Sport and the Sublime

Greg LouganisThe following piece originally appeared in the 25-27 January 2013 edition of Counterpuch. I am posting it here in honor of the 2014 Winter Olympics that have just gotten underway in Sochi, Russia.

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. That was before cable, so finding something interesting could be challenging. I was channel surfing one day when I happened on some diving. I didn’t know anything about diving. but even people who don’t know anything about it can appreciate the beauty of it. There was nothing better on, so I decided to watch for a bit.

One diver after another came on the screen and executed what seemed to be perfect dives. But then, suddenly, there was Greg Louganis. There’s a video of Louganis on YouTube that begins: “There are two categories of divers, those who perform with magnificent skill, grace, beauty, and courage–” there’s a pause and the narrator’s voice drops an octave, “then there is Greg Louganis.”

That pretty much sums it up. I was watching all these divers who seemed perfect, and then suddenly there was Greg Louganis. He wasn’t just perfect–he was sublime. I didn’t know anything about diving and yet watching Louganis gave me the feeling Emily Dickinson reportedly said one gets from good poetry–it made me cold to the bone. It gave me that shiver of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talks about in The Idea of the Holy.

That was a defining moment in my life. It was, I believe, when I first realized that there was more to reality than what appears on the surface of experience. Louganis executed the same beautiful movements as all the other divers, and yet there was something more in his movements than in everyone else’s. Something ineffable and yet so powerful; it hit the spectator with the force of a blow, like the shock of electricity. It seemed as if there were more energy in every fiber of his being, more vital life force. It was as if he were more real than the other divers, as if the other divers had been only moving images, whereas Louganis was a man in the flesh. Except that the other divers had been real. So Louganis seemed somehow to have more reality than the others.

*

I saw the same thing a few years ago in person. I’d just started taking figure skating lessons and used to go to competitions to cheer on a little boy whom my teacher was coaching. I stayed, once, to watch the next competition for slightly more advanced boys. One of the skaters caught my eye during the warmup. He was doing a very simple move, one I was trying, in fact, to learn myself at that time. It’s called “edges with three turns” and involves the skater making large arcs across the ice on alternating feet with a turn in the middle from forward to backward so that the tracings left on the ice look like a series of elongated number threes facing in opposite directions. It’s a simple looking move, yet it’s very difficult to perform well because, after the turn, the skater’s shoulders have a tendency to continue to pull him in the direction of the turn. If this motion is not checked, then it will be almost impossible for him to step forward again into the next arc. The shoulders and hips have to turn independently of each other, and the skater has to have a considerable degree of control over his upper body to keep the motion of the shoulders in check.

This boy, the one I was watching, can’t have been more than 14 years old, but he had the serene self possession of a dancer at the barre. His movements were slow, deliberate, and exquisite. I’d never seen anything like it. Not only did he have perfect form, he had perfect concentration. Other skaters raced past him, but he was so absorbed in what he was doing he seemed not to notice them. It was almost as if he were out there alone, as if the other skaters had been reduced to shadows. I could not take my eyes off him.

*

The idea that there are degrees of reality will seem strange to most people nowadays. It was a familiar one, however, to medieval and early-modern philosophers. For the medievals, things that were dependent on other things for their existence had less reality than did the things on which they were dependent. People, for example, had less reality than God. God had created people, hence people were dependent for their existence on God, whereas God’s existence was absolutely independent of anything else. God was the ultimately real thing, the thing with the greatest degree of reality, the thing that was more real than any other thing.

Kierkegaard also appears to have appropriated this idea of degrees of reality. Human beings, according to Kierkegaard, begin as ideas in the mind of God. The telos of an individual human life is therefore to bring the substance of that life into conformity with the form God conceived it should have. That’s what Kierkegaard means, I would argue, when he asserts that we must become who we are. We must become concretely who we are for God abstractly.

Most people, and that includes most athletes, don’t do that. Rather than striving to instantiate the ideal of their uniqueness, they constantly compare themselves to other people and try, in effect, to be better at being those people than those people are themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition can push athletes to higher levels of performance than they might otherwise achieve. What has not been adequately articulated, however, is precisely how this works. Competition improves performances, I would argue, only when athletes strive to instantiate a transcendent ideal that no particular performance can ever adequately instantiate. An athlete who strives in this way to instantiate an ideal provides a glimpse into the essence of that ideal that can spur on others in their own pursuit of it.

That’s a very different sort of phenomenon, however, from that of one athlete effectively copying another in the belief that he can do what the other has done better than the other did it himself. That kind of competition is inherently frustrating for the athlete in that he is trying to be something he’s not, and boring for the spectator in that he’s being subjected to what are effectively a bunch of imitations. When athletes strive only to win, rather than to be the best that they can be in their chosen sport, the reality of all the participants in a competition is diminished. Each becomes merely a copy of the others, and the ideal, which in a sense is more real than is any particular attempt to instantiate it, is lost sight of.

 

The idea that there are degrees of reality provides us a way to explain something that is otherwise inexplicable–greatness. Philosophers distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences. A thing can be more or less blue, for example, in a quantitative sense. To be red, on the other hand, is to be something else entirely. Red is qualitatively different from blue.

A performance that is great is not distinguished from other performances in a merely quantitative sense. There’s something more to it that sets it apart. Greatness is qualitatively different from skill, even the most highly refined skill. It’s possible to execute a movement in a manner that many would judge to be technically perfect, and yet to be uninspiring. Conversely, it’s possible to deviate from universally accepted standards of performance and yet move an audience more profoundly than someone who is merely a consummate technician.

