The Lost Edge

Gone is the Art - Gone are the Skaters


I dedicate this article to the memory of all the great trainers who gave me the love of skating and the art of the edge:
Cecilia Colledge, Megan Taylor, Pierre Brunet, Maribel Vinson Owen and Karl Schaeffer

What I am about to elucidate may seem "old fashioned" and "out of date" to those who practice figure skating today. However sometimes it is necessary to analyze the problems of the present by a return to the roots of the past. There are several subjects to consider which all contribute to the pathetic state figure skating has now reached:

A simple view of the skating situation today should alarm anyone about the sport. In the last 15 years there are two parallel trends: the more skaters do triple and attempt quadruple jumps, the higher the level of serious and crippling injuries. It is evident that this has attained a peak which in 2008 means the loss of two top skaters, Jeffery Buttle and Stéphane Lambiel. This withdrawal is not because they have decided to move on to other fields of interest but because they both have chronic serious injuries to back and legs which if they continue training and working to produce quadruple jumps will leave them seriously crippled for life or at the least require important orthopedic surgery usually destined for persons over 60. Contributing to the decision of these top skaters to leave the field is the ISU (International Skating Union) new judging system which was instituted to "eliminate" all cheating and secret deals between judges but which turns out to be so "modern" that the calculations end up being more obscure and often not at all related to what the skater has skated with never anyone responsible.

One of the excuses for eliminating school figures was that the public did not understand the results which counted in the over all score of a skater. What is the difference between the judging of school figures and the new "fool proof" system which gives credit for moves such as a change of edge in a spin, which spin should not change edge since it is counter to the art of the ice? The only true difference between these two scoring systems is that at least the school figures contributed to the total formation of the skater.

Through the practice of school figures the skater gained a well proportioned muscular development and reflex to the right and left sides of the body. This accompanied a control of edges thereby acquiring an ice technique and an understanding of the use of the circle thus creating a foundation for all free style moves, (steps, spins, jumps…).

To sum up, here we are today with the most artistic skaters injured and a judging system more obscure than ever. The net result is a disaffection of the public for a sport where the best artists withdraw and a marking system incomprehensible to the average television viewer.

How did this art/sport which drew thousands to TV for major national and international events reach this stage? Gone are: school figures, amateurs, artistic programs and with them, the skaters. We shall now try to analyze this decline.

The Art of Skating Technique

For decades, the mastery of school figures was a prerequisite for any serious skater in the same why the ballet dancer in ballet does a barre or the musician practices daily scales and Czerny exercises.

No skater could enter a national or international competition without achieving a certain level of mastery in school figures. No very young skater could do a free skating program until a minimum level of school figure control was accredited. The more television entered the field, the less school figures were considered important to the point they were reduced and then completely abolished resulting in two free style programs, a short to be "technical" and a long to be "artistic" but which now have come to resemble each other more and more. The general public has difficulty now in distinguishing the difference.

The emphasis on multiple rotation jumps has become a decisive factor to such a point that little else counts. To counteract this phenomenon, "difficulties" to gain points were introduced in required elements. However, many such "difficulties" were unrelated to the art of the edge but just counter movements which instead or improving the art are obstacles which must be overcome to try and maintain the art.

For example: All spins in skating are made with very small backward loops either on the back inside or the back outside edge. All backward movements on the ice are on the front of the blade which is equivalent to the ball of the foot. This as with the pirouette on the floor allows the weight of the body to rise against gravity creating minimum resistance on the ice or floor thus increasing the speed of the turn. When one is spinning and changes edge in the spin this is a counter movement to the momentum since the weight goes to the back of the blade and the skater is now making forward loops. The body is thus spinning on the heel. Obviously this is difficult to control just as it would be difficult on the floor to turn on one’s heel instead of on the ball, half toe or "sur la pointe" of the foot! Such a "difficulty" is not a true one but and an obstacle to overcome. A comparison in a totally different arena of sports would be to have a racing car pilot attempt to keep his car at full speed all the while simultaneously putting on the brakes. A real difficulty in a spin would be to do 40 rotations at top speed and centered! In the case of spin requirements the judging criteria must return to centering, speed, beauty of position and turning on the correct edge.

Another eccentricity in the "new judging" system are the requirements for foot work. To replace the non-existent school figures, requirements have been established to cram as many edge changes, turns, body and arm movements into foot work which either circles the ice or crosses it on the long part of the rink. The end result of this is there is no artistry in the step and the skater appears to be a flailing windmill in a tornado.

The upshot of these "new fangled" difficulties is that all programs tend to resemble each other in order to gain judging points and the artistry has completely vanished. Today, the general public is the television public and this is what has given skating the popularity it has enjoyed but with the loss of artistry and individuality skating is losing its best support, that of the public.

