Thank you to Becky Mezzanotte for the header photo.
To read the show review of Stars on Ice, skip down six paragraphs.
What does figure skating have to do with Snape? Nothing in particular. (Although if anyone wants to write a fanfic in which Snape is lead potioneer for a government-sponsored athlete doping scheme while secretly working undercover to expose the scheme and administering harmless placebo potions to the unwitting athletes, I’ve got baskets of plot bunnies to give away for free…)
Figure skating was my first fandom. Figure skating Usenet groups and discussion forums were the place where I first learned how to be a fan, and in fact, figure skating fandom was where I first heard of Harry Potter. (Anyone else remember the Skating magazine feature that asked several eligible skaters their Hogwarts houses? Loren Galler-Rabinowitz, if I recall correctly, confessed that her family called her “Hermione”; I think Johnny Weir claimed Slytherin, “like all true competitors.”)
Twenty years ago, I ran Rainbow Ice, the first website for LGBTQ issues in figure skating. The archives remain online, partly for humor purposes; click to see state of the art HTML conventions for 1998. The purpose was serious, though; the figure skating world was generally conflicted about how to discuss LGBTQ issues, since figure skating was simultaneously the gayest and most closeted of Olympic sports. Rainbow Ice applied journalistic standards to the question: public discussion of an LGBTQ skater was fine if that person had made statements on the public record, in outlets such as interviews, books, and news articles.
The first U.S. skater to be out while Olympic-eligible was Doug Mattis, at the Gay Games in 1994 and in a 1995 interview of him that I wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News. Later that year, Rudy Galindo came out in Christine Brennan’s book Inside Edge, weeks before winning the 1996 U.S. national title and world bronze medal. Some within the skating world thought (or feared) that this presaged a deluge of gay male skaters coming out, but it did not. I discussed a few of the reasons why in articles for Outsports and Newsweek. It was not until 2015, when Adam Rippon came out, that an eligible U.S. competitor was out while being a top contender for the Olympic team. As Time magazine noted, he went on to become one of the most influential voices to emerge from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
And here we are, 20 years after I launched Rainbow Ice, with our first U.S. skater to be 100% out and loud while competing at the Olympics. The politics are fraught; there are many gay skaters from the U.S., some of whom have come out after finishing their Olympic careers, who had complicated and involuntary reasons for remaining officially closeted against their will. Those stories are not mine to tell, but I know of many of them and these skaters are not less brave or revolutionary. When Adam Rippon brings tears of pride to our eyes, it’s not necessarily because he’s different from his peers for being out. It’s that we know what all of them have faced in this odd, gender-imbalanced, sometimes extremely conservative sport.
As for me, figure skating broke my heart in 2003 and I left the fandom. The same people who are now in the news for attacking U.S. electoral politics, such as Trump Tower tenant and Russian mobster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, destroyed the sport as it existed in the U.S. in a judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics, and my love for watching the sport couldn’t override my horror at the sport’s corrupt response to the fallout. It’s too long of a story to get into here, but you can read the details in Cracked Ice by pioneering Olympic judge and referee Sonia Bianchetti, which I had the honor of line-editing.
Figure skating fandom is, therefore, my problematic ex. But occasionally, when I’m feeling strong, I can look through my fingers to peek back at the sport I used to adore. The 2018 lineup of Stars on Ice was irresistible for me. All right; one more time, I broke out the glitter eyeshadow and headed to the arena for my first SOI in probably 15 years.
Stars on Ice, April 20, 2018, Hershey, PA
My friend V. and I had on-ice seats, directly next to the skaters’ entrance, on an end row. This made for an unusual perspective, eye-level with the skaters, so we didn’t get any of the intended overhead views, but we did have a sense of immediacy, not to mention a creeping chill around our ankles from the ice itself.
Skating to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” Ashley Wagner led the cast out for the intro. To adoring screams, Adam Rippon took the center of the circle in his role as breakout star of the 2018 Olympics (and newly-minted member of the Time 100 list). For a few moments, I thought admiringly, “Yes, this is the queen…” Then Davis and White took the center, and I realized: there are queens, and then there’s Meryl Davis, High Queen of Queens. For presence and star quality, even among these luminaries, she’s untouchable.
Karen Chen opened with a voiceover about her Olympic experience and stunned the audience with her gracious spins, including a flying camel and a Biellmann. Good double axel; she had lutz problems last night.
