In the Eighties, Kenny Bodanis endured homophobic jeers for his love—of the challenge, camaraderie, and spotlight—of life as a male figure skater.
My decision to devote full-time hours to competitive ice dancing was made during what is a volatile period in anyone’s life: my early teens. These years also coincided with the peak of male stigma against this graceful but controversial sport—the early 1980s. The word “gay” was itself just coming out; the AIDS scare further fed homophobia. The assumption was: male figure skaters are gay, and gay is bad.
“Just look at them with their tight outfits and their Baryshnikov routines.”
I was constantly defending my heterosexuality; I wasn’t mature enough yet to know better, and to not care.
As desperate as I was to defend not only myself, but my sport as well, I was just as reluctant to invite even my closest friends to watch practices.
Ice dancing is enigmatic even to insiders. For the ignorant spectator—especially my teenage peers—little separates it from ballet. It didn’t help that part of my training routine involved working with a dance stylist, and ballet and ballroom specialists. I was ashamed that anyone interested in watching a workout would, instead of seeing the powerful jumps most associated with figure skating, watch me practice stretches, and run through off-ice work designed to perfect upper body movement.
If you weren’t doing triple axles, laymen couldn’t understand the work involved.
By the time I stopped competing and became a professional coach, I was nearly two decades removed from the reasons I signed up for my first group lesson: friendship, fun, and the awe of watching skating at its best.
I was drawn to the sport after watching my cousin perform at a local show.
Alone on the ice, followed by four spotlights, he skated to Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.” His outfit was green Lycra, with a sequins rainbow sewn from one shoulder to the opposite hip. He had the ice—as well as the attention of a few hundred spectators—all to himself. Between musical verses, all you could hear were his blades against the ice.
I was 7 years old, and enraptured.
As a beginner, my first few years were spent learning to skate in much the same way hockey players do: on two feet; on one foot; frontwards; backwards; weaving around little orange cones placed in face-off circles. The only difference was the equipment. I had no pads, no team logo on my knitted sweater, and my skates cost my parents triple the money laid out by hockey parents. I also didn’t wear shin pads covered by socks bearing team colors; I wore stretchy pants which were held under my boot by Velcro. As a figure skater, your form is as important as your speed.
While my outfits were relatively tame (one of my favorites was my one-piece jumper: black pants, white top, with my initials sewn in black sequins on my left chest), the young goalies, forwards, and defensemen waiting in the hallway were relentless. The taunts, the nudges, the ‘accidental’ trips in the corridor became so routine they were tiresome. My saving grace was my twenty-odd Figure Skating Club colleagues waiting in our changing room. Together, we ignored the goons. To them I wasn’t a “male” figure skater, or even a figure skater; I was their childhood friend.
Practice routines consisted of gathering in the changing room fifteen minutes before ice time and chatting about the stuff important to 10-year-olds: school, siblings, parents, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. On ice, a short warm-up was a gateway to sixty minutes divided haphazardly between private lessons; repeating jumps and spins until they were either successful or you just didn’t feel like falling anymore; performing routines to the soundtracks of “Chariots of Fire”, “Endless Love” (or, my choices: the themes from “Magnum P.I.” and “Hill Street Blues”); and everyone’s raison d’être: gossiping along the boards.
Our relationships would last for a decade. My on-ice friendships would provide the support I needed to deflect the ridicule facing a twelve year-old boy stuffing his figure skates into his 7th grade locker. The hallway teasing couldn’t erode the joy of sneaking onto the ice at 6am with two or three friends to glide around a half-lit rink for forty-five minutes before class started. It was an exhilaratingly secretive beginning to a school day.
As safe and respected as I felt among my peers, participating in year-end shows often pitted me against the clubs administrating adults. The battle between the Male Skater and the Degrading Costume was an annual affair. Being part of group numbers, matching costumes were given to all of us. While usually a fair effort was made to supply male-centric versions of the outfits to the boys, occasionally the experience bordered on emasculation. The worst scenario had me wear transparent stockings, and a leopard-skin patterned Speedo with a matching top which didn’t even cover my navel. It was demoralizing.
The outfits arrived the day before the show, sight unseen. My choice was to join my friends and their costumes and be part of the show, or drop out and sit in the stands. My love for performing and my devotion to those friendships pushed me to participate. That group photo is safely buried somewhere.
This fight for my fashion pride would follow me throughout my career. Even with my socially-slanted practice regime, I won a few silver medals in local and provincial competitions. While this may seem impressive, so few boys entered the sport there were often only three or four of us competing. Finishing second meant you were in the middle of the pack.
Eventually, my adolescent body would alter my career path. My bones grew faster than my muscles, and my knees paid the price for the hundreds of hours of jumping and landing. I was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease; the tops of my tibias were shattered. My life as a future Men’s Singles champion was over.
The option of becoming a Pairs competitor was equally bleak. While Pairs skating incorporates less complicated jumping maneuvers than Singles, the jumps are still there. Also, lifting a one-hundred pound female partner over my head as I traveled along the ice surface at twenty miles an hour would do my tibias no favors.
