A Non-Geographic Community

Copyright 2000 by Edith K. Schneider. All rights reserved.


Descriptive aspects. The Community and Its Subgroups

The skaters.

Serious skaters

Recreational skaters.

Ice dancers

  • Social dancers

  • Competitive dancers

    Adult competitive skaters

    The families

    The coaches

    The officialdom




    Skating Clubs.

    Non-USFSA skating

    Figure skating. A Competent Community

    Examples of Issues and Problem Solving

    Abolition of compulsory figures

    Scoring in ice dance competition

    The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident.

    A Hypothetical Issue


    Figure skating is one of the most popular participation sports in this country, especially among women and young girls (The United States Figure Skating Association, 1999). It ranks in spectator interest just behind professional football and baseball and ahead of professional basketball, college football and basketball, and many other sports. It is described as a subject of "avid interest" by 17 percent of respondents in a recent poll (ESPN Chilton Poll, 1996). Much of this interest has been stimulated by spectacular television coverage of professional rather glitzy pseudo-competitions. Behind all of this, still with much of the glamour, but with much more reality, is the community of amateur figure skating. This complex community is the subject of this report.

    I have chosen this topic because of long-standing personal association with this complex group, including several of its subgroups. My three children were all "serious" skaters. They went through the whole routine of many years of daily practice before and after school, the best available coaching, etc. Two of them became well-known national competitors (analogous to so-called elite athletes in other sports). One of these was an ice-dancer, an almost separate branch of the figure skating community. My husband was and is an official United States Figure Skating Association judge, and as such is a member of another almost separate branch of the community, and my two national competitor children both went on to become career professional skating coaches, yet another branch of the community. My paper will mostly be confined to the realm of my personal experience, which includes the skaters and their families, the coaches, and the officialdom with its judges, tests and competitions. I will touch on recreational skating, since I know a little of this through one of my children who teaches in that area. I will also touch on areas where I have not been involved, such as international figure skating. Professional show skating will not be included. Following a set of descriptions of each of the subgroups, I will discuss figure skating as an example of a competent non-geographic community. A few exemplary problems that have arisen will be discussed as examples of the solution of issues, and a hypothetical issue will be described.

    First, let me summarize a bit more about my personal family involvement, since the story is similar to that of many serious skating families. My husband and I both skated a little bit, he more than I, and our oldest daughter likes to tell the story that her parents became engaged one evening at the ice rink. Well, it's true. We always knew that our children would skate, and when they were "old enough," we found ourselves in what most would call a "baby" rink in southern California, where the three children took group lessons at first and then quickly graduated to private lessons, custom skates, etc. To gain a greater understanding of the sport, my husband began a training program that eventually led to his appointment as an official skating judge. The children's lessons led to tests and then competitions, and the day came when we all became sophisticated enough to know that the real world of competitive skating was elsewhere. Our family "changed pros," that is we moved on to professional coaching that we thought would be more advantageous for our children. My son turned out to be somewhat of a prodigy and sort of the led the way for our entire family for a long while. For example, even though he was only nine years old at the time, he is the one that really picked the next coach. We all soon learned that "serious" meant daily lessons and lots of ice time, much more than before. As time went on my son became a national level skater. His older sister moved into ice dancing, and she too eventually became a national skater. My youngest daughter progressed to high levels in the test structure, but eventually decided that further skating was not for her. The time came when my son felt it was best for him to train with a world famous coach in Colorado (who had trained Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill). This was hard, financially and otherwise, but somehow our family managed to do it. Later, my oldest daughter also trained in Colorado. Both of my skating children later became full-time coaches, and this is what they do. It is a fun profession that has brought them much happiness. Both have small children who will probably soon become skaters. My son is married to a fellow skating coach, who, before she and my son met, had toured the world as Mickey Mouse in International Disney on Ice.

    Descriptive aspects. The Community and Its Subgroups

    My own family experience was with several subgroups of the larger community and I will describe these separately.

    The skaters.