Jason Brown did “The Room Where It Happens”! The Stars on Ice video backdrop went gradient gold like the Broadway show logo. I wore my Alexander Hamilton t-shirt in honor of this program. I’m going to get meta here for a moment. This song is about, among other things, how the U.S. Capital was awarded to D.C. but the true capital of the nation remained in the banks of New York, how our first treasurer “got more than [he] gave,” how he wanted what he got. There were only three Olympic spots for U.S. men and half a dozen worthy contenders this year; this time, Jason Brown didn’t go. But out of this year’s skaters, he’s the one who is lauded and adored by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the political poet laureate of our nation; he’s the one about whom the New York Times wrote the starstruck cover story, The Unabashed Beauty of Jason Brown on Ice, one of the rare mainstream articles about this sport that really got it in a way that resonated with hardcore fans. With his body of work, Jason Brown has created something greater than whether or not he qualified for a second Olympic Games. He gave us a triple flip, his gorgeously held mazurka, a beautiful camel spin, a triple lutz (right into our corner!), and a thrilling scratch spin… Yes, this was worth the two-hour drive to Hershey.
Who here remembers Tuffy Hough skating to Queen’s “Body Language” in vintage SOI? (raises hand) Can Mirai Nagasu live up to that high bar of sexiness? Oh yes, she can. She did her double axel in front of us and the BEST moment was her savage joy when she carved out an authoritative landing. There’s nobody like Mirai for celebrating the primal attack roar that is the figure skating jump. Her red lipstick. That is it, in one image. Oh, that scratch spin, that triple flip, that triple toe, that outside spread eagle. Rawr.
The Shibutanis were next, all that is fresh and good about the world. Impossible though it seems, they are each even cuter in person than they are onscreen. The cleanliness of their steps does a thing to my brain. It clarifies and re-sets my thoughts and gets everything running smoothly, like Swiss machinery. Her running shtick of upstaging him, this time with an assist from her ponytail, gets a laugh from me every time. The joke is, of course, that when there’s perfect unison, no one can ever upstage another, although there is occasionally the moment when two silhouettes overlap perfectly to create a single flawless image.
Karen Chen, Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Ashley Wagner emerged to do a pastel group number to “Dream.” Ashley was showcased, doing a forward spiral around the circle, clockwise to the counterclockwise rotation of the other three, the senior member of [team + alternate] that is just starting this recovery tour from the Pyeongchang Olympics. This choreography seemed to acknowledge the shared group experience and also, I think, her status as the most accomplished show-woman of them all.
And now, Adam. The STAR. Crowd goes wild. He graciously encourages the adulation. Everyone, watch this — no, seriously. You know how humans, especially Americans, who seem loud but are secretly really terrible at receiving compliments, have a hard time accepting due credit? Watch this guy. This is how you do it. You know you’ve worked hard. You know what you’ve given up to earn what you have. Accept the acknowledgment. It is not too much. This is no more than we all deserve.
He’s wearing my favorite costume of the night: a painter’s palette of a white shirt, with slashes of red, yellow, and blue paint, so much potential, someone starting a new canvas. Double axel, triple salchow, triple flip, a truly beautiful flying camel into sideways sit spin. Russian split, ahh. Layback. Silence. There are so many eloquent silences in this choreography. Reminders to wait for it. Breathe. Continue.
Bradie Tennell skated her Cinderella program, with triple lutz, double axel, triple flip, sideways layback into two-handed Biellmann. I can barely make out my notes here: I think I wrote that she did an “airy triple loop,” first loop of the night from anyone, into a left forward outside spiral and Ina Bauer and an outside camel into sideways sitspin. Lovely sequence to end the program.
Nathan Chen’s program to “Back from the Edge” was stunning. He did a quad toe loop — in a show program, under spotlights! I don’t know how often skaters have done quads in shows while I’ve been on hiatus from skating fandom, but it’s the first time I’ve seen one. The song has a determined, almost rebellious message that goes well with the costume look, a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves worn loose except for one button. Very heartthrob, serious, dangerous. He did a jump at the other end of the rink that I couldn’t see well — it might have been a triple flip, bam, out of nowhere. The choreography included a lot of whole-body movements on twisted axes, showing internal struggle and resolution and growth, a very personal program but outwardly expressive toward the audience rather than introspective. His ending spin had the purest centering.
