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Retracing History: The Fall And Rise Of Compulsory Figures

2015 World Figure Championship. The photo exposes different types and layers of the beautiful figure tracings on the riveting black ice. Photo courtesy Deborah Hickey Photography. Used with permission.
As figure skating audiences grew in the sixties and seventies with the rise of television, the tenuous relationship between compulsory figures and free skating became more and more evident. Commentators struggled to find sufficient words to explain why brilliant free skaters like Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston and Denise Biellmann weren't winning Olympic titles and skaters, coaches and judges alike became more vocal about their concern about the role figures were taking in making and breaking careers. In the March 17, 1980 issue of The Globe And Mail, ISU President Jacques Favart proclaimed that "the compulsory figures must die. They are a waste of time and prevent skaters from being still more creative." Although Favart passed away only months later, he got his wish.

In a June 1988 ISU meeting, after two hours of intense debate, delegates voted twenty seven to four to phase out figures from international competition starting July 1, 1990. Representatives from Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States voted against their abolition and less than a year later, delegates even tried to revisit the decision at an urgent meeting at the 1989 World Figure Skating Championships in Paris to put the kibosh on them even sooner. Figures were last contested at the Canadian Championships in Sudbury, Ontario in 1990. Norm Proft and Margot Bion were the winners, beating brilliant free skaters like Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko and Josée Chouinard. When all was said and done, neither Proft or Bion stood on the medal podium at the end of the day. The same could be said for Richard Zander of West Germany, who won the figures at the 1990 World Championships and ended the event in seventh. If officials wanted statistics to support their argument to oust the school figures, they had them.

The final figures skated at the World Championships were performed just across the harbour from me at the Dartmouth Sportsplex; an ice surface I've won competitions on myself. Twenty four year old David Liu, representing Chinese Taipei, was the final men's skater to perform a figure at Worlds. A crowd of one thousand applauded the introduction and marks of each and every skater for the final three figures and after Liu performed his paragraph loop, ISU referee Sonia Bianchetti-Garbato shook his hand, patted him on the back and the judging panel celebrated with two bottles of champagne. Liu's words? "For someone who dislikes figures so much, I'm excited by it." On March 6, 1990, Yugoslavia's Zeljka Cizmesija became the final person to skate a figure at a World Championships. She left her her patch with a smile on her face and flowers were placed on the paragraph loop. Cizmesija received a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates and perhaps the only standing ovation of her career.

At the time, skaters had mixed feelings about their demise. In the March 8, 1990 issue of The Vancouver Sun, Kurt Browning said, "Wouldn't you know it, they're killing the figures just when I'm getting good at them." In the February 9, 1990 Chicago Tribune, Christopher Bowman quipped "for me, it makes no difference they're gone. I've done everything you can do with the figures except make an omelette out of them."

In the June 9, 1988 edition of The New York Times, Dr. Hugh Graham, president of the USFSA at the time, noted that abolishing figures would reduce skaters expenses by fifty percent, cutting coaching and ice time and allowing skaters to focus their attention on setting a new standard in free skating. However, prophetically the same article noted that "opponents of the move argued that compulsory figures were needed to teach skaters basic skills. They warned that abolishing them would turn skating into jumping contests and might cause more injuries." The ever eloquent Olympic Silver Medallist Debbi Wilkes argued in a November 1996 editorial (around the time figures were replaced with 'Skills' in the CFSA) that "the real traditionalists have hung on to figures with the idea that they were important training tools even for jumping, much like the scales are crucial for learning the piano. So why are jumpers so poor at figures? The two skills seem to be in competition with one another, figures on the one hand needing quiet, controlled movement, and jumps on the other, demanding sudden bursts of energy. For anyone who needs the instant excitement of free skating, figures are definitely not the way to go! You have to be mathematical to love figures. You have to like doing housework and making things neat and tidy. You have to love seeing how close you can bring one tracing to another. You have to love drawing that picture. Now if any of that tickles one of your spots, you get the idea about what it takes to make a great figure. If not, forget it! We'll never understand one another. It seems figures have just outlived their usefulness. Even though they weren't artistic in nature, subjective judging often made their results suspect .... and they sure didn't make for great television... To me the 'Skills' are an exciting addition to the fun of learning good edges and strong control, but unless I'm missing the point, there's a huge hole. What's going to make a skater learn how to jump and LAND? If old fashioned figures couldn't get the job done, I just don't see how the 'Skills' are going to do it either." Here's the thing. As someone who was skating at the exact time this transition was being made, I can tell you that Debbi Wilkes was right on the money in her last statement.

To anyone who hasn't joined the party in the last ten or so years, it's pretty apparent that what a generation or two might have been able to take from an early education in figures has been missing in the overall skating quality of today. I'm not saying everyone, so simmer down sweetie. Look at skaters like Patrick Chan, Jeffrey Buttle, Stéphane Lambiel and Jeremy Abbott; there are absolutely skaters out there with droolworthy edge, flow and ebb on the ice and we'd be ignorant to think otherwise... but they are the exception and not the rule. Part of it is the product of the IJS system, but I hardly think it's any huge coincidence that compulsory figures are enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity now. The timing is a little bit too coincidental. Enter my favourite idea in years: the 2015 World Figure Championship and Figure Festival in Lake Placid, the brainchild of Peak Edge Performance, skating goddess Janet Lynn and a team of incredibly passionately people determined to rewrite history.

