The Art Of Special Figures


"For quite a long period... this branch of skating was placed in the forefront of skating artistry, and halted the development of pure skating. More than anything else it was a skater's ability to cut upon the ice the most original creation in artistic design and to execute it with ease and elegance that stamped him as a champion. But the craze for a designing was a temporary diversion from the true course of development in skating. It did however show how much could be done upon a skate." - Nigel Brown, "Ice-Skating: A History", 1959

Figure skating was first contested at the Olympic Games in London, England in 1908. Sweden's Ulrich Salchow and Great Britain's Madge Syers were the victors in the men's and women's events and Germany's Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger won the gold medal in the pairs competition. Russia's Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin had the distinction of winning a gold medal in a fourth category, at the time termed Gentlemen's Special Figure Skating. The 1908 Games marked the only time that Special Figures were contested at the Olympic Games, but the rise in popularity and demise of this specialized branch of skating was far from straight-forward. 


Skaters have had a fascination with carving out discernable patterns on the ice for centuries. In 1772, in the oldest surviving book on figure skating, Captain Robert Jones described how "to cut the figure of a heart on one leg". Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in North America, the best 'fancy' skaters of the day were celebrated not for their jumping and spinning prowess, nor their skill at basic figures, but their ability to use their blades as quills. 


In 1882, the Internationalen Preis-Figurenlaufen (Great International Skating Tournament) was held in Vienna, Austria. Skaters were required to demonstrate their proficiency at a long list of school figures, as well as exhibit a specialty or 'special figure' of their own choosing. It was in this 'special figure' category that Axel Paulsen demonstrated his namesake jump. Another skater, Theodore Langer, chose to perform an intricate star figure. By the time the Neva Skating Association in St. Petersburg hosted another major international competition in 1890, there were three distinctly defined, separate categories: compulsory figures, special figures (patterns) and 'fantasifigurer' (free skating). The winner of the special figure competition, Russia's Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff, tied for first place in the free skating category and included several of his special figure designs in his winning performance. 


Georg Sanders, in Irving Brokaw's book "The Art Of Skating", posited, "The origin of the name 'Special Figures' is pretty obvious. It first came into vogue when, many years ago, an opportunity was given to figure skaters to exhibit whatever special degree of proficiency they might have attained in movements or drawings on the ice. Thus some were past masters in jumping, executing pirouettes, spread-eagles, grapevines, and pivot figures... Then deftness in cutting various patterns on the ice surface furnished the basis of another important class of special figures... A more correct designation would, perhaps, be Figure Combinations or Figure Designs... Special figures ought, as far as possible, to be original, the creations of the artistic faculty of each individual, and a proof of his ability to adapt, combine and harmonize. The elements of school figures and various supplementary figures supply the materials on which his ingenuity goes to work, out of which he produces fresh designs."


Special Figures were often skated on one foot, through a combination of rockers, loops, counters, brackets and threes connected by edges and crosscuts. They also often included a type of figure at the time referred to as Beaks, which were variations on rockers and counters where, instead of the curves being carried forward, they were brought sharply back by swinging the free foot forward at the same time the skating foot moved in front. 


Special Figures emphasized pattern over form, and due to their small size often entailed rather jarring, lurching movements of both the free foot and arms, which made them inherently unattractive to English Style skaters. Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams' 1892 book "Figure-Skating Simple And Combined" bemoaned, "Small figures which are performed on one foot, and which, owing to the energetic action of the unemployed leg, and strange contortions of the body they seem to necessitate, have earned for themselves the generic name of 'Kickers.'... These interesting little figures are of a too stationary nature to work well in 'combined skating'... These figures so often proved themselves to be absolutely destructive to the good form of those who practise them."

However, the very best exponents of Special Figures were able to accomplish both form and finesse. In their book "The Art Of Skating: International Style", Madge and Edgar Syers recalled, "Most of them are difficult to skate in good form, owing to the incessant and rapid action of the free foot, which is apt to give the appearance of a series of kicks. These figures should be skated slowly and the effort should be concealed as much as possible... Panin, who has made this branch of skating his [specialty], was mathematically precise in his tracings, and his positions and movements were never in the least awkward or jerky; with body and head erect he found it only necessary to glance occasionally at the maze of curves and turns which his skate described with such consummate ease."


Special Figures were a specialized niche, practiced mainly by only the best skaters in the world... because they were hard to do. They were particularly popular in Russia and Finland, which was then a Royal Duchy of the Russian Empire. Georg Sanders, Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff, Karl Antonovich Ollo and John Catani were all masters of the art. 


The earliest winners at ISU Championships - skaters like Gustav Hügel, Gilbert Fuchs and Ulrich Salchow - all excelled at Special Figures, in addition to school figures and free skating. The top skaters of the day in the Victorian and Edwardian eras often plagiarized each others' designs, no doubt leading to many skirmishes that were never recorded. Ulrich Salchow's famous row with Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin at the 1908 Olympic Games was likely exacerbated by the fact that Panin-Kolomenkin handed him a rare defeat at an international Special Figures competition in St. Petersburg earlier that year.


