Fundamentally, man is an awkward animal. It takes him years to learn to walk as well as a colt can the day it is born. But man, give him his due, has invented some wonderful gimmicks for hiding his natural clumsiness. He has fashioned wings that carry him into the skies like an eagle. He has fastened nails to the soles of his shoes (his gimmick for hoofs) and thus succeeded in running as fast as a slow horse. He has whittled poles from the trees and learned to vault as high as a tired lion can. He has put flippers on his feet and a tank of air on his back and roamed the floor of the sea like a fish. But of all man's inventions, none has given him a better illusion of animal grace than the basically simple gimmick he calls the skate.
Let it be said quickly that man's mastery of the skate gimmick did not come all at once. Sonja Henie was not built in a day. True, as long ago as the 15th century, the Dutch were fumbling at the first principles of figure skating on the frozen canals of Holland. But for a long time in Holland and elsewhere in Europe and then here in North America, most skating consisted of rather absurd hackings and struttings that could not, by any generous definition, be called graceful. Indeed, far from being that, man's first grotesque gyrations on the ice made him look more ridiculous than he did off it. But, being man, he was not easily discouraged. He continued to strut and to hack with all the outward self-assurance of a rooster.
Inevitably, the right man came along to bring order out of pratfalls. Incredibly, in view of skating's long history in Europe, he was an American, a dapper, curly-haired young man with a Ronald Colman mustache, by name Jackson Haines. Born in 1840, he took up skating almost as soon as he began to walk. As a boy, he was sent to Europe to live with relatives and presumably kept in skating practice there. When he returned to New York at 17, he decided to make the theater his career. He could do no better than some infrequent stage appearances as a swinger of Indian clubs, but his brush with show business was not lost on him. He was taken especially with the ballet and, having kept up his skating through the years, now perceived that the leaps and paces from the ballet could be learned by a man on skates. He was soon giving public exhibitions of the new art, but in places like Philadelphia (where the official costume of the Skating and Humane Society consisted of a top hat, swallow-tailed coat and pantaloons), Haines' antics were considered to be downright gauche. When Haines went to London in 1864, London was as cool as Philadelphia; but when he moved on to Stockholm, the Swedes were enthusiastic and when he appeared in Vienna, he kept his rendezvous with fate: in the home of the waltz, Haines invented the art of waltzing on skates that is the joy of amateur figure skaters around the world today. In 1876 Haines caught pneumonia while traveling from an engagement in St. Petersburg. He died that year, and just last summer, the citizens of Gamlakarleby, Finland, where he is buried, placed a new stone over his grave with the inscription: "In remembrance of the American Skating King."
In the color photographs preceding this page, the whole history of skating in the U.S. is reflected. There is the country pond where Jackson Haines began. His pond lay at what is now 59th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City but that was country then. Then there is the public rink in the park where city children try out their skates for the first time. And finally, there is the Rockefeller Center rink where the art flourishes beyond the skills of Haines himself—and yet, in the face of such perfection, many a gray-flanneled businessman does not hesitate to seek his youth again on the magic ice. It is the same story up and down the country and not only in the north; Atlanta, Ga. opened its first rink just last month.
Figure skating has been described by the young champion, Sheila Muldowny, as "a disciplined passion, an absorbing art." An artist who is also a skater, Jerome Snyder of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, puts it in these words:
"Once magnetized by the unblemished patina of a pond or rink, the skaters move forward like amateur artists accepting the mute challenge of a freshly gessoed white canvas. Stroke for stroke, daring, fumbling, planned and impulsive, a self-contained imagery, a monument to the moment is fashioned in this free calligraphy."
Does anyone remember when one of the most essential pieces of skating equipment was a key to tighten the clamps, and to keep them tightened?