Learn to Figure Skate the Old-Fashioned Way


Arts & Culture

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Frontispiece from A System of Figure-Skating

If you’re like me, the Olympics have borne in you one mighty, overriding desire: to become a strapping world-class professional figure-skater. Well, we’re in luck, every one of us. Thanks to the glut of teaching materials available in the public domain, dazzling one’s peers in the rink and taking home the gold has never been easier.

To start, consult an invaluable volume from 1897: T. Maxwell Witham’s A System of Figure-Skating: Being the Theory and Practice of the Art as Developed in England, with a Glance at its Origin and History. In sporting matters, Witham was no slouch—the title page notes that he was a “Member of The Skating Club.” Which skating club, you ask? Well, let me answer your question with a question: How many skating clubs do you belong to?

With verve and good humor, A System of Figure-Skating will teach you such cherished and essential maneuvers as “the Jagendorf dance,” “the Mercury scud,” “the spread-eagle grape vine,” “the sideways attitude of edges,” and—of course—the “United Shamrock.” Confused? You needn’t be. The System offers detailed instructions every step of the way. Here’s an edifying bit about how to conduct the “outside edge forwards”: “We have also to bring into the more important action the hitherto unemployed leg, which must be gently and evenly swung round the employed one in such a manner that it arrives exactly at the proper time and angle to be put down, and so become the traveling one.”

See? You’ll be getting the hang of things in no time!

If all else fails, the System is meticulously illustrated—its dozens of diagrams and charts make even complicated performances seem rudimentary. Even a trained dog could follow these instructions:

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Oh, now I get it!

The System also includes an expansive history of the sport, which begins, “Geologists tell us that the earth was formed under great heat, and that it is gradually cooling down—decidedly a cheering prospect for future skaters.” And lest you think that the Olympic village is beyond your aged reach, Witham includes a stirring aside: “A relation of mine, who did not put on a pair of skates until he was thirty years of age, became, by dint of perseverance, a very fair figure-skater.”