling, there’s a constant and apparently endless supply of pictures, sounds and words available on demand, just like tap water in most parts of North America.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of RussiaNow I don’t care much for sports, as a whole. But I’m as impressed as the next guy when someone’s willingness to hurl herself at 100 km/hr down an ice-coated chute on nothing more than a light frame with runners. It’s fun to watch anything fast and dangerous. And then there’s the skill factor: I’ll watch gymnastics not just for its soft-porn effect, but because there’s a certain thrill that comes with watching technical prowess, with seeing someone perform an act that is so far beyond your own ability that it seems almost super-human. [It’s that circus effect. Clowns are either dull or scary. But acrobats are always good entertainment, especially when they’re half naked.]

Of all the events that have occupied prime space on the front page of the New York Times over the last few weeks, I’m the most — and most continually — baffled by figure skating, and particularly by the events known as “ice dancing.” What’s the idea here and why on earth does anyone want to watch it?

On the one hand:

Yes, those people are out there doing things I can’t do. And the skills involved clearly require long hours of training, sweat and dedication.

On the other:

Why bother?

Any thrill we might find in the technical daring — say a triple axel — is dulled beyond sensation by the “artistic” factor. And I get the impression that it’s this “artistry” that really makes the crowds swoon:

  • It’s not just a “routine,” it’s “choreography” built to produce an emotional response: tender and romantic, slapstick funny, or adorably sweet. Skaters lose points for attempting to blend emotions or to introduce subtlety.
  • Music is key. It establishes the tone of the emotion for an audience unwilling to come to its own conclusions: high-brow (Tchaikovsky); romantic (Air Supply); dramatic (Celine Dion). Novelty tunes are allowed, but traditionally score low.
  • And the costumes dazzle the crowd before the program has even begun. Figure skating costume designers form a small and insular group. The aesthetics of their designs refer only to themselves; they are sealed off from the outside worlds of fashion and stage craft. As each designer picks up on the costume decisions of his peers, he’ll channel it into his own designs and broadcast the results to the world. The effect is an endless loop of visual amplification, feedback and distortion which eventually becomes too painful for all but the most hardcore fans to bear.

There is no irony in figure skating. There is no world beyond. It is self-contained and locked down, like a maximum-security psychiatric ward of the 1950s.

Kim Yu-Na of South KoreaMost important of all: it’s just not pretty. The simplest gesture becomes a technical feat. It’s fine to hold one foot behind your head while you skate on the other. But if doing that contorts your body into an unpleasant form, what have you accomplished?

Ice dancing?

Dance uses technical prowess as only the necessary foundation on which to build something of beauty. Precision and technique are just points along a path toward making something that hopes to transcend those pieces. They still require years of study and practice; but they’re the means and not the end.

When dance is at its best, the audience doesn’t see the steps and the leaps. We see abstractions of pure form and movement. We see music and all the complex emotions and associations it brings with it.

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