Great Female Figure Skaters
Tenley Albright (USA) - World Championships Vienna 1955 ISU Archives USA
Skating or Art?
Many people believe that artistry of figure skating has to do with something akin to acting or merely interpreting that is close to rather imitative than substantial. Before arguing whether it proves valid, we need to understand the background of such belief on figure skating. In the beginning figure skating was mostly about compulsory that evaluated skaters' blade using skills on ice, and free skating, on the other hand, was considered as a supplement to the compulsory. Figure skating, called people, because judges based their scores on the geometric "figures" drawn on the ice by each skater. Early on skaters competed in free skating, but there was neither music nor sophisticated choreography. Free skating was an event where skaters demonstrated their comprehensive ability on ice as opposed to individual skills on blade.
Then, music was introduced to free skating, soon followed by choreography, as more, perhaps, felt need to make performances more dramatic or effective. Or maybe it was designed to make competition harder by providing levels of difficulty, or skaters wanted to make themselves stand out by musical additions, or it might be just a natural instinct that free skating should be musical to be meaningful. Doesn't matter. Maybe figure skating had been born with music; only no one saw it at the moment.
Once implemented, music sat behind the wheel. Compulsory, being unmusical, quickly lost its ground, and free skating gained in unstoppable proportion. Skaters began to move in music, turn on music and jump with music. Still few understood clearly relations between music and figure skating; competition was all about racking up the points. People tagged points on spins, jumps, and moves, but at the same time, more skaters wanted to make their skating special, music friendly, if you will, and they were noted for their extraordinary ability to juxtapose skating and music, and people began to understand the old figure skating compulsory was a mere blueprint of what might be a sequence of synchronized moves or comprehensive art in display.
A very thought provoking question remained unanswered: to what degree should technicality of skating and artistic rendering be integrated? How should it be measured correctly? Isn't it inherently subjective to measure art itself as is musical interpretation? Is it fair to put much weight on the art's side?
The historic landscape of female figure skating seems teeming with champions and stars whose undying flame of glory could be noted from miles away. Some skaters may brag their height reasonably taller than others; some show themselves on the mountain top too high for others to look upon. If you look back, you will be surprised at the sheer number of champions who blessed their times with their unparalleled talent. For example, Sonja Henie, though her time was perhaps too old for most of us to feel related, was a giant sport star of her time. Her three time Olympic gold career might be just one of many testaments on her legendary fame as a sport woman, not just a female figure skater. Some even said she could have won any title of sport if she had competed, which shows her athletic ability was simply unearthly for her contemporary standards. It is true that Henie's time was too far from today's figure skating in terms of technique or premise of the sport, but as a individual figure skater, she demonstrated the world was witnessing one of a kind female figure skating champion of all time.
Peggy Fleming in 1967
The importance of Peggy Fleming in the history of female figure skating world is second to none. That said, Fleming's position in what we know today to be female figure skating is unmistakable and permanent. Although the old, iconic term queen of ice or ice princess on which female figure skating had for long been reflected could have been hinted with star skaters - some of whom were more talented than prophetic, some more prophetic than talented but few appeared to possess both qualities - the ideal seemed all but impossible to be realized, thus ever evasive and haunting. The ever evolving technique looked too difficult for female skaters to scale adequately; even if a few appeared to have managed it somehow, they were so often stomped on by lack of artistic rendering. It looked impossible to balance two enemies, compulsory and free skating at opposite poles. It was Peggy Fleming that reconciled the enmity that had long existed between the two, completing a whole picture of the old vision of female figure skating with her own stylistic emphasis in line and extension.
In her skating, female figure skating is a physiological sport, which makes aesthetic rendering one of the most important elements she refused to compromise. In her line centered moves and ballerina-type presence on ice, Fleming was able to endow her skating with legitimacy by successfully constructing a composite building block of compulsory and free skating in competitive system. She conquered both disciplines hands down. In Peggy Fleming the old school figure compulsory and the supplementary vision free skating were met in peace and declared as one. It was also a fulfillment of the ideal of compulsory figure skating.
