I’m not a synchronized skater. The closest I ever came was participating in a few wobbly kick-lines and terrifying pinwheels in club ice shows when I was a little kid. You could argue that the intricacy of freedances or the footwork of pair skating has some similarities, and I coach a lot of synchro skaters individually on their ice dance and moves in the field, so I’ve developed a loose understanding of the discipline over the years. But I’ve never been to a synchronized competition…that is, until this weekend. I was in Providence for the 2008 Synchro Nationals and it was quite an adventure.
It was almost like visiting another country.
I discovered that we all breathe the same air and the landscape is comparable but the language is somewhat different and the customs are quite foreign. It helped that I had a wise and intrepid travel buddy and that I knew a lot of the locals. I was also fortunate that my passport a.k.a. press credential granted me access to one of the most interesting and exclusive regions: backstage.
Like any stereotypical tourist, I had my camera in hand and I was often unfolding my map (schedule) and gazing around with confusion. Fortunately, the locals were extremely friendly and eager to share their culture with me. And, despite the fact that all of the tribes are separately vying to scale a beautiful mountain called The Podium, this country is not in a state of complete mayhem. Frankly, I was struck by what an organized and sophisticated civilization it is.
One of the first things I noticed is that the synchronized schedule is incredibly specific. Of course it needs to be, because there is a limited amount of territory in which to fit all those skaters. The timetable doesn’t just tell you what time each event starts, it includes: Enter Dress Room, Leave Dress Room, Wait at Rink Side, Enter Competition Rink, Leave Rink, Photo, and Leave Dress Room, all down to the minute. From what I could tell, it ran pretty close to the published times.
I also immediately noticed that there were a lot of pre-competition rituals including off-ice warm-ups that looked almost exactly like aerobics classes or yoga classes or military exercises. I was surrounded by cheerleading-style cheers, stereos cranking out specific songs, and groups of girls belting out lyrics. I gathered that many are beholden to quirky yet powerful superstitions. I witnessed lots of inspirational pow-wows and noted that the tribal leaders (coaches) were obviously well-versed in motivational speaking.
But all of these traditions are trifles compared to the more complicated and mystifying things I observed out on the ice. Once the skaters stepped onto the rink, they effectively became clones of one another. Of course this was true as far as hair, make-up, and dresses, but it was also (mostly) true of the skating. Because for most of the events I was sitting far up in the stands (where there was also a perch for my beloved laptop), I couldn’t really see individual faces. Therefore, my attempts at following specific skaters through the program were at times futile. If I lost track of a particular skater, it was often difficult to find her again.
So, from my aerial view, I mainly watched the teams as a whole and was impressed by the different shapes they managed to form while moving in unison. The way the best groups constantly shifted and changed direction with their skirts swirling reminded me of a kaleidoscope.
One of my favorite elements was what I came to affectionately refer to as “Snakey Spirals” where two or three lines of linked skaters did triple change-of-edge spirals (i.e. inside-outside-inside) parallel to one another. I also liked the “Nomadic Circle” (again, my term), which traveled from one end of the ice to the other while spinning and maintaining its shape. And related, but even more spectacular, was the “Donut” (once again, my term) where a small circle spun along inside a bigger one, also while traveling. I couldn’t help but marvel at yet another popular trick where lines of skaters rotated beside one another, timed so that they barely missed hitting each other, the effect of which was like a row of revolving doors.
I think that one of the craziest aspects of Synchroland are the Intersections (and that one is a real term). Elsewhere, we’ve become accustomed to waiting our turn at four-way stops, but in synchronized skating everyone apparently has the green light and is supposed to cross through the intersections at the same time! We’re talking about 16-20 athletes aiming toward each other with all kinds of turns and footwork steps and managing (for the most part) to pass by each other without crashing! It is a miracle that there are not more collisions.
Speaking of which, there are occasional lapses that do result in disaster. And sometimes, because everyone is in such close proximity and moving so quickly, these unfortunately lead to pile-ups, literally. As a spectator, all you can do is wince, contribute to the collective “whoa” then applaud with encouragement as the fallen ones attempt to catch up with the rest of the group and re-attach themselves without tripping anyone else in the process. Re-establishing order after catastrophes like these is obviously one of the biggest challenges.
But, by far, the most painful moments for me occurred just after the teams took the ice. They would skate in an interesting and sometimes convoluted manner out to their starting poses and then, to my chagrin, anywhere from 2-4 skaters would turn around and skate back off the ice as if banished from the performance. I logically know that teams need to have a few extra skaters just in case someone gets hurt or sick on game day and I realize that this custom is clearly accounted for in each team’s by-laws, but ouch. It’s not like these skaters are half-citizens or anything, but it broke my heart a little each time to see the alternates all dressed up with nowhere to skate, watching from the sidelines.
What became evident as the competition progressed was that, just because you are granted citizenship to this unique country, it doesn’t mean you will immediately thrive. One team of skaters, comprised of freestylers and pair skaters, immigrated to the highest echelon of Synchroland only in October. Though they enthusiastically tried to learn the language and the laws, they were understandably still struggling. Nonetheless, they provided quite a bit of entertainment (earning a standing ovation for their freeskate) and demonstrated the fact that synchronized skating is definitely not an easy undertaking. Surely, with time and further exposure to the customs, they will gradually get the hang of it.
If you have never experienced the splendors of Synchroland yourself, I highly recommend it. I feel certain that, like me, you will find it to be enjoyable and stimulating. Thank you to all of those who warmly embraced me during my trip. And thanks also to my excellent tour guide/ sherpa/ “pencil sharpener” for making my stay both productive and pleasant.
To read the articles I wrote on this topic for icenetwork, visit:
Getting Pumped in Providence: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080223&content_id=44483&vkey=ice_news
Glamour on Ice at Synchro Championships: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080223&content_id=44560&vkey=ice_news
There’s a New Team on the Scene: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080224&content_id=44694&vkey=ice_news