Beyond Spirals with Jeff Nolt

by Lorrie Kim

This interview was first published in 6.0 Skate magazine's Spring 2001 issue.

"I think men and boys can do spirals. I think it's misguided that they're not asked to do more in the SP and FS. They CAN do them. In this culture, there's such a stigma on the virility of movement."

With these words, Baltimore coach and choreographer Jeffrey Nolt ignited a lively debate at the 2000 PSA conference, on the Technique vs. Artistry panel.

By highlighting one particular move -- the spiral, which is required in the short program for women single skaters, but not men -- he went to the heart of the skating world's uneasy compromise between valuing pure skating skills, and tailoring choreography to fight public perceptions that male skaters are unmasculine or gay.

The responses to Nolt's comments illustrated this compromise instantly. Some respondents felt that emphasis on spirals would only help male skaters technically, especially those who may turn to pair skating and be required to perform them. But others felt that changing men's short program requirements to include spirals would be a step in the wrong direction, at a time when the sport is trying to gain more mainstream acceptance and not alienate the television audience.

Nolt's point was that avoiding certain kinds of movement for men constitutes the "stigma" that he mentioned, and curtails creativity.

"Men aren't 'supposed' to be creative," said Nolt recently, with a touch of frustration. "I think it was an easy example -- you equate good spirals with women. I've seen some men be extremely flexible. Why isn't it being encouraged there? A man is holding his leg up; that is feminine, for some reason? I think flexibility could be encouraged. Not that we want to raise contortionists, but it would be kind of nice. If you're more flexible, you're less apt to get injured. And why is a layback considered a feminine spin? Why? I think that's crazy. I don't understand why it's a big issue."

When asked about the phrase "virility of movement," Nolt explained, "Ballet dancers, women, have a certain femininity in their movement. Men have the same port de bras movements, but there's a certain strength to them. In a spiral, it can be in the arm placement. The way you use your muscles. There can be a sexiness to it."

To demonstrate, Nolt pantomimed a skater finishing off a spiral, one arm in front.

"A woman might come up more," Nolt demonstrated, lifting his hand and wrist slightly before settling into the exit pose. "But men: just the way the arm is shaped -- it's a thicker line, not as waiflike as a woman. Just the way they leave the floor out of plié, they can go higher. Just the flexing into the floor. The lines of the chin. The line of the front arm."

Nolt named Paul Wylie, Robin Cousins, and Alexander Abt as examples of male skaters with strong, masculine spirals. For a typically feminine spiral, Nolt gave the example of Dorothy Hamill, holding both arms behind her back.

"A man," he explained for contrast, "could lead with his right arm, left arm just above the back leg. Men's chests look different -- he could stick it out [Nolt demonstrated pulling his shoulders back, lifting his chin, inhaling] for a more virile appearance. If a woman did that, it would look more alluring."

Nolt's extensive background in the sport has given him the authority and experience to analyze the impact of different skating moves. He started as a pair skater with his sister Suzy, training with Ron Ludington and competing nationally at the junior level. After touring with her on the pro circuit, he began choreographing, as well as coaching freestyle, pairs, Moves in the Field, performance, adult group classes, and adult ice theatre (he works with an ensemble called Fine Wine).

Nolt has also observed the nuances of skating expression from a different angle. Since 1988, he has worked on skating telecasts for ABC Sports, whether cueing the referee while sitting at the judges' panel, or assisting producer Doug Wilson.

It was in this capacity, while watching the "ferocious" European ice dancers at the 2000 World Championships, that he reflected on the many details that could bring skating expression to a higher art form.

"A lot of skating is flat in the face," he said. "I just have to believe that the Europeans are so nice sometimes -- they give 'good face.' I don't think there's anything in the mark about facial expression. I think there could be."

Acting is a major component of the skating performance classes that Nolt teaches. He recalled one exercise during a summer class he once taught at Lake Arrowhead, in which he asked students such as Lu Chen and Michelle Kwan to move as though they had just tripped on a rock, and turned back to look at where they had stumbled.

As a male pair skater himself, Nolt is deeply interested in the challenges of that role, which requires a bit of everything: strength, a show of virility, spirals, acting, sensitivity, and a tricky sort of self-deprecation.

"In animal species, men typically are the more colorful ones," Nolt mused. "Sometimes you hear it's the guy's role to show off the woman. I wouldn't teach my male partners that. I want them to be strong, if not stronger, than the woman. I think typically you look for the men to be sloppy, and just to lift the women. But they have to be better skaters than the women, because they aren't noticed as much."

In Nolt's opinion, the convention of placing the woman in the foreground of pair skating is a choice born of culture, not athletic necessity.

"I think it's a more idealistic thing -- she is pure, the man is stronger," he said. "She goes up in the air. She hits the position in the death spiral. She is thrown in the air. In that way, she's the busier of the two.

"But when I skated in pairs, I didn't think I had to be second banana," he said. "I wanted to be noticed just as much as she was. I wanted to be smart and humble enough to say, 'She's the one people are going to be looking at more.' I think that's a big thing. To step back. Because I think people think it's a man's world. And I don't think it is."

Like many other skating insiders, Nolt looked to Gordeeva and Grinkov as the pinnacle of pair skating in "anything they did" -- in this case, in showing the man's virility.

"Just the way he would look at her, and address her," Nolt said admiringly. "Maybe there should be a requirement in the short program for pairs, a section -- steps, spirals, or Moves in the Field -- in which the partners would have to _look_ at each other for an extended period of time. That's what I want to encourage. Just _look_ at each other, and not out of fear or hatred! Make the connection."

Nolt also admired Tamara Moskvina's "simplistic approach" of defining the male-female pair dynamic as "making agreements between the man and the woman."

The Russians, he said, "want both partners to be absolutely capable of absolutely everything the same. Americans aren't. Canadians have never been. And that's okay."

But even if the elements are different, Nolt supports equal star quality for the men, in addition to proper partnering. "If the man is exceptional, if he holds his own and shows off the woman," he said, "and he does it comfortably, then he is way ahead of the game."

Nolt gave Alexander Zhulin, when he danced with Maya Usova, as an example of a man both holding his own and presenting his partner. Others included Brian Boitano partnering Katarina Witt in "Carmen on Ice," and Gwendal Peizerat with Marina Anissina in "Carmina Burana."

Nolt is certainly aware of the harassment that male skaters can receive for pursuing an artistic sport. But he finds it important not to let fear of harassment keep a male skater from pointing his toe, or doing extension moves, or showing good athletic form.

"I think we should uphold in this sport what is good," he said. "Not what's expedient, not what makes money. Do we care about what kind of people our athletes become, what kind of middle-aged, old people? If the athlete makes it, they're going to be well-spoken, and have a healthy perspective on things. My mom once told me, when we think small, that's when things get scary. But when you think of the big picture, things get less scary."

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