Part of this has to do with passion, but it is not reducible to passion. Passion is necessary for greatness, but it’s not sufficient. Passion is a natural attribute. Some people have more, others have less, just as some people have more or less patience than other people. Greatness, on the other hand, is not a natural attribute. A great artist, as every great athlete is, has to be passionate, and yet he also has to be more than that. He has to have a gift. That’s why greatness is edifying. It bursts the confines of the temporal-phenomenal world, provides us with a glimpse of something that is transcendent. There’s a spark of divinity to it.

That’s why the sport/art dichotomy is false. All great athletes are artists. They give us glimpses of the sublime by bringing into their performances something more in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense. That’s why it’s wrong for athletes to strive merely to win. It’s not simply that striving to win, as Aristotle pointed out, is misguided in that winning is something over which one has no direct control. To strive to win is to aim for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, and that is inherently limiting. Athletes who strive to be the best they can be at their chosen sport rather than simply to win this or that contest are pursuing something transcendent. That’s ennobling, both for the athlete and the spectator.

Why then is winning so important? Because it is more obviously valued than is being sublime. It takes less energy, less effort, less engagement on the part of the spectator to be caught up in a contest than to be caught up in a performance. We can follow a contest with only half, or even less, of our attention. To follow a performance, on the other hand, is energy intensive. Human beings, like every other living creature, like to conserve energy. Contests are a way of doing that. We are told who the winner is rather than having to determine that for ourselves. To follow a performance, in contrast, requires us to be fully present in the moment, to bring all our capacities of attention and discrimination to the fore.

When we do that, when we truly follow the performances of athletes, we sometimes find that the superb performance is not always the one that wins. There are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes reputations of athletes unduly influence scores. Other times the scoring systems themselves are simply too arbitrary and opaque to ensure that the best performance wins. Finally, scores are sometimes manipulated to ensure that particular athletes win, independently of how well they perform.

All of these reasons are traceable back, however, to a suspicion of the ineffable. It’s ultimately impossible to articulate what makes a performance great, and not everyone is an equally good judge of greatness. So in the service of fairness, we attempt to construct a set of objective criteria for evaluating performances, and the performance that best satisfies these criteria is the one we call “the winner.”

 

*

The name of the skater I saw a few years ago is Alexander Aiken. I tried to follow his career for a while. If there were a competition in the area I would go in the hope of seeing him, and I would look for news of his results in Skating magazine, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. I eventually lost track of him, however, as my interest in the sport waned. The new judging system has imposed a level of conformity that is increasingly making skating boring to watch, and the perennial problem of inequities in the judging too often make the results of competitions an offense to the fair minded.

I quit following competitive skating. I continued to skate myself, though,  because it is the only real exercise I get. When I arrived in Jacksonville, where my husband teaches and where I spend half the year when I am not teaching in Philadelphia, I was surprised to find that a very advanced skater had recently begun to train there. I noticed him as I entered the rink and stopped to watch him for a few minutes. Something about him looked familiar. And then I realized who it was; it was Alexander Aiken. He was older, of course, than he had been the last time I’d seen him, but his looks had otherwise not changed much. I think it was less his face, though, than his skating that caused the shock of recognition to run through me. His skating is distinctively beautiful.

I could hardly believe the coincidence of his showing up to train in Jacksonville. I’d first seen him in Philadelphia and had learned then that he was from Atlanta. What, I wondered, was he doing in Jacksonville? I went over and introduced myself when he finally got off the ice. I told him how I’d seen him years ago and had been impressed with his skating. He smiled and thanked me politely and continued unlacing his skates. I learned later, from his girlfriend Michelle Pennington, who is a former competitive ice dancer and one of the instructors at the rink, that he’d moved to Jacksonville to live with a sister whose husband was in the military and was stationed there.

We skated together, Aiken and I, the sublime and the ridiculous, through the end of the summer and into the early fall. It was wonderful. Most of the time, we were the only two people on the ice. I was concerned that my presence might interfere with his training, but it was wonderful to be able to observe a great athlete so closely, and he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Aiken brought a better face to the sport than the one I had seen of late and that helped bring back the joy I had earlier taken in it.

I was excited to have someone to cheer on again in competitions. Aiken was going places. He’s not just supremely graceful; he has enormous athletic ability. He’s able to land triple axels solidly and consistently, the jump widely considered to be the most difficult in the whole sport.  He won the bronze medal at the 2011 national figure skating championships in the Junior Men’s division and had competed at the Senior level for the first time last year. He hadn’t placed terribly well, but that’s how the sport works. Skaters are rarely allowed to place well their first year in “seniors.”

 

The nationals are this week in Omaha. The senior men compete on Friday and Saturday. You won’t see Aiken there though. He’s been plagued over the last few years, as so many skaters are, by the astronomically high costs of training. The stress of that has taken its toll on him. He narrowly missed qualifying for nationals and decided he’d had enough. He’s quit skating, or at least quit competing. He said he can no longer afford the $50,000 he’d had to pay every year to train. He’d gotten some help, of course––most skaters at his level do––just not enough.