Janet Lynn in 1970
Janet Lynn may be one of the most queer skaters in the history of female figure skating. The term queer used to describe Lynn could not be appropriate in some sense, but the fact that Lynn has no champion belt under her sleeve obviously makes one point that she indeed posits her unique position in female figure skating. Especially, Lynn's contribution to female figure skating was beyond what anybody could imagine. Lynn was largely considered as a failure in competitive world often compared to Peggy Fleming or even Dorothy Hamill, whose championship appears solid and unchallenged, because Lynn didn't continue the ongoing tradition of American dominance in female figure skating at the time. Her shortcoming for compulsory discipline was regarded a flaw too critical to maintain the legacy she had inherited.
On the other hand, Lynn was a totally different skater, perhaps a different kind. In fact, Lynn, like Peggy Fleming, whose particular vision were embedded in her stylistic skating, was also keen on aesthetic quality of figure skating, and performed in such a fashion that no other skaters had been able to. If Peggy Fleming presented a complete form of female figure skating solidly rooted in her contemporary premise of figure skating that consists of compulsory and free skating by finding an optimal point of balance, Lynn outright ignored the old school or a delicate balance between the two disciplines, which, of course, wasn't her intention, nor did she ever wish so.
Free skating was what she could do best and she took joy from. She simply drew her soul out of her moves, which had never been seen before, so ethereal and illusive that even her short hairs, as she glided, looked to have become a part of choreography. Obviously Lynn was one of the most technically advanced skaters in history of female figure skating. Indeed, Lynn was a skater of unmatched aesthetics, but make no mistake. What gave Lynn's skating such unique quality is her technical skills; what made Lynn one of the greatest female figure skaters has a lot more to do with her technicality than her artistic aptitude.
Even though Lynn was eclipsed by her rival Trixie Shuba, who easily beat Lynn each time they competed due to Shuba's great mastery of compulsory, Shuba wasn't a well rounded skater from today's perspective. Of course it won't be fair or accurate to judge skaters in the past with today's standards because skaters were under the influence of their contemporary rules and regulations, which even determine what type a skater will become. Shuba was a great champion whose compulsory ability gave her an edge in competition simply because her time demanded her to be so. In other words, Lynn was nonconformist.
Yuna Kim in 2010
Yuna Kim was a modern day legend of female figure skating. Kim, born in the Republic of Korea where figure skating wasn't a popular sport, single-handedly conquered the world of female figure skating. Kim was nothing short of an individual miracle; Korea'd had no tradition of figure skating before Kim debuted. Kim's advent coincides with a triple era, rather chaotic and uncertain for American figure skating. Since Michelle Kwan went into semi-retirement, American public was searching for a new star who would restore the once popular sport of all to its apex. Unfortunately for the U.S. it was Japan and the Republic of Korea that came up to the international scene as forerunners, while the U.S. appeared slowly losing its competitive edge to these two countries.
After a short reign of Kimmie Meissner in 2006 Worlds, the international competition of female figure skating was literally turned over to Yuna Kim and Mao Asada, a Japanese skater, better known as Yuna Kim's arch-rival. Kim early on proved herself an extraordinary jumper. Besides Kim's signature triple-triple jump, Kim was a new power to reckon with to fill in the void of star skater like Michelle Kwan in female figure skating. With Brian Orser as her coach, Kim rapidly evolved with her incredible consistency of jump. What set her apart from other skaters was a fine quality of all elements performed in her skating, which pushed her so far ahead of her competitors that you might as well call it off about half into the competition. In her prime, nothing could stop her. By 2009, Kim allowed virtually no one to challenge her reign. As shown here is in TEB, Kim often would look more demonstrating than competing. No doubt Yuna Kim was, up to date, the greatest skater in the triple era.