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?
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.
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.