It’s hard for me to say, finally, which spectacle is more ennobling: the sublime performance that wins the contest, hence reinforcing our faith in providence, or the one that doesn’t. I think sometimes that it’s the latter. The celebrity of the winner makes him a kind of public figure, someone who belongs, in a sense, to the masses, whereas the triumph of the athlete who achieved greatness but did not win is a more private thing, something that belongs only to himself and that select group of spectators whose intensity of attention has initiated them into the realm of the transcendent.

No skater I’ve ever seen in person has made such a strong impression on me as Alexander Aiken has. He’s a sublime skater, a great athlete, a great man. This piece is for him.

(This article has been excerpted from Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport. I’m indebted to Michelle Pennington for her help with it.)

Eros and Gender

Portrait caricature

I have a friend who writes what he likes to refer to as “gay romance novels.” I was surprised to learn that many of his readers were women. He met them, he explained, at book signings. It seems women like guy on guy action. They like men’s bodies and enjoy explicit and appreciative descriptions of them in various states of sexual arousal even if those descriptions are done from the perspective of another man.

I hadn’t given this issue much thought until I began reading Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport by Mary Louise Adams (University of Toronto Press, 2011).  Figure skating is generally considered an effete sport. It wasn’t always so, though; it was originally practiced almost exclusively by men, so the question of how it came to be considered a sport for women is interesting. More importantly, it’s a pressing question for people who love skating and are concerned that its reputation as a sport for women discourages young men from taking it up. Unfortunately, few people within the skating community have made any effort to answer this question, but have attempted, instead, to constrain male skaters to perform in ways they consider to be acceptably masculine. This is done formally through the imposition of different technical requirements for “men’s” and “ladies” programs and informally through different approaches to the training of male and female skaters.

Dance, like figure skating, is also widely considered to be an activity best suited to women, but like figure skating, this was not always the case. So Adams looks, in her book, at the history of gendering dance movements, or at what is referred to in the dance community as “the problem of the male dancer.”

Ted Shawn, she observes, one of the pioneers of modern dance in the U.S., believed, there were fundamental differences in male and female movement. “If we can get these specific qualities of masculine and feminine movement separated,” he wrote,

it will be like breaking up white light into the colours of the spectrum … We shall then be able to split up our orchestra of dancers – the percussion and brass for the men and the woodwind and strings for the women, each sex contributing a different but complementary quality of movement to the enrichment of the art of the dance as a whole. (Adams, 226).

According to Shawn, men make big movements while women make smaller movements. Men’s arm movements “are a continuation of the body movement, as for example, the movement of a man using a scythe.” Women’s movements, he continues, are smaller. “[T]he little, fluttery movements of the wrist and hands” he asserts, “are legitimately a woman’s movement.” Shawn, writes Adams, “described men’s movements as ‘positive, aggressive, forceful, definite, explicit.’ Women’s movements, by contrast, were described as ‘tender, protective, conservative, conciliatory, delicate and tentative” (Adams, 226).

But are these differences innate, or something that boys and girls must be taught? Nikolai Tarasov, a renowned teacher from the Moscow Choreographic School and author of Ballet Technique for the Male Dancer, seems, according to Adams, to suggest that they are both innate and learned. Tarasov thus recommended that boys not be taught by women. Shawn, Adams observes, “made similar arguments, claiming, on the one hand, that gender differences in styles of movement are natural and, on the other, that men and women should follow separate training regimes to make sure that men do not develop an effeminate style, full of soft, pretty movements instead of vital and dynamic ones” (Adams, 227).

Dance critic Tobi Tobias suggested in a 1977 article in the New York Times that male dancers should focus on jumps … while women and girls should focus on “fluidity and finesse of line” (Adams, 227). The same gendered conceptions of movement have been imposed on figure skating to the detriment of the sport.

Christine Brennan, the author of Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating’s Olympic Gold Medals (Scribner, 1998), quotes Olympic champion Ilia Kulik as lamenting the excessive emphasis on jumping in men’s skating. “For me,” he explains, “it’s more interesting when I’m doing something between the jumps. … This is figure skating. It’s not jumping. It’s not just going into the jump and out of the jump and waiting for the next jump. I want to show the program. I want to show the step sequences. … That’s what figure skating is” (Brennan, 222).

Restricting emphasis on “fluidity and finesse of line” to women’s skating was done on the assumption that a flowing style and a fine body line were not masculine. Yet women are drawn to these qualities in men. Brennan writes that Kulik’s practices, when he was preparing for the 1998 Olympic Games, used to draw small crowds of young female admirers. Male skaters often cause female skaters to pause and watch with an admiration that is not limited to an appreciation of the male skater’s technical skill.

Adams argues that the gendering of movement has hampered the development of dance, and by extension, figure skating, which seems to have followed the lead of the dance community in its conception of what constitutes masculine and feminine movement. The notion, she observes, for example,  “that physical flexibility is a feminine characteristic has contributed to many men not seeing value in working on their own flexibility” (Adams, 222). Bruce Marks, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre in the 1950s, explains that at that time,

[f]or a man to lift his leg higher than hip level in extension just wasn’t done. A man’s leg was to be kept at a forty-five degree angle. And men were not to stretch … There was no one who could do a split on the wall like Misha [Baryshnikov] does, when I started studying ballet – no men. None of them wanted to. The first year I danced, I remember Pierre Lacotte came from the Paris Opera and stretched constantly. I had never seen a man so stretched; it was considered taboo. We made fun of French male dancers for that. They were considered effete because they were looking for a kind of line that was forbidden to us as men. (Adams, 222).

