- Sarah Cronin
Skating a figure eight is a little like ballroom dancing without a partner. The pattern is simplicity itself, but it doesn't work without a rigid torso, ritual and rhythm. Start on the right outside edge of your blade, right arm forward, and make a circle bisected by the center line, changing arms halfway through. Repeat on the left outside edge.
Now do the inside edges. Now do the figure eight backward on both sets of edges. Now do a whole eight on a single foot ("paragraph eight"), switching edges as you go. Now do that backward.
All this is easier said than done, and I'm still struggling to do it, weaving back and forth over the red center line at C. Douglas Cairns Recreation Arena in South Burlington.
"Tuck that hip under!" says my coach, Grayce Lombard, standing on the ice in her skates and long black down coat. "No, no, that change of edge was diagonal! Judges notice!"
I'm not going to be doing paragraph eights in front of judges anytime soon. My weekly dose of what skaters call "compulsory" or "school figures" is strictly for recreation.
But Grayce assures me that these controlled glides are solid aerobic and stretching exercises. (When she recently broke out her Jane Fonda Prime Time: Trim, Tone & Flex DVD, she found Fonda's instructions "much like my instructions to my students.") Besides burning calories, skating school figures fosters a meditative quality that's not unlike yoga — if you can imagine doing yoga while dodging tots pushing metal supports and guys doing hockey stops.
Most people today think of Olympian jumps when they think of figure skating. But when I was a kid, everything I knew about the sport came from a 1951 novel called Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Rich, glamorous Lalla has been groomed to be a champion, but her downfall is her fondness for spins and jumps. Poor, plodding Harriet is no showboat, but she has the patience to plug away at figures such as "brackets" until she masters them. As a result, we learn at the end of the book, Harriet will win the medals, while Lalla fritters away her talent in ice shows.
It's a classic triumph of the underdog, and today it wouldn't happen. Skaters win competitions with quadruple flips, layback spins and other dazzling, Lalla-style tricks — what the U.S. Figure Skating Association calls "freestyle."
Back in Streatfeild's era, however, compulsory figures were a massive component of every skating competition. Until 1968, they were worth 60 percent of a skater's total score, and not until 1990 were they removed from competition altogether.
Grayce remembers those days. She grew up training at the Skating Club of Worcester, Mass., and skating two hours of figures before school and one after, five or six days a week.
"We complained, but we enjoyed our figures," she says. "We also learned a lot of body positions that I'm not so sure people today are learning."
In those days, rink ice was gray or black, a perfect canvas for the white tracings of skate blades. (Today, it's usually spray-painted bright white.) To complete a figure, skaters retraced their own tracings exactly — two, even three times. Grayce recalls judges getting down on the ice and studying tracings to make sure a skater was on the right edge.
Grayce studied with Maribel Vinson-Owen, the nine-time national champion who was lost in the 1961 plane crash that took the entire U.S. skating team. This education in the "golden age of figures" served Grayce well; in 1963, she competed in the Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championships (the last step before nationals). Today, she drops casual anecdotes about Frank Carroll, former coach of five-time world champion Michelle Kwan.
In short, if Grayce weren't retired and giving occasional lessons for the love of the sport, she'd be busy coaching skaters far, far more skilled than me.
Her mantra? "Everything you learn in a basic figure eight is the foundation of everything you learn in skating."
And what is that, exactly? Grayce breaks it down: "You have one piece of metal, no moving parts. Two edges, and [the blade] also has a rocker to it. At any given time, you're skating not only on this little tiny blade, but you're skating to one side of it, and either to the front or the back. If you understand that ... you know that your posture has to really be in control. You can't have your hip out; you can't have your head down. ... You've got to be in alignment, and it has to be constant."
Simplicity itself, right? Until you try it.
I started out as a would-be Lalla type of skater. As soon as I could stroke forward and backward, I was itching to do spins and jumps. I muscled my way through loop jumps and even the occasional Lutz, but without a strong skating foundation, I still looked like a doofus, springing into the air with arms awhirl.
When Grayce suggested trying figure eights, I thought I'd be bored. Then I tried a simple backward eight — and wiped out. I'd never given much thought to which part of the blade I was skating on. Now, all of a sudden, it mattered more than anything.
"You need to think ahead. You need to think!" Grayce exclaims as I wobble through a back serpentine. With my shoulders caving and my head flopping, the figure feels about as graceful and natural as touch-typing does to someone who's used to pecking. But I know if I'm patient, I'll master it someday. That's how figures work.
In a successful figure, "you're using a lot of yoga-like energy to control your body. And your mind has to be concentrating," Grayce says. She recalls that Vinson-Owen used to make young students do figure eights with their eyes closed. "All you have to do is duplicate the position." The rest is "body memory and body control."
I don't feel ready for a blindfolded figure eight, but it might help with my annoying habit of glancing down at my skates as if to check that they're still there. (Spoiler alert: They are.)
I can, however, sometimes perform the entire eight on one foot, propelled by a single starting push (no cheating, no toe picks!). There's a strange and wonderful fluidity to rounding that second circle, the change of edge speeding me up instead of bringing me to a scratchy standstill. I'm a high-strung person, but you can't fidget your way through a figure. You have to let it flow.
In 2015, figures made a comeback when Lake Placid, N.Y., hosted the first World Figure Championship and Figure Festival. Now called the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championships & Festival, the event bills itself as "the only world championships on black ice."
"We wanted to show how fascinating and riveting figures really are, and we believe we did," organizer Karen Courtland Kelly said in a 2015 interview with the blog Skate Guard.
Many sports fans express impatience with the more dancerly aspects of skating. But take away the sparkly dresses and the music, and you have the sheer elegance of a bladed body carving patterns in the ice: long glides, smooth turns, seamless transitions. Those slow, repetitive, earth-bound figures can be kind of mesmerizing.
And, perhaps more importantly, those of us who are no longer young, springy daredevils can actually do them. As Roz Chast put it in a memorable New Yorker cartoon, mortality means being able to say, "I would bet the fate of this entire planet that I will never do a triple axel."
Same here. But a back serpentine or possibly even a loop figure? I'll just keep practicing.