Quoted: On Femininity and Race in Figure Skating

Figure skater Surya Bonaly

By Kendra James

Nancy had gradually come to embody all the qualities that Tonya, it seemed, would never quite be able to grasp. Nancy’s presence was elegant and patrician despite her working-class background; her skating was as graceful and dancerly as Tonya’s was explosive and athletic. Audiences and commentators wanted elegance and grace; they wanted Nancy, and as good as Tonya was—as great as Tonya was—it had become painfully clear, over the last few years, that she would never quite be right.

There seemed to be a greasy, eventually shameful pleasure that came with both writing and reading about not just Tonya’s gaffes or problems but the basic facts of her existence. Her mother had been married six times to six different men, or maybe seven, depending on the journalist’s sources. Tonya owned her first rifle, a .22, when she was still in kindergarten, and had moved thirteen times by fifth grade. She dropped out of high school at fifteen…She skated to songs like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex.” She was ordered to change her free-skate costume at the 1994 Nationals because the judges deemed it too risqué. Her sister was a prostitute. Her father was largely unemployed, as was her mother, as was her ex-husband.

Believermag’s article, “Remote Control: Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and the Spectacles of Female Power and Pain” provides insight into the role media played in shaping the assault on Kerrigan’s landing leg prior to the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships and how important perceived femininity can be in figure skating and women’s sports.

I wasn’t a serious skater yet in ‘94, but I remember being 6 and absolutely scandalised at Harding’s alleged actions. I believed the media hype and declared Nancy Kerrigan a personal hero. But after reading this piece Tonya Harding is feeling surprisingly, well, relateable. My background is nothing like Harding’s detailed above, but as a Black figure skater achieving the appropriate levels of perceived femininity, grace, and poise wasn’t easy.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

Harding’s desire to skate programs to untraditional music choices mirror my own. The year Will Smith’s Big Willie Style came out I desperately wanted to do a competition program to Men in Black or Miami. My coach looked horrified when I played her the tape, and I ended up with a program from the musical Camelot instead that satisfied the requirements of soft, graceful, feminine skating.

That was 17 years ago, but you’re still not going to see many programs like Starr Andrews’ (to Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair) in national and international competition. Music that derives from the standard Euro-classical and instrumental should be avoided, but if it is to be presented it should be done only by an All American white girl in a bindi so as not to threaten the sport’s reputation or the judges’ sensibilities.

I don’t compete any more. I haven’t put on a pair of skating tights in years because Capezio’s“tan” is still about 5 shades lighter than I am, and Surya Bonaly was a childhood hero. I put on headphones and skate to whatever I want— almost always starting a workout with Beyonce and DMX. I have half a program to “Partition” choreographed already, not that it would ever be acceptable in competition. We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the“‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

Just something to keep in mind as we approach the Sochi Winter Games, or as we work through our Ashley Wagner vs. Mirai Nagasu feelings. Sometimes it’s more than expensive costs that keeps girls off the ice.

Reposted from our Tumblr Hack Refuge

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  • LizEnFrance

    I am a white girl, and I started skating at about age 12, in 1992 (OK, in December 1991, the day after I saw “The Cutting Edge” — sad but true!). My rink in suburban Denver was, like my neighborhood, mostly white with a decent smattering of Asians. I can’t remember ever encountering a black skater on a freestyle or patch session (I remember patch! I’m old!). I didn’t go far, but I seriously doubt I ever got marked down because of my race.

    Debi Thomas and Surya Bonaly, though … I mostly missed Thomas because I was too young, but I followed Bonaly pretty obsessively. She played by her own rules, eschewing skirts and skating to music that defied the unwritten guidelines. She hated losing and wasn’t shy about making her displeasure felt (much like Nancy Kerrigan, except Bonaly would probably feel even less hesitation about speaking her mind when she knew the microphones were live). I remember occasionally thinking during her competitive career that she exhibited poor sportsmanship, but now I wonder how much crap she swallowed before she stopped bothering to hide her true feelings about the way she was treated by the skating establishment. I also felt that Kerrigan was a poor sport, and she was the Anointed One. What was her excuse?

    But if you haven’t tried competing as an adult, you might be pleasantly surprised if you give it a shot. (I took it up again at age 23.) There is definitely a place for your “Partition” program in adult skating, and while the body issues are absolutely still a factor, they are a lesser one. There’s camaraderie among the skaters, and the pressure is much lower. It might be worth looking into. Or you might be happier with the way you’re doing it now. It doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy what you’re doing.

    I will never forget Surya Bonaly doing an illegal backflip during her final amateur program (at the Olympics, no less!) as a blatant “F*** you, I’m done playing by your rules” to the judges. That woman could land backflips on ONE FOOT. Even Scott Hamilton was at a loss for words (something I wish would happen more often). She was, and is, one of a kind: “Take me as I am. Or don’t. I’m tired of caring either way, so I’m just going to do what I love for the next four minutes. Deal with it.”

  • Thomas Offal

    There’s no question in my mind that race plays a BIG role in figure skating… but I really don’t think that Mirai Nagasu was left off the Olympic Figure Skating Team due to her race. Yes, Ashley Wagner’s a very pretty, white blonde girl, but she’s also been remarkably consistent at international competitions over the past couple of years. Mirai had a great day at Nationals but has been dreadfully inconsistent at international competitions over the past two years. My understanding is that USA Skating is permitted to take a skater’s performance over the past 12+ months into consideration when selecting the Olympic team, so I can see why they chose Ashley over Mirai.

    It’s also worth noting that Mira is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous Asian girl and the US has happily accepted Asian-American US figure skaters as “All-American” girls with tons of high-profile endorsements. Michelle Kwan was the best-paid, highest-profile skater for YEARS and Kristi Yamaguchi before her was also incredibly successful and had tons of endorsements.

    Finally, Asian women have done SPECTACULARLY well at international figure skating competitions for the past 10-20 years — Michelle, Krisit, Yuna Kim, Mao Asada, and Miki Ando have absolutely dominated the international skating scene.