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Tracing it Badly
This is the winner of the Writers' Union of Canada's annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers. And here are the judges' comments:
"`Tracing It Badly' is a beautifully rendered account of the life of a young figure skater. With light strokes it depicts her relationship with her ambitious mother and her own ambivalence to the cruel sport she finds herself part of. But we also see in action her abusive coach, and we travel with her and her mother to stay in tiny suburban bedrooms of other skating people and to small-town arenas to wait in the cold for aging male dance partners who may or may not show. The details are sometimes horrifying, but the touch of the author is deft and sharp and intelligent. There are excellent moments here, observed with fine wit, as the sad, evanescent world of young figure skaters is brought briefly and authentically into the light." (Greg Hollingshead, author of The Roaring Girl (Somerville House, 1995), was winner of the 1995 Governor General's Award for Fiction.)
"The language is consistently sharp and sparkling.a gliding dance on ice. This humorous work of non-fiction is an entertaining lesson in perseverance." (Makeda Silvera, author of Her Head a Village and other stories (Press Gang, 1994), is co-founder and managing editor of Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press.)
"`Tracing It Badly' authentically takes us into the world of competitive figure skating, at the moment when a young girl must choose between `ordinary' life and commitment to a rigorous apprenticeship. The writing is deft and perceptive, illuminating with humour and haunting, fleeting anecdote, the relationship between a daughter and her `skating mother' while at the same time exploring the complex nature of sacrifice. Like figure skating itself, `Tracing It Badly' seems effortless, almost breezy, but its success depends on hard-earned, cruel truths." (Merilyn Simonds, author of The Convict Lover (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1996), was nominated for the 1996 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction.)

How it all starts: with both of us in the hospital. I come out feet first, almost killing my mother. She says she isn't surprised, I kicked so much while I was in there she thought I was going to turn out to be a football player. A few years later, when fate and gender have determined what I'll do instead, my mother likes to say that I came out like that because I couldn't wait; I was saying: "Put my skates on, please!"

Don't mistake me. My mother isn't one of the pushy ones. But it's true that it often feels like her show. Skating is all about your mothers, really. The lobby is always filled with mothers. All smoking their brains out. If they're truly dedicated or else pissed off after some minor spat with another mother, they'll come out and shiver in the stands, premature arthritis be damned. The more fanatical ones position themselves permanently at the boards like troopers, barking commands.

My mother isn't like that. The closest she comes to being a typical Skating Mother is when she tells me to take off my sweater when I do my solo. She says I skate better with it off but I don't believe her.
My mother is obsessed with what I wear. I first realize that this can be a problem when I'm about eight. I don't yet feel the need to change before walking home from the rink: I'm oblivious to the outrageousness of short skating dresses that barely cover your ass. This time, though, I'm wearing an especially silly one-it has rows of white lace on the bum to match the rows of lace at the crown of the bodice. My mother loves this dress, and I don't bother to fight with her. It's her department. Besides, you can't see the lace unless the skirt swishes up-which is every two seconds when you're skating, but hardly ever when you're walking home.
Unless the kids from school ambush you and yank up the skirt around your ears. Which they do.
One of the girls pushes me towards the ditch, her voice a growl.
Fucking fag.
I begin to learn that language doesn't have to make sense to have power over you.

There isn't time to wash off all of the mud before my mother gets home, but I do manage to erase the most important trace, the footprint on the lacy butt. There are things she must be protected from.

So I'm an outcast. The fact that I can only go to school half days because I skate the rest of the time doesn't help.

Big deal. Who needs them? I am an initiate of a world with a membership, a rulebook, even a language, all of its own. Some nights I lie on my back and tell the words to the dark: loop, axel, salchow, chamois, layback, sitspin, toe pick, edge. Blue line or red line, long or short program, free style or figures. These are mysteries whose significance is known only to us, our coaches, our mothers. Choctaw, mohawk, three-turn. Shoot-the-duck, stag jump, Russian splits. It's amazing how allusive this language is for a sport that rarely, if ever, acknowledges the existence of the outside world. The eliminating rounds in competitions are called flights; jumps have take-offs and landings; when you skate badly, you bomb. But the lexicon is the only thing in skating that isn't completely literal-minded. As for us, we buzz around the ice like fighter pilots, devoid of irony. There isn't time. We have to watch it or our bodies quickly become obsolete as planes from a different war, no longer appropriate for combat.

