Sunday, May 20, 2007

The last American Princesses: Fear and Loathing at the Figure-skating Show

This evening I attended, for the sixth consecutive year, a figure-skating show that featured my highly-talented niece skating solos and group numbers in a presentation of every age of skater from tots to teenagers. I decided this year to write something about the annual Skate Show, because the entire experience seems to me to get weirder and weirder each passing year.

I want to preface this by saying that I do not, in any way, wish to disparage the months and years of training and practice that these hard-working girls put into this sport. Figure-skating takes a dedication that is seldom matched by other similar activities. You need to be an athlete, you need to be a proficient showman (or woman), and you need to cultivate your own personality to let it shine through your performances. This combination is far more than is asked of even elite ball players or musically-inclined kids. Also I am well aware that as a relatively young man, I am looking inside at this from probably as far outside as I can possibly be. Now that I've apologized for myself in advance, take my hand Alice and let's go down the rabbit hole...

There is a conflict happening at the Skate Show. It is a simmering culture-war that plays out even despite the best efforts of the choreographers, costume designers, program managers, and administration to keep the programs as wholesomely homogenous as possible. Lights go up, a little light pop music, girls dressed in fairy costumes that feature buckets of beads and coordinated elbow-length gloves, outstanding skaters skate solos, everybody else skates in carefully-choreographed groups that bring the good and the weak to a common denominator somewhere in between, everyone claps, everyone gets flowers, lights go down, dinner afterward at Ponderosa, the end. The same junior high skating show that takes place in ice-rinks all over suburban white America, right?

Sort of.
Even in Wilmette, which could be considered conservative by almost every standard, this clean-cut 1950's version of middle America has started to visibly erode. Instead of two hours of unbroken Beach Boys tunes, we see the occasional thudding techno track. The graceful swan-dance of 20th century figure-skating has given way largely to a more playful, bouncy style. Most girls skillful enough to get their own featured solo choose up-tempo pop numbers, during which their choreography has them romping in high-volume darkness under green and blue spotlights in costumes of flesh-colored fabric meant to appear suggestively revealing at a distance of more than a few feet.

Herein lies the strange bicamereal dynamic that flows through the entire night. There are two realities happening simultaneously. The mothers, who sit in fifty different versions of the same Ann Taylor Loft skirt and blouse, are living their technicolor ballerina fantasies through their daughters. The skaters, who are far more comfortable in the super-casual Juicy brand sweatpants and hoodies, are enjoying themselves in an entirely different way. They shout chants for each skater to support them. "Let's go, shake it, love ya!" The cadence of Grrl power slogans runs eerily through their team spirit, even though most of them are too young to have any idea what that means. Still, they know that some of them are good, some are trying hard, some are worth admiration, some are coming into their own. So cheers are in order, even if it has to be in the language of the MTV generation.

Wait, wasn't I part of the MTV generation?

This is all very strange for me, and you can see why. Maybe what I really mean is the language of the cell-phone texting generation. Or some generation that is five generations removed from what it meant to be young as recently as when I was a teenager.

So, merrily they bounce along, shaking adolescent shoulders in a pantomime of what used to be burlesque-style dancing and now is so old it's cute and innocent in an ironic sort of way. One minute we're listening to Lou Bega's club-hopping "Mambo #5", and the next we're scratching our heads to Brooks and Dunn's "Boot Scoot and Boogie" which is so deeply un-hip that no one but a suburban super-mom would have chosen it. I am reminded of my own turn in high school as a singer-dancer in an outfit called Jazz Rock, which was concerned with singing a weird combination of a cappella, classics, Disney songs, and show-tunes. So with that tragically uncool episode of my own life in mind I'm at ease knowing all is basically well in the land of What Happens When Parents Organize Public Events For Their Children.

The weirdness starts to get to me as I look to the far left of the stands, where the girl skaters and their mothers both sit in separate groups. The two are so close together, yet could not be further apart. The girls shout and hoot from their section of the stands, acutely aware that this event celebrates them but not exactly how, or why. Let's go, shake it, love ya, wooo! The mothers look on like a pack of hawks, observing their daughters with disconcertingly sharp and focused attentiveness. Does my daughter look cute and sexy, but not too cute and sexy? The moms still grapple with the same insecurities that they did in the 70's and 80's: how to appear demure, and not frumpy, sexy and attractive but not slutty, princessy and regal, but never snobby or stuck-up. Only this time it's their daughters, and not them, walking that particular outdated, gender-stereotype tightrope.

