In skating there is always the discrepancy between the ideal and the real performance. The ideal is useful to establish goals (twizzles like Charlie White, back position like Maia Shibutani, musical expression like Virtue and Moir, and so on). For ice dancers, the pattern guides our compulsories, the direction of our skates, each time defining the direction of edges, the placement of lobes, the angle of the imagined axis. But we can also (maybe too easily) become frustrated with our actual experiences, which inevitably fall short each time, not quite filling out the rink, not getting back to the start of a set-pattern dance. Catching a glimpse of myself in the plexiglass, I look nothing like those accomplished, graceful bodies that I so admire. I’ve had to learn how to admire my own photos and (ugh!) videotapes, and not cringe when I view them.
It’s not even that I’m particularly concerned about body image; I feel as though I’ve pretty well worked through my own anxieties about weight, age, conventional ideals of white Western feminine beauty, all the things that took me many years to figure out and that I talk about regularly in the classroom with my students. I heard Tessa Virtue say in an interview that to be happy is to be beautiful, and I admire her wisdom; I was certainly not so wise at her age. But I am very much aware of body alignment, especially since my left side has been out of whack for so long and I have picked up some ungainly habits on the right as well. And in the glass I see the reasons why I feel so out of balance sometimes. Through years of music lessons and writing workshops as well as skating, I have gotten used to blunt criticism and even harsh judgment; cutting to the chase of “what is wrong with you” helps us all progress. But being discouraged by a constant comparison of all too solid flesh to the ephemeral ideal wears us down, particularly when we spend so many hours skating solo, in our own heads and our own bodies.
There has to be a way of thinking about the ideal without getting bogged down in the comparison between our visibly flawed and vulnerable bodies and the ideals we admire and try to emulate. My friend Mike and I were talking the other day about how in this sense skating is like a certain kind of mathematics, never perfect geometries of form, but only constant approximations of this ideal. This is helpful if we can be satisfied with being a series of repetitive approximations. But most of us are like the other guys in the archery contest in Robin Hood (or Pixar’s Brave if you are too young for Robin). How can we live with these goals if we have little hope of ever splitting the arrow?
I think what helps in skating is that the physical and emotional pleasure of the activity is so much its own reward. Even when I’m not perfect and I know I’m not perfect, I’d much rather be out there skating an approximation than doing any other thing that I’m perhaps better at. It’s like the difference between waiting for the conventionally-perfect ideal of romantic love (Prince Charming, Mr. Darcy) to find us and getting out there ourselves, putting ourselves forward passionately and without reserve. Even if it’s not ideal, it’s much more the reality that most of us have.
Erich Fromm has much to say on the subject in his short but wonderful book, The Art of Loving. His last chapter in particular, while it is not directly about skating, has a lot of wise advice about doing things that one loves: the values of discipline, concentration, and patience; what he calls “supreme concern with the mastery of the art”; overcoming narcissism (which inevitably results in the conflict of ideals and reality); humility, faith, and courage. Here’s a quotation that I like from that last chapter:
The practice of faith and courage begins with the small details of daily life. The first step is to notice where and when one loses faith, to look through the rationalizations which are used to cover up this loss of faith, to recognize where one acts in a cowardly way, and again how one rationalizes it. To recognize how every betrayal of faith weakens one, and how increased weakness leads to new betrayal, and so on, in a vicious circle. Then one will also recognize that while one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.
So another way of thinking about approximations is that they are, according to Fromm, at the very heart of the art of loving. And what we do, regardless of its fit with that ideal of perfection, is important in and of itself as a regular practice of faith and courage. So we put ourselves out there and in so doing become our own ideals. To quote Jane Austen, “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.”