An interview with the legendary Dick Button. What hasn’t he done? He’s practically the father of our sport (if Jackson Haines were Grandfather). The two-time Olympic Gold medalist invented many of the jumps and spins we see today, and he invented figure skating commentary. He’s a skater, producer, commentator, actor, truth-seeker, hall-of-famer, stirrer-upper, and figure skating’s biggest fan. This episode focuses on his new book Push Dick’s Button, a fantastic book that is a really wonderful conversation on skating. 55 minutes, 51 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
AM: Allison Manley
DB: Dick Button
AM: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Manleywoman Skatecast. I’m your host, Allison Manley, and this is Episode 73, an interview with Dick Button.
That’s right! You heard it, here it is! Any longtime fan of my podcast knows I have been chasing this interview for years. Years! And it only took writing a poem, some polite stalking, a pinch of begging, and quite a bit of persistence and tenacity — and let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt that he was trying to spread the word about his new book. All I know is that I’m thrilled to have been finally able to interview him. So, in case you don’t know his many accomplishments, I’m going to list them off first.
Here is the general overview of what Dick Button has done for this sport. He was the first skater to have won the men’s novice, junior and senior titles in three consecutive years. He was the first skater to land a double axel. He was the first skater to land a triple jump, which was a triple loop, and the first male skater to perform a camel spin. And he was the inventor of the flying camel spin, also known as the Button camel. He’s the only American to win the European title. He’s the first American world champion, the first American to win the Olympic title in figure skating, the first and only American back-to-back champion. He is the first and only American skater to simultaneously hold all of the following titles: national, North American, European, World and Olympic. That’s five. He’s the youngest man to win the Olympic title in figure skating, at age 18, and it shocks me still that this record stands today. He is the winner of the Sullivan Award. In the 1960s he began doing television commentary, and has been gracing our television sets for decades since. He was inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame in 1976, which was the initial class. He won an Emmy Award in 1981 for outstanding sports personality/analyst. He was a producer of skating shows including The Superstars, which was the first of the reality shows. He starred in movies and on television, and on the stage.
The autobiography he wrote in 1955 is a fount of knowledge, and is incredibly well written. I highly recommend that you all find a copy and give it a read. And, of course, he is the author very recently of Push Dick’s Button, a fantastic book that is a really wonderful conversation on skating.
Dick and I decided to do this interview in two parts. The first will be focused on his book and all the ideas within. The second part will focus more on his career and life in skating, and will follow at a later date to be determined. Anyone who knows my podcast knows that I’ve been dying to capture his voice on tape for the fans. So, ladies and gentlemen, may I present — Dick Button.
AM: All right, Dick Button, are you ready?
DB: I am.
AM: So, thank you so much for your book. It’s wonderful. I have to ask, why did you write it at this time?
DB: And my question to you is, what do you mean by “at this time”? Are you saying that I’m a very old poop [laughs] and therefore don’t have any understanding of what the hell is going on in today’s world? Or are you asking it because it’s been a long time since I have written? I wrote a book in 1952 or 1954, when I was a very young person, and then I did one other paperback kind of book a couple of years later. I don’t understand the question “at this time”? I mean, what does that mean? Am I missing something?
AM: I guess it is curious that it has been such a long time. I do actually have the book from the 1950s, and I think it’s interesting that the book that you chose to release now, rather than being a biography or an autobiography, is such a conversational book. So I suspect that you felt the need to have this conversation, so that’s why I’m asking. Is skating frustrating you to the point where you felt like you had to tell these opinions?
DB: I’ll tell you what it really is. Number one, it was in the past exceedingly difficult for me to write. The advent of the computer and the lectures that I give on gardening introduced me to an entire new way to write. If you write on your computer, you can erase things, you can change things, you can move things around, and you don’t have to rewrite painfully every single word. So the system and the ability to write was exceedingly pleasant. Then I also have a very good friend who had gotten me a major contract ten years ago, that was with Simon and Schuster, and I had a great opportunity to write a very good book at a very high-priced contract. And that was at the same time that I had gone skating on New Year’s Eve, and fell and fractured my skull, and got concussions and lost the hearing in my left ear. And I also had a co-writer with me, and it didn’t work. We just didn’t work out. In other words, it was too much. I couldn’t handle it at that time. It took me about two or three years to really get