Yeah, French men are effete, everyone knows that, right? Except that, for many women in Western culture, French men also seem to embody an ideal of sexual attractiveness. I actually know a guy who pretends to be able to speak French just to get women into bed. He says it works too, so long as the woman in question does not herself know French.

There is a bizarre schism in Anglo-American culture between officially sanctioned ideals of masculinity and femininity and what men and women actually find sexually attractive. Men are told they ought to like women who are so slender their shape is effectively androgynous and men whose self esteem is so low that they feel the need to impress others with their choice of a spouse will often marry such women. I wonder, however, if there are any statistics on how many of these men have curvaceous mistresses, because the fact is, most men are naturally drawn to women who look like women.

Something similar is the case with women in that despite the fact men are not supposed to care what they look like, women are attracted to men who do care. That’s part of the appeal of Frenchmen, and even more of Italians. Those guys care about their appearance because they know women care about it. And despite the fact that the ideal of masculinity perpetuated by Anglo-American culture is one of lumbering, awkward, brutish inarticulacy, women the world over have always been drawn to poets and dancers.

Grace is a powerful aphrodisiac. If anyone thought about it, they would see that this makes sense. Okay, I don’t know what grace is in a chicken, or more correctly, a rooster. I do know though that male birds dance for females as part of their seduction ritual. Indeed, throughout the animal kingdom males perform in order to win, to put it delicately, the affections of a female and one presumes that the winners are the ones deemed, in some sense, the most graceful.

There is, in fact, no species that I know of, apart from human beings, where the female performs in order to attract the attentions of the male. Mostly they spend their time trying to avoid those attentions, so the males have to be really good at their little dances. My suspicion is that what actually sets human beings apart from other species is the level of sophistication involved in the refinement of those dances, that and the fact that while other animals, no matter what their level of skill, are invariably on the right track in terms of their assumption of what they need to do to get a mate, a large portion of masculine humanity has become derailed.

Many Anglo-American men laugh at male dancers and figure skaters. Not so many women laugh, though. Women love to watch a graceful man. That’s why ballroom dancing classes are so popular. Few women who take these classes harbor any hope of ever getting their mates on the dance floor. They go for themselves. They go to watch–and to be with–graceful men. That’s a large part of why women like ballet, and, of course, why they like figure skating. Yes, they like to imagine themselves as sylph-like ballerinas, but part of that is because the sylph-like ballerina ends up in the arms of a powerful, and graceful, male, a man such as Mikail Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov was a famous womanizer and reputed effectively to have played himself, in his role as “Yuri Kopeikine,” the Casanova-like dancer who was gradually working his way through all the up-and-coming female dancers in his company in the film The Turning Point. This aspect of Baryshnikov’s private life came as something of a surprise to people who knew nothing about ballet. It was no surprise, however, to insiders. Male dancers are not all gay, and the ones who are not are like human catnip to women with any sort of aesthetic sense.

Watch Baryshnikov on YouTube. Now there is a dancer with what is referred to as “beautiful line.” Baryshnikov is arguably the greatest male dancer of all time. When he’s dancing, there is no part of his body of which he is unconscious. Even the movements of his fingers are beautiful. There is a man who is completely absorbed in his craft. He is a master–and the effect is overwhelmingly erotic.

I’m not trying to suggest that Baryshnikov’s appeal is primarily to women, or that the appeal of male dancers more generally is primarily to women. My point is that grace in anyone is inherently erotic; both men and women are drawn to it. My point is that what is sexually attractive is more or less universal. Grace attracts sexual attention–period.

Grace is, of course, only one of many things human beings find sexually attractive. Vulnerability, intelligence, humor, and host of other qualities also have more or less universal sexual appeal. What sets grace apart is that while most of us appreciate, that a good sense of humor, for example, is appealing in both men and women, many people, or at least many men, fail to appreciate that grace is no different.

Just as grace confers an important reproductive advantage to many male animals, so does a striking appearance. Most male animals are more gaudily arrayed than are their female counterparts–again, precisely in order to attract amorous attentions. Yet male skaters are encouraged to wear more conservative costumes than their female counterparts and are forbidden from wearing tights, presumably on the assumption that this garment is inherently feminizing. Spanish men, however, arguably the most relentlessly macho on the face of the earth, have no problem climbing into a pair of tights. Why? They know that a well-muscled masculine physique tightly wrapped in silk and sprinkled with beads and sequins is as enticing a sight to a mature woman as is a pony with a bow on it to a little girl. There are already a significant number of women who follow figure skating primarily to watch the men, but imagine how the popularity of the sport would soar if male skaters took to the ice with the bravado of matadors on parade?

One of the problems, I would argue, with male figure skaters is not that their performances are effeminate, but that they tend toward asexuality. Only in ice dancing, it seems, is any overt reference to sexuality officially sanctioned. The problem is not merely with figure skating. It’s with the whole of Anglo-American culture. We’re a bunch of prudes. Perhaps that’s part of the explanation for our taste for violence. We’re angry and frustrated because an essential aspect of our humanity is systematically rejected and condemned.

Kierkegaard, and the romantics more generally, used to speak of “the erotic” in a general sense rather than in a specifically masculine or feminine sense. Eros has to do with a beauty that transcends limited cultural definitions of gender. Fortunately, the dance world appears to have caught on. When will figure skating catch up? Adams is right. It would help the development of the sport if it would give up its limiting conceptions of gender. And maybe if figure skating did that, it would help the rest of the culture as well.

(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch Aug. 27, 2012.)