I spoke with two time U.S. medallist and Olympian Karen Courtland Kelly of Peak Edge Performance at length about the demise of figures in ISU competition and their revival in Lake Placid. Courtland Kelly expressed that "in a sense, the sport was not managed correctly. There was such a great bias if a judge was looking at a person's country, where they're from, their name, their weight, their waistline, their hairline... every kind of bias a person can have. That was never addressed. The other thing was that when television came in, the sport was misunderstood and mismanaged. It was not made understandable to the general public. Figures were interpreted by the public as this backroom, wheeling and dealing thing but the real problem - the judging bias - was never addressed. This lead to this sense of misunderstanding from the public being quite accurate. If you think about skating around the time of the first satellite broadcasts, television was already making a larger audience question the legitimacy of the sport. If you fast forward to 1988, the ISU had an agenda and didn't feel they needed figures anymore. The skating world at the time at that time didn't know how to fix that bias and make the discipline beautiful for television. Originally, when people grew up skating on ponds, you could see the tracings your skate made. There was originally an entertainment or fascination aspect to that. When they brought in television and the NHL, they had to have the audience be able to see the hockey puck. They had to paint the ice white so you could see the black hockey puck. In most town and city rinks, the ice was not white before that but they painted the ice white mainly because of hockey. This had a huge effect on figures. For the audience at the World Figure Championship to be able to sit there and actually see the difference between tracings because the ice is showing the difference, the bias is taken out. The judges don't know who the skaters are, their names or what they look like and can just look at the tracings on the ice and judge with a clear head."

In the nineties, when patch was aggressively phased out in North America, the USFSA and CFSA's substitutes for figures were well promoted and largely questioned. Revisiting the points touched on earlier in this blog, Courtland Kelly explained that "when they brought in the Moves (or Skills as you call them in Canada), skaters didn't learn the entire circle any longer. They only skated part of the circle and never got to see the beautiful symmetry of the patterns they were tracing. It is like never writing your mathematical equations down. Now you might have the odd genius who doesn't have to write it down and can do it all in their head, but even a genius will take a pen and a paper and write down in a book because it helps them see the bigger picture. Figures IS mathematical; you are skating a diagram on the ice. Those Skills are all fine and dandy, but skaters are missing the bigger picture and that's where there is a large disconnect." When I interviewed Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Cousins, he perhaps summed up the bigger disconnect best when he said, "I hate when you ask a skater to do a left inside counter and they look blankly until you show them and they say 'oh, I know that step!' Obviously you don't! They do things because they can and not because they know how. Teach them HOW and more importantly... WHY!" Coming back to the argument made by then USFSA President Dr. Hugh Graham in 1988 about the wondrous money saving measures that ditching figures would have for the sport, Courtland Kelly pointed out that "if you look at the argument that taking out figures was from financial end, right now it's been proven otherwise. People are taking more lessons and not necessarily getting more done. Cutting costs might have done something in the short term but in hindsight, I don't think it's helped skater's alignment and overall quality of skating."

We talked next about the motivating factors for creating this event and the logistics of getting it off the ground. Courtland Kelly explained that "back in 2005, we did a documentary called 'Figure Eights: The Life Force Of Figure Skating' in Lake Placid. Every figure was skated in the school figure catalogue from the preliminary to eighth test to really document and save the knowledge ever since figures were abolished and eliminated. It didn't come out right away because it took us about four years to edit the piece and develop individual diagrams of the figures. We really did it for the love of it. My husband and I both wanted to be part of the solution to save something that was really becoming extinct. Let's face it. Life is short. We will leave this world and once that happens with certain people, that knowledge is all going to be forever gone and we can't get it back. Over the last ten years, Peak Edge Performance, the company who created the World Figure Championship, has been diligently working on how we could take the information in that documentary and find out what the ultimate solution to putting figures back in the limelight would be. Between Jojo Starbuck and Janet [Lynn] and so many amazing people, a lot of people have shared this vision. In this same period, Janet wrote that beautiful book and we ended up exchanging them and started a discussion about the championship, talkng about the location, the dynamics, the logistics of the black ice and the rules of the championship itself; how this could even be possible. This all came into place by a lot of people's grace and work. The goals were to impress and promote knowledge about the discipline and to do it in the most beautiful, visionary way to help people understand the enjoyment of this discipline. We tried to address those biases and problems the discipline has faced in the past in this most beautiful way with this black ice canvas and a different system of judging. We wanted to show how fascinating and riveting figures really are and we believe we did. The public could see one tracing next to another and whether the symmetry of the circles was there and how correct the shape was with their own eyes from all the way up in the stands! The motivation was to show this tremendous beauty in a light it had never been seen in."

But of course there were politics, right?! That'd make it things nice and juicy and give us all a reason gleefully bask in the scandal of it all! If 'drama' is what you're after, I'm afraid you're fresh out of luck, there sweetie. When Jacques Favart stated that "compulsory figures must die", you must remember that he indeed DID get his wish. The ISU's General Regulations, Section B. Eligibility (ISU Rule 102, Section 2) state that "skating or officiating without the prior express authorization of the respective Member, in any capacity in a Skating competition, exhibition or tour in any of the sport disciplines of the ISU" would constitute a skater under the auspices of the ISU losing their eligibility. Furthermore, ISU Rule 300 (Disciplines and content of Single & Pair Skating and Ice Dance) offers no mention of school figures. Therefore, according to the ISU's own rules, eligible skaters are free to play hockey, take part in a curling bonspiel, a game of baseball on ice or a compulsory figure event without any prejudice. There hasn't been any back and forth, no scratching, hair pulling or name calling. Courtland Kelly explained that "there has been no communication from the ISU to Peak Edge Performance. The ISU abolished the discipline twenty five years ago. There's no justification to make someone ineligible for a discipline you don't recognize. A very interesting bit of information is on page 88 of the US Figure Skating rulebook under 'Inactive and Retired': 'The U. S. Figure Skating Museum is the custodian for a large number of lovely and valuable trophies, many of which have been retired or become inactive for various reasons. Some of those reasons being: the elimination of figure events; elimination of specific events(s) from the designated competition; a rule requiring that trophies be awarded only for results of the actual judging of an event... It was felt that it would be a fitting tribute to the donors, clubs and winners of these trophies to once again list them in this publication: U.S. Championship Ladies Figure Champion: The Owen Memorial Trophy donated by F. Ritter Shumway and the Skating Club of Boston in memory of Mrs. Maribel V. Owen, Maribel Y. And Laurence R. Owen. Presented in 1991.' U.S. Figure Skating's own museum explains that U.S. Figure Skating eliminated figures and the championship trophy has been retired due to that elimination."

We talked about the overwhelming success of the first ever World Figure Championship and Festival, held on August 28 and 29, 2015 in Lake Placid, New York at the 1932 Olympic Arena: "We tried to make the competition as beautiful and joyful as we could for everyone, because that's really what it's about. Janet's skating and everyone's skating is really about the love to skate, the love to be on the ice. The judging panel was just so special and the fact that they were able to be all together. I mean, Trixi Schuba, Janet Lynn... the talent and knowledge of EVERYONE on that panel was just incredible. The fact that they could come together and be such a big part of the inaugural World Figure Championship we hope was very special. Dick Button came and wrote a beautiful piece that went into the souvenir program. Doug Wilson was also a big part of the championship with his Memorable Moments Of Greatness presentation and left everyone with the understanding of how television changed figure skating forever. Everyone loved the artistic connections brought in with Tommy Litz's art show (which was a huge success) and the Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov's video presentation as well.  The discipline of figures has not been practiced at a world championship level in twenty five years. The fact that these beautiful skaters were so gifted that they could focus and train and skate these championship figures was amazing. To compete and be inducted into the Hall Of Fame, you had to perform SIXTEEN different figures of incredible difficulty over the two days and that's no small feat. What was incredibly special to us was that everyone was just so appreciated; their talent, everyone's gifts and graces were recognized."

Distinguished panelists ranking the 2015 World Figure Championships Figure tracings (left to right): Linda Carbonetto Villella, Julie Lynn Holmes-Newman, Slavka Kohout Button (sitting - behind chair safety and assistant referee Lisa Warner), Janet Lynn, Tommy Litz, Trixi Schuba, Jojo Starbuck. Photo courtesy Deborah Hickey Photography. Used with permission.

Having talked about the past and present of figures, Karen Courtland Kelly and I pondered the future of the discipline. She explained that at "the World Figure Championship, a new Hall Of Fame was inducted called the World Figure Hall Of Fame. We also made the announcement of the formation of the World Figure Sport Organization. This organization is going to organize, develop and promote Figures, with the pinnacle being the World Figure Championship, which will go on every year, hopefully long after we are all here for years to come. We want people to fall in love with the beautiful tracings and patterns they can skate on the ice and get to experience the thrill of skating figures on the canvas they were meant to be skated on." Other future goal of the World Figure Sport Organization include reintroducing Special Figures and making scribes and figure appropriate blades more widely available.

As you can imagine, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who 'gets' the importance of skating history and I don't know about you, but I love this all to death and pieces. Who doesn't love a fabulous comeback? I think what's so exciting about the formal revival of figures with this competition is that the organizers got it right and absolutely understood and ADDRESSED the fundamental problems that led to the extinction of compulsory figures in the first place. The organizers, participants and judges of this event breathed new life into rockers and paragraph loops and revived the past and guess what? They did it with a positive attitude and vision that we don't see nearly enough of. These are the kinds of events that need our support and I hope you consider attending and showing your support at the 2016 competition. I sure am!

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":