The Prophecy Of T. Maxwell Witham

There is something so compelling about the idea of prophecy. From Nostradamus to Madame Helena Blavatsky to the great 'sleeping prophet' Edgar Cayce, those souls who have dared to put forth their visions of a future world in the face of certain ridicule have shown tremendous bravery. The author whose work we will explore today on the blog did not write quatrains foretelling an apocalypse on ice. However, in his column "Skating Gossip" published in the August to December 1895 issue of "The Badminton Magazine of Sports And Pastimes", author and English Style skater T. Maxwell Witham did present a fascinating prophecy of his own on the road he saw figure skating heading down. In Witham's time, a sport without school figures would have been as unimaginable. Yet, one hundred years later, brackets and loops had been abolished from competition. I wanted to share Witham's essay to remind us that the future now, in the twenty first century, is as uncertain as it was in the nineteenth. The IJS system the sport is mired in now and the reality of free skating programs with four quadruple jumps may be no more permanent than the way of progress that Witham projected in the late nineteenth century. Read his words carefully, and consider that change is constant:


All methods of self-propulsion are fascinating, but when, in addition, progression is only possible by means of correct balance, as in skating and bicycling, the fascination is doubled.

Figure-skating, as distinguished from skating as means of progression, is comparatively modern, and, curiously enough, It emanates from Great Britain and from English-speaking people. Before the year 1830 figure-skating was in its infancy, and such movements as were known were handed down from generation to generation by tradition, as the few books on the subject that did exist described only the most elementary movements, and frequently the directions given for acquiring these were entirely

From the year 1869 till now skaters have been gradually taught by good text-books, the leading men in the art have studied the various movements that go to make up figure-skating, and have now practically demonstrated all the fundamental strokes that are possible to the figure-skater. We are not
from this to understand that nothing new in figure-skating is possible. Far from it. Although every possible stroke is now known, the multitude of combinations by joining one stroke with another is perfectly endless but whether the rising generation will derive as much pleasure in devising these combinations as the pioneers of the art did in working out the simple initial strokes is doubtful. 

In the dawn of figure-skating, undoubtedly the inside edge was the first which demonstrated the possibility of leaning over on an edge and so describing curve, seeing that this inside edge was the easiest to execute by reason of the unemployed leg being always ready and available to act as prop to
the nervous or falling performer. This inside edge no doubt suggested the outside, and when this was demonstrated as possible, it was practised to the entire exclusion of the inside, because in the early days the position of the skater's body when executing the inside edge made it an ungainly and ungraceful movement.

In practising the outside edge, our ancestors, no doubt, in holding on to the edge as long as possible occasionally found that at the end of the curve they made an involuntary half-turn, placing them on the inside back, and this involuntary turn being by practice reduced to certain turn gives us the common figure 3. It has, no doubt, struck many people, as it has struck me, as curious and almost incredible, that, given the dandy-horse, which demonstrated the possibility of riding on machine having two wheels in the same plane, it was some forty years after the advent of the dandy horse before it occurred to some one to put cranks on the front wheel and so continue the motion, thus virtually creating the modern bicycle. And it is hardly more curious that, with the forward commencing with an outside edge and turning to an inside edge backwards to guide them, it was years before the other turns were discovered. 

Skaters continued to practise only the figures that had been handed down to them by tradition, gradually and slowly increasing the number of possible figures such, for example, as second and third turn in the 3. Who it was who had the boldness first to try the dangerous second turn is unknown, but
the having three turns and known as the double was undoubtedly skated by the members of the Skating Club as early as 1830, but as single turn, from inside back to inside forward, it is doubtful if it was skated till quite recent years. Then, again, another movement, now known as 'change of edge,' but formerly called the 'serpentine,' might easily have occurred to skater by chance. He might have been describing curve of outside edge on the right leg and some one to the left of him might have spoken to him, and to answer the question asked he might have turned his body without putting down his left leg and have found him self on the inside edge, and it would then naturally strike him that while on an edge he could, by altering his balance, change the edge from out to in, or from in to outside. 

It may, think, be safely asserted that the germs of most modern figures have more probably been discovered by chance on the ice while practising something else than that they have been thought out in the study and declared theoretically possible. By tacking on turn either at the end or the commencement of the newly-discovered change of edge large number of new figures, known as Q's and reverse Q's, were created but we have to thank our Canadian and American cousins for showing us how to make the change of edge as a means of propulsion and when this was recognised, any number of movements on one leg could be joined together and skated without any assistance from the other leg other than swing. 