The Sorcerers’ Apprentices

Portrait caricatureI flipped through Outdoor Life a while back as I was waiting for the doctor. There was a big spread on ski lodges. I remember seeing a similar spread in some magazine or other about a year ago. A couple of those lodges actually had ice skating, too.

I’’d love to go to a lodge like that where I could skate. I started taking skating lessons a few of years ago, as a way of staying fit, and now I’’m really into it.  I’’d love to spend a weekend at a “skating lodge”; eat a hearty breakfast in front of a roaring fire in the lodge dining room and then go out and “hit the ice”; come back for a hearty lunch, a little shopping, perhaps another skate, then a sumptuous dinner, again in front of a roaring fire, with an excellent wine and some kind of wicked dessert.

Why don’’t lodges advertise skating the way they do skiing, I asked myself. But then, I realized the answer: —skating is not so much fun as skiing. I love skating. I mean I really love it, but you have to spend countless hours at it before it is as fun as the first few trips down the slopes. Physical law, specifically gravity, works with you in skiing. It will pull even the rank beginner down the slopes so he’ll experience the thrill of speed, of wind in his face.

Gravity is the enemy in skating, though, and where it takes you, you don’t want to go. You are constantly fighting gravity when you skate, whether it is gravity that drags the leg, that is supposed to remain extended behind you after each stroke, prematurely back to the ice, or gravity that makes rising on one leg again and again to facilitate the notorious “double-sit push” so seemingly impossible.

Igor Yareshenko, the former Olympian who now coaches at the Skating Club of Wilmington, makes his students do one hundred deep-knee bends with their backs up against a wall. Everything is in the knees. Skater’s knees are like pistons, the really good one’s, anyway. Watch the ice dancers out there bobbing gently with each stroke. It’s almost as if the ice were not frozen, but fluid, and they were buoys bobbing gently in the waves. It’s all in the knees.

Those skaters make it look effortless, that gentle rising and falling, but it takes years to learn to skate like that. I still haven’t gotten it right, and I’m just talking about regular old straight stroking, nothing fancy. It takes years to learn to skate like Elizaveta Stekolnikova and Dmitri Kazarlyga, the couple who demonstrate the moves on the videos, “Stroking Exercises on Ice: The Dance Training Methods of Natalia Dubova.”

I watch those videos over and over again just to see their beautiful skating. They’re instructional videos and yet I think the skating in them is more beautiful than in any competition or ice-show I’’ve ever seen. I like the explanations too. I think they make the skating even more beautiful. All the slow-motion close-ups with the voice-overs explaining things such as the importance of rising on the skating leg over a turn, or how the free leg must briefly become one with the torso so that the skating leg can act independently of it. I think I have never seen anything so beautiful as the apparently effortless movements of that couple as they demonstrate some of the simplest and yet most fundamental elements of figure skating so that they seem like natural movements; so that to do them any other way would seem to require more effort.

Figure skating is one of the most difficult of human endeavors. I saw proof of this a few years ago over at the Class of 1923 Skating Rink on Walnut just behind Drexel’s Creese Student Center. I spend most of my lunch hours over there. There are only about a half a dozen of us who go there regularly for these mid-day public sessions, and we have gotten to know one another. There are often a few beginners along with the more skilled regulars.

I saw a guy there one day who was really good, frighteningly good. A couple of the regulars are decent jumpers (meaning they can do axels, the one and a half revolution jump), but this guy was doing triple jumps and flying by the rest of us with such speed he was generating wind.  No one knew who he was. I noticed, however, that he had a Drexel shirt on, so when he finally stopped for a minute, I went over to talk to him. His name was Michael Solonoski. He’ was a freshman in the architecture program and, of course, a competitive figure skater. He skated down at the University of Delaware with, among others, Jeff DiGregorio, who trained Olympic champion, Tara Lipinski. He was preparing just then for the South Atlantics, a qualifying competition for the national figure skating championships.

I’’ve seen a lot of good skaters. I started skating at the Skating Club of Wilmington, one of the top training facilities in the country. You can watch world-class skaters there any day of the week. Like most clubs, the sessions are divided according to skill level, so you’ll never see beginning and advanced skaters on the ice at the same time, the way you could when Michael Solonoski practiced at the 1923 rink. This kind of juxtaposition is crucial, however, to understanding how much work is involved in becoming a skilled skater.

Skaters such as Solonoski make skating look easy. It’s tempting, as you watch them, to think that you, too, might be able to skate like them with a little practice. But when you see great skaters on the ice with real beginners, you’ll have an entirely different perspective. Compared with the beginners, they’ll seem almost magical. You’ll think that perhaps they’re not really normal humans being but some kind of changelings, that they did not have to learn how to skate like the rest of us, but were born knowing how.

They weren’t. They start taking lessons when they are very young because they want to learn to spin and jump, to do all the fun and exciting stuff. Then they find out that they have to endure hours of tedious, repetitive exercises every day for years to acquire the skills that form the foundation for those more complicated maneuvers.

Figure skating demands all the physical discipline of ballet, but requires one execute his balletic maneuvers on what is effectively the head of a pin. Figure skating blades are curved, so there’s barely an inch in contact with the ice at any one time. If your posture is bad in ballet, if your shoulderblades are not pulled toward each other while your shoulders themselves are pressed firmly downward, if your hips are not just exactly beneath your shoulders, you will simply make a less pleasing impression. If your posture does not meet these same standards in skating, you’ll fall, and possibly hurt yourself. Your torso has to be a stabilizing element. It can’t go leaning this way and that with each thrust of your legs. It must remain in place, almost as if it were suspended from the ceiling by a string, as if you were a puppet whose legs could be moved independently of its torso because they were suspended by separate strings.

