This is a photo of me backstage at an ice show (age 10 or 11?) where I skated my solo to I Love Rock and Roll, by Joan Jett. I had already skated to the Go-go’s and in the next year I’d ask to skate to another Joan Jett song, Bad Reputation. Developing an idgaf sort of reputation as a skater who started the sport late in the game but quickly caught up on skill, didn’t give much thought to showing up to practices in the same dirty clothes I’d worn riding bikes with the neighborhood boys through muddy trails and over dusty ramps, and had a tendency to kick the boards and curse the ice (and people) when frustrated…I was advised to diversify my music choices, to try maybe something I could wear a dress to, perhaps add a little grace to my programs. I was obsessed with the sport and a deeply curious person so it didn’t really phase me to perform to other kinds of music by artists like Gloria Estefan and composers like Rachmaninoff (although I resisted ballet as much as possible).
And while my personality and expressive energy never really changed as I grew into a skater with great extension, elegance, and the ability to turn on a tea party tone and attitude as needed, I still miss the young artistic athlete who wanted to skate to Bad Reputation.
Learning and expanding one’s range in anything — be it figure skating, theatre, landscaping, or bioengineering — is a good thing. But we have to watch for when that learning becomes not a roadmap that diverse but equally qualified people can reference to navigate their way through a field but instead a cloak people wear as visible but inauthentic signaling of their qualifications and belonging. I’m glad I explored and tried on the well-trodden paths figure skating has to offer. But I’ve achieved and accomplished enough now to take off the chiffon invisibility cloak.
If that means that my authentic self-expression, look, style, and attitude as a — now professional — figure skater gets me a “bad reputation” among others then: so it is. Because like Joan Jett, bad reputations don’t always come from bad people, bad choices, or bad behavior. They often come from gate keepers trying to defend the status quo by deprecating change makers, truth tellers, rebels, and even anyone who’s basic identity challenges what’s been done before. They sometimes come especially from people afraid of their own skeletons being exposed.
In skating, we can look to a few big names like Surya Bonaly and Johnny Weir who evoked judgment, discrimination, and whispers about their “bad reputations” for simply being their natural selves. But almost everyone that I’ve ever met in the sport has their own “I don’t belong here” story-stories that account for personalities, gender expressions, economic realities, religious celebrations, mental health struggles, and ethnic/cultural authenticity being muted in exchange for acceptance-on-ice. In a sport where judging looks, expression, and behavior are written right into the rule book and the chances of competitive success are notoriously slim, it can feel all the more challenging and risky to let the mask slip.
The sport of figure skating has perfected the scheme of selling success as acceptance with a narrowly defined path to get there. And it’s all a myth. It is not a bad a thing that sports demand our hard work and sacrifice: of time, energy, hard work, and attention. As a coach, choreographer, and director though, I take on the responsibility on behalf of myself and anyone I may share the ice with that sacrifice will never include one’s complete, true self.
Originally published at https://revolutionsrequired.com on October 24, 2020.