Dancing on Ice

In a recent commentary in a skating newsgroup, Jack Curtis (a USFSA judge and former Treasurer of the USFSA) eloquently wrote about the demise of freedom in "free skating".  In his commentary he briefly noted the impact of Jackson Haines on ice skating, whose influence has, thus far, endured for over 120 years.  The relevance of this to the current direction of skating is worth repeating and expanding upon.

In the mid-1800s (in the U.S., in the years following the Civil War) skating throughout the word was dominated by regional styles that varied from country to country.  At that time skating to music as a sport or recreation did not exist.  Skating consisted of racing (speed skating), milling about the pond aimlessly in public session fashion, and the forerunner of figures -- the skating of turns, steps and edges in geometric patterns.  In the late 1860s Haines was the first recognized skating champion of the United States, a title earned skating turns, steps and edges in the "American Style".

Haines was a dancer by profession, both teaching and performing.  His training in dance led him to fundamentally alter the nature of skating.  Prior to Haines, skating was not performed to music.  Further, the style used was extremely different from today.  In the well documented "English Style" of skating, only the skating leg (aka the employed leg) was used to manipulate the motion of the blade on the ice.  The knee of the skating leg was held stiff and the free leg (aka the unemployed leg), arms and shoulders were not used to assist in manipulating the motion of the blade on the ice.  In the late 1800s a set of turns, edges and other movements were formalized in Britain into a test structure for this style of skating.  In the 1890s many of these elements of skating were incorporated into the schedule of figures used in ISU competition for nearly 100 years.   But with one important stylistic difference.

With Haines, skating became dancing on ice.  In dance, a performer uses their whole body to move across the stage and express the dance.  Haines changed the style of skating by using the free leg, arms and shoulders -- the whole body, skating on a soft knee -- to control the motion of the blade on the ice.

Haines left the U.S. for Europe in the 1870s and brought his concepts of skating with him.  He was embraced on the European continent and became the equivalent of a rock-star for his era.  His style of skating quickly became the dominant style of skating in continental Europe and became known as the "International Style".  It took several decades for the International Style to replace the English Style in Britain.  The International Style came to the U.S. in the early 1900s thanks largely to the efforts of George H. Browne and Irving Brokaw.

Although figures have their origin in the English Style, when figures were adopted by the ISU in the 1890s they were skated in Haines' International Style, with a soft knee, and the free leg, arms and shoulders used to execute the figures.

The second fundamental contribution Haines brought to international skating was the idea of a free program (meaning not limited to a fixed geometric pattern on the ice) skated as a dance on ice to music.  The fundamental concept of free skating in the International Style is that ALL skating is dancing on ice, be it a solo modern dance in singles, a more traditional ballroom style dance in ice dancing, or a more spectacular dance of two skaters in pairs.  Throughout its long history, competition in the International Style has always (and to some extent still does) have injunctions against movements that are purely acrobatic in nature or feats of pure strength.  Traditionally, the International Style of ice skating is about the motion and control of the blade on the ice, skated in time to the music, in a performance that includes athletic elements that contribute to expressing the character of the music.

This fundamental description of the basic nature of ice skating remains both explicitly and implicitly expressed in the rules.  Note, for example, nearly all the descriptive terminology for the requirements and judging of the presentation mark is derived from dance, and that in free skating, under the current system of judging, presentation is half the score and breaks a tie; i.e., in the International Style of skating presentation (the aspect of being dance on ice) trumps execution of the isolated elements.  That free skating is dancing on ice, performed to music, is in large part responsible for its popularity, be it in competitions, show and exhibitions, or rock music blaring at your local public session.

Underneath all the discussion of the technical details of CoP, lies the important question of what will be the essential characteristic of skating in the future.  During his tenure as ISU president, the speed skater from Milan has consistently been moving skating away from its roots, towards becoming simply a collection of tricks executed in a specific time limit.  Even ice dancing is becoming more and more about doing the required number of lifts, spins and step sequences and less about performing a dance that is an integrated coherent whole.  CoP is the next step in this process.  In CoP, competition is about executing 8, 12 or 14 required elements, with the emphasis on jumps and lifts.  Spins, sequences and fundamental skating skills are nearly worthless.  Presentation is reduced from 50% to about 30% of the total score.

In 1848 many of the capitals of Europe were swept with unrest, temporarily toppling the governments of the time.  When Berlin was overtaken by revolution, Fredrick William IV (king of Prussia at the time) ask his army Chief of Staff what he could do to restore order.  The general replied he would have to destroy the city in order to save it.  The king declined to accept this advice.

In 2004 the ISU president will go to the ISU Congress with CoP, and ask the people on whose behalf he in principle works (the member federations of the ISU) to approve a plan to destroy ice skating in order to save it.  The question is, will enough member federations have the wisdom and courage to decline this advice by saying no, and instead choose a path that brings reform to skating without catastrophically altering the fundamental characteristic that is responsible for its popularity among participants and spectators alike.

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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano