Fun

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Exhibition Figure Skating

It’s fun to watch masters of a sport enjoy themselves without a lifetime of dreams hanging in the balance.

2010 Olympic gold medalist, Kim Yu-na.

Figure skating is my favorite Olympic event, but being a fan of it is sort of like scheduling a panic attack every four years. There’s so much at stake—one fall, one slip, one triple axel downgraded to a double, and suddenly the gold-medal favorite is in tears on the scoring platform, years of training and months of hype swirling together in a mix of disappointment and disbelief. It’s not an easy sport to watch—the falls look painful, each jump is a risk, and the heartbreak factor usually rates a 6.0, or whatever its equivalent is in the complicated ISU scoring system that I still don’t understand.

But there finally comes a point when the actual competition ends, and that’s when my favorite thing begins: exhibition skating. The four or five highest-scoring skaters come out after the contest and get to perform one more time, in a noncompetitive way. When the pressure to hit certain technical standards—the pressure to score—has been removed, the skaters get to perform routines that are riskier, more artistic, and just fun. These performances usually involves the greatest, tackiest costumes—even by figure skating standards! The exhibition gala is also a chance to see masters of a sport enjoy themselves, which is rare when medals and a LIFETIME OF DREAMS are hanging in the balance. Because the athletes get to do what they love without the stress of ACHIEVEMENT, their performances seem purer, more alive. A few stand out in my mind.

I fell in love with figure skating in 1992, when I was in fifth grade, while watching Kristi Yamaguchi win the gold medal in Albertville, France. She’d won the first gold medal for women’s singles skating for the U.S. in nearly two decades, and her exhibition skate was patriotic and corny and, to 10-year-old me, the best thing I’d ever seen. She essentially dressed up like a contestant in the Malibu Sands Beach Club Miss Liberty Pageant, and she’s clearly (and understandably) thrilled during the entire sequence. Watching her celebrate made me feel like I had won a gold medal, too, and I spent weeks afterward jumping off of the sofas with my sister and yelling “triple lutz!” while twisting my legs in the air.

In 1994, it seemed like the whole world cared about figure skating because of the violent rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. (The Winter Olympics were held in 1992 and 1994 to adjust to a new schedule that staggers the Winter and Summer Games every two years.) Basically, Tonya’s boyfriend tried to take Nancy out of commission by bashing her knee during training for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (In the U.S. at least, it was covered like World War III, even though the competitors were on the same team.)

That was the same year that Oksana Baiul took home the gold, and after winning her medal, she performed a routine called “The Swan,” which is so beautiful that it’s sort of like watching a dream, and you forget that she’s on two metal blades as opposed to a pair of ballet shoes. I remember seeing this and feeling relieved—her routine seemed to gently push aside all of the ugliness and creepiness that had surrounded skating since the Harding/Kerrigan incident. And there was something super rad and badass about a ballerina on blades. I was inspired to try to incorporate rhinestones and feathers into my everyday wardrobe (it’s a work in progress).

Oksana also performed an exhibition skate with her mentor, 1992 gold medalist Viktor Petrenko, in one of the corniest routines I’ve ever seen—the music is a medley of family-reunion-ready songs and remixed oldies, and the dancing is parentally “hip,” but you can tell they’re having a lot of fun. And the neon splendor of their coordinated outfits ALONE (especially Viktor’s shirt) is a gift.

Surya Bonaly was almost more exciting to watch in exhibition that year, because she was allowed to do her signature backflip, which was outlawed in regular competition. Here Surya does slip, but she nails the flip, which would be impossible for most of us to do on solid ground and so more than makes up for that flaw.

Exhibition skating isn’t relegated to the Olympics: one of my favorite routines of all time is Johnny Weir’s 2010 Nationals exhibition skate to “Poker Face.” This was the competition where he qualified for the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, and his artistry is so timely and original—you can tell he puts so much effort into creating an experience, and he even slips a few suggestive moves into what is often very G-rated choreography. He was criticized by some people in the skating world, including a pair of French commentators who mocked his costumes and questioned his masculinity, which he addresses beautifully here.

And, of course, there are the World Championships (international, non-Olympic events), which spawn gems like Evgeni Plushenko’s somewhat legendary 2001 performance to Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb”—a routine that is so hilarious and ridiculous that it might just be the prequel to Blades of Glory. But these events also include performances that are incredibly solemn and sincere, like Michelle Kwan’s skate to Tori Amos’s “Winter” in 1997. This was so weirdly perfect and unexpected, because it seems like a song someone would pick while staring out the window or dancing alone.

Thanks to YouTube, there are about a million other exhibition routines to watch, which is great because otherwise how would we get to see Kim Yu-na, who went on to win the gold medal for South Korea in the 2010 Olympics, skate to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”? Or “Bulletproof”? Or Beyoncé’s cover of “Fever”? Kim is treated like a rock star in South Korea, and you can totally see why.