It was then I turned to the equally challenging, but far less jarring discipline of Ice Dancing. Simply put, it’s ballroom dancing on skates. The emphasis is placed on intricate footwork, rhythm and power, all while rarely straying more than a couple of inches from your partner. Jumps are reduced to hops, the height of lifts is restricted, and you are never allowed to throw your partner (although sometimes you really want to).
My knees would be used as supple springs instead of landing pads.
If I was to be forced to give up not only the jumping and spinning involved with skating solo routines, but also to leave behind ice time spent with my closest friends (Ice Dancers and Singles skaters don’t share practice schedules), I decided to fully devote myself in this new discipline. I was paired with a dance partner, and together we trained full-time for elite competition.
At the National Ice Dance Centre, gone were the hockey players taunting me from behind the glass, but also gone were the hours of gossiping about parents and school work.
Our eight-hour daily routine included ballet, ballroom dancing, strength and condition, and visits with a sports psychologist (where was he when I was negotiating the leopard-skin Speedo?). Despite being immensely proud of the hard work: thirty hours a week; the injuries—treated with Tylenol, ice packs, and foam padding shoved into my skates; and the success: we were eventually among the elite junior ice dancers in the province; I still kept my sport and my personal life separate. As open and accepting as my closest friends were, they were human. There were aspects of ice dancing which too easily opened themselves to ridicule, and—even at nineteen years-old—I didn’t need the hassle.
It didn’t help that the required competition rhythm that year was the polka. As much as I couldn’t fight the regulations which dictated I dance to an accordion with maracas accompaniment; I again desperately fought the costume choice: spandex leiderhausen. Ice Dance judges, however, are sticklers for tradition; wearing something other than what was expected would cost us valuable points.
My arguments backstage protesting the costume and the make-up (never let them see you sweat) only hinted at someone who could be difficult to work with. I was told to shut up and deal with it; it’s part of the the sport of ice dancing.
And so, few of my friends would ever see me skate.
As crippling as the mockery from outsiders could be, it was the pressure from within the sport which finally made me walk away from competition. The camaraderie which bound me to the sport as a youngster disappeared completely as the events became more important. Chatting with potential adversaries was frowned upon, despite the dozens of hours we spent on the ice together. The joy of performing eroded into the pressure of competing against a glass ceiling; a judging system partial to veterans assured newcomers a place at the bottom of the ladder. I had to either choose to commit several more years and hope for success, or get out. I decided to lose my amateur status, and teach professionally.
When any elite athlete chooses to leave competition, they rarely ever leave the sport entirely.
Once I became disenchanted with the pursuit of Olympic glory, teaching skating became a natural part-time job to bolster my income. Skating instructors, like tennis pros, earn an excellent hourly wage. Many former champions—some of whom used to be my competition—make extravagant salaries as full-time coaches, consultants or choreographers.
Thanks to my knees, I had never developed into a world champion as a Singles skater; thanks to my eventual lack of competitive will, I was never part of a world champion Ice Dance team.
Not only did I feel this lack of success limited my marketability as a full-time coach, I was also reticent to devote the rest of my life to the sport. While I loved figure skating, I found it difficult imagining a retirement-age me following 10-year-old around a face-off circle. Instead, I used the healthy part-time coach’s salary to lean on while I attempted to figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up.
I loved working with young skaters. I recognized their enthusiasm; identified with their attraction to leaving their school-work and classmates behind for a couple of hours and glide powerfully around an ice rink.
As my coach was for me in my early teens, I became my students’ sympathetic ear as they negotiated the trials of adolescence. I was their trainer, brother, and counselor for fifteen to thirty minutes a week. Whenever they cried after failing a test, or became frustrated with the sport, I would remind them to keep their sense of humor about them. Skating is a choice you make because of the joy it brings you, I’d say, and because of the friendships you build. As soon as the fun is gone, the sports’ purpose is lost.
My sense of humor is how I deal with most difficult situations now; difficult people as well. I’m sure it was honed thanks to those relentless young goalies, forwards, and defensemen waiting in the hallway a few decades ago.
I don’t regret never becoming Patrick Chan. Sometimes I do miss the performances, and the camaraderie, and especially the student-teacher relationships. But, that life provided me with the confidence and security I don’t think I would have otherwise developed.
Still, nearly twenty years later, I notice I’m reluctant to talk about my life as a male figure skater. I shouldn’t care. The sport—and that sport psychologist—gave me the tools and the sense of humor to deal with ignoramuses; and yet … .
I wear hockey skates on public rinks, now. Even as I write this post, I’m sure to hide the title when I’m in a café or other public area. Defending the male figure skater is no great cause, unless you’re facing a 7-year-old boy enthralled with what they’ve just witnessed at their local rink.
The courage to sign up has to come from somewhere. Even twenty years after I began, there is only a boy or two practicing among the girls—outnumbered 10 to 1, as we always were.
After practice, he’ll head to school and stuff his skates into his locker. When someone asks him what’s in the bag, he’ll probably tell a joke and quickly change the subject, as I always did.