Review of Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women

Hines, James R. Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. xv+262. Notes, index, appendices, 38 black and white photographs, 1 table. $29 clothback, ebook.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

In my earliest sport watching memory, my mom, sister, and I sit on my parents’ bed watching Kristi Yamaguchi win gold at the 1992 Albertville Games. Since this moment, I turn my attention to figure skating every four years, developing a temporary nationalistic fondness for the U.S. champions vying for Olympic glory but never mastering the knowledge required to appreciate the technical and artistic talent displayed by competitors. James Hines’ Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women helped address my figure skating ignorance.

University of Illinois Press, 2015.

University of Illinois Press, 2015.

In eight chronological chapters, Hines, professor emeritus of musicology at Christopher Newport University, traces skating’s long development, beginning in ancient times, when skates served as a tool for traversing frozen landscapes during hunts, to its emergence as a wintertime social activity in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe and North America to, on the eve of World War II, its codification as a competitive and increasingly international sport. Using previously published accounts of skating, including some dating back to the late 1700s, as his sources, Hines combines over 250 years of detailed skating history into a coherent compendium that charts advancements in technique, style, equipment, and cultural norms that progressively contributed to figure skating coming to resemble its contemporary manifestation.

In his brief first chapter, “A Goddess, A Saint, and a Daring Princess,” Hines recounts the tales of the Norse goddess Skadi, who used skates during hunting expeditions in mythological times, Lindwina, the beautiful daughter of a poor Dutch family who was considered a saint, and Mary, daughter of Charles I, both of whom enjoyed skating as a pastime in the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively. Hines positions these three young women as the progenitors of figure skating. In chapter two, “The Pioneering Years, 1662-1772,” he first describes how skating emerged as popular social activity in Holland and England before beginning to trace its steady development into an athletic activity premised on a balance between technique and artistry. Hines discusses at length Robert Jones’ 1772 A Treatise on Skating, which introduced terminology for figures, such as the “fencing attitude,” “rolling,” and “the salutation,” that capture skating’s progression toward an identifiable sport.

During “The Defining Years, 1772-1869,” Hines chronicles advancements and experimentations in skating that further established it as a distinct athletic activity in England, France, and North America. Again relying on published period volumes about skating, Hines describes the influence of British styles during this period, particularly noting how privileged British skaters established skating clubs and introduced more, and more difficult, figures. Most interestingly, Hines notes that George Anderson’s 1868 The Art of Skating addressed accusations that skating was an effeminate sport by dismissing critics as “the rough diamonds of the world” who believed “all refinement and elegance as pertaining to the effeminate” (p. 25). In chapter four, “Toward an International Style,” Hines compares the British, North American, and Vienna–later known as International–styles of skating, delineating in detail the conventions of each style. Hines introduces the various skaters who most successfully displayed each style, such as the U.S.’s Jackson Haines who proved influential in the development and popularization of the International Style. Hines also notes the development and proliferation of national and international governing bodies, specifically the International Skating Union (ISU), which authorized and advanced the sport.

In chapter five, “The Rise of International Competition,” Hines describes how these governing bodies organized respected international events, including the World Championships, first held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1896, and first skating competition in the Olympics at the 1908 Games in London. He then discusses ISU debates about women competing in the World Championships. According to Hines, Madge Syers continually entered European Championships, in which she competed against men, in order to force the ISU to recognize women’s participation in the sport. Syers’ effort led to the crowning of an “ISU Lady Champion” at the 1905 World Championships in Davos, Swtizerland, with Syers appropriately winning the inaugural ladies’ title. While Hines celebrates this period as the rise of competitive skating, he laments the decline of special figures, which judged skaters on their ability to leave certain tracings on the ice, in favor of free skating, the modern form of skating where skaters develop a program to music. In his sixth chapter, “Skating Between the World Wars,” Hines continues the discussions of the previous chapter, further emphasizing the rise of free skating through spirals, spinning, jumping, and other techniques. He discusses the era’s most prominent and personable skaters, such as Sonja Henie, Fritzi Burger, Karl Schäfer, and Felix Kaspar, celebrating them as key experimenters whose increasingly bold artistry and athleticism not only technically advanced the sport but also contributed to its international expansion and popularization.

