#Unearthed: How Do You Figure It?


When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's fascinating gem, entitled "How Do You Figure It?", originally appeared in the June/July 1980 issue of "Canadian Skater" magazine. Ten years prior to the elimination of compulsory figures, the skating world weighed in on their potential elimination.

"HOW DO YOU FIGURE IT?" 


Table of figures from the 1980 CFSA Rulebook

After the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany, ISU President Jacques Favart spoke out in favour of eliminating school figures from major International Championships. "Canadian Skater" posed the following question to a number of well-known skating enthusiasts.

M. Favart has been quoted as saying, "The compulsory figures must die. They are a waste of time and prevent skaters from being more creative."

Do you agree with him?


GARY BEACOM (MEN'S BRONZE MEDALLIST)

I am rigidly opposed to M. Favart's proposal to eliminate figures from world competitions. It is not only because of the direct contribution school figure proficiency plays in the development of a well-rounded free skater and disciplined individual. Equally important is the maintenance of the elite element in our sport which involves the combination of intellectual and physical demands.

My reference to the benefits of figures to free skating is appreciably slanted towards the creative and artistic merit derived from a well-established conceptual understanding of and precision-trained adeptness at, the compulsory school figures. Without hand waving dismissal of this point and wishing to avoid unduly complicated analysis, I suggest that a creative and expressive skater is one who, in the development of a repertoire, spontaneously combines previously acquired coordination with an inventive and commanding portrayal. A good repertoire can only be accomplished in that order - technique first, then artistry. Acutely balanced manoeuvrability is vital if a skater wishes to develop the confidence necessary to perform an uninhibited and effortless free skating program.

I disagree with anyone who argues that such a facility is not increased by the accuracy-oriented activity of school figures. This discipline instills in a skater a profound awareness of the proper carriage and the constant balance compensations required for the variety of one-footed movements fundamental to both figures and free skating. Although the mastery of total body control and versatility is more explicitly compulsory for success in school figures, I believe that nothing less than a comparable degree of excellent and accuracy is needed for a truly distinguished free skating performance, and I will always maintain that a well-versed figure technician will almost invariably be a sure-footed free skater able to direct his or her full effort to creative ends.

For an athlete, amateur sport of any kind can be  a total commitment, a challenge. Each sport requires a few or several types of specialized physical and mental abilities. Figure skating is unique in its balanced demand of all these skills. The elimination of compulsory figures would make it less fulfilling and much less instructive and would not we, in fact, have to rename our sport?


DON JACKSON (WORLD CHAMPION 1962; OLYMPIC BRONZE MEDALLIST 1960)

Figures! Should they be done away with in world competitions? My answer is a decided No!

Once they are taken [out] of the World's, it would only be a question of time before school figures would be dropped from all competitions, National, Sectional, etc. and the deterioration in free skating would begin to set in.

The disciplined application of school figures makes for a better free skater. It may be argued that certain skaters with an aptitude for laying down good school figures on the ice, are, nevertheless, not up to par with other competitors in their free skating. That may be so, but even they would admit to being better free skaters than they would have been without the disciplined practice of figures. Most world champions have either been on top in figures or very close to the top. Those well back in figures were usually well back in free skating as well.

Rather than scrapping figures in competitions, it would be more to the point to upgrade them. Starting at the lowest test level, the skater should be made aware of the importance of doing the figures with form and flow. The tracing should be considered secondary in importance. There should be two sets of marks given on the judge's sheet - one for form and flow and the other for the tracing. The coaches will then be in a better position to teach and impress on the skater the importance of developing the art of stylized motion in figures. In due course the skater will realize that with this form of practice even the tracings will improve without having to resort to steering. Most important, the maximum benefits to free skating from this form of figure practice will be achieved.

I cannot over-emphasize the effects the elimination of figures would eventually have on free skating skills of competitors. Although they only comprise a mere handful of skaters, as compared to the tens of thousands of serious skaters in the many clubs throughout Canada, the are the backbone of the wonderful activity called 'Figure Skating'. If the figures were dropped from competitions, their value would start to diminish throughout the ranks.

The passing of a first test, a fifth test, or the attainment of the gold medal is indeed something for the non-competitive skater to take great pride in. It goes without saying, that if figures are taken out of competitions their value will diminish in the eyes of most skaters, and the feeling will be, if they don't consider figures important in competitions - then why bother?