Multiple Rotation Jumps

With the elimination of school figures as a rating element, multiple rotation jumps became preeminent and have so remained making them the almost sole criteria for winning a competition. The height of the jump, the delayed rotation in a jump, its distance, the effortless take off and the smooth running landing have been totally discarded as a possible factor in judging criteria. All that counts is the number of rotations in the air even if the jump just skims the surface of the ice and lands with a tremendous jerk on a wrenched back inner edge before switching to the proper back outer edge. The insistence on triple jumps for women is most dubious and eliminates 90% of the young girls after puberty when the pelvis widens.

Regarding men, the factor of body change does not come into play but the issue which no one in authority dares raise is how much brutality can the human skeleton endure before it will break? This is what is happening today. What is the wear and tear on the human body to achieve the triple and quadruple jumps in a top competition? This is the crux of the crisis for men. Now without going into a detailed description of anatomy let us look at the power thrust needed in double, triple and quadruple jumps.

Taking 90% of the skaters who turn to the left (counter clockwise) the following jumps use the right leg, especially the inner thigh muscles to propel them upward and to close in the rotation. The left foot which should push from the ice can no longer do so fully because the boots have become so rigid that the foot can no longer extend to help the right leg thrust upwards so the thrusting leg, right must do double work. The axel, salchow and toe loop use the adductor thigh muscles enormously. The same adductor muscles come into play with the lutz and the flip since they pull the body back and help close in for the rotation. The loop jump uses this same set of muscles as the right leg pushes upward (and again less than it should with the foot encased in over stiff boots) leaving the right quadriceps and to lift the body up and the adductors to close in for the rotation.

The aim of this article is not to give a dissertation on jumping technique but to draw attention and clarify to the non-initiated the muscular demands of jumps. I shall not dwell on the muscular demands for the landings which with the skater turning counter-clockwise descend on the right leg and must be stabilized through the back muscles assisted by the unfolding of the left leg from front to back. It should be noted however that the more there is rotation the stronger must be the counter force to stop it and the more it becomes necessary to use an almost "brutal" force to arrest the turn upon reaching the ice. In general the height of the jump does not increase from a single to a quadruple turn. It is the centrifugal force which increases to make four turns in the same time span as one turn. Thus the muscular force of the right side in this case is tripled and quadrupled to achieve this rotation before gravity draws the body to the ice. Any layman can thus understand the increased muscular demands of the back and thrusting muscles followed by the counter force of muscles for the landings. This explains the innumerable strains even in young skaters of the adductor muscles which were hardly ever prevalent in an earlier period.

Now let us simulate the development of a present day skater:

This young skater has never done school figures and has only the vaguest notion of what makes an edge. For him the fact that people turn at the end of the rink in a public session is probably due to the barrier. The art of the circle which is the secret to ice technique remains an obscure notion. The young skater only knows, as seems also to be the frequent case of his coach, that to jump and turn in the air will make him/her, a champion. The coach even if he/she knows better has no help from international or national regulations to prevent this point of view and to the delight of the young skater and his parents, starts immediately teaching jumps before the skater can hold an edge correctly. Now commence years of physical exercise engaging body movement which is strained due to lack of ice technique using the same muscles in a repetitive way. Calculating modestly the skater trains jumps one hour every day. In this hour let us estimate he does 2 jumps every five minutes with 24 jumps per hour 6 days a week making 144 jumps per week, 576 jumps per month and 6336 jumps per average in an 11 month training year. This in itself is not a single criterion since skaters of the school figure era probably spent one hour on rotation jumps but before reaching this stage they had done 1 to 3 hours of school figures which demand muscular movement equally to the right and to the left.

If we want to have a renaissance in the art of the ice and to reduce the tragedy of injured young skaters and international champions, one of the necessities will be to reintroduce school figures in some form, perhaps in a somewhat less extensive manner. The only way this can be achieved is through national and international regulation requirements. No coach or skater will spend 1 to 2 hours a day on school figures unless this is a requirement and their correct execution counts in the competition score.

School Figures

Why do skaters need school figures?