Adam Rippon and the Shibutanis did a short transitional ensemble to “One is the Loneliest Number,” with some solo and some trio work. My notes say, “Enchanting Maia.” She has quite a bit of emotional range in the group numbers, I find.
Hubbell and Donohue’s “Across the Sky/Caught Out in the Rain” showed such a different approach to ice dance. Rather than highlighting unison and presenting a single story to the audience, the two partners continually worked off each other, reacting to each other, and the relationship between them made the story.
Ashley Wagner, with “I Am Here,” continued this show’s theme of how skaters respond to hitting bottom and recovering. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see her skating this year without wishing, painfully, that she could have skated in Pyeongchang, too. She included a triple loop and double axel and showed her usual powerfully controlled style, letting us see the muscle and willpower it takes. I’m glad we have this mature performer to be up front about process, in her programs and in her public statements. It’s an acknowledgment of the place that Olympic-level figure skating holds in U.S. culture, a sport that we watch because as a medium, it works so well at telling the story of wanting things, working for them, struggling to be and to show our best selves.
How fortunate we are to get Davis and White on this year’s tour, the only ones not to have competed this season. I don’t have notes on them beyond “Meryl is perfect,” which is not helpful for review purposes, but does get across that I was too absorbed in the performance to write more! Charlie White did work at the Olympics this year, but as a broadcast commentator. More importantly to me, he has been an engaged, politically-minded citizen whose opinions sometimes get retweeted on my timeline by people who have no connection to skating and probably don’t even know why this guy has a blue check mark by his name. I find that he knows how to word things so they make sense, and more than once, I’ve appreciated his statements.
Intermission! Zamboni break, followed by a group number from members of local skating clubs.
Part Two opened with an ensemble number to “Shape of You,” with three couples all in blue costumes, portraying a club scene: Davis and White, Hubbell and Donohue, and Nathan Chen with Ashley Wagner. I could not take my eyes off Chen and Wagner. Unlike the other couples, they are solo skaters doing something that is outside their comfort zone, and the freshness of that challenge made their skating so compelling in this number. You could see them concentrating in hold, keeping their steps precise, remembering to project flirtation to the audience. It was a little startling to remember that Wagner has known Chen since he was a child, because their chemistry was convincing, very well done. Imagine being the kind of person who trains half to death, getting every detail perfect, and then being told that you have weeks to learn a new skill well enough to take it on tour!
What can I say about Jason Brown? He does everything well, solo and ensemble. He stands out as a good dancer even next to the ice dancers. His club-style “Can’t Stop the Feeling” program has a loose-limbed feel, with backward (bejeweled) baseball cap and all. He did four enormous Russian splits in a row, one to each side of the arena.
Karen Chen blew kisses to us all with “Blow Your Mind.” Another lutz problem, ow, but then an impeccable series of spins. Flying camel to inside edge to sideways sit, her hair partially tied back and flowing loose. In her sparkly red bralette with black fringe, she had an iconic Asian American pop-star vibe that reminded me of the buzz recently around Hayley Kiyoko, who, I was delighted to find, is Sarah Kawahara’s daughter. I like the lightness to Karen Chen’s expert laybacks, as though they don’t cost her any effort at all. What a spinner.
Hubbell and Donohue skated to Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel.” Wow, her back muscles! Again, this program was not about unison. They were weaving around each other, forming constantly changing, complementary shapes.
Yesss, Mirai Nagasu in a cape, exploring the dark side of the story with “No Good Deed.” Delicious. Double axel, triple flip with a huge smile, change-edge spiral, Ina Bauer into triple loop, layback into two-handed Biellmann. This is a good Stars on Ice season for songs with character depth.
The all-guys ensemble to “Feel It Still” was pure pleasure, like the song itself, like a good-natured smile that can’t stop. At ice level, on a short end, I couldn’t appreciate the choreography. It didn’t matter. They were playing. They had hats. It made me happy.
Bradie Tennell did a double axel and triple loop to “This Is Me.” It’s going to be exciting to see how her time on this tour adds to her audience connection on next year’s competitive circuit. My head spins when I think what a different skater she’ll be from the one who started her Grand Prix season in autumn 2017. National title, Olympics, Worlds, SOI — imagine assimilating that degree of new experience, all in one year!
