Aesthetic athletics: Art is key for 'U' figure skating and synchronized swimming teams

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BY VERONICA MENALDI
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 13, 2011

When it comes to art, bits and pieces of it can be found wherever we look, even in the most unexpected areas — like in sports.

High-adrenaline action, masculinity and thrill are qualities often associated with sports like football and basketball. But what about figure skating and synchronized swimming? These bring to the table qualities most football players can't pride themselves on — art and finesse.

LSA sophomores Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who earned silver medals for ice dancing in the 2010 Winter Olympics, serve as examples of fame and respect achieved from a less-than-conventional athletic art.

Their preferred activity is a blend — physical enough to where the training is demanding and exhausting, but beautiful enough to inspire awe and admiration for visibly seamless movements.

LSA senior Jacki Fiscus, the University's figure skating club president, finds that ice skating requires elements of both athletics and artistry from its practitioners.

“We sweat, we’re doing physical activities and it’s really strenuous,” she said. “But at the same time, you couldn’t have it without art because then it wouldn’t be beautiful. Our point is to look beautiful, our point is to make our audience cry or laugh and understand the story we’re telling with our program instead of just making them happy because we won.”

LSA sophomore Jenna Kaufman-Ross, a synchronized skater and assistant secretary for the team, said unlike running, skating requires positioning precision far beyond the natural movement of the legs.

Additionally, “winning” in skating is a lot less objective than most other sports, since it is more than the hit, kick or shoot and score of traditional athletics.

“A level of subjectivity” is always present, Kaufman-Ross said. “It’s not who wins the race, it’s not who finished first — it’s performance-based, and that’s someone’s opinion when it comes down to it.”

Rackham student Sarah Williams, a coach and athlete for the University's synchronized swimming team, discussed her sport’s evolution from artistic endeavor to full-blown athletic activity while still maintaining its allure.

“It used to be more of an entertainment activity, and now it’s turning into a hardcore sport,” she said. “We put on sparkly suits, headpieces and lots of makeup, but the practices are very physically demanding. You don’t think about it as artistic when you practice. Only when you put on the outfit does it become an artistic thing.”

What figure skating and synchronized swimming share with other sports is the amount of the companionship and trust between teammates.

At the same time, there’s an exhibition aspect to these activities that doesn’t exist in more conventional sports. For instance, members of each sport are featured at performances decked out in dramatic makeup, slicked-back hair, fancy suits and sometimes headpieces.

For skaters, it takes three handfuls of gel to keep their hair in place since they can’t use bobby pins. Synchronized swimmers use boxes of Knox unflavored gelatin to harden their hair and nearly 50 bobby pins to keep in the headpieces.

Though two distinct athletic arts, ice skating and synchronized swimming share more than the water-based arena in which they take place, be it frozen or liquid. They straddle the line between art and sport.

Ice ice baby

Moments before any synchronized skating competition, the team members gather in a circle, lock hands and close their eyes as their program’s song plays. Hand in hand, each one of them imagines the ideal performance so the image is the last they have before lining up to enter the ice.

Kaufman-Ross said the team also exchanges anonymous notes filled with positive reinforcing thoughts for each skater to read before the competition. The notes are posted on the walls of the locker room, and skaters hit them as they exit the room to perform.

The University's figure skating club is divided in two distinct groups — the freestyle team and the more competitive synchronized team. Currently, the synchronized team is working on a routine that takes excerpts from the Broadway musical “Cabaret.” The freestylers perform to a wider array of songs, from classical versions of a song by the Rolling Stones to scores from “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Ice Castle” and “March of the Penguins.”

Figure skaters work on their routines starting at 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to avoid any conflicts.

“We practice when no one can possibly have class,” Fiscus said.

As is the case for any dancer or musician, practices are fundamental for the skaters, since constant repetition ensures perfection on the ice when performing.

“The more hours you practice, the better you’re going to be,” Fiscus said. “I think it's even more so than with other sports, because I used to play soccer.

“You practice different plays, but each game is different: you can’t anticipate how a team is going to play against you. With skating, you are in control of what happens out there — it’s the same program, no matter what.”

Repetitive practice is essential to synchronized skating, since special attention is also given to minute details the audience might not notice. For instance, at one point in the program, every single one of the skaters winks at the exact same time.

