Second post of the day. When I was looking for resources on fifth position and skating mohawks, I came across an article in an old periodical, The Nineteenth Century, published in 1897. In the midst of articles such as “How I Became Pope” (by Pius II), “‘The Integrity of the Ottoman Empire’ as a Diplomatic Formula,” and “Tobacco in Relation to Health and Character,” there was an article by a Mrs. Walter Creyke entitled “Skating on Artificial Ice.”
Mrs. Creyke spends less time on techniques of refrigeration and more on illustrating what she calls “the difference of style between the best English skaters and those of other nations,” which she sums up in “the absence of all unnecessary movement with the former, and the exaggerated and theatrical attitudes of the latter.”
The members of the English skating clubs allow no movement of arm or leg which can be avoided. The closer the arms are kept to the side and the nearer the legs are to each other, the more finished the skater; and in the English clubs at St. Moritz and other Swiss resorts this rigidity of body and limb is compulsory. But the stiffness and want of grace so often noticeable on members of the English skating clubs are entirely absent from those who have passed their tests on the Engadine [a valley in the Swiss Alps], so highly finished is their skating. The French and Swedish skaters who visit our London rinks wave the arms and kick the legs about incessantly in a manner which can be best described as theatrical. In fact there is precisely the same difference between English and foreign skating as there is between dancing in a ball-room and dancing in a ballet. The foreign skaters are perfectly aware of the value of this florid style, and, even if they could skate quietly, they would prefer to attract the multitude by flourishing about their arms and legs; for by so doing they give more effect to the simpler figures, and are able to overcome real difficulties with greater ease.
She then goes on to use the mohawk as the primarily example of this contrast. If the mohawk is skated “in English fashion”
the toe of the unemployed foot is dropped just behind the heel of the first foot, what is called the fifth position in dancing; the body should be erect, and the knees straight.
She continues on the technique of doing mohawks in the “foreign fashion,” in which
the knees are bent through the figure. The unemployed foot is waved in front of the employed foot, and a little theatrical kick is given with the toe in the air before it is put down on the ice to make the outside backward stroke behind the other.
This is both the easiest and most showy manner of skating the Mohawk, and many people might learn to skate it thus who could never hope to achieve it in the English fashion, especially if they only began figure-skating late in life, as it is a physical impossibility to some people to get their feet one behind the other, toe to heel, when the knees are straight and parallel to one another.
Mystery solved! That’s me out there with lack of turnout in fifth position and a theatrical mohawk. I am waving my arms and kicking my legs about incessantly, and flourishing my arms and legs, so that I attract the proper attention. Clearly I am skating “in the foreign fashion.”
It is a long time since 1897, but this article still makes me laugh aloud. Mrs. Creyke is clearly enthusiastic about her subject, giving detailed descriptions of what problems arise when skating instructors don’t teach you how to skate alone, what to wear while skating, and how to construct knee pads. I’ll end with some of my favorite quotes:
When skating on artificial ice, men will wear tall hats, pot hats, or no hats at all. Shooting-coats and knickerbockers are rarely seen, and, in the evening, black coats and white ties are usually worn. With women smart toques, smart blouses, and bright under skirts look best. There is a great variety in the cut of their skirts. One will wear a dabby skirt over no petticoats, which, when valsing, clings to her legs like a bathing-gown, leaving little to the imagination. Another will wear a very full skirt over petticoats, which, when valsing, flies up over her head and leaves nothing to the imagination. Another will have a short, very full skirt, with a pretty lining and heaps of petticoats; another, again, will wear her ordinary walking-skirt, pinned up into innumerable little bunches round her hips. Spangles and glass bugles look very bright and pretty by electric light, but they should be avoided by skaters, as, besides causing many falls when they are shed about the ice, they spoil the blade of one’s skates when passing over them.
Any one could pick out a pretty and graceful skater from a crowd of other women, but it requires a cultivated eye to single out a really good figure-skater from a crowd of other figure-skaters, just as it requires a cultivated eye to know a really good picture in an exhibition. The general and uncultivated public will prefer some metricious painting of a commonplace scene in everyday life, which appeals to their commonplace minds, and the onlookers at skating will usually bestow all their praise on some performance whose every movement is graceless and vulgar; who, with extended arms, bent knee, and one leg flourishing in the air, will execute some very ordinary figure with an immense amount of side on, which, if quietly and properly done, would be far more difficult, but in that case would excite no notice. The particular style of skating which is most offensive to me is that of the skater who leans very much over, as far as the hip, as then bends his body back, at an obtuse angle, till his head is over this skate, in order to keep his balance. I notice that people who skate in this fashion can only produce their effects on one leg, the other being practically useless.
Okay, here’s the best one, on what she sees to be the qualities of the good skater:
Skating requires either a natural aptitude for athletics or intelligence and perseverance; and a good skater must have all those qualities. Unfortunately, intelligence and perseverance do not always go together, and one sees the same people working at the same figures season after season, in precisely the same attitude, with a perseverance worthy of a better cause, because they have not the intelligence to know that they are only confirming some bad habit, which prevents them from learning the figure, instead of setting themselves to work to seek out the cause of their inability to succeed in it. It is not enough to overcome a difficulty in skating; you ought to understand why the difficulty is overcome, if the learning of one figure is to help you on towards the next. That is why figures skated with a swing are of no help to a beginner; they do not require any balance, and can be executed with the head bowed down and the knees bent. They may be pretty and graceful, but they lead to nothing.
Photo of skaters in the Bois de Boulogne (Paris) from the 1900s by Paul Frecker.