Ski ballet and other forgotten Winter Olympic sports
Published 5:33 pm Friday, February 18, 2022
How many of you took ballet classes as a kid?
I did! Though as I got older, the ballet classes transitioned to more of a jazz and contemporary style. But I still learned the basics of grand jetes and arabesques and plies and pirouettes and plenty of other French terms I had to Google just now to spell correctly. The dance style was a fun way of expressing myself.
Now imagine have to do all those kinds of contortions with your body… but while on a pair of snow skis.
A friend of mine sent me a short video clip this week which showcased the lost art of ski ballet. Apparently, it used to be a demonstration sport in the Winter Olympics back in the late 80s and early 90s.
The clip was really entertaining to watch. Unlike other competitive skiing sports where you watch the skiers race towards the bottom of the snowy hill, these “dancers” weren’t really in a hurry to get anywhere. The snowy mountainside was their stage as they twirled around in tune to the music, skied backwards like it was natural, and did spectacular flips using the ski poles. To me, it looked like a strange combination of the finesse of figure skating and the teeth-clenching danger of an out-of-control skier. (If you’ve ever been skiing before, you know what I’m talking about.)
I messaged my friend back and said “my ankles hurt just watching that!” Ballet is difficult enough when you’re wearing regular dance shoes… I can only imagine how much harder it is when you have two long pieces of wood strapped to your heavy boots.
It’s been a long, long time since I did any skiing myself, but I’m sure I was definitely never coordinated enough for ski ballet. Best I could do was try not to fall on my face as soon as I got off the ski lift.
Apparently ski ballet isn’t much of a sport anymore since the International Ski Federation quit hosting formal competitions in 2000. It just fizzled out after that. But in looking up the history of the artsy sport, I learned that it originally got its start back in the 1970s. A recent article from the New York Times was the most comprehensive history I could find.
It started out as one of three forms of freestyle skating: aerials (huge jumps), moguls (bouncing over small mounds of snow), and ballet (featuring more intricate tricks and footwork). Freestyle skaters were expected to be able to do all three kinds, though competitions eventually began splitting them into separate runs instead of doing all three down the mountain in one go.
While the other two forms of freestyle skating went on to become full medal Olympic events that still compete today, ski ballet had trouble figuring out just how to judge the more acrobatic, artistic parts of the performance. The result was that the Olympic routines ended up being “technically impressive but artistically stunted.” Plenty of people doing ski ballet just wanted to perform instead of compete.
And many of them did just that, making a name for themselves as touring performers wowing the crowds across the countries with their fancy flips and other ski tricks. But with the lack of competitions, the sport itself eventually fizzled away. There are still a few legends from back in the day who continue the tradition today, but mostly people have to watch old, grainy videos on Youtube or Twitter now if they want to see more.
If it wasn’t for the Winter Olympics every four years to remind us about competitions of the past, we might would forget about ski ballet entirely.
As I was looking for more information about ski ballet, I stumbled across a Buzzfeed compilation of other sports which used to be a part of the Winter Olympics but aren’t anymore for various reasons. Here’s a brief look at some of those almost-forgotten sports too:
Speed skiing: Similar to speed skating, it’s basically just trying to ski down the mountain faster than the rest of the competition. Skiers could sometimes top 200 mph during these competitions. But like ski ballet, it was only an Olympic demonstration sport that didn’t return after 1992. Part of that was because several athletes died in non-Olympic events, therefore making it too dangerous. A good call, I think.
Winter pentathlon: The event, originally appearing in the 1948 games, combines cross-country skiing, shooting, downhill skiing, fencing, and horseback riding. The sport didn’t really catch on, and I honestly can understand why. What a weird combination!
Synchronized skating: It’s pretty much the same as synchronized swimming, except, of course, that you’re on ice and not in water. People have tried to get this back in the Olympics for years, but apparently logistical/financial problems are holding things up, particularly with needing teams of 20 or more skaters.
Snowshoeing: Basically, you walk as fast as you can over snow while wearing snowshoes. This appeared at the 2002 Olympics, and people have been asking for its return. On paper, this sounds extremely boring to me. It’s technically just speed walking, after all. But maybe a live competition is more entertaining??
Bandy: This is essentially hockey but with a ball instead of a puck, and the goalie doesn’t get a hockey stick like the rest of the team. It was a demonstration sport in 1952, but since it’s basically hockey, they decided the similarities deemed it unworthy to bring back again.
Special figures skating: It’s like figure skating except that the competitors are also supposed to be carving intricate patterns into the ice with their skates. Have you ever tried drawing with your toes before? Sounds difficult to me! This only appeared in the 1908 games, and it basically fell out of fashion after that.
Skijoring: I saved the one with the best name for last! Skijoring is kind of like wakeboarding, if you traded the wakeboard for skis, the water for a snowy patch of land, and the boat for a horse. (Yes, a horse!!) The goal is for the skier to stay attached to the horse galloping ahead while also performing all kinds of fun tricks along the way. They only did this during the 1928 Olympics, which is a shame because it sounds hilariously fun to watch!
So the next time you turn your TV to the Winter Olympics, just remember: you can make pretty much anything into a competitive sport. Even ballet!
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.