Sacrifice is one word I get to hear a lot. And it's true, she does.
We spend a lot of our time on the road, chasing down men. Dance partners, coaches, judges: all are in mysteriously short supply. The partners are probably the hardest to find. By some freak of nature I possess the ability, at eight years old, to foxtrot with the best of the blue-haired set and to tango like Eva Peron. These, unfortunately, are blessings that have not been conferred upon by any eight-year-old boys in sight.
But the Canadian Figure Skating Association deems that boys are necessary. There are twenty different ice dances that you have to perform on designated Test Days, usually at a rate of two or three a year. You practice for hours and weeks and years on your own, but for those two Test Day minutes you have to be partnered.
Since there are no boys to do the job, we have to resort to men. But the ones who are sufficiently qualified are splattered all over the province: Espanola, Gravenhurst, Wawa, Hearst, Kapuskasing, Sudbury.
My mother and I drive for hours through the crazy Ontario winters to these godforsaken towns reeking of pulp and paper or silver and gold. We try to ignore the stories about people's cars running into moose on the same kind of desperate drives, sometimes the moose sustaining the most damage, sometimes not. We wait stoically outside of locked arenas for our dearly-bought assignations with the Princes of the hour. If their wheezing chariots do show, it's usually twenty minutes late, so our hour ends up cut in half. There are times they don't come at all. My mother says it's better to find out about these ones this way, because if they can't make it out to a practice in their own town, the chances that they'll arrive on time for my two minutes on Test Day in Timmins or North Bay are not stellar.

My picture's in the paper. I'm grinning, even though my two front teeth are missing. My hair cascades from two pigtails pulled so tight my eyes look like they're about to slide off the sides of my head. I'm in a dance position with my partner for the European waltz (I passed). He is from Thunder Bay and he's six feet, five inches tall. The top of my head grazes his belly button. It looks like I've joined the circus.
My mother and I go away for months or even summers at a time so I can train at better skating schools than the one in Timmins. While other people her age are building homes, careers, successful marriages, she's sharing tiny bedrooms with me in the suburban homes of other skating people. Both of us have to eat what we're given for dinner, or there'll be bad feelings. At night in our room, we listen to music that calms us: Abbey Road, Simon & Garfunkel, the soundtrack from Grease. Incredibly, we're able to fall asleep. But in the morning we wake at 5:29, clenched, ready as steel.
The times we're at home, my father often seems to make a point of staying away. I don't know where he goes.
My mother weaves her frustration into my skating dresses. What used to be the den is festooned with sequins, rhinestones, feathers, appliqués of various design, swaths of gaudy cloth. We're not just talking carnival costumes here, that inevitable annual procession of bunnies, leprechauns, hillbillies, greasers, aliens, flappers, and disco sluts. Those are costumes all the mothers have to make: there is no choice or artistry involved.
No, these dresses are her masterpieces, her contribution to my performances. I have a different one for every competition, every Test Day. Every free style routine, every dance. She spends countless hours designing them, sewing them, and then adorning them with beads that we choose together at Fabricland on Friday afternoons.
Or rather than countless, say endlessly counted. The all-time record is the egg-white "Bridal Dress": 120 hours. For that one she detached all of the brocade flowers from her own wedding dress and sewed them on to the stretchy new cloth by hand. Then she sewed tiny silver stars all over each petal of each flower and then a single pearl over each star. Flowers, petals, stars, pearls-how many times?

Get off the ice, you little piece of shit. I don't want to have to look at you!
If you didn't have such a fat ass to pad your falls, maybe you'd stay on your feet more often! You call that a goddamn Novice-class performance? I could do better than that blindfolded! Why don't you go back to the rock you crawled out from under?

That's Steve. Some people say he's the best coach in Canada, which is why my mother and I are spending the summer here, six hundred miles from home. He's only my occasional coach, but whenever he comes over and stands at the end of my patch, my legs turn to noodles. No matter how many times I go around the same stupid circles, I can't trace properly, my blade refuses to ride the groove. My patch ends up looking like a faulty Etch-a-Sketch rather than the perfect, pristine document he wants. I never was any good at colouring inside the lines. I secretly believe that I'm too smart to be a really successful skater. Thinking too much is just about the worst thing you can do in this sport. If you think about it, jumping up into the air with knives tied to your feet and spinning around three times before trying to land on one leg IS a pretty absurd aspiration. That's why thinking is discouraged. Don't think, just do is Steve's motto, long before the world has traded in its Adidas runners for Nikes.
He does have brilliant ideas, but they all seem designed to mortify us. He has a video camera so we can watch our lousy jumps over and over again: forwards, backwards, slow motion, pause. Every movement, every momentary position of every minuscule body part: it's all dissected. Bystanders are welcome to watch. And then there's the glorified jolly jumper which he hangs from the arena roof. This is not, apparently, an instrument of torture but rather a tool to improve our jumping technique. With it, we can experience what it feels like to leap twenty feet into the air while he hoists us up like oversized marionettes.
But don't worry-Steve's concern with our athletic attributes doesn't lead him to overlook our aesthetic ones. As part of our training regimen (we do six hours on the ice, three hours off, every day), he implements body fat testing. This is still the early eighties, you can't yet go out and get the same kind of humiliation rush for a modest fee at your local YMCA. He posts the results on the board. I'm not quite at a point in my life where I have to worry about this; the onset of my puberty has been stunted (according to popular wisdom, otherwise known as Skating Science) by the cold arenas.
I worry anyway.
And he orders me to chop my hair. Though the stuff has always been a battleground for us, though every competition has been preceded by two tortuous hours of her sticking bobby pins into my scalp, my mother and I mourn. We both stare hard into the mirror at nothing, trying not to hear the sound the familiar brown rope makes when it falls to the floor.

Skating in Orillia isn't very much fun, because everybody's as good as me or much better. I fall down during a lesson and I stay there, splayed out on the ice, trying to clown my way out of embarrassment. A world champion whizzes by on his way out of a triple axel and I feel his blade graze the distended middle of my worn woollen glove.
I take to skating around and around in circles, suddenly afraid to try the jumps I've been landing for years. At first I'm just afraid of failure, of the mortification involved in plastering myself all over the ice. But eventually I become afraid of the jumps themselves. People start to say it: Mental block. I skate by Steve and I hear him say, "There goes Melanie Do-Little."

Steve, of course, has a core entourage of mothers who hang out at the boards. Once, he hit this little Kimberley kid across the face with the back of his hand. I don't know why. After her lesson was over I watched as her mother beckoned him over to her with a curling finger. Finally, I thought, he's in for it. I skated in that direction and did a layback spin right in front of them so I could hear.
Next time, hit her harder was what she said over the blood rushing in my ears.

I'm sitting in a green plastic lawnchair thinking of how happy I'll be to get out of our roach-infested cabin when my mother informs me that we're staying in Orillia. I'm speechless. I start high school in two weeks. Here, I guess. She goes down to the rental office with her cheque and I just stare after her, stare up at the sign. Restful Camp. It sounds like a cemetery. The scary part is that she thinks this is what I want.

Some mornings, after I press Snooze for the seventh time, I have this dream. It's better than dreaming that you win the lottery or your parents have been relocated to Orlando, Florida but when you realize it's not true it's even more heart-rending than your alarm going off while you're in the middle of a wet kiss with Sting.
I'm at the rink, an old one, and the details are all there, right down to the smell of the boards and the waxy look of the blueline. I'm wearing the Frankenstein dress, the one made from my mother's reanimated wedding gown. The ice has just been flooded and there's still a fine layer of water on its surface: I can hear the slice of my blades as they cut through it, kayaks on a northern lake at six o'clock in the morning. No-one else is out of the dressing room yet and the ice is a fresh page, it gives me courage. I pick up speed and ride my backwards right edge, left leg extended behind me as if to test the air. I step forward onto a bent left leg and I'm up, I've done the three full rotations, and I'm back on my right outside edge, except this time my left leg is lifted up behind me in victory, my back a perfect arch of triumph. A flawless landing. A 6-point-0 perfect double axel! Of course, by this time the whole lobby is crowded, the mothers are all grinning at me through cigarettes and Plexiglas. I go through all my hardest jumps: double salchow, double loop, double toe wally, double flip, double lutz. And then, incredibly, a triple cherry flip. My coach comes over and gives me an ecstatic embrace, I know I'll never miss a jump again, but then he is sticking his tongue in my ear and I wake up. I have to drag myself out of bed now, hollow and disappointing as an empty tub of ice cream left in the freezer.

I gulp my breakfast under the morning's black roof, worried that my mother might be mad because I took so long to get up. But she comes out smiling as if we shared a wonderful secret, as if she'd really been in the lobby of my dream. "I'm so proud of you," she says, for no reason in particular.

Melanie Little lives and writes in Vancouver. She did doctoral work in Canadian literature at the University of Toronto and is working on an MFA in creative writing at UBC. She is on the editorial board of PRISM international and will serve as co-editor of PRISM in 1997-98. She quit figure skating when she was sixteen. She dropped $750 on a new pair of custom-made figure skates two years ago but has only used them once, for fifteen very painful minutes. The time-honoured trick of wearing wet socks inside the skates in order to soften the new leather no longer strikes her as a reasonable pursuit.


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