Yours are not, though. Your legs come right out of your torso and, despite that fact, you’’ve got to learn to make them move independently. The only way you can do that is by maintaining a firm downward pressure on the shoulders and making sure you keep them squared over your hips. That downward pressure, which must be maintained even as you are rising on the skating leg after a stroke, is what keeps your torso from equally and oppositely reacting to the thrust of your legs.

Skating violates physical laws. Good skating makes this miracle seem almost mundane. There’s perhaps a better way to put it. Skaters, or more specifically, coaches, learn physical law so that, like lawyers, they can bend and twist it to make it do what they want. Watch Natalia Dubova’’s explanation of basic skating exercises and you’ll see a first-rate legal mind in action. For the outside Mohawk (a turn), she explains, “you must have a very strong back, as if there were a wall behind you that you are leaning against.”

The Mohawk is a fairly intricate piece of footwork. It’’s a turn that starts on one foot going forward and ends on the other going backward. I always watch the feet. They fascinate me. Natalia says almost nothing about the feet, though; everything is in the back. And, of course, she’’s right. It doesn’t matter in the least that you know what to do with your feet, or that you know what your feet should do. If you go out and try this turn without concentrating almost exclusively on maintaining a strong back (and, of course, downward pressure on your shoulders), you will fall forward onto your face. You’ll get up thinking that somehow you’ve gotten your feet wrong. You’ll try it again, and you’ll fall again.

It’s all in the back. If you maintain that firm pressure on your back, explains Natalia gently to her puzzled students, —“you will do it.” She is always dropping little gems like this. It’s “the back” for the Mohawk, “the hips and shoulders” for crossovers. Figure skaters are the Jesuits of the sports world, using physical laws against themselves to achieve what, if you tried it yourself, you would swear was physically impossible.

That’s what a fellow skater, Mark, said the first summer my husband and I went to one of the adult weeks at Lake Placid’’s figure skating training camp. Mark had taken up skating in his early fifties after he’’d started his own business, and the work involved in that meant that he could no longer get away to ski mid week. As an avid and advanced skier he could not tolerate the thought of battling the crowds on the weekends.

Mark and his wife, Patti, live in Manhattan, so Patti had suggested they take up figure skating. She pointed out that they could skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park. They would be outside just like skiing. So they decided to do it. They got some good skates, a good coach and after about five years they’ acquired some impressive skills.

Mark and my husband were talking one day while they were waiting for the ice to be resurfaced.

“You know that stuff they do on TV,”” Mark said, ““that’s not really possible. It’’s all camera tricks and angles.””

Of course he knew it wasn’t. He knew they were really doing that stuff. He just couldn’’t understand how, not even after five years and, as Mark joked, “a “million dollars in lessons.””

If you actually take up skating and try to learn even some basic moves, your attitude toward the sport will change almost entirely. The movements of skaters, the really good ones anyway, will continue to look effortless. You’ll gain some appreciation, however, of the effort required to create this impression and this appreciation will make the movements take on an eerie beauty.

Nothing is so absorbing as to watch a young skater develop, to observe his early efforts and his gradual acquisition of skill. I know this because for a few years I followed the development of a young boy, Andrew Nagode. Andrew’’s coach, Slava Uchitel (a former Ukranian national champion) was also my teacher. Slava began working with Andrew when he was five.

I remember when Andrew was struggling with single jumps, or perhaps they were doubles. It was hard to tell because he fell so often. Those early efforts showed how difficult were the things Slava was asking him to do. You would see his body twisting and contorting in all the wrong ways. You would see him fall, again and again and again. You would see the look of anguish and defeat on his face and your heart would go out to him. Slava seemed almost cruel to me back then as he stood by silently, demanding, from a small boy, the seemingly impossible.

After a while though, there was less anguish on Andrew’’s face. He was gaining more control and sometimes his face would take on the same expression of concentration that always characterized his coach’’s face.

One day I showed up at the rink and there was Andrew, doing with inexplicable ease what had earlier appeared impossible and the expression of concentration on Slava’’s face was replaced by a smile of satisfaction. Suddenly I realized, what I was coming to understand from my own interactions with Slava, that he was not heartless, or cruel, but the purveyor of extremely esoteric knowledge, knowledge so exotic and mysterious he is like a sorcerer or a magician.

To watch, in this way, the development of a young skater is one of the most fascinating things imaginable. It’s like watching someone learn to fly, or to make himself invisible. You’ll see from his early struggles just how inhumanly difficult it is. But then one day you’ll see him doing it. You’ll marvel over this and wonder how it can have been possible. And there in the background will be the shadowy figure of the coach, who’ll seem to hold all the secrets of the universe, secrets he’s passing down, in a time honored ritual, to this new generation of fortunate apprentices.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in ASK, The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences of Drexel University, March 2005)

Time Travel

Hobart Arena 1959

Hobart Arena 1959

The philosopher Richard Taylor asserts, in his book Metaphysics, that the idea of time travel is incoherent. The incoherence, he claims, “is exposed in saying that . . . at a later time—someone finds himself living at an earlier time. To imagine,” he continues, “‘returning’ to an earlier time is merely to imagine the recurrence of events of that time.

