Sweeping Smooth


in Archive


The Winter Olympics are, in essence, about putting things on your feet. This is a function of the weather. You cannot go barefoot into the snow and ice. In the summer, you can run around with nothing on at all. That’s what the ancient Greeks used to do when they had their Olympic games. You can see pictures of it on ancient vase paintings. The Greeks jumped and ran and threw things in a state of total nudity. The Olympic games — in their original form more than two thousand years ago — were about the beauty, grace, and possibility of the human body in its purity. 

But what happens to the human body when you put it on frozen ground? It becomes a plodder, struggling laboriously through the snow. Or it becomes a slipper and slider, working to find traction on treacherous sheets of ice. Humans on frozen ground are, generally, comical and sad. It is only a matter of time before the human is going to fall down, ingloriously, limbs akimbo, and hit the ground with a crunch.

Or so it was until people started strapping things to the bottoms of their feet. Ötzi — the prehistoric iceman from the Italian Alps — was found wearing a broad-bottomed pair of snowshoes. He wasn’t skiing, exactly, or even snowshoeing in the modern sense of the term. But he had figured out the basic idea: You cannot traverse the snow and ice efficiently unless you take drastic action.

If you want to achieve speed, or, heaven forbid, make a stab at elegance, the footwear is going to have to be drastic indeed. In the snow, you will have to strap long planks of wood to your feet. On the ice, you will have to affix metal blades to your shoes. You will leave the realm of normal human locomotion and head into new territory. In this, skiing and ice-skating are akin to flying in a plane. They take human beings into a realm of motion that has little to do with the body’s natural functioning. This is not completely true. Flying in a plane requires the use of a machine that does all the work of the actual flying. The human being sits and operates the machinery, but does not actually take part in the motion of flying. With skiing and ice skating and other frozen forms of locomotion, the human being does perform physically. The ice skater, for instance, moves the feet side to side and uses the arms for balance. It is like walking or running, but it is not. The motion is a pushing to the side and the effect is a sliding and a gliding.

What happens in skating or skiing is, thus, a new kind of human motion. Persons can be better and worse at it. It can be done with great beauty or great ugliness. And that is why it is appropriate that there be a Winter Olympics along with a Summer Olympics. We need to take account of the kinds of motion that are specific to snow and ice.

There are many feats of athletic prowess on display at the Winter Olympics. In some winter sports, athletes move at great speed or traverse great distances. Winter Olympians are strong and supple, and, more often than not, possessed of an enviable athletic physique. But this is not what makes the Winter Olympics wonderful.

What makes the Winter Olympics wonderful is figure skating. Yes, figure skating. Every kind of skating on ice is delightful. Hockey players are quite skilled as skaters. Curlers, even, can look elegant on the ice with one shoe for sliding and the other, the non-sliding or “hack” foot, for stopping. Speed skaters are pleasing in their tucked stance with the one arm pressed at the back and the other swinging away with wild slashes. All this is noble and good.

But the figure skater skates for the love of the motion particular to ice and skate. For that reason, I am not enamored of too much trickery. Aggressive Lutzing or Axeling leaves me cold. Alois Lutz, the Austrian skater who first performed the Lutz in the early days of the 20th century, would no doubt have agreed. He saw it as a pretty little move, a backwards jump from one foot to the other. You didn’t need to be a gymnast to do a Lutz back then. You just needed balance and some small measure of grace. Like every other aspect of human experience, we cannot leave a good thing alone. We must complicate the matter beyond reason. So it has been with figure skating. The first instructional book on ice-skating, from 1772, described a number of circles. A figure eight or two were thrown in. Simple. By the next century, books were published with skating designs so complicated it was difficult to follow them on paper, let alone on the ice. Such is the way of the world. Beautiful simplicity is discarded in the name of empty complication.

Nonetheless, and happily, ice-skating is still ice-skating. Every figure skater seems aware, in his or her heart, that long sweeping motions and unencumbered gliding are the secret delight of all who skate, and all those who watch others skate. This is what William Wordsworth once wrote about in “Influence of Natural Objects,” which he included as part of his great poem The Prelude. Wordsworth described a childhood memory, skating through the icy wilderness with friends:

All shod with steel
We hissed along the polished ice,

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle: with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron;

and oftentimes,
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopped short; yet still the solitary cliffs
Wheeled by me–even as if the earth had rolled
With visible motion her diurnal round!
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train,
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watched
Till all was tranquil as a summer sea.