Jason and Zach came out to urge everyone to vote for Adam and Mirai on Dancing with the Stars and to toss t-shirts into the crowd. I loved Jason’s testimonial that Adam is “one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” Jason is so positive, such a force for good, I feel like he’s the skating embodiment of the We Rate Dogs scoring system. 13/10 for everybody!
And then, the moment I, and I think many others, had been waiting for. Adam Rippon’s “Let Me Think About It,” without the pressure of being a competitive short program. Live. In front of our eyes. This piece of gay skating history. I cannot express the fullness of my love for this program and what it means to a lot of fans I know. (It’s true: lesbians, and bi women, do love Adam! I know more than one who was disappointed not to have packed a rainbow flag or a banner to wave for him last night!)
It was a show program here, so a sleeveless tank top it was. Triple flip, triple salchow, a solid camel spin with positions that looked like sculpted marble, camel into sit with so many changes of feet that I lost count, a hand wave inviting the audience to show him love, layback, scratch…. Augh, so good! The choreography, the poses in this program make a perfect blend of muscularity and femme aesthetic. V. said fondly, “I feel like he’s Rudy’s baby,” remembering Rudy Galindo’s club dance programs from the late 1990s. Did I give this performance a standing ovation? I did. Twenty years ago — no, 24 years ago, I was watching Doug Mattis skate an exhibition at the 1994 Gay Games, thinking about the conundrum of the figure skating closet, seeing the toll it took on the skaters, wondering if there was anything I could do, anything that could make it better. Look at this beautiful man. Thank you, Adam Rippon.
Shibutanis to “Fix You/Paradise.” Maia’s loose braid looks so real in this program, with flyaway bits deliberately undoing the lacquered Asian bun aesthetic, natural and free. With the Shibutanis and Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen and Nathan Chen, I was thinking a lot about the Asian American faces of figure skating last night, and the importance of hair. I have taught my daughters to comb their black hair smooth for performance, to fix it with hairspray and position the flower clips and, when the time comes, to select just the right red lipstick. I didn’t know, when I started watching figure skating for fun, how much it would teach me about parenting.
Ashley Wagner, “La La Land.” Double axel. Oooh, nice glide in her stroking, smooth and noiseless. Triple toe, double axel, something at the other end that might have been a triple lutz. Split loop and falling leaf and outside spread eagle and flying camel jumpover sitspin and… my notes say, simply, “This is a good program.”
Short interlude with Madison Hubbell, Maia Shibutani, and Zach Donohue, with Zach lifting Maia! You could feel people’s breaths hitching when they saw that. The three of them doing back edges, one after another, the length of the rink to the exit. Beautiful.
Davis and White, “Elastic Heart,” with a long silk as a prop. They started out leaning on each other and the program emphasized their connection through their upper bodies rather than feet or legs. The silk sometimes connected them, sometimes tethered, sometimes helped one anchor the other. Sometimes Meryl wrapped it around her waist and then like a crossbody sash, fastened with a swift bow, making it look elegant until it was time to unwrap the silk and bring it back into play.
Nathan Chen, “Nemesis.” Smart! The more he skates this program in different contexts, the more solidly he’ll associate it with the satisfaction of coming back from a rough start at the Olympics to a record-smashing freeskate and then a world title. I have triple lutz, triple toe, triple flip in my notes, but I don’t think I saw everything clearly; there might have been a quad in there somewhere. Loved his ballet leaps, his fluid whole-body movement quality, his gritted-teeth intensity, his terse and practical nature, his true scratch spins. It’s exciting to see someone come into their adult maturity before your eyes.
Finale! The skaters raced around the ice surface, greeting audience members, high-fiving or even hugging them. I got to blow a kiss to Adam Rippon and I got one back in return! Then they all returned to the center, and I laughed happily when they highlighted Davis and White. Ah yes, that’s right: everyone is a star here, everyone unthinkably gifted, but there is one team here that has won actual Olympic gold, and it diminishes nobody to acknowledge them. I loved the simple black costumes for this finale, the men in lightweight hoodies and the women in ballet wrap dresses, looking comfortable and athletic, looking like what skaters sometimes say to ground themselves during competition: “Do it like practice.” Being part of Stars on Ice is a reward for their Olympic-season triumphs. I like how this year’s numbers showed us how these skaters got where they are.