“More precisely, it is to imagine everything, except oneself just as it was then” (73).

I believe he’s wrong. I believe time travel is possible, not in the sense, however, of imagining the recurrence of past events just as they were, while remaining oneself unchanged. That, after all, is nothing but reminiscence, perhaps extraordinarily vivid, but reminiscence nonetheless. Time travel, real time travel, I believe, is the reverse of Taylor’s description. It is to have everything around one just as it is now, while returning oneself to the way one was at an earlier time. In this sense, it is to be not what one is, as the philosophers say, but what one was.

To the extent that most of us go through some kind of moral development as we mature, this may not seem like a desirable project. Moral development is not the only thing we undergo, however, we tend, as we become older, to lose something of the joy and optimism of youth. It ebbs away with the passage of the years, more or less quickly depending on the events of our lives. I lost much of my own joy and optimism, I think, with my parents divorce when I was seventeen. But there were other events, both before and after, that gradually eroded my innocent faith in the benevolence of fate.

One such event was when I gave up my dream of becoming a figure skater. I was forced to confront the fact that my family simply did not have the money to allow me to pursue that dream. I don’t remember ever dreaming of being in the Olympics or anything like that. I did dream, though, of becoming good, really good.

I always loved skating. My sisters and I used to pretend to skate on our driveway in the winter. The driveway was behind and slightly lower than the house and when it was covered with snow it looked a lot like a little pond. We would pack the snow down very hard and then slide around on it in shoes with slick soles pretending we were skating. Sometimes we would dress up. My mother used to take us to the Goodwill store and allow us to pick out cast-off party dresses, or “formals” as we called them, to dress up in. I had a black velvet one with a heavy rolled hem that made it puff out and flare beautifully when I turned. I would wear it and carry a little rabbit fur muff that must also have come from the Goodwill. I felt like a princess as I glided across the packed snow. We often “skated” in the evening when the light over the garage would illuminate the falling snow and if I looked up toward the night sky, it would seem as if the stars were actually falling softly on me or as if the sky were opening up and I were being carried away into it.

We would “skate” like this until our feet were so cold we had lost all feeling in them and then we would ascend the stairs at the edge of our “pond” that led into the kitchen where my father would be waiting with hot chocolate. My feet used to hurt excruciatingly as they warmed up again, but that never kept me from “skating” if there were sufficient snow.

I think I was ten or eleven years old the first time I went skating for real. I went with my Camp Fire Girl troupe. I don’t remember much about that first time except that I greatly admired the skates of one of the other girls. Most of us had to rent skates, but she had her own and they were not brown like the rental skates, but blue with fur at the top.

I must have liked skating though because I went back. My sisters and I began to go skating fairly regularly and soon we each had our own pair of beautiful white skates. None of us had had lessons, but we would wear little skating skirts and watch the other better skaters and imitate what they did.

My parents could not really afford to give us lessons, but I pestered them anyway until they finally gave in. My lessons were during the public skating sessions at the local rink on a little portion of the ice that had been sectioned off for that purpose by orange traffic cones. I had one fifteen-minute lesson each week with a second-rate instructor.  Eventually, my lessons went to half an hour, not because we could afford it but because, in my mother’s words, I had a talent for getting what I wanted, and I wanted to skate.

I was in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago when I ran across something that brought this all back to me. I wandered aimlessly through the magazine section. My eyes fell on a copy of something called International Figure Skating. I was curious to see what skating was like these days, so I picked it up and began to leaf thought it. There was a section at the beginning of photos from some gala or other. I flipped quickly past it, but then went back. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps there will be a photo of someone I used to skate with. Some of the people in the photos weren’t all that young. I’d assumed I’d have to pore carefully over the several pages of photos before I would find anyone, if I did find anyone, I’d known. But there, in the very first frame was Lee Anne Miller. And I wondered whether I’d actually registered the picture unconsciously and that that had been why I’d flipped back to look at the photos again. Or perhaps it had been the name I’d registered and that had called me back to the page.

There she was, staring out at me from the glossy pages of a magazine, the little girl I’d so envied. I recognized her. She seemed barely changed. The same delicate features, the same pale brown hair. I can still see that hair pulled into a small dancer’s bun, held in place with barrettes that matched the color of her leotards and little wrap-around dancer’s skirts. Pink leotard, pink barrettes; blue leotard, blue barrettes. She was like a doll, Lee Anne. Perfectly proportioned, tiny delicate features, dressed like a little ballerina. She looked like one of those dolls that dances in a jewelry box when one opens the lid, but prettier than that really. Lee Anne was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her every movement was like a dancer’s, slow and deliberate and graceful. I used to love to watch her skate. There was something swanlike about her.

I was not part of that crowd, the elite skaters, not the first year anyway. I came to skate in Troy, Ohio, in the huge cavernous old Hobart Arena, simply because it was the only rink that was open in the summer. I loved the place. Most skating rinks look like barns, or warehouses, from the outside, but there was something noble about Hobart Arena. It was built of brick and stone in the grand style of the late 1940s. It had been given to the town by the Hobart Electric Manufacturing Co. in 1950 and had clearly been intended to be a showpiece. It was not only the rink, however, that was beautiful. It was in the middle of a park and just behind it was the municipal swimming pool that had a snack bar the skaters used to frequent between skating sessions. There was something almost magical to me about that grand cathedral of winter sport situated in the middle of a verdant summer paradise.