In his most interesting chapter, “Show Skating,” Hines explains the development of skating carnivals, the entertainment exhibitions that, in the words of a contemporary writer, served as “a stimulant, to arouse, to re-create, and to vivify extensively in the art” (p. 96). While Hines notes that the clothing worn by female skaters during this era contributed to the feminization of the sport, the popularity of show skating divas Charlotte Oelschagel (who simply went by “Charlotte”), Evelyn Chandler, and Sonja Henie contributed further to the sport’s feminine conception. However, Hines emphasizes the continued importance and influence of male skaters. According to Hines, women skaters were limited to performing femininity while male skaters could interject variety into shows, exemplified by the popular Ice Follies comedy routine of Frick and Frack in the early 1940s. Hines also notes that show skating did not privilege the most popular skaters at the expense of others, asserting the exhibitions provided an opportunity for upcoming talents to test their abilities while allowing skaters past their competitive peaks to continue to perform.

Hines closes his book with final ruminations on “What Lies Ahead” for the sport. While he briefly recounts the sport’s progress, he focuses on the state of figure skating in the immediate pre- and post-World War II years. Although Dick Button is often celebrated for introducing modern, athletic figure skating at the 1948 Olympic Games, Hines argues that the progress Button represented would not have been possible without the developments of his predecessors. Hines again discusses the popularization of free skating and rise of ice dancing before lamenting the long and steady decline of compulsory dances, where skaters were required to execute specific figures, which were eliminated in 2010. Hines then closes by reflecting on the quotation he opened with – “Figure Skating is viewed today by some skeptics and critics as ladies sport” (p. 115). Because his text is a factual, descriptive chronicle of the development of figure skating, Hines’ brief analytical consideration proves interesting.

His final paragraphs ostensibly announce the argumentative intention of his text – problematizing the gendered connotations of the sport. When describing the sport’s early stages, Hines carefully noted women’s participation in the sport, repeatedly emphasizing that women skaters, while less numerous, advanced alongside their male counterparts. By frequently invoking the number of women skaters, Hines implicitly affirms the masculine character of the sport. His closing remarks confirm his intent to appreciate of skating’s masculine traditions. Most strikingly, he seems to hope that the gendered conception of the sport “might change in the future” (p. 117). However, despite such interest, Hines does not adequately interrogate the functions and ideologies of gender. Including gender analysis in each chapter would have allowed him to problematize more successfully the evolving relationship between gender and skating. Instead, his belated and too brief thoughts merely reassert the importance of gendered ideas to the sport’s development without authoritatively purporting an explanation for the power of gender in figure skating. According to his bibliography, Hines did not incorporate gender theory into his research; doing so may have resulted in a powerful book that could have influentially contributed to the historiography of gender and sport.

Similarly, a consideration of the role of nationalism in figure skating’s development also could have enhanced Hines’ work. Throughout his text, he frequently references national differences and preferences when explaining certain figure skating styles and their predominance. These statements suggest nationalism fundamentally has shaped the sport’s development. Yet, Hines does not pursue this potentially interesting analytical path; merely noting the periods in which particular national styles and their competitors dominated the sport. While he briefly alludes to larger historical context in a few places, a thorough deliberation on the political, social, and/or cultural environments of the nations that most contributed to the formation of modern figure skating could have resulted in an illuminating argument about the influence of nationalism on a sport’s development.

By interrogating the function of gender and nationalism in figure skating’s development, Hines provocatively could have questioned the skating conventions that prevailed during these formative years; rather, he unquestionably accepts predominant conventions. Nevertheless, Hines book valuably contributes to sport history. His straightforward text accessibly and coherently illustrates the development of modern skating, making it an excellent reference source for any scholar who seeks to interrogate more critically the role of gender, nationalism, or another contradiction in figure skating. In particular, the appendices, which list World Champions, Olympic Champions, various national champions, medal counts, and brief biographical sketches of prominent skaters during the periods Hines studied, will serve as a much appreciated resource for any scholar studying figure skating’s formative years.

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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