KAREN MAGNUSSEN-CELLA (WORLD CHAMPION 1973; OLYMPIC SILVER MEDALLIST 1972)

To discontinue compulsory school figures would be to take away a very important part of figure skating. Even though figures may not be as spectacular as the free skating portion of the sport and many people may not understand them, they are without a doubt the backbone of figure skating.

What I mean by 'backbone of figure skating' is that figures represent the point where a young skater learns a sense of body balance on the inside and outside edges and the location of the body in relation to the ice. A skater learns correct posture while practicing figures and that must be the most important element of good figure skating. Concentration is also a key factor in skating because skating itself, be it school figures or free skating, is very technical. Skaters learn to concentrate while learning school figures and this skill can be carried over to the free skating program.

Discipline is something else that can be learned through the compulsory figures. To build a career in skating requires hours of hard work. In there is no discipline many skaters will not go on as they should. I have witnessed so many cases of skaters with a wealth of natural talent who have gone nowhere because of lack discipline that it could make you cry. That is not to say that free style skating is not important also. But all the basic control a skater will need for free skating is learned in figures. The same edge principles apply for jumping and ice dancing. Just as all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so all figures and no free skating will, make for a dull skater. A balance of the two is required.

The school figures are the ultimate test of a skater's control. There is still room to show creativity in the free skating segment. As a past skater and world champion and now as a teacher, I feel very strongly that we have champions who are GREAT in all aspects of figure skating.

HELLMUT MAY (FORMER OLYMPIC COMPETITOR FOR AUSTRIAN TEAM AND FSCC PRESIDENT; COACH; DOCTOR OF ECONOMICS)

The two major changes of the last fifteen years intended to update figure skating were the introduction of the compulsory free skating program and the drastic reduction from 60% to 30% in the compulsory of this reduction, figures have not lost their importance. A skater with good figures still holds a considerable edge as, particularly in international competition, judges put more emphasis on the figure portion by allowing larger spreads in the marks given to figures. In reality, the figure portion carries a much greater weight than the 30% it appears to be allotted. The dominance figures still hold in competition is proof that they are an important and integral part of skating and should not be eliminated.

Why are figures so important? They are the essential basis of all skating skills. They teach the skater the kind of discipline necessary to be successful in the sport. Figures are undoubtedly the purest part of figure skating. Here we see the achievement of motor skills not influenced by any other elements. Free skating and dancing are often called the 'art sports' as many other elements besides skating (music, dance, etc.) are used and combined with the skating. This combination makes skating beautiful.

However, they also add to its controversy and difficulty in evaluation. The International Olympic Committee is frowning upon sports which are no truly measurable. Figures have set standards which lend themselves to more precise evaluation than free skating. If figures are dropped, the ISU is playing into the hands of professionalism and show business. It is conceivable that a group of acrobatic performers with sufficient audience and television appeal could abandon the ISU rules and create its own championship. Without figures the doors would be wide open and the ISU would be leaving itself vulnerable to outside competition.

Because figures occupy such a large portion of ice time, lesson time and school schedules, their elimination would endanger the very structure of our coaching system, including the operation of facilities and the teaching faculty.

The position of the ISU regarding figures was first revealed at the ISU/IPSU (International Professional Skating Union) Liason meeting during 1978 Worlds. In the IPSU meeting the following day, the subject was discussed emphatically and a unanimous vote of one hundred international coaches strongly rallied against the elimination of compulsory figures at world competitions. The united statement of coaches from around the world should bear sufficient weight to ensure that FIGURE SKATING REMAINS FIGURE SKATING.


BRIAN POCKAR (THREE TIME CANADIAN CHAMPION, RANKED 9TH IN THE WORLD)

I strongly disagree with M. Favart's statement. The best comparison I can think of is a pianist. Scales are the basic technique that must be mastered before any pianist can hope to become proficient. School figures, like scales, are where it all starts. They teach the basics of skating and give the skater a feel for the sport - the inside edges and turns. As well, they teach the body control and discipline so crucial to mastering the sport.

There were many criticisms of the judging of figures at Olympics and World's this year. In my opinion, judging is improving every year. Of course, some mistakes are made. This is to be expected, and there injustices in the judging of figures as there are in any competition. If there is a 'problem' with the judging of figures, it is surely with the system - not with the figures themselves. A solution to this 'problem' should come through a thorough examination of the system of judging figures, not through their elimination.