A bunch of us came up from Dayton that first summer. We were out of our league and that was kind of humiliating, but there was also something incredibly exhilarating about being around all that talent and dedication. I was fascinated by the discipline of it and all the esoteric trappings like the harness that hung from the ceiling and that was fastened around the waist of the female when pair skaters practiced overhead lifts. I loved the almost meditative hush of the sessions devoted to school figures a hush broken only by the soft whir of the scribes, the large aluminum ice compasses, scratching circles on the ice for the skaters to follow, or the occasional muscular, ripping sound of the push of skaters working on backward eights.

We had stroking class for an hour every Thursday evening and that first summer, at least, I spent the entire session in abject fear of being mowed down by the hoards of more powerful skaters. The second year was better though. I switched teachers. I got a better teacher, Dick Rimmer’s wife, Lynn. They ran that place, Dick and Lynn Rimmer. Dick had been the official coach to the 1972 Olympic team (at least I think that is what it said on the brochure I showed to my parents in an effort to convince them that the program would be worth the expense). I was determined not to remain the worst skater there, so I spent almost a year convincing my parents to secure Lynn Rimmer for me as a teacher. I liked her, she was kind. She told me once, when I was working on a split jump, that I was a “smart skater.” That made me happy, though I was never really sure what she had meant.

I did better that second summer. Not only was I not mowed down, I actually kept up, sort of. I got better skates, passed my preliminary figure test and was accepted, finally, into the periphery of the elite group. But then I had to quit skating. I needed a scribe in order to be able to progress to the first figure test. But a scribe cost fifty dollars. That was a lot of money back then and my parents couldn’t afford it.

Few middle class families can afford the cost of training a serious competitive skater. Figure skating, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, is one of the most expensive sports there is. Skating parents must either have so much money that almost any sum can be spent on their children’s hobbies, or they must be willing to sacrifice everything, even their children’s education, for art or in the hope that they will “win the lottery.”

My parents had neither so much money that they could afford the cost of training a competitive skater, nor the values that would have led them to sacrifice everything else to get the money. I didn’t really understand that. All I knew, or thought I knew, at the time was that what I loved most was not important to them.

I didn’t even follow skating after that. “Never look back!” It was not just my motto, but my entire personality. I began to dream though, when I was in graduate school and when I first began teaching, about taking up skating again. I had a bad time in graduate school and that dream, distant as it seemed, was one of the things that sustained me through that difficult period.

I bought the magazine with the picture of Lee Anne Miller and decided that I should begin taking skating lessons

I had intended to take freestyle lessons but my first teacher steered me gradually toward dance, divining, I suspect, that I would be a much better dancer than I would ever be a freestyle skater. Dance is probably better for most adult skaters anyway because there is less chance of serious injury and a much greater chance of gaining something approaching genuine mastery of the sport. There are quite a few adult skaters who are expert dancers. They have become my role models.

I’m never happier these days than when I am skating. Skating is the only thing I do now for no other reason than the joy of it. It will not make me wiser. It will not help my career. Indeed, for an adult to take up figure skating is viewed by many people, including my husband (who, to his credit, has taken it up himself in order to be able to spend more time with me), as somewhat bizarre. Skating is popularly believed to be an activity for children not for older people, people with brittle bones.

When I’m done skating my session, the “adult session,” and the ice has been freshly resurfaced, I will sometimes stay to watch the beginning of the next session when the competitive skaters, one by one, take to the ice like so many seagulls gathering gradually about an invisible school of fish. They glide easily onto the frozen surface. Flying past me, they swoop, they dip, they dive, each listening to his own inner compulsion. There’s no effort at coordination, and yet they’re a kind of visual symphony, as beautiful as a flock of birds, if not more beautiful, because after all, what birds do is natural to them, whereas what skaters do is natural only to the spirit, not to the body, so to see bodies do it with such effortless grace–well, there’s something miraculous in it.

I am filled sometimes, as I watch them, with a terrible aching melancholy at the realization that I will never be one of them. There’s a tiny window of time in everyone’s life through which he can reach to grasp that sort of dream and mine was closed and locked long ago. Sometimes I can’t bear the ache that accompanies the realization that what I once wanted more than anything, I will never have, that I will have lived and died without ever having realized that dream.

Most of the time though, I am not unhappy. Most of the time I count myself very lucky. Many competitive skaters give up skating entirely after they stop competing, or after they stop performing (if they are so fortunate as to have had a professional career). Some say they simply don’t enjoy skating when they can no longer perform at what was once their peak, others have had all desire to skate extinguished by too many years of too rigorous a training schedule. They accept the diminished vitality that comes with aging as a matter of course. They age, they grow old, they die.

But I am growing younger. I’m a better skater now than I was when I was a child and I have every reason to believe that my skills will continue to improve for many years to come. Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the 1964 and ’68 Olympic pair skating champions, still perform and they are in their eighties. Richard Dwyer still performs and so is he.

I don’t know that I’ll ever don a little skating skirt again and my dreams, whatever they are, no longer include becoming a competitive skater. When I skate now, though, I feel like a time traveler. Something of the beauty of the slow and paradoxical summers I spent on the ice as a child comes back to me. I sense again the sweet strangeness of crossing the green expanse of park to get ice cream and then returning to the frosty unreality of the rink. When I skate now all the struggles, stresses and disappointments of the years fade away and I am once again the little girl gazing up at the stars falling from the sky.