Before I was a woman, I was a girl, and when I was a girl, I was a figure skater. Of course, it’s not so cut and dry as that. As a figure skater, it is necessary to be both girl and woman at once, and in the right ways. (Read: more Nancy Kerrigan than Tanya Harding, even though Tanya was the one with a triple axel.)
I am fourteen years old. I am at the gym, walking up the stairs to the elliptical machines. It’s about to be the first time a guy tells me to smile. My skating coaches tell me to smile all the time, but they aren’t strangers, and they’re trying to make me understand the art of performance. My hand has just touched the railing when a young man stops me. He has a white towel flung over his shoulder like the neck of a swan freshly shot from the sky. “You know,” he says, and I’m thinking he’s about to ask me where the bathroom is, “you’d look so much prettier if you smiled.” I blink rapidly, and my head draws back in surprise as if to escape into the shell of my body, and my memory of how to converse is gone, and then I realize I’m staring at him with my mouth open. He laughs. “Just smile.” And I do, awkwardly, and try to laugh with him, but I feel very small and visible.
Remember to smile, my coach tells me before I step out into the ice. Especially as you pass in front of the judges. I always promise her I will, but I usually don’t actually do it. It feels too forced, mechanical, as if I’m a dolled-up puppet tugged upon by strings. I haven’t yet learned, in other words, how to forget myself.
Michelle Kwan tells the story of when she skated at fifteen to Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” a piece of music that tells the New Testament story of the girl who performed a dance for King Herod. The story goes that Herod loved Salome’s dance so much, he offered her anything she wanted. I wonder what Herod expected her to ask for—probably he thought it would be nothing he couldn’t offer. Jewels, animals, fabrics. She requested instead for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered to her on a platter.
After I was fourteen, I was fifteen. The logic of it took me by surprise. Oh, I thought, the world does not wait for me. I was nowhere near as advanced as Michelle Kwan. I had been skating for five years, and now I was hurtling through puberty. I fell on all my double jumps. I couldn’t land a thing. Whenever I went down on the ice, I could feel in my body the presence of a woman taking shape. And I wished to cut her out.
Kwan had competed on a senior level before the year she skated to “Salome,” but from the way she and her family and her coach Frank Caroll talk about this program, it basically marked her debut as a figure skater—and as a woman. It was the first time Kwan donned makeup, and, more importantly, the first time she understood choreography: “I really learned a lot in learning how to feel the music—as if you were performing with it. Instead of just going out there, and skating and jumping and skating and jumping and spinning . . . I really got into the character and was really dramatic.” She won her first (of many) national and world titles that year.
Kwan continued this trajectory, year after year, and by the time she performed her long program to Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” at the 2003 World Championships, her artistry was so powerful, so emotional (some would have you believe these things are opposite, when in fact they easily go hand in hand) that in the last thirty seconds or so of her program you could barely hear her music over the roar of the audience, which included my mother and me , perched up in the nosebleed section and crying along with everyone else, staring down into our binoculars, watching tiny Michelle in her blue dress fly over the ice. From our vantage point that high up, she was a drop of rain sliding down a pane of glass—that effortless, that mindless, gathering the audience to her as if it were condensation and growing larger with each movement.
“I think the perfect thing is when some musicians can both read a musical score and feel it,” Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography of his experience recording Sketches of Spain, a description which also aptly applies to physical artistry. His and Gil Evans’s arrangement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” is less explosive, not as orchestral as the version Kwan skated to in 2003, but it’s just as grand and sweeping. It wanders. It oscillates sharply between soft and loud, catching you off balance just when you’ve adjusted to the volume. “Is this even jazz?” Pitchfork asks. Apparently, this is something a lot of critics asked about Sketches of Spain upon its release, since the album stayed so close to compositional tradition.
But jazz is famously difficult to define, and this genre-policing question is similar to ones that I hear all the time about writing (Is this poetry or is it prose? or, more dreadingly, What is a poem?) and even figure skating (Does it count as a sport?). That’s fine. It is comforting to have names for things, to know where one belongs. But I believe genre is constricting, and blurring the lines is how you keep form innovative and interesting. In his autobiography, Davis writes about how he had originally hired classically-trained trumpet players to play on the album, but then hired new ones because “they couldn’t improvise their way out of a paper bag.” He “wanted them to feel it, and read and play it.” On classical musicians in general, he writes: they “only play what’s there and nothing else. They…have the ability of robots. . . . That’s all that is, that’s all the classical music is in terms of the musicians who play it—robot shit.”
“Robot shit”—what an incredible way of turning the lofty idea of perfection on its head. Davis was revered precisely because he didn’t ascribe to those ideals. “Miles seemed incapable of playing false or forced notes,” Sean Murphy writes of Sketches of Spain in PopMatters, “in part because his technique was not impeccable.” Murphy goes on to write that Davis’s “solos were ceaselessly expressive, lyrical and filled with concentrated feeling.”