    Serious skaters. In the realm of serious skaters, the skaters are mostly children, with a great majority of girls. Some start at very tender ages, but with very rare exceptions (e.g., Tara Lipinski, the recent Olympic champion) they really can't learn very much until about age six. Skaters who start training beyond the age of 12 or 13 have serious obstacles to overcome, and to most (but not all) the obstacles are almost insurmountable. The learning curve is very steep, and by age 15 or 16 or so, skaters can reach a high degree of competence, mastering the difficult athletic maneuvers that have become familiar to television audiences such as double and triple jumps, spectacular spins, and complex footwork. This all requires proper instruction and several hours of daily practice. Serious skaters from around the country all begin to know one another, and many of those who train together become somewhat akin to a group of "cousins," keeping loosely in touch with one another throughout the subsequent years, meeting with happy enthusiasm at skating gatherings (similar to family reunions).

    Most serious skaters in this country aspire to be "singles" skaters, that is skaters who perform by themselves. Others become pair skaters, where a man and woman skate together performing in tandem difficult and sometimes frightening athletic maneuvers. Another form of serious skating is ice dancing which is discussed further below.

    Recreational skaters. Another group of skaters, and I really know less of these, are the recreational skaters. Many of these do not know that they are not "serious." They too, take lessons and often progress through a test structure and have competitions. However, they generally have many fewer private lessons and much less practice time than the foregoing group. This group generally does not progress to the level of mastery of technique sufficient to engage in national and international competition. The impact on families is less than in the foregoing group. The age groups here can be much wider, with many older teenagers, young adults, and older adults involved. It's all for fun, and represents the fastest growing branch of skating.

    Ice dancers. Dancers, as they are called, are an interesting subgroup, and they themselves can be divided into two further groupings.

    First is the realm of the so-called social dancers. This is a dying area, but a few large dance clubs still exist. The typical dancer begins as a young adult. The dancers refer to the mysterious (to many of them) world of the serious skater, as that of the "free-stylists." They often become enthusiastic members of the highly knowledgeable "fans," who attend competitions and applaud with vigor the accomplishment of successful execution of double and triple and even quadruple revolution jumps. Many become skating judges, and as permanent members of skating clubs, provide stability across time for the organizational aspects of skating (see below). Some advance and become officials at the highest levels of skating organization. At the local level, adult dancers have tests and competitions and many take it all very seriously. Many others do it just for fun. A goal of some of the most dedicated social dancers is to progress in the test structure. This represents an enormous effort, and many skate daily and have many lessons with accomplished dance coaches.

    Competitive dancers relate to both the serious skaters and to the social dancers. Competitive dancers characteristically begin as children in singles skating, and move into ice dancing as teenagers. Because of the need to find practice facilities they often train along with the social dancers, providing these offshoots of the serious group an opportunity to interface with an entirely different group of skaters who are little known to most of the serious skater group.

    Adult competitive skaters. A relatively new group of skaters has emerged in the past few years. These are adult competitive skaters. This group is largely replacing the adult ice dancers who have really become a dying breed. The adult competitive skaters often practice daily as do their childhood counterparts. Some take many lessons. Rarely do they work with top name professional coaches. Except for the few in this group that began their skating as children, the group is quite limited in what they can learn to do. There are special test structures and competition events for adults, and these events are becoming increasingly popular. My daughter who teaches many in this group, tells me that many are becoming skating club officials, filling the role formerly performed by the adult ice dancer group (Farris, 2000).

    The families

    I will restrict this section to the families I am most familiar with: the families of serious skaters. In simple terms, the families are overwhelmingly involved. Although, someone has to worry about ordinary family matters--work and such, the support of the skater (often more than one) becomes paramount. Commitment of time and money by parents is often very great. Many families hold on to a tenuous thread in regard to financing. Often, other children in the family must give some things up to help support the skating child. Sometimes families become geographically partially separated with one parent (usually the mother) living at a distance along with her skating child (e.g., Michelle Kwan, the present World Figure Skating Champion, and her mother living 100 miles from home during the week with weekend visits by her father). Sometimes, one parent is more committed than the other, and dissension and even divorce, over the issue of skating are not unknown. Most skating families are happy ones, however, and derive much evident enjoyment from their participation. A well-known phenomenon is the "skating parent," often maligned by others and thought by the coaches to be an annoying factor to be put up with. However, skating parents actually finance and support the entire skating enterprise: skaters, coaches, competitions, etc. The parents themselves understand their essential contribution, and many skaters (but few coaches) appreciate the important role played by skating parents. Peggy Fleming, recognizing the role of both her mother and her coach, commented "we won the Olympics? that victory was definitely a "we; me Carlo and Mom." (Fleming et al., 1999, p. 68) Also, although skating mothers seem to be somewhat more common, there are plenty of skating fathers as well. Usually, it's one or the other in a single skating family. Skating sibs deserve some comment as well. Often, there is one "standout" child that drives the entire family participation. Sometimes this skater is an object of pride and admiration, sometimes an object of envy and resentment, and sometimes both. Most often, everyone in the family understands and supports the whole family enterprise.

    The coaches

    Skating coaches comes in a wide variety of flavors. A few are world famous, gaining their fame through the accomplishments of their skaters. One notable coach pointed out that this is largely a matter of good fortune, explaining that "there are many more talented coaches than talented skaters." (Nicks, 1972) Once fame has been gained, the coach tends to attract many more potentially successful skaters. Most of the famous coaches (but not all) are successful ex-skaters. One coach of great fame (who taught Dick Button, a three-time Olympic Champion) was not a skater. However, many are well-known former national (and often world-level) competitors. Most of the coaches teaching successful champion level skaters (or aspirant champion level skaters) have at least progressed through the entire skating testing structure (see below). Many are former show skaters, sometimes with lesser competition credentials. With the growth of recreational skating, a new group of coaches is emerging from the group of recreational skaters themselves. On a web site discussion group (Skate-Coaches ListServe, 2000) this heterogeneity of coaching background and qualification is very apparent. The Professional Skaters Association, among other things, performs an accrediting function, testing and certifying the level of competence of skating coaches. (Professional Skaters Association, 2000) Most coaches are independent, full-time teachers who are compensated by fees paid directly to them by their students. A smaller number are employed by large commercial endeavors principally oriented toward the promotion of recreational skating.

    The relationship of the coach and the serious successful skating competitor is an extremely close one. It's much like having a second parent. A great deal of dependency develops, and most skaters just wouldn't be able to compete if their coach could not be in attendance. Some coaches are highly charismatic and bring out the best in their students because of the desire of the skaters to please the teacher. One, extremely prominent coach, always referred to respectfully as "Mr. ----", has a group of students who regularly work very hard, with great pride at being members of his group, and with an unspoken concern that they may receive less attention if they fail to meet the coaches high standards (skating performance as well as subtle aspects of behavior such as weight control). "Changing pros" is a wrenching experience, somewhat akin to a divorce. However, people do change coaches. My son, who expected to be the principal American male skater of his prominent coach, made the decision to leave when the coach took on a young newcomer, Scott Hamilton. Scott, who as almost everyone knows, went on to be the flag-bearer at the Lake Placid Olympics (Hamilton et al., 1999, p.109) and figure skating gold medal winner at the Sarajevo Olympics (Hamilton et al., 1999, p. 176), in turn left the same coach when the coach took on yet another championship aspirant. (Hamilton et al., 1999, p. 94)

    The officialdom

    Judges. Skating judges in this country are volunteer unpaid officials of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), and the USFSA is a member of a counterpart international organization the International Skating Union (ISU). Judges are appointed after demonstrating their capability by practice judging (trial judging), sometimes for very long periods of time. As in most organizational activities, there is a hierarchy, with several classifications or ranks of judges. The highest-ranking judges are referred to as "World Judges," and appointed by the ISU. Many judges are almost as highly involved in their participation as judges as are serious skaters in their training. These judges travel extensively and spend long hours at official tests and competitions. The time commitment of some judges rivals that of a full time occupation. Families can become involved. I know of one instance in which a pair of "skating parents" graduated into becoming "judging parents", and proudly came to events to watch their daughter who had become a prominent World Judge. Others are much more casual. Surprisingly, not all judges are skaters, although this is a changing trend. Judges are almost a society onto themselves. Many tend to know each other very well, especially at the higher levels; and skating events become an opportunity to greet old friends. In this sense, the atmosphere in the judging community is not unlike that of the serious skaters. Judges are intensely interested in skating and like to talk about what is going on. However, the public perception that judges enter into collusion to pick winners in advance (after all, the judgments are subjective) is totally unfounded. Judges are bound by a strict code of ethics that is taken very seriously. (The United States Figure Skating Association, 2000, p. 201) There has recently been a highly publicized exception, however, involving scoring in international ice-dance competition, that became the subject of an issue that is further discussed in a later section.

