Thursday, 26 January 2017

Back In The USSR, Part Two: Training Behind The Iron Curtain


"We can only guess at what age human 'motor bricks' are formed. But considering hundreds of years of ballet experience in Russia and the fact that the Moscow Ballet School students start at age seven, we have to presume that at age twelve, 'motor bricks' are already rather 'firm' and it is hard, if not impossible, to get rid of incorrect 'pronunciation' in body motion. - Dr. Sergei Aleshinsky

It wasn't until the sixties that the Soviet Sports Program started taking figure skating seriously. Prior to that, as Henry W. Morton noted in his 1963 book "Soviet Sport: Mirror Of The Soviet Society" sports with low military potential like figure skating and tennis just weren't paid much credence. Initially, unless officials believed that a skater could contend for a medal they simply weren't 'good enough' to be sent to international events.

Galina Beskina of Moscow, who took from Boris Podkopaev

However, with the success of many Soviet skaters abroad as the sixties wore on, the Soviet Sports Program began to recognize the potential of competitive figure skating. They took concerted steps to get people on the ice. Morton explained that "in winter, which is usually severe and lasts from six to eight months, skating surfaces in cities are flooded to provide frozen pathways in parks and near large stadia." The whole point of this would have been to not only promote physical education, but to get people in skates and moving. It was all about hand picked talent identification sweetie. Among those who first learned to skate on a flooded sports field? None other than the legendary Tamara Moskvina herself.


A great example of the push to get more and more skaters on the ice during this period comes from Miriam Morton's 1974 book  "The Making Of Champions: Soviet Sports For Children And Teenagers". Morton writes that "there is also a countrywide movement to teach figure skating to masses of children. The 'Pionerskaya Pravda' and the figure skating schools are encouraging this. In Moscow, for instance, there are posters at every skating rink inviting children and teenagers to enroll for free instruction and practice. To give balance to the program, these figure skating centers offer calisthetics, elements of music appreciation, and ballet dancing... Marina Sanaya began her training in one of these centers. When she was thirteen, she participated in the world championship competition in Calgary, Canada. 'So far,' reported a Soviet sports journalist with a touch of humor, 'her biggest reward has been a kiss and a big hug from her parents, but she skated with champions Karen Magnussen and Janet Lynn.'"

Lynn Copley-Graves, in her wonderful book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice" noted that in the late sixties and early seventies "Soviet skating developed rapidly as skaters and coaches took back training techniques and ideas for competitive tiers from their interactions abroad. By 1969, Soviet competitors could work up through club, city, provincial and national meets... Ice time was no problem, because competitors could attend school in the morning or afternoon or fit training time around their work schedule. Everyone either worked or went to school. Dressmakers were paid to design costumes for the competitors to fit the music or theme, and competitors had access to the Union House of Music or Conservatory to pick out music... Most World Class skaters trained in Moscow or Leningrad, drilling the same whether for pairs or dance... At Moscow's Crystal Palace, Nancy D'Wolf watched six skaters go through drills that seemed like 100 of everything for two hours: Axels, Argentine twizzles, waltz jump split lifts, Kilian patterns. The warmup readied them for program run-throughs... There were no tests at the lower levels. Either trainers passed their students on to the next level of proficiency, or the students achieved the next level by winning a certain event. Soviet skaters were called 'sportsmen,' not athletes; those considered 'pros' skated in shows. When the sportsmen practiced, no one else could used the ice. In August, the Moscow rink closed to all other skating to let the sportsmen train for the upcoming season. As skaters progressed to higher competitive levels, they received more ice time."

Promising young skaters received free skating attire and competed against the students of other coaches. Each city's training bases held regular competitions, closed to the public. The objectives of these city competitions weren't just to offer skaters competitive opportunities but also to identify potential international competitors, the national competition in the Soviet Union not being the sole basis on which international assignments were selected. By the seventies, the Soviet Union had over fifty artificial rinks and four thousand competitive figure skaters.

Copley-Graves further explained, "Lower-level skaters trained three hours a day and world class [ones] put in four hours a day on the ice. Exercise programs - running and floor exercises imitating figure skating technique - supplemented on-ice practice in a deliberately prolonged training cycle to make skaters peak later in life. To develop instructional techniques, Soviet trainers analyzed videotapes of top World competitors... One aspect of Soviet training is to develop skaters equally in both directions, instead of just counterclockwise... While Western skating associations struggled with methods for guaranteeing accreditation of coaches, the Soviet system set up Institutes of Physical Culture. Even the best skaters had to graduate from an institute to coach. Medical doctors and scientists - many among them former competitors - researched the mechanics, physics and biology of figure skating. Skating coaches were, thus, specialists and commanded high social status; they worked independently with the less advanced skaters. Ballet choreographers helped coaches arrange [programs] and exhibition numbers for the elite competitors...  Many retired sportsmen went on to coach the youngsters. The Soviet government considered a full-time job as working 16 hours a week, and they spread the word to keep everyone employed. Thus, the many instructors worked on a rotation basis."

Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev

The Soviet Union's identification of the relationship between physics and figure skating technique understandably gave Soviet skaters an edge and interestingly, an American coach of renown who I spoke with explained that a Soviet skating manual discussing physics was indeed smuggled into the U.S. by a Russian coach and this information has indeed been disseminated and passed on through oral tradition to several American coaches over the years.

Another obvious advantage that Soviet skaters had was dance training. Elena Tchaikovskaya was one of the eminent coaches who stressed the importance of ballet training to coaches and Sergei Alechinsky, in the September-October 1988 edition of "Professional Skaters Magazine" noted that "the students of the Soviet specialized figure skating schools begin to attend ballet classes at about the same time they are selected for the school (about six years old)."

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov at the 1986 World Championships in Geneva

Although the concept of the Soviet Union's training system may seem completely foreign to those of us living in other countries, there's no denying that many aspects of their system, in particular the study of physics and implementation of ballet training, were really ahead of their time. Like it or not, the system certainly produced more champions that you can shake a skate guard at.

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6 comments:

  1. Again, more flashbacks to when I was researching my novel! My main character starts skating around the same time Morton's book came out. Most of the material I was able to find while doing my research centered around the big name skating schools in Moscow and Leningrad. My character, Larissa, starts her skating career as a four-year-old in Murmansk, training at a rink geared mainly toward hockey. She does eventually move to a fictional Moscow skating school. But during the Murmansk part of the story, I had to take some artistic liberties. Larissa does get the early ballet training, though. I knew she would never make it of Murmansk without it.

    I'm looking forward to your third installment in this series.

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    1. I have total respect for the fact that you took the time to really dig in and do your historical homework for your novel! :) What surprised you most when you were researching Soviet skating schools in the era that your protagonist was skating?

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  2. Loved this article for so many reasons! <3
    I teach the Vaganova method of Ballet training to figure skaters here in the U.S. or, at least I try! As you mention in your article it is very hard to convince people here that ballet has much to offer to figure skaters both technically as well as artistically. The Russian Methodology is scientifically based whereas here we tend to think more of ballet just as something superfluous to improve "style" or grace. Thanks again for a great insight and lovely article!

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  3. So glad that you enjoyed reading Annette! Ballet's importance as a complement to on-ice training is a subject that has long been underplayed... the Soviet system was certainly ahead of its time in that particular respect.

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  4. It was Marina Sanaya, not Maria. She died in Oct. 2016.

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    1. Thanks for the correction Olga - and I'm sorry to hear that! :(

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