Without figures, a skater will never really learn to skate, and that, after all, is the point of the exercise.

BARBARA ANN SCOTT KING (WORLD CHAMPION 1947, 1948; OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALLIST 1948 - WINNER OF BOTH FIGURES AND FREE SKATING)

The very name of the sport is FIGURE SKATING - not free skating; not exhibition skating. It is a competitive sport. The basic foundation of figure skating is a strong grounding in school figures. Ballet has barre work... pianists have finger exercises... figure skating has school figures.

My feeling is that youngsters today are not willing to spend the hours necessary to perfect school figures. The years of practice spent of figures teaches a young person the discipline that is so sadly lacking these days. It not only gives one a solid grounding for good free skating, but also helps one to learn concentration and the ability to work hard at something that is not always fun but demands the sacrifice of practice and patience. This discipline carries over into everyday life and teaches the importance of work before play.

Unfortunately, TV does not show this important part of skating competitions because figures are not of interest to the general public. But this notwithstanding, the important question is - Are figure skating competitions commercial ventures, entertainment or serious forums for top athletes to compete against each other? There are other opportunities for purely creative endeavours. A real skating competition is not an ice show, exhibition or television special. It should be an entirely separate activity.

As one who truly loves the sport of figure skating, I hope and prat that the tradition will never be compromised or abolished.

LILIANE DE KRESZ (COACH; FORMER HEAD COACH OF NATIONAL SEMINAR)

While the figures are by no means the end to it all, and often make the end result hard to justify for a TV audience at large, it can't be denied that they do have a vital role in the development of a fine skater.

Figures mean discipline, balance, coordination, edges, flow, just to name a few components. But above all, what they mean to the skater is a strive for excellence.

The elimination of figures from high level competition could bring about the decline of the sport as we know it. Because if no longer required at the top, skaters would take a more casual attitude towards figure practice and would not be willing to spend the time practicing skills to perfection for which there is no direct reward.

OTTO HUGIN (COACH)

Even if compulsory figures were eliminated at the international level, they would still be required at national competitions. Therefore, skaters would continue to spend time learning and practicing their school figures in order to succeed within their own countries. These hours and years of wasted time would negatively affect their progress at school and their education. Since the ISU itself does not consider a total elimination of the compulsory figures it has become necessary to search for a fair compromise that has national and international validity. The time spent in exercising the compulsory figures (70% of the total  training time) has to be more reasonably adjusted in relation to the final rating where they count for 30% of the total points in a competition. Moreover, the draw for the starting order in the short program should be made independent of the result of the compulsory competition. Until now the rule has been that mediocre compulsory skaters have been relegated to a poor group draw for the short program; the effect of this is felt up to the final rating since the usual group evaluation system only fails to do justice to the actual performance in the short program and in free skating.

A proposed solution of the problem:

a) Compulsory figures

The compulsory figures can be reduced from 41 to 23 figures without deleting a single element. The ISU and National Figure Tests would be as follows:

4th test No. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9 (5 figures)
3rd test No. 4, 6, 8, 14, 15 (5 figures)
2nd test No. 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23 (6 figures)
1st test No. 20, 21, 31, 38, 39, 40, 41 (7 figures)

b) Draw for the starting order in the short program

The right to a draw in groups 3 and 4 is based on the ranking in the 1st-12th evaluation rank in the short program/free skating program at the European or World's competition of the previous year.

Example World Competition in 1981

Group 4
Linda Fratianne, Emi Watanabe, Denise Biellmann, Anett Pötzsch , Dagmar Lurz, Elaine Zayak

Group 3
Katarina Witt, Lisa-Marie Allen, Claudia Kristofics-Binder, Deborah Cottrill, Sanda Dubravčić, Carola Weissenberg

Kristina Wegelius and Tracey Wainman would move up to take the place of the retiring Linda Fratianne and Dagmar Lurz.

c) Draw for the group of compulsory figures

The draw for the figure group to be skated would take place at the ISU Conference in June (similar to the short program). On the evening prior to the competition, the only draw to be made would be for the foot on which to skate.

This would greatly reduce the practice time and it would probably much improve the quality of the figures.

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