    Tests. Skaters must progress through a set of tests required by the USFSA in order to enter skating competitions. Skating tests are taken as a designator of identity by which one skater classifies another. On meeting another skater for the first time, the introductory discussion (after preliminaries such as where are you from) begins with "What test are you on?" and "Who do you take from?" (The latter is translated into "Who is your coach?"). In past years the tests were comprised of two components referred to as figures and freestyle. Figures have now passed into history (more about that later). Present testing is related to freestyle only (jumps, spins, footwork, artistry, etc.).

    Competitions. Test level determines eligibility for entering competitions. There are multiple categories designated by names such as Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, Junior, and Senior with separate events for men and ladies (in skating all skaters regardless of age are "men" or "ladies"). Also there are events for pairs and for dance. (See above in the section on Skaters.)

    The country is divided into three sections, and each section is further divided into three regions. Skaters qualify for entry into regional competition by test level alone. The first four finishers in each category qualify to go on to the next higher level, i.e. regionals to sectionals and sectionals to nationals. For example, the first four in "Uppers," "Eastern Great Lakes," and "Southwesterns" go on to "Mids" in the our part of the country, with the first four in "Mids" going on to "Nationals." (The translation of this jargon is that the first four finishers in the Upper Great Lakes, Eastern Great Lakes, and Southwestern Regional Championships, advance to the Midwestern Sectional Championships, and the first four placements at the Midwestern Sectional Championships further advance to the United States Championships). Similarly, the first three finishers (Senior events only) in the United States Championships ("Nationals") progress to the World Championships or to the Olympic Winter Games.

    I should also comment on the recent trend toward TV sponsored "competitions." Some of these are real competitions sanctioned and governed by the ISU. Others are nothing more than TV spectaculars, featuring well-known ex-competitors, and it is hard for the casual observer to tell the real from the artificial. This trend is driven by monetary commercial considerations, and as long as it is popular, it will surely continue. Members of the skating community surely know the difference.

    Skating Clubs The organizational unit in American figure skating is the figure skating club, and there are over 500 such clubs with over 150,000 members. (The United States Figure Skating Association, 2000, p. xvii) All skaters and officials involved in official tests and competitions must be members of a skating club, and as such members of the USFSA. Each club has its own local governing body and set of chairpersons who oversee tests, competitions, practice ice, etc. All club officials are volunteers as are the judges and officials. Many clubs sponsor local competitions, which are less formal and restricted than the regionals and sectionals described above. These club competitions may have events such as "Pre-Beginner Ladies Compulsory Moves," etc. The judges are official USFSA judges. Regardless of the level of the competition, skaters and their families take it almost as seriously as the Olympic Games.

    Non-USFSA skating

    It should also be mentioned that not all tests and competitions are governed by the USFSA and its clubs. The Ice Skating Institute (ISI) is "the organization of ice rink owners, operators, instructors, participants, builders and suppliers which supports the development and operation of ice rinks and provides and promotes recreational ice skating programs in the United States." (The United States Figure Skating Association, 2000, p. xix) It offers an outlet for less serious skaters and their families. The Professional Skaters Association (PSA) is "the organization of teaching and performing skating professionals, which provides and promotes the education and certification of figure skating coaches." (The United States Figure Skating Association, 2000, p. xix)