The whole thing plays out as a fun family affair with no skeletons in any closets, but to me at least there is a perceptible dose of child beauty-pagent creepy mixed in. The quasi-suggestive costumes, when viewed up close, are really not suggestive or revealing at all. They cover each skater from head to toe like a wetsuit, and keep them both warm and modestly safe from wardrobe malfunction. Nonetheless, you have to wonder when you see the girls reflexively pulling the shimmery too-short skirts down over their flesh-colored leggings, why torment adolescent girls with revealing costumes at all? Is there not enough awkwardness in their lives already that they should have to do a long, slow split for the crowd in a costume that looks at five yards to be nothing but a miniskirt and underwear? Do they want this? These smart, admirably tough young girls who put black paint under their eyes on school spirit day and wear sweatpants and flip-flops as high fashion?

I couldn't help but notice that this year the table selling pre-cut, pre-bundled bouquets of flowers for the skaters was located right outside of the locker room doors. This, it struck me, was the last thing that each girl would have to pass before getting into the locker room to change into their costume. It made a lasting impression on me, and I'm a twenty-eight year old man who generally ignores subtle nuances like this. Every girl, from age four to age fifteen or sixteen, that went through the locker room doors that night, saw those flowers before they went in to get their makeup, costume, and game-face on. How much do my parents love me? That's what they were thinking. And I'm sure every one hoped for flowers from that oh-so-convenient table for parents too busy to go to a grocery store for flowers for their daughter. I saw lots of little girls with flowers, they must have all gotten them, right? Right?

Perhaps in a way this spectacle feels to me like a child beauty pageant because it seems as though we consume these girls. We consume, perhaps more accurately, a fantasy that women in their forties and fifties had in the seventies about when they were twelve. None of this has anything to do with the girls of today, and somehow it has managed to be set comfortably apart from other, less savory, forms of entertainment which involve young women in skimpy clothing dancing under spotlights to loud music.

This leads me to the third group that I haven't talked about yet, which is complicit in all of this: us. The audience. We sit between this culture-divide, able (depending on which sociologists you read) to see the hypocrisy of demanding every girl be angelic, pretty, dynamic, athletic, and gracious. Yet we still pay for our ticket to see girls put on makeup, squeeze themselves into glorified costume lingerie, and either soar like ballerinas or fall ignominiously on the ice.

And that is where I rest my case: on cold hard ice, under green and purple spotlights, with the young girl who has just taken a spine-jarring fall. Of all the embarrassing, painful, ego-annihilating outcomes of an athletic or extracurricular activity that an adolescent can be involved in, I find this one to be the meanest, and hardest to fathom. Under the gaze of hundreds, with nothing between you and their critical eyes, your feet fail for just an instant and you go sprawling with a painful silent thump onto a surface colder and harder than concrete. There is nothing pretty or dignified about this moment, and no one will remember anything about all those hard hours and weeks and months and years you put into learning how to do your toe-loop, other than that at the crucial moment you were sprawled and wincing, trying to find your feet.

I wish most sincerely that there was a good note to end this on. I wish I could feel justified admonishing the mothers and fathers of young girls that bring their awkward, baby-giraffe daughters down to the ice arena to embark on years of trying to capture the dream of being an American princess, the prototype of which is six decades in its grave. I wish I knew for certain that every little girl who screwed up her courage to the sticking point and went out on the ice tonight got at the very least a little bundle of flowers to show for it.

There is one thing positive about all this that I suppose is hopeful for the future: the girls that skate in these shows are making this experience their own. Most of them don't seem to be letting the pomp and imagery get to them too much. They support each other touchingly, and even my niece who has the grace of an actual princess seems not to buy too much into her own hype. They make of it an excuse to build friendships and attitudes that I think we can at least hope will last until they make it to adulthood and the real world. Until then, I think the most constructive commentary about the whole weird thing comes from the girls themselves:

Let's go, shake it, we love ya, woooo!!