It is only within the last few years that the skating fraternity has from time to time been startled by the publication of descriptions and diagrams of new figures, some of them, perhaps, being put forward as theoretically possible, but practically impossible yet now one sees boys of fourteen executing these supposed impossible figures with the greatest facility. 

How is this? First, the modern figure-skater has better constructed skate than his ancestors possessed and, secondly, skating being an imitative art, he has only to copy what he sees others doing, or follow the careful instruction given in the text-books, and he is thus enabled to acquire facility in executing difficult movements much more rapidly than did the pioneers of the art but he does not attain what was to the early figure-skaters the supreme pleasure of thinking out and demonstrating as possible some movement which at that period was new departure.

The facility of communication all over the world has affected figure-skating as it has other arts, and itinerant professional skaters, mostly American, established themselves in Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Norway, and schools of skating were established, where the practice of the art is carried out by the natives in accordance with the early teaching of their professors, coupled with the desire for display peculiar to foreigners. The English man tries to, and does in fact skate the most difficult movements, and at the same time his whole desire is to conceal the difficulty. The foreigners, on the other hand, exaggerate the motion or balance which emphasises the difficulty, and go for speed and dash, which they attain mostly at the cost of elegance.

There is another school, that of St. Moritz, which is essentially British, and which has carried out the early teaching of the Skating Club of upright carriage and straightened knee to its logical conclusion, and it is quite wonderful to see the skill of the habitués of the St. Moritz rink in executing the most difficult movements with the arms quiescent and the knee and body perfectly rigid. They carry this rigidity to an extent that some good judges consider exaggerated, but their style has one good quality,
and one that will be more and more of use as an object lesson if our skating is to be done in the future principally in covered rinks, as it proves that by practice the most difficult movements may be skated with certainty and at great pace without the stooping body, bent knee, and swinging arms which are the essential characteristics of difficult figures when skated in the acrobatic fashion common to foreigners.

What will the figure-skating of the future improve or degenerate into? The improvement of the last few years has been most marked on the part of the men, and the ladies are running them very close. The causes of this decided improvement are the start given to figure-skating by the introduction of roller skates in 1875, the greater interest that is now taken in anything athletic, the long frosts which we have enjoyed during the last few years, and the continuous practice which many of our best skaters
obtain every year in the Engadine. But now that we have Niagara, and are to have similar places at Knightsbridge and Argyll Place, although there will be the opportunity of continuous practice, the space available is contracted and crowded, and the chances are that, from an English point of view, the skating will deteriorate. Individual acrobatic performances on skates will doubtless develop enormously, but the accuracy and correct pose which have hitherto distinguished English skating, as seen to perfection in the Club figures will be lost. 

There is one form of skating which has made some little progress of late years, which the real-ice rinks may bring to great perfection, and that is hand-in-hand skating. It is fascinating of itself, and is practically possible in crowded rink. For the side-by-side figures there are two ways of holding hands first, the old method, where the gentleman, being on the left of the lady, takes her right hand in
his right hand, and her left in his left, the joined right hands being underneath the left hands secondly, the method known as the Austrian. In this the lady puts her hands behind her with the palms upwards, and the gentleman takes them in his hands,which are turned palms downwards. He stands behind the lady to her left, the left hands are joined and brought forward, and the lady's right hand is passed behind and across her back, and is so held in the gentleman's right. When the gentleman is to the right of the lady the position is, of course, reversed. At first this position feels cramped, and it is especially the lady who is most affected. This is caused by the strangeness of skating with her hands held behind her back, but if the gentleman will be careful to always be at her side, either to the right or left, instead of behind her, this feeling will soon wear off, and when the lady is able, without effort, to swing her arms behind her from one side to the other, according to the position of her partner, it will be found that much freer skating can be done in the Austrian than in the old-fashioned side-by-side method. 

One thing must be remembered in hand-in-hand skating if either of the partners should feel that fall is inevitable, the hands must be disengaged instantly and to do this, and to ensure ease and grace, the hands should be held but lightly, and by the ends of the fingers. In the confined space of real-ice rink Club figures are not possible, as they occupy far too much room but this hand-in-hand skating can be indulged in to any extent, and as every movement that can be executed by an individual skating alone can be equally well skated by two persons holding hands in the Austrian method, it is probable that for the next few years any great improvement in figure-skating will be in this direction.

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":