    Figure skating. A Competent Community

    I believe that in many ways the skating world is much like a community with similarities to many other encompassing activities. Many families would describe themselves according to strong attachments such as ethnicity, religion, national identification, etc., and these groupings represent non-geographic communities. Skating is similar. In many serious skating families, the participants are brought up as skaters One famous international coach from Italy (commenting on required school attendance) put it this way. "Where I come from, if you want to be a teacher, you go to school, and if you want to be a skater, you skate!." (Fassi, 1974) I still vividly remember that even world-shaking events did not interfere with attendance at practice sessions, which seemed amazing to us at the time (even though we, ourselves, were there). I also, remember surprise and annoyance of family members such as uncles, aunts, and grandparents who expressed resentment precipitated by their perception that skating sessions held priority over routine family obligations (such as regular visiting). Although such behavior and priority setting may appear obsessive to non-skaters, it is clearly understood and shared by other skating families (fellow members of this non-geographic community). Peggy Fleming commented that she and her family had no trouble understanding her skating coach who spoke broken English, since "he spoke skating, and so did we." (Fleming et al., 1999, p. 49)

    According to Fellin (1995, p. 4), "many people belong to one or more "non-place" communities," and he refers to these as "communities of identification" and "communities of interest." The skating community can be defined by both of these adjectival phrases. Community competence can be defined in terms of "capacity of a community to engage in problem solving in order to achieve its goals." (Fellin, 1995, p. 5) By this standard, the skating community is surely a competent community. The principal arena in which problem solving occurs is within the organizational structure of the USFSA. The organization divides its responsibilities among a number of expert committees derived from the organization's knowledgeable and dedicated membership. The committees meet regularly and frequently, and committee recommendations are turned into formal rulings by representatives of the entire organization at the USFSA's annual meeting each May. The "rules" are summarized in the formal "Rulebook" (The United States Figure Skating Association, 2000) which is reissued each year. Rule changes are so extensive that officials such as judges must pass an annual "judges test." All-of- this works well for the national level. A similar organizational structure exists at the international level through the ISU. Local problems are solved by club officials, coaches, parents, skaters, and rink officials working together, most often harmoniously.

    Examples of Issues and Problem Solving

    Abolition of compulsory figures

    There have been problems, however, that have presented difficulties. For example, the nature of the international structure makes it difficult for any person, club, or country to influence certain matters of importance to individuals in the community. A case in point concerned the removal of compulsory figures from skating competition a few years ago. Without going into a lot of detail, it can be said that "figure-skating" was originally defined by the precise skill that enabled the "drawing" or scratching of exact geometric figures (variations of the figure eight) on the smooth polished surface of the ice rink, followed by the retracing of the resultant figure with great precision. This skill became very highly developed and required many hours of daily practice over many years to develop. This activity became a part of the competition structure and champions were defined by the ability to skate both the compulsory figures and the freestyle (jumps, spins, etc.) with great skill in both of these rather disparate activities. However, figure skating flourished best in relatively wealthy countries where coaches and skaters could afford to spend many hours working on the figures. The United States tended to lead the world in the development of accomplished figure skaters, and many of our famous champions excelled in this phase of the sport. However, in the ISU, the United States had only a single vote, and could do little about it when figures were abolished. Almost all of the American coaches considered the loss of figures to be a significant mistake, and yet there was and is little chance of this ever being changed.

    Scoring in ice-dance competition

    In marked contrast, a situation involving the judging and scoring in ice-dance competition was quickly resolved by international cooperation catalyzed by television exposure of possible judging bias and lack of clear standards for judging in this specialty of skating competition. Extensive rule changes resulted in spite of the ponderous multi-leveled structure of the ISU. Therein lies a lesson for intervention. If television with its capability of massive communication can become involved, even big problems can be quickly addressed and solved.

    TheTonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident

    Similarly, the infamous incident a few years back, precipitated by the physical assault upon a potential world champion by allies of the husband of a close competitor, attracted world-wide attention because of television coverage, and public interest in skating was awakened to unprecedented levels. The USFSA leadership accepted their major responsibility and quickly took definitive action. They properly waited until legal decisions had been finalized, and then decided to allow Ms. Harding to skate in the world championships, but subsequently expelled her from further amateur competitive skating and expunged her status as Ladies Champion of the United States. Here again, massive publicity unquestionably hastened organizational action.

    Of course, on the local level problems are much more directly addressed. However, as in all communities, there is a power structure, and problems are more easily solved if protagonists can bring the power to their side. This is not always successful. My daughter is a vigorous (but often unsuccessful) community activist in the local skating community in Colorado Springs. Perhaps, some of the lessons I have learned in this course may help her win more of her battles in the future.