A skater's skill talent at Special Figures was a boost to their reputation, and indeed an integral part of their success at free skating. A well-balanced free skating program for much of the early twentieth century included not only dance steps, small jumps and spins, pivots, spirals and spread eagles, but both school and special figures.

Arthur Cumming, the 1908 Olympic Silver Medallist in Special Figures (top) and Special Figures of Cumming's design (bottom)

As was the case at the 1908 Olympics, skaters competing in Special Figures competitions in Russia, Russian Finland, Sweden, Austria and Germany at the turn of the century were required to submit  diagrams of their figures in a sealed envelope, as well as provide descriptions, to the judges days before any competition. This format took Planned Program Content to the extreme... nearly a century before the IJS System was even conceived.

Not every attempt to translate art to ice was a success story. In an article in "The Field" in 1909, Geoffrey Hall-Say, who won the bronze medal in Special Figures at the 1908 Games, remarked that some unsuccessful attempts of translating designs to the ice resulted in "something like that which would be produced by a child scrawling in a large unformed hand with a diamond on a sheet of plate glass." Hall-Say also jokingly suggested that "Fig. 40 - the portrait of a skating judge - may be recommended to an unsuccessful competitor." Hall-Say and Arthur Cumming's participation in the Special Figures event in 1908 was particularly interesting, as Great Britain's National Skating Association had abandoned their test for Special Figures seven years prior to the Games.

A Portrait Of A Skating Judge figure, described by Geoffrey Hall-Say

Numerous factors contributed to Special Figures falling out of vogue. The ISU's 1897 adoption of a schedule of school figures, as well as their exclusion of Special Figures at ISU Championships after 1896, was one factor. The rise in popularity of the Continental Style, with its focus on free movement and form, was another. Of Special Figures in 1913, Hugo Winzer wrote, "These tricky things demand continual training - and spoil the fine, artistic skating."

It's also key to recognize the fact that as this branch of skating was such a specialized, niche pursuit, the premature deaths of several of its top exponents no doubt hastened its popularity. Alexander Nikitich Panschin committed suicide in 1904; Karl Antonovich Ollo and Ivan Pavlovich Malinin died on the front lines during The Great War

Gillis Grafström

By the roaring twenties, exceedingly few skaters devoted any effort whatsoever to Special Figures. Madge and Edgar Syers suggested that weather played a rule in their exclusion from free skating programs. Many ISU Championships were held outdoors under unpredictable and, at times, grueling conditions. In their "Book Of Winter Sports", the Syers' wrote, "The uncertainty of reproducing in competitions figures which a slight inequality in the ice or a gust of wind may mar, has led to their being generally omitted from free skating."

Gillis Grafström's Change-Of-Edge star figure

Though he was in the minority, Olympic Gold Medallist Gillis Grafström, demonstrated an unusual interest and ability in this area. Though Grafström never competed in a Special Figures competition, he was responsible for the creation of dozens of new patterns. In 1943, future ISU Historian Benjamin T. Wright recalled, "He invented more than fifty... In England in 1937 the National Skating Association instituted a Platinum Test, even higher than the Gold, which included some of [his] special figures, such as rocker eights, counter eights, three-loop-three, bracket-rocker-bracket and various others. This test was taken and passed at Bournemouth by Graham Sharp, the present World Champion." North American skaters Tim Brown and Gary Beacom devoted time and effort to mastering Special Figures in the decades that followed.

Quilt created by Marion Wolfe of Wisconsin, displayed at the 1993 U.S. Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Many know that dramatic video of the last figures being skated at the World Championships in Nova Scotia in 1990 and the gradual demise of the compulsory figures in international competition, but few mourn the loss of Special Figures. Perhaps that's because beautiful pictures are still being painted on the ice today... just in a different way.

SPECIAL FIGURES COMPETITIONS OF NOTE

This data has been compiled from various German, Austrian, Russian, Swedish and Finnish newspaper archives, as well as Gilbert Fuchs' book “Theories und Praxis des Kunstlaufs am Eise” and Georg Sanders' chapter on Special Figures in the first edition of Irving Brokaw's book “The Art Of Skating”.

Year and Location

Event

Winner

2nd

3rd

1879 (St. Petersburg)

Yusupov Gardens Specialfiguren-Wettbewerb

Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff

(not recorded)

(not recorded)

1882 (Vienna)

Internationalen Preis-Figurenlaufen (Great International Skating Tournament)*

Leopold Frey

Eduard Engelmann Jr.