Finally, Kurt Browning’s “Singing in the Rain” routine from 1994’s You Must Remember This is beyond fantastic. He glides around the set so effortlessly that you forget the (incredibly difficult) technical aspects involved in what he’s doing, which looks to be skating in water.

It is just a joy, as your 88-year-old neighbor would say, to watch these people really indulge in what they love. These performances are the ones that can spark someone’s interest in (or love of) a sport, making them dream of their own no-rules routines, outlandish costumes, and signature songs. I, for example, might have daydreamed about skating to “I Am the Walrus” dressed as a bedazzled walrus at one point. I know it’s impossible for most of us to actually do these things, but fantasizing about going back to age three to train properly, with the discipline and funding required to do so, is much less fun. In part, we need these routines so we can imagine ourselves out there, smelling the cold, feeling the ice beneath our skates, spinning around in sequins and silk, victorious smiles on our faces. ♦

41 Comments

  • Zelda January 2nd, 2013 11:37 PM

    I really enjoyed this article. Figure skating has always interested me(it seems so intense and challenging) but the best winter olympic sport it curling then figure skating :)

  • MegW January 2nd, 2013 11:57 PM

    Kurt Browning’s routine was awesome! Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favorite movies, and he really looks like Gene Kelly! The skill level needed… WOW…

  • babyybat January 3rd, 2013 12:08 AM

    Johnny Weir is rad.

  • Abby January 3rd, 2013 1:19 AM

    Not only did I watch every single video in this article, for the last hour or so (which should have been spent sleeping….), I’ve been stuck in a swirling, twirling, triple-lutz-ing internet vortex of amazingness. You don’t even WANT to know how many figure skating videos I’ve just watched. Figure skating is seriously the mother of all awesomeness… you have, in fact, made my entire life by doing this article.

    ALSO:

    1) That backflip was absolutely amazing.
    2) Johnny Weir is now my favorite person. Ever. He’s fabulous.
    3)Evgeni Plushenko is also now my favorite person. Ever. There are no words for that amazing routine.
    4) Kim Yu-Na is, frankly, bitchin’.

  • FlaG January 3rd, 2013 1:30 AM

    It always made me nervous to watch the figure skating routines: one false move and you’re done for (more in the fatality sense rather than the ‘they just lost the medal’ sense). I can’t even bring myself to watch Dancing on Ice/Skating with the Stars, every wobble and tumble makes my insides seize up.

  • 500daysofsarah January 3rd, 2013 1:42 AM

    I love every article on Rookie, but this one made me SO HAPPY I teared up at the end. I have been a competitive figure skater all my life (and have met many of the awesome people you talked about) and I am ONE TEST away from being the same level (a senior lady) as the athletes you talked about. After a very long road, reading this article made me realize how fortunate I am to be a part of such an amazing, beautiful (CRAZY) sport. Thanks Pixie & Rookie! xoxo

    • FlorenceEyre January 3rd, 2013 9:04 AM

      Good Luck!!! My sister is also a figure skater (but she is just 10 years old) :)

  • Promesa January 3rd, 2013 1:45 AM

    I tried figure skating a few years back, didn’t work out so well when a speed skater slashed me with his blade. Watching this makes me wish I didn’t quit though.

    littleswayingdaisy.tumblr.com

  • llamalina January 3rd, 2013 2:01 AM

    THAT VIDEO OF JOHNNY WEIR SKATING TO POKER FACE IS THE BEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

    I am so jealous of figure skaters. I can’t even get on a pair of roller skates without falling on my face. They’re so talented and graceful.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • Taffy January 3rd, 2013 2:18 AM

    Oh I can relate to this so well! I was like 11 when I saw the Canadian skating pair, Jamie and David’s, controversial Olympic performance and I immediately fell in love with them and the sport. It was a controversy cause they totally deserved gold (not the Russians) and the eventually got it. Anyway I started skating and continued for 7 years after that. I was so upset I was really too old to ever get good. At one point I even got mad at my mom for not (predicting the future) and forcing me to start skating when I was like 4.

  • elizsss January 3rd, 2013 2:47 AM

    i figure skated for 13 years and loved everything about it! other amazing performances to watch on youtube are Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, Canadians who won the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Their long program to Mahler symphony is absolutely gorgeous. I honestly cry everytime i watch it. And Tara Lipinski, American winner of the 1994 olympics, is so beautiful and charismatic! She is the reason i started skating, she was my ultimate childhood idol.