    A Hypothetical Issue

    Let's hypothecate a partially fictitious problem based on one of my daughter's unsuccessful efforts. Let's imagine a privately owned skating rink in a multipurpose building that had received a zoning variance based upon a stipulation that an ice rink would be included in the building and that skating instruction would be made available at reduced rates to economically disadvantaged children. Part of the imagined scenario would include a commitment to continue such activities for a period of five years. Let us further assume that the building that housed the skating facility had recently been resold to a private investor. The new owner found the rink to be unprofitable, and decided to close it, thus creating a problem affecting the children in the midst of lessons, the rink employees and the coaches, many of whom had moved to the area in order to teach at this facility. How might I as an activist approach such a problem?

    The first decision would be to decide whether or not this issue should be chosen? Is this the field where one should take a stand? If one chooses to follow the example of General George Armstrong Custer at Little BigHorn, then any problem might be chosen. However, Bobo et al. (1996, p. 18) points out that there are several considerations in choosing an issue, and he provides a checklist to help with this decision. Among these, the issue must be winnable. This one may not be. Property rights of the new owner are at stake, and it is unlikely that a zoning board would insist that a private investor continue to sink money into a money-losing endeavor. However, perhaps ways can be found to mobilize the affected community so that the endeavor can stop losing money. Perhaps, a subsidy can be found to offset some of the costs. Such a subsidy might come from the governing agency that granted the zoning variance, or perhaps it might come from private donors. Perhaps the rink can become a free-standing rent paying entity that will somehow make its own way and relieve the new building-owner of the financial responsibility. It's worth a try. Let's go on with our hypothetical campaign.

    The next step is to develop a strategy. (Bobo et al., 1996, p. 20) Early in the course of the campaign it will be necessary to get some basic information. What is really involved? Would the new owner be willing to discuss alternatives wherein outside money would become available? Or is he determined to use the property for an alternate purpose? How much money is involved? Is the need temporary (to meet a current shortage only), or is it permanent, i.e., will a subsidy always be required? Getting the facts may be easy since affected rink employees (including present management) should prove to be natural allies in the endeavor. Alternatively, the information may be difficult to obtain without clear cooperation of the new owner. In any event such basic information is necessary if the campaign is to be continued. Next, what about allies? The community will become interested if the plight of the disadvantaged children is publicized. Can the natural interest of the news media be turned to an advantage? Can interviews on talk shows be arranged? What will the take home message be? If it is that the "cruel landlord" has no heart, the message will probably be of little avail. If, however, the message presents a "do-able" solution, then it may prove to be effective. In any event it will be necessary to clearly establish goals, develop organizational considerations, determine constituents, allies, and opponents, identify targets, and establish tactics (Bobo et al., 1996, p. 22).

    Reflection on all of the foregoing reveals an interesting point. This particular problem affecting the skating community cannot be solved by mechanisms within the non-geographic community itself, but will depend upon interaction with the geographic community in which this particular small subsection of the skating community resides. This conceptually demonstrates the interdependence of different communities. In this hypothetical instance, the detailed information on the structure of the skating community, which is the principal substance of this report, is of little help. At best, It may provide a source of some potential alliances. It is clear that structural knowledge of the affected geographic community will be required in order to successful pursue the postulated community intervention project.

    Reference List

    ESPN Chilton Sports Poll. 1996. Web citation,

    Professional Skaters Association. 2000. Web citation,

    Skate Coaches ListServe. 2000. Web citation,

    Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (1996). Organizing for social change. A manual for activists in the 1990s. Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press.

    Farris, J.A. Personal communication. (2000).

    Fassi, C. Personal communication (1974).

    Fellin, P. (1995). The community and the social worker. Itasca,Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

    Fleming, P., & Kaminsky, P. (1999). The long program : skating toward life's victories. New York: Pocket Books.

    Hamilton, S., & Benet, L. (1999). Landing it : my life on and off the ice. New York: Kennington Books.

    Nicks, J. Personal communication (1972).

    The United States Figure Skating Association. (1999). 1998-99 USFSA fact sheet. Colorado Springs, CO.

    The United States Figure Skating Association. (2000). The 2000 official USFSA rulebook. Colorado Springs, CO.