I love the language people use to describe Davis’s trumpeting, because something so ethereal and abstract is difficult to wrangle words around. One can write forever on technique, but when one tries to describe the feeling rising like vapor, like another self, that technique inspires—that is almost nameless. Reading the attempts is like watching critics try to wrestle a cloud into a box. Murphy’s review was one I read of four that pronounced Davis’s trumpet solos “lyrical”—a funny word choice given that the word usually connotes something with words. But it fits nonetheless.
And it’s true that in some traditional Spanish songs off Sketches of Spain, Davis’s trumpet enacts the part of what would usually be a singer. Of “Saeta,” Davis writes: “My voice”—by which he means his trumpet—“had to be both joyous and sad in this song, and that was very hard.” But if you can pull something like that off—being more than one thing at once—you’ve created, or become, something transcendent.
Bodies often act as the lyric in figure skating. Up until about two years ago, competitive figure skating didn’t allow the use of songs with lyrics. It was a rule, like most rules, steeped in complacent tradition, but one I never questioned. I was drawn to how skaters could weave, with the elegance of spiders, a well-trodden piece of music into a tight new composition. The best figure skaters performed as if they heard lyrics or a story in the music anyway—they knew how to receive and enact emotion from a sound without words. More than that: their bodies were the words.
That is, admittedly, a lot of pressure to place on a body.
Some of the greatest moments in competitive figure skating arise from surprises, especially those that happen because a skater suddenly, to use the words of Miles Davis, “feels it.” Of course, programs are heavily choreographed, but still—throwing themselves up into the air, skaters don’t necessarily know they’re going to land a jump until the second they do. They enter white space, static. And then they emerge.
When Sarah Hughes landed her final triple jump toward the end of her free skate at the 2002 Olympics, thereby becoming the first woman to ever land seven triples in one program, she gave out a scream and clapped her hands as if they were cymbals. It was electrifying. It was dramatic. You could feel her joy surging through you. And in a total upset, she ended up winning the gold medal after coming up from fourth place. In the 1998 Olympics, the French skater Surya Bonaly spontaneously tossed off a backflip, illegal in competitions. She knew she hadn’t skated well enough to end up on the podium anyway, and she wanted to get a rise from the crowd. But it’s a stunning moment: the viewer is expecting her to transition into a lutz jump, and all of a sudden her body contorts as if it’s disobeying the laws of physics, her head is inches from the ice, and before you know it, she’s done a backward somersault, midair, on thin blades, and landed on one foot. She is the only skater—male or female—who has ever been able to do that. It drew audible gasps from the audience for being so exciting, and yet, it was illegal.
And listen to the way the male commentators talk about her after that. “She’s gonna get nailed,” Scott Hamilton says almost gleefully. “That’s an in-your-face move,” observes the other.
They can’t wait for the rules to bring her back down to earth. For the judges to remind her that even though she’s done this incredible athletic feat, she’s really just a human who fucked up.
About ten years ago now, the International Skating Union (ISU) implemented a new scoring system, meant to make figure skating more objective after judges got caught trying to fix the results in the 2002 Olympics. The system assigns different points for each performed move—the more difficult the move is, the more points it gets, with a perfectly performed move (already a ridiculous notion, because perfection doesn’t really exist) awarded the full amount of points. As a result, there’s no longer any automatic comprehension of a skater’s score without a commentator’s analysis. The audience is held always at a remove.
Most importantly, though, by encouraging skaters to rack up points through performing the same difficult moves in almost exactly the same order, the scoring system also churns out programs that are, to put it bluntly, robot shit.
Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of innovation. Two years ago, the ISU allowed the use of music with lyrics or words in competitive figure skating, largely to cater to younger audiences and inject new energy into the sport during a time of dwindling popularity. I suppose this is exciting, but it’s largely unnecessary—or perhaps it’s a move that’s just several strides too small. If anything, figure skating’s greatest enemy is not so much its lack of innovation in style, but its desperation to adhere to rules, its attempt to hold itself to objectivity when it can’t help but be a largely subjective sport.
The rules are necessary for it to exist, but they also blot out what makes skating so enjoyable in the first place.
That’s what happens when you place so many expectations on one body. That’s what happens when you try to pin an objective number on a mess of contradictions.
And of course, our bodies are sets of rules.
When Miles Davis talks about feeling it, I think he must mean something akin to what Michelle Kwan feels in the last thirty seconds of her program to “Aranjuez.” Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” It is like that, watching Michelle, and you can tell it’s like that for her too, that as she tears our heads right off, her head is blasting away, too, and as we go wild in the stands we’re all just gifting each other our heads on platters. I have felt this feeling while skating, once or twice, but of course on a much smaller spectrum and stage. It is like a chemical process, subtraction and addition all at once: the whole world reduces to blur and you turn not woman, not girl, but movement itself; your body becomes the world, and you don’t have a body at all. It’s such a relief. You feel like you have become that impossible thing: perfect. But of course, there’s no such thing. And you know this because just as suddenly as the feeling happens, you remember your body, you remember you are inside it, and the music stops.