  • Pearl January 3rd, 2013 2:59 AM

    OMG! The Bulletproof performance by Yu-Na Kim is crazy! Loved Surya Bonaly’s performance so much. This basically got me hooked to watching ice skating videos.
    http://www.pforpearl.blogspot.com

  • LilySew January 3rd, 2013 3:02 AM

    Kim Yuna is so gorgeous! She also is training to be a sports teacher for high-schoolers in Korea – she seems like such a genuine person. I doubt i’d be any good at figure skating though, at least I can watch these amazing videos!
    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • NotReallyChristian January 3rd, 2013 4:14 AM

    My personal favourite non-competitive figure skating moment was Evgeni Pluskenko skating on a TEENY-TINY rink as a backing dancer for Dima Bilan at 2008 Eurovison. Seriously, it’s HILARIOUS.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3_fwn7tLH8

  • Mary the freak January 3rd, 2013 6:05 AM

    This is incredibly beautiful. I mean, I have never been like super interested in ice skating, but I have always felt like it was extraordinary amazing. Watching those girls in their rhinestoned costumes makes you somehow feel lonely, but in a great way. This may sound weird, but I am feeling this way while watching this videos.
    I am playing the role of Ms Bell, the dance teacher, in a musical at our school. And one time, she says “Come on, Sonja, you look like you are wearing ice skates!” and I will maybe ask the director to let me change this one, because it doesn’t make sense. obviously, ice skaters can not be less elegant as ballerinas, and combining ice and dance seems so perfect to me. Gosh, I have got to practice so that I don’t fall over anymore while trying to ice skate. Um.
    This was such a great article.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Teez January 3rd, 2013 6:49 AM

    really enjoyed this article – such an a complex and beautiful sport!

    oh, and surya’s backflip!!!

  • Rae Alexandra January 3rd, 2013 6:58 AM

    As a competitive figure skater, (Intermediate FS) this article was beautiful to read. I hate it when fans of my sport get so mad at the judges and boo the exhibition routines. We’re trying our hardest, ok?
    Thanks so much for writing this, its good to know skating has people like you! Rae (:

    P.S The IJS is basically: every jump/spin/step sequence has a base value, and depending if you did it well or bad, the judges can give you extra or minus points. It actually made figure skating much more free of cheating and politicking. (:

  • a-anti-anticapitalista January 3rd, 2013 8:36 AM

    My favorite is Sasha Cohen to “Romeo and Juliet”. The song is so beautiful and her performance to it just maximizes the bountifulness. It’s beautifully corny, it makes my heart hurt.

  • sarahchristine January 3rd, 2013 9:58 AM

    I’ve been skating for 13 years and can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed myself more than when I am performing outside competition. No pressure. Just doing what you love.

    Also Johnny Weir is rad
    And Michelle Kwan never goes out of style

    If anyone watches Michelle Kwan skate to Sarah Bareilles’ Winter Song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGmlMmMs4B4
    you’d have no doubt that she is doing this just because she loves the sport

    • coolgirl January 3rd, 2013 6:50 PM

      BEAUTIFUL! Michelle Kwan is so stunning… she has always been a hero of mine.

      Also, whenever i watch figure skating i can’t help but thinking – aren’t they freezing in those tiny outfits?

  • snarkascending January 3rd, 2013 10:33 AM

    Longtime reader/admirer, first-time commenter.

    This is true. Exhibitions are the best. I only wish the judging system allowed for this kind of creativity during actual competition. Notwithstanding its political impact, IJS has made the program constraints so rigid, individual differences between competitors are barely detectable. This is a shame, to say the least, when you consider that each top-flight skater has a wonderful wealth of individual abilities and performerly traits that set him/her apart from the others. I suppose some bankrupt, legislating soul said to himself one day, “Hey, Johnny Weir WITHOUT the Johnny Weir! Now THAT sounds like an idea!”

    OK, bad example, because you can’t really take the Johnny Weir out of Johnny Weir. But still.

    Luckily, we still have exhibitions.

    http://thesnarkascending.blogspot.com

  • Miarele January 3rd, 2013 11:09 AM

    Kim Yuna, or rather QUEEN Yuna, never fails to amaze me. She basically got me interested in the skating world again, and she single-handedly made the sport so well-known and loved in S. Korea. She even has her own reality skating competition! Heck I even watched it and some of the participant’s performances, while not being perfect technically, are more on the fun side too, so it’s really entertaining. There’s one performance inspired by “Howl’s Moving Castle” and another combining ballet and hip-hop…

    My favourite performance by Queen Yuna is actually the James Bond Medley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU4hgHVrc-k
    Well it’s a short program not an exhibition, but I really loved how it coined her signature shooting pose at the end! :)

    • moonmaker January 4th, 2013 12:12 AM

      We’re so proud of our Queen.

      Korea doesn’t have a lot of skating rinks. We weren’t a big fan of winter sports at all. But Yuna changed everything. Everybody is familiar with figure skating, and the sport has gotten more accessible.

      So South Korea, with her brilliant talent, became a nation that could bid for the Winter Olympics, and we won the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics with her presentation!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvjqCA-JK8M

      *and BTW, she made a huge mistake of writing her name as YUNA KIM. Her name actually should be read as YUN-AH KIM.

  • catpower44 January 3rd, 2013 12:00 PM

    I love figure skating! It’s so fun to watch and I love the costumes! This article makes me want to skate! I took lessons up until I was like, 8 or so, but we never did any fancy jumps or twirls. :)

    http://cosmicballerinas.tumblr.com/
    http://flowyshirtsminiskirts.blogspot.ca/

  • Sourieblue January 3rd, 2013 12:06 PM

    YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH, I’m a French girl and I watch EVERY competition ! I don’t know why, most of the time it’s Sunday afternoon and I have nothing to do and it bewitch me ! And all of my friends are laughing a lot about this but I DON’T CARE it is so beautiful !!

  • limegreensunset January 3rd, 2013 12:46 PM

    ah i love this! ever since i saw torvill and dean perform the bolero in 1984 i’ve wanted to be a figure skater.

    http://limegreensunset.blogspot.co.uk/

  • AprilC January 3rd, 2013 12:55 PM

    WOOOW! This article is awesomee! I really have enjoyed (:

  • RhiaSnape January 3rd, 2013 1:34 PM

    Thank you so much for this article! The skating is so beautiful to watch, i only wish that i could learn to skate. Johnny Weir comes across to me as so inspirational, and they all seem so humble with their immense talent. You may’ve gotten me into a small obsession Rookie, you never know! I went skating yesterday too, for the first time in over a year, so this was cool.

  • cloudinthesky January 3rd, 2013 3:19 PM

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! <3
    This sport is so beautiful, I could watch these videos for hours, truly amazing.

  • londoncalling January 3rd, 2013 6:07 PM

    As a huge fan of figure skating, I approve of this Literally the Best Thing Ever!

    Be warned though, some exhibitions make me want to die of embarrassment just watching them. Evgeni Plushenko had one where he was giant baby that makes me cringe just thinking about it.

  • moonmaker January 4th, 2013 12:04 AM

    I DIED when I saw our YUNA here GOSH
    (I can say OUR Yuna ’cause I’m a proud Korean)

    I’d never thought that I’d see her here on Rookie! You guys never fail to amaze me.

    It’s great to see how everybody loves and appreciates her skating. An Olympic medal I guess is enough of an appreciation though but to see it like this is entirely different!

  • TamponAngel January 4th, 2013 6:52 AM

    I was a competitive figure skater for 5 years and I am still wowed whenever I watch exhibitions. When I skated everything was so serious and everyone was so cut throat. Watching exhibitions is literally a breath of fresh air because its like “oh wow ok this is why I started skating”.

  • Jes January 4th, 2013 7:55 PM

    thank you for showing me something so awesome I would have never found on my own <3

  • morganosaur January 5th, 2013 8:24 AM

    aaaaah this article is the best thing! Figure Skating is one of the greatest, most magnificent things ever. It’s insane how they can do all that on ice and on skates, and then whenever I put on skates I can’t go two feet without falling on my butt! lol

    Anyway, Surya’s backflip was AMAZING, Oksana was just flawless, Michelle was perfect as always, and Johnny is one of my biggest inspirations! I JUST LOVE THIS SO MUUUUUCH <3

  • Annie at Cher Ami January 5th, 2013 2:09 PM

    wow this in incredible!thank you for introducing me to figure skating, of course i’ve heard of it but i’ve never watched it before!x

  • stuffeddoggie January 6th, 2013 3:10 PM

    Pixie, gurl, this article has some serious depth! This whole thing is a victory-lap!
    TRIPLE LUTZ SALCHOW GOLDMEDALLL

    Thanks! I seriously enjoyed exploring.

    I also get super wound up watching really technical routines. The enormous pressure those skaters feel… Just totally hammering out seemingly-impossible jumps and leaps. Yikes! I love dancerly skating especially because I just know that they’re having so much fun and it’s perfectly apparent that they LOVE what they’re doing. I recently got into 70′s gymnastics for this reason… (hello, Olga Korbut!)

    stuffeddoggie.blogspot.com

  • rockslita January 6th, 2013 3:28 PM

    I can quite understand why you love this so much! XX Rosalie

    http://www.rockslita.com

  • TheNarcissisticGinger January 6th, 2013 4:37 PM

    “The Swan” is actually a ballet dance, originated by Anna Pavlova, aka THE BEST BALLERINA EVERRR, and is basically the reason I started dance. Here’s a wonderful Youtube video of the dance, also called “The Dying Swan”:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3LCyTtWhDA
    Heart = MELTED.

  • p0meta January 6th, 2013 11:46 PM

    As an ex-skater, i adored this post. All these videos are fantastic; but my forever favorites will always be gordeeva and grinkov’s routines. They are always so beautiful, and i sob whenever I read her book.. He died too soon.