Axel Paulsen

1883 (Helsinki)

Skridskotäflan i Helsingfors

Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff

John Catani

Rudolf Sundgrén

1887 (Munich)

Preis-Figurenlaufen

Robert Büchtger

Victor Seybert

Franz Rosenstengel

1888 (Stockholm)

Skridskotäflingarna i Stockholm

Rudolf Sundgrén

Ivar Hult

Alfred Franklin

1889 (Helsinki)

Skridskotäflingarna i Stockholm - Den Internationella Amatörstäflingen - Men

Rudolf Sundgrén

Ivar Hult

John Catani

1889 (Helsinki)

Skridskotäflingarna i Stockholm - Den Internationella Amatörstäflinge – Women

Nadja Franck

Anna Weibull

Magda Mauroy

1889 (St. Petersburg)

Wettlaufen St. Petersburg – Simesnovski-Eisbahn

Georg Sanders

N. Semenoff

(not recorded)

1890 (St. Petersburg)

Internationale Kunstlaufen**

Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff

Louis Rubenstein/John Catani (tie)

Carl Kaiser

1891 (St. Petersburg)

Kunstlaufen, Simesnovski-Eisbahn

Georg Sanders

(not recorded)

(not recorded)

1891 (St. Petersburg)

Kunstlaufen, Stern-Eisbahn

Georg Sanders

Herr Simnitzki

(not recorded)

1892 (St. Petersburg)

Spezialfiguren-Wettlaufen (St. Petersburg Society Of Ice Skating Amateurs)

Georg Sanders

(not recorded)

(not recorded)

1896 (St. Petersburg)

World Championships – Special Figures

Georg Sanders

Gilbert Fuchs

Gustav Hügel

1897 (St. Petersburg)

Spezialfiguren-Wettlaufen (St. Petersburg Society Of Ice Skating Amateurs)

Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin

Herr Morozoff

Herr Rimer

1903 (Munich)

Specialfiguren-Wettlaufen des Münchener Eislaufvereines

Gilbert Fuchs

Ludwig Niedermeyer

(not recorded)

1906 (St. Petersburg)

Specialfiguren-Wettbewerb um den Alexander Panschin-Preis

Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin

Ulrich Salchow

Karl Ollo

1907 (Davos)

Spezialfigurenlaufen (held in conjunction with European Speed Skating Championships)

Phyllis (Squire) Johnson

Edgar Syers/Dr. Halden (tie)

H. Charles Holt

1907 (St. Petersburg)

Specialfiguren-Wettbewerb um den Alexander Panschin-Preis

Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin

Fedor Datlin

(not recorded)

1908 (St. Petersburg)

World Championships - Specialfiguren-Wettbewerb um den Alexander Panschin-Preis***

Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin

Ulrich Salchow

Karl Ollo

1908 (London)

Olympic Games – Special Figures

Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin

Arthur Cumming

Geoffrey Hall-Say

1909 (Paris)

Specialfiguren-Wettlaufen Club des Patineurs

Louis Magnus

Lucien Trugard

Maurice del Valle

1909 (St. Petersburg)

Jubileumstäfling

Karl Ollo

H.O. Wächter

Oskar Hoppe

1909 (Vyborg)

Internationell konståkning om N. D. Bojarinoff's vandringssköld****

Karl Ollo

Aleksander Huuri

T. Landelius

1910 (Vyborg)

Internationell konståkning om N. D. Bojarinoff's vandringssköld****

Karl Ollo

Aleksander Huuri

Sakari Ilmanen

1912 (Vyborg)

Internationell konståkning om N. D. Bojarinoff's vandringssköld****

Karl Ollo

Herr Langenheim

(no other competitors)

1913 (Vyborg)

Internationell konståkning om N. D. Bojarinoff's vandringssköld****

Herr Langenheim

Sergei van der Vliet

(no other competitors)

*The 1882 competition in Vienna consisted of both Compulsory and Special Figures. Leopold Frey was the overall winner, but Axel Paulsen's Special Figure, which was actually his namesake jump, earned top marks in that phase of the event. Eduard Engelmann Jr. won the compulsory figures, but Frey was judged the overall winner.

**Though held before the formation of the ISU, the 1890 competition in St. Petersburg was billed by its organizers as a World Championship for amateurs. Skaters from Austria, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia participated. There were three separate categories: Compulsory Figures, Special Figures and 'Fantasifiguren' (Free Skating). Canada's Louis Rubenstein won the Compulsory Figures and Russia's Alexei Pavlovich Lebedeff the Special Figures. Lebedeff and Finland's John Catani tied in the Free Skating class, in which Rubenstein did not participate.

***The competition for the Alexander Panschin-Preis, held in conjunction with the 1908 World Championships for pairs in St. Petersburg, included Special Figures as part of the programme.

****Archives of the “Finskt idrottsblad” note that the annual competition for the N.D. Bojarinoff Shield consisted of three Special Figures and a five minute free skating competition. Compulsory figures were not included.


Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here? Have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.