“It’s not just making it look effortless, but it's making everybody look effortless at the same time doing the exact same thing in the exact same way,” Fiscus said. “It’s about being so repetitive that you could literally be half asleep and be doing it wonderfully.”

Especially for synchronized skating, team trust is key because the skaters only have one chance to shine and show their hard work.

“You don’t have control over what happens in a performance,” Kaufman-Ross said. “You can only control what you do and everything else is left to the other girls that are skating. You have to trust them enough to know that they are going to do what they are there to do.”

To ensure this unification, the team also practices off the ice to focus on the nitpicky details of the program or routine they’re working on — the facial expressions, hand directions and other body mannerisms.

An important quality Fiscus finds essential to succeeding is lack of fear.

“It’s a lot about being really good at not letting things get to you. Not being afraid to embarrass yourself,” she said. “You have to be able to throw yourself into a character and not be embarrassed because you might look dumb.”

During one of the practices, Fiscus and her teammates were rehearsing shimmying and shaking their skirts — a move in the program — in the Yost arena lobby. The hockey players could have arrived at any moment, but that didn’t stop the skaters from repeating that section over and over again.

Freestyle skating has its own technical difficulties, mostly stemming from the jumps and spins the skaters are permitted to do. Physical conditioning is even more important for freestylers, because the turns and jumps need to appear flawless from the moment they take off to the moment they land back on the ice.

“It’s more complete freedom,” said LSA senior Chelsea Lindblad, the figure skating club vice president. “It’s artistic expression, and you have your own freedom to do whatever you want ... you don’t have to match everyone.“

Pool of hard Knox

Hours before a competition, synchronized swimmers spend a good 90 minutes “Knoxing” their hair. The process involves each swimmer’s hair being slicked back in a tight bun and coated and recoated with roughly three packs of Knox unflavored gelatin per person. After half an hour, the Knox hardens and the hair is as solid as a helmet — taking at least a few days of shampooing to clean out.

The reason the swimmers use Knox is because they aren’t allowed to wear swim caps — caps aren’t “pretty” enough in this water exhibition.

In the history of synchronized swimming, Vaseline has been used. But since that left hair very greasy, Knox replaced the old style.

LSA senior and co-captain of the synchronized swimming team Ashlyn Gurley said, as she stroked her hair, a bonus to the Knox use is that it also serves as a great protein treatment, leaving the hair very soft after its removal.

The team practices roughly four times a week for about three to four hours each time. In addition to the time they spend in the water, synchronized swimmers also have land drills, where they practice the movements on dry turf.

Pharmacy student Ayumi Ueda, a coach and swimmer, said the team could do with more practice time since many of its competitors practice five days of the week, multiple times each day.

These competitors, however, are few and far between.

“Synchro is a rare sport to have,” Ueda said. “There are roughly eight varsity teams in the U.S., and in Michigan we are the only competing team.”

Similar to ice skating, a typical “synchro” routine lasts three to four minutes. Synchronized swimming also allows for the possibility of duo and trio sub-teams to perform a routine.

When being judged, swimmers need to keep in mind their artistic expression, how much fun they appear to be having in the water and whether they are touching the bottom or sides of the pool — a disqualifier.

This year, the team has four routines: one full-team routine with seven girls to Bollywood songs, two duets — one to Lady Gaga songs and another to ska — and one trio to superhero music.

Gurley, who has experience in both dramatic and competitive swimming, said combining the two gives her a level of nervousness she has never felt before in her life.

But Ueda said the trust in the teammates and partners is what pulls her through the most nervous of moments.

“I’m not nervous until after I get out of the pool,” she said. “I’m thinking ‘Oh my god, what’s my score?’ but we learn to deal with the nerves by trusting each other.”

The one thing the team members are constantly thinking throughout their performances is to remember to smile — just keep smiling.

From ice boxes to deep-end pools, the skill set to master these activities lies in patience, dedication and a will to succeed not only for oneself, but for one’s teammates as well. That drive toward success is a characteristic that unites members across all forms of athletics. But unlike other sports, aesthetics and eye-pleasing performances are what give figure skaters and synchronized swimmers an artistic edge.