The icy crags tinkled like iron, wrote Wordsworth. The solitary cliffs were silent and tranquil as the children gave their bodies to the wind. There is a specific sound to the ice and the cold, is there not? You can hear it (practically feel it) even on television as the skaters go out to the ice. And the motion of the ice skater is so utterly peculiar, so unlike the motion that human beings normally achieve on foot. Wordsworth says that, as he skated, he “came sweeping through the darkness.” Gerard Manley Hopkins uses the same word in his famous poem The Windhover. Hopkins describes the way a falcon rides currents of air. You’ve seen it yourself. A giant bird will catch a gust of wind and ride it like a wave. Finally, the bird peels out of the current of wind and glides away. Hopkins describes the falcon as going “off forth on swing / as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on bow-bend.” That’s just how it is with the ice skater. On the wind and on the ice you can “sweep smooth.”

For smooth sweeping – the very essence of skating on ice – it is best to watch the skaters who do fewer tricks. And that is why the highest form of skating on ice is skating in pairs and the highest form of skating in pairs is ice dancing. When you skate with another person, you are performing a kind of dance. Great dancers are often described as being able to “glide across the floor.” In skating on ice, you really can glide across the floor. The shared gliding of two human beings is, in fact, a thing stupendous. That is why ice-skating has always carried a sense of romance. When you’ve “swept smooth” with another person, you’ve shared something. Witness, if you will, the ice skating scene from the classic Cary Grant film, The Bishop’s Wife. Phenomenologically speaking, “smooth sweeping” is connected to wonder and love. Love in the romantic sense, yes. But more deeply, love in the sense of loving the world — and wonder that such a form of motion is possible at all.

Alas, the Olympic rule-makers have tried to destroy love and wonder by means of the progressive scoring system, which rewards skaters for doing many jumps and twirls and anything that has a high probability of landing them on the fanny. You’d think that something as pure and lovely as the scene from The Bishop’s Wife would not be welcome in a commercialized and crass event like the modern Olympics. But you would be wrong.

Ice dancing lives. Goodness finds its cracks and crevices. The sun shineth upon the dunghill, and is not corrupted. Just last Winter Olympics, there was a remarkable performance by a Canadian ice dancing couple. Their names are Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Virtue and Moir skated to Gustav Mahler. They didn’t just skate to Mahler, they skated to his 5th Symphony. Symphony No. 5 begins with a funeral march. Virtue and Moir ice danced to the fourth movement of the symphony, Adagietto, which Mahler noted should be performed “very slowly.” The music has joy in it, but it is a somber joy. As Theodor Adorno once noted, Mahler was “not exactly a yea-sayer.” Adorno also noted in his writings on Mahler that the composer tried to hold onto the scraps of civilization in his music. That’s what Virtue and Moir do in this skate. They hold onto the scraps of civilization. They go back to the essential movements, the essential gliding. They also include their tricks, just as Mahler did in incorporating bits of polytonality that would dominate the symphonic music to come after him. You can also hear strains of folk music in Mahler.

Moir and Virtue skate that way, with bits of folk music and some polytonality. Moir flips Virtue around here and there. Perhaps once too often. They include their signature move, “the goose,” where Virtue stands with one skate on Moir’s thigh as he crouches. You can take or leave “the goose.” What you cannot take or leave is the gliding, the smooth sweeping. What you cannot forget, once you’ve watched the performance, is the perfect symmetry between the two bodies. They are connected even when they aren’t connected. They move with such synchronicity that they begin to overlap in personhood.

What you cannot forget, either, is the way that Moir touches Virtue’s shoulder at the 4:04 mark of the dance. He touches her shoulder gently, like they are out on a winter’s evening walk and the moon is shining on the hard branches of the trees and the water gurgles under the ice of the creek.

And what of the way that Virtue and Moir screech to a stop at minute 1:59? This is a line from Wordsworth actually performed. “Then at once, / Have I,” wrote Wordsworth, “reclining back upon my heels, / Stopped short.” The world keeps spinning for a moment as Wordsworth stops. It does the same for Moir and Virtue. They pause in order to let the smooth sweeping continue on without them, just for an instant or two. And then they catch up with it again.

Or what of the moment they both drop down to the ice in a crouch at 3:34? They have just come out of a slow spin, each holding the left skate with the right hand as they do so. And then they each go down on the right knee. Paying homage to the ice? Collapsing for just a moment in prayer? Both, and more. Commentary collapses here, too. The performance must simply be watched, multiple times.

Ice dancing begins on February 8th in Sochi, with the team short dance. Moir and Virtue will be present, in what will surely be their final Olympic appearance. Sochi is a strange place to be celebrating ice and snow. It is a resort town on the Black Sea. There are palm trees in Sochi. This is a result of yet more Olympic foolishness. The inability to let summer be summer and winter be winter. Still, ice is ice wherever it is to be found. Snow is snow, even when machines make it. When Moir and Virtue begin their smooth sweeping the icy crags will, as always, tinkle like iron. •