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A Skating Safari: Bears On Ice, The Swan Lake, Flying Camels And More Than A Few Asses

Figure skating is something of an animal farm. To make it to the top echelons of the sport you have to be both as strong as an ox and as graceful as a gazelle. In turn, you've got some skaters performing with the elegance of a black swan and others with the reckless abandon of a bull in a china shop. They perform flying camel spins, shoot-the-ducks, Arabians and butterfly jumps. They face judgment from a jury of aging owls (who aren't always as wise as the idiom would suggest) but also have to deal with getting raked over the coals by less than supportive skating 'fans' worldwide: an eclectic group that certainly includes a murder of crows and more than a few asses. Yet others accept the status quo of the IJS judging system blindly like sheep because it's too difficult for them to make heads nor tails of. I come back to this quote from George Orwell's masterful allegory Animal Farm: "Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments. Even Boxer was vaguely troubled...but in the end could think of nothing to say". Sometimes it's easier to just go with the flow and not rock the water safari boat, isn't it? At any rate, it's a safari out there on the ice sometimes. In this blog, I'll be your guide! Grab yourselves some binoculars and get ready explore figure skating's connection to the animal kingdom.


When I first heard of a show called Bears On Ice, I figured it was a Gay Pride Week event involving quite a few margaritas, but I was certainly wrong. In 2009, a Russian state circus company put together a show called Bears On Ice and brought it to Kyrgyzstan's capital city Bishkek. I can't even tell you how ridiculous and inhumane I think the whole thing is, but here's the story. Apparently Russian circuses think it's just fine to teach bears to do everything from ride motorcycles to ice skate, and in this case, they had bears on the ice rehearsing in skates for a circus production and circus administrator Dmitry Potapov was killed when the bear was dragged across the ice by his neck. One of his legs was nearly severed. Animal trainer Yevgeny Popov suffered deep scalp lacerations, bruising of the brain and lacerations all over his body in an attempt to save his co-worker from the bear, who had clearly had enough. And no wonder! You just don't do that. Seven years previously, a small child was attacked and killed in the same city's zoo by a bear that she reached out to pet. That bear too was on loan from Russia. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to grasp that training animals to do outrageous things like this is not only dangerous and inhumane and tragically, those who chose to do it paid the ultimate price. 


When legendary commentator and two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button said of Fumie Suguri's free skate in 2003, "there needs to be a little more in that Swan Lake" he certainly wasn't referring to the bevy of swans in the lake on this skating safari. From black swans to dying swans, skaters have revisited and recycled Tchaikovsky's memorable score for decades. It's an old standard in terms of skating music and certainly one that has been met with varying degrees of success in the homages skaters have played to it. Personally, when I think of the score, the performances that stand out in my mind are certainly Rudy Galindo's 1996 winning free skate at that year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California, Oksana Baiul's short program at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway and Ashley Wagner's brilliantly choreographed "Black Swan" free skate choreographed by Phillip Mills that won her the first of her two U.S. titles to date at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, ironically also in San Jose, California, a city more known for its Sharks than birds. You also have, of course, the legendary two time Olympic Gold Medallists Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov whose exquiste classic interpretation of Tchaikovsky's music remains to this day one of the finest in my humble opinions. Though chronically overused as program music in my opinion, "Swan Lake" is big music and as these few examples prove, if it's used effectively, it can certainly create a stunning, stunning theme for a program.

Badge depicting a flying camel


Speaking of Dick Button, we have him to thank for one of the most uniquely named spins in figure skating.Although the idea of camels flying through the air seems more like something whimsical from a Dr. Seuss children's book than an ISU rulebook, the flying camel spin is based on one of skating's three basic spin positions and developed from the camel (or parallel spin) which was first performed in international skating competition by World Champion Cecilia Colledge in 1935. There has been debate as to who actually invented the camel spin. Many contend that it was Colledge; famed coach Gus Lussi (who coached Button) claimed rather that an Australian skater by the name of Campbell had invented the spin and the name had broken down from 'Campbell' to 'Camel'. Dick Button was the first person to take the spin and add the 'flying' feature and what was then known as the 'Button Camel' later became known as the flying camel spin. Prior to Button creating and popularizing the flying camel, the 'Campbell' or 'Camel' spin had been thought of primarily of a spin only traditionally to be performed by women, so when Dick created this piece of history he really turned the phrase 'when pigs fly' into 'when camels fly', proving that the impossible or unexpected could indeed be done.


Sometimes more than a few asses can be just the straw that broke the flying camel's back. Not to put the cat among the pigeons, but the 1976 film "Network" has provided the world with more than a few iconic quotes. Peter Finch's character Howard Beale produced this gem: "I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!...You've got to say, I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE! Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first, get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!" You know, that's exactly how I feel when I listen to the murder of crows - and more than a few asses - degrade and belittle the accomplishments of skaters and just about anybody doing anything constructive for the sport on anonymous figure skating forums and social media. I wrote the article Getting Up And Saying No (Part 1 and Part 2) to talk about bullying and harsh criticism of skaters by media and so-called 'fans' of the sport, often either anonymously or passive aggressively. It's funny. I got wonderful, wonderful responses on these pieces from anti-bullying groups, skaters and countless fans but yet the only place where these blogs were (ironically) harshly criticized was on anonymous skating forums. Never 'one to disappoint', internet skating forums are just full of love sometimes, aren't they? The negativity and snark that some skating 'fans' seem to consistently bring to the table and the overwhelming desire to throw skaters who don't perform up to these 'fans' personal standards to the wolves is enough to put a damper on anyone's skating safari. I personally have decided to make it my objective to keep the issue of bullying in the forefront going forward. Figure skating doesn't need venom and vitriol and you think otherwise, maybe it's you with the problem, not the skaters you're dragging into the trough on a daily basis.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":