  1. School figures teach the skater the art of the circle. Every move on the ice is circular from the tiny loops of spins to the long almost flat curves of stroking. The circle is used continuously as propulsion from the curved to the flattened form. It is closely related to the impetus needed to jump, spin and to gain speed.
  2. School figures teach the skater to control going into the circle, going against it, thus out of the circle and changing from one circle to another thus from one direction to another on the same or opposite leg.
  3. School figures correctly taught and executed train the body as follows: position of the back, the head, the arms, the hands and fluidity of the skating knee action accompanied by the correct placement and synchronized movement of the free foot and leg in same way the barre of classical dance does in ballet for the dancer.
  4. School figures require a regular rhythm to be performed correctly since the moves must be done at a specific place on the circle each time. They could also be performed to music as with the barre movements of the ballet dancer.
  5. School figures train balance and control of the blade which is in itself curved and replaces the action of the foot on the floor since the foot is held in a boot with a rigid sole.
  6. School figures train the use of the ankle from side to side and its movement of flexion and extension. It should be added that to achieve this, the skating boot must be conceived as an extension of the lower leg. It must adhere to the lower calf muscles like a glove. To do this the leather at this level must be supple and the boot should be laced snugly around the leg, cut high enough to allow this. There is no boot today made in this way. The skater who achieves control of the foot and ankle in school figures will only need a slightly stiffer boot for free skating. He will certainly not need the present day boot which is cut too low and is so stiff that the ankle can never take a lateral movement nor can it extend to propel correctly the jumps. This alone is presently causing atrophy of the lower leg and foot and contributing to the plethora of leg and foot injuries: tendonitis, bursitis and bone spurs in skaters of all ages. It should also be noted that young skaters who have been training in these rigid boots have feet that are totally unable to fully extend in off ice movements.

Another result of the overly rigid boot is that the skater cannot use his ankle to press the edges of the blade on the ice. To obtain an adequate grip on the ice with the stiff boot the blade needs a much deeper central groove in the sharpening. The overly deep groove then makes the skater much less agile in fast and flowing steps because it literally sticks into the ice. All turns become less fluid and the scraping, grinding of turns is inevitable.

All the technique acquired through school figures can then be applied to "free skating" in the true sense of the expression the skater having acquired a control of the ice technique is free to expand the "schooled movement" to an enlarged and expressive one. It should be added that the terrible falls of young skaters who do not have any control over their body and blade would again become minor.

No change and amelioration to the present deplorable state of figure skating can happen unless certain regulations occur at top decision levels. I certainly hope that it will not take a terrible accident such as a young girl attempting a triple axel, colliding with the barrier and remaining in a coma for the rest of her days to bring about an awakening of authorities.

Changes Needed in Regulations

  1. School figures will need to become a requirement at all levels to qualify skaters even if they only count for 10% if the score and are less numerous than in previous eras.
  2. Judging must return to the 6 system which if not perfect has been proven over many years to be the best that could be found. Skating is a sport but a sport/art and there will always be a divergence among the judges especially in the appreciation of the artistic quality.
  3. Multiple rotation jumps must be limited. The human body can only endure so much. Let us not imagine that 4, 5 and 6 rotations in the air can be achieved without doing harm to the body just as if one would ask an opera singer to sing 3 octaves above the known human voice range. I would go so far as to say that quadruple jumps in amateur competitions should be prohibited. If some professional competition wants to insert this feat and guarantee life time health insurance, let them do so and the skaters who attempt them accept the risks. The over use of the same muscles to achieve these rotations requires hours of pounding to succeed in performing them under pressure in competition. Today this demand has left the best skaters injured. Triple jumps should be limited for men to one of each variety and for women to a maximum of two with no triple axel for women in amateur competition. Important credit should be given to delayed jumps, one foot axels, and all jumps including singles used artistically in the opposite direction from the natural turning direction of the skater.
  4. Spins should not change edge but be judged on their style, centering and speed or controlled slowness. Edge change should be only accepted as exit from the spin if used as an artistic style. The only spin where edge change should be allowed and this in an artistic context is the camel spin (parallel/arabesque spin) since on slow music this can contribute to the interpretation.
  5. Footwork must become as before an interpretation of the music. Flowing controlled moves should count as much as rapid multiple turns. Repeated moves should be accepted if they reflect the music.
  6. Total artistic conception should be taken into consideration: choice of music, style of costumes, theme of program and choreography. I am not suggesting elimination of all sequins but the sport looks more and more like a show from the Folies Bergères.
  7. Choice of music should play an important part in the marks awarded to the artistic score. Figure skating well performed has a flowing harmonious quality. This movement should be enhanced by the music. Harsh atonal, continuous beat repetitious sounds are not conducive to good skating.

This is a plea to all those who decide. It is now in their hands to establish the necessary decisions to render the word amateur noble to the sport. Amateur means to love what one does and to put this love into what he does. A skater who enjoys skating is one the public enjoys watching .One of my trainers, Cecilia Colledge, World champion and several times European champion told me before she passed away last April 14th 2008 that she could no longer watch competitions on television because, "the programs have become so horrible". It is time to eradicate her impression and bring back the art of the ice in memory of those who made it an art and for the future skaters who seek to love this art.

Cecile Daniker is a former skater who now coaches and lives in France, and is a teacher and chorographer in classic ballet.  She has been Artistic Director and Choreographer of Danse en Ile de France since 1993.

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Copyright 2008 by Cécile DÄNIKER RÜSCH