Figure skating as we know it today wouldn't exist without its technical innovators - jump inventors like Axel Paulsen and Ulrich Salchow, prodigal spinners like Lucinda Ruh and Denise Biellmann and even skaters like Charlotte Oelschlägel and Ina Szenes-Bauer who created visually stunning moves in the field. Although the interview with 1972 Olympic Gold Medallist Trixi Schuba certainly discussed her specialty (skating perfect school figures), I wanted to talk about a long lost special figure that was so challenging for late nineteenth century skaters to execute it was really that generation of skaters' 'Iron Lotus'. It was called The Bishop Eight.
William H. Bishop, a.k.a. Frank Swift
The Bishop Eight was designed by American skater and theatrical producer William H. Bishop, who won the Championships Of America in the 1860's under the alias 'Frank Swift'. Similar to certain figures of the English Style, it was designed to be skated either individually or in a group. Frederick R. Toombs' 1879 book "How to become a skater" described how to execute this challenging figure in full detail: "Entering into the combination are the outside and inside edge rolls, the cross roll and the threes. I will describe it as executed by two persons. Remember that the two skaters do not face each other and that the direction for one is the instruction for the other. 1. The two skaters join right hands, standing sideways to each other and facing in opposite directions. 2. Make a small half circle on the right foot, outside edge, forward. 3. Turn a three, at the same time changing the right for the left hand and make a half circle backward on the inside edge, right foot, returning to the starting point. 4. Going backward on the outside edge, left foot, make a curve and a three, turn halfway around the circle and change to the inside edge, forward, left foot. Make a curve and turn a three, from backward to forward, and from inside edge, left foot, to outside edge, right foot, coming forward, up to the centre, and joining left hands. 5. Put the left foot well over the right, as hands are joined, firmly on the ice, on the outside edge and execute a cross roll. Repeat the movements already described, completing the other half of the eight. The cross roll should always be put in at the point of meeting and may be accomplished more easily, because each skater assists the other with his hands." Dizzier than you've done the hokey pokey for five minutes after a nice refreshing Long Island iced tea? I am.
The wild complexity of The Bishop Eight and other American figures of the era including the Flying Scud, The Tulip and The Ball Of Twine prove case and point that though British and Continental European skaters were largely known internationally as the great masters of complex special figures, insanely difficult special figures were being developed in North America in the sport's developmental stages as well. Triple/triple combinations and level five step sequences aside, how many of today's skaters do you think could master The Bishop Eight? Technical innovation comes in many forms. Today, there is renewed interest in using figures as a teaching tool and of course, the current excitement about the upcoming World Figure Championship and Figure Festival in Lake Placid serves as an important reminder that although competitive figure skating may have ditched the 'figure', not everyone has forgotten the challenge and reward of skating's most difficult discipline. Personally, I think that's a beautiful thing.
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