Thursday, April 17, 2014
When Erica Rand hit her 40s, she decided to do something that would probably make most adults recoil in horror.
Erica Rand, a Bates college professor, learned figure skating in her 40s, and although she loves the sport, she is critical of some aspects of it.
Photo by Alexis Lyon
She learned how to figure skate.
And she found that she loved it.
Rand, a professor of art and visual culture and of women and gender studies at Bates College in Lewiston, did more than just learn a few tricks on the ice. She immersed herself in the world of showy little skirts and professional blade sharpeners. She competed in the Gay Games and at the U.S. Adult National Figure Skating Championships.
In her new book, "Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure On and Off the Ice" (Duke University Press, $23.95), Rand explores in short essays themes such as gender issues in sports, the economics of skating competitions, and the need to make figure skating more inclusive. There's even a chapter explaining in detail the complicated scoring system used by figure skating judges.
Rand, 53, lives in Portland and enjoys watching television and playing puzzle games in her free time.
But mostly, you'll find her out on the ice.
Q: Why did you want to learn to figure skate? Are you one of those people who can't miss watching the skating competitions on TV?
A: I love watching skating competitions on TV. I skated a little bit as a kid. Really, it was partly about moving to Portland. I had an idea that I was going to keep going to the Y in Auburn, where I had a nice community of people I exercised with.
One day something just made me think, "I want a pair of skates." I had my old childhood pair of skates, and when I moved to Portland I finally threw them out. And I don't know why, but one day I just thought maybe I'll buy skates. And I went and bought skates at Play It Again Sports. I said "Where's a rink?" and they told me about the Portland Ice Arena, which is four blocks from where I live.
I went, I skated around, I loved it. I started taking these adult classes, and it was just grown-ups. It wasn't like you were trying to learn how to skate with little kids. It was just a great environment, and I got completely hooked.
Q: Have you won any competitions over the years?
A: No (laughing). I've racked up very few awards. I came in third out of four at the Gay Games, in my age group and level. That was in 2006. I'm not the best competitor. I wanted to compete in the Gay Games, and then I kept competing partly for research. Some people thrive on competition. I do not thrive on competition, but there are things I really enjoy about it. So this year I competed at the U.S. Figure Skating Adult National Competition.
A: Before you say wow, I'll just tell you that at my level, I skated at the lowest level that competes there. I skated in the 51-60 age group. The group after that is called 61 to death, basically. And at my level, you don't have to compete your way up. When kids compete in a national competition, they've beat all these people and are the 12 best people in the country. In the adult competition, you just decide to go.
I came in eighth out of 13. It was very exciting. It was good for me to make it up to the middle of the pack. I'm just not a very good competitor. My jumps and spims don't work as well as they do at home.
Q: Whenever the Olympics come around, a lot of men like to joke that figure skating is not a sport, but obviously it takes a lot of athleticism to hurl yourself into the air and land on a streamlined blade. Do you think it's the feminine outfits that make people not take it seriously?
A: Yes. I think the feminine outfits make people not take it so seriously, but also just the idea that certain styles of sports that are like dance and involve grace are not actually sports. One of my former students is a national leading person in the hammer throw. He went to the Pan Am games and everything recently, and one of the things we talked about was that throwers in track and field also do things like use a lot of strength and twirl around in some way, but they're viewed as these big lumberers, and we're viewed as people who are just pretenders to athleticism. But as you say, it takes a lot of athleticism to do it, and I have sore muscles to show for it.
Q: I had no idea it was so difficult for an adult to learn how to do an axel. It seems as if it would be easy when you see the young girls doing triples and quadruples. Why is it so hard for an adult?
A: It just seems to be the case if you don't have it in you somewhere in your muscle memory. One or two (older) people have accomplished it. But some of the best jumpers I know are winning competitions all over the place at higher levels, who are my age, and if they didn't have an axel, they just don't have an axel. It's hard to explain in a few words, but you have to jump up, turn around, get into a backspin position, turn around again and land on one foot. That's kind of the deal breaker for advancing for most adults. It's hard. I think, having skated with kids and adults, there are amazing things that adults can do, far more than we think. But also there are limits. You know, age has an effect on your body.
Q: Let's talk about those "unwritten rules of music, dress and gender presentation" as you put it in the book. What happens when people try to break out of the norm, as you did with your Pink Floyd outfit?
A: It's hard to pinpoint. If you look at competitions, one reason you can tell there are these standards is that people usually conform to them. It's hard to tell exactly how you're being penalized because other things come into play. With me, what comes into play is I don't do that well in competition, so it's hard for me to say if I wasn't wearing a skirt with chains on it I would have placed higher.
But I think there's a genereal understanding that if you don't conform to those rules, you're probably punished for them. And a really good example of that is skater Johnny Weir. I think he is the perfect example, because he is a superb skater. He can do all those things that other people can't, and yet there are all these different ways that he has been punished over the years for not conforming.
Q: What are the guys' standards?
A: I think male skaters are supposed to avoid looking feminine.
Q: Is that because they don't want to be viewed through a stereotype?
A: Well, I think partly it's a sport where people assume that a lot of people are gay, but nobody really is, visibly. Nobody is out, in a way, except Johnny Weir and one Canadian skater there was a palimony suit against 20 years ago. I think there's this anti-feminine prejudice out there in the world in a lot of different contexts. I think men are just not supposed to be what is perceived as feminine, and skating, the whole sport is perceived as feminine.
So I think males are asked to avoid certain kinds of behaviors or movements that would look feminine. I think it's partly anti-gay prejudice, but I think it's also anti-feminine.
Q: That's tough because you have to be graceful in skating, and a lot of things that could be interpreted as feminine might just be adding grace to your movement.
A: Exactly. And the whole idea that grace should be feminine, that's a problem. It's a problem with the sport being considered a sport. Should it really be the case that if you are graceful you are not being athletic? That's ridiculous.
Q: How often do you skate now?
A: I usually skate about five times a week, if I can.
Q: So all the looking at everything going on behind the scenes didn't affect your love of it?
A: I still love it. I have criticism of it, but I love it. It's funny, because one thing I talk about periodically in the book is these times where I think, "Well, I won't skate." Like, I'm going to a conference, I won't bring my skates. We had our big ice show the last weekend of April, and the next day I really should have taken off, because I had been skating twice a day for a week preparing for it, but I was just ready to get back on the ice. After I do something like a competition or a show that's scary and sometimes involves pressure and nerves and all this stuff, after that's over then I just feel like now I'm ready to learn new things and the joy of skating is even more immense.
Have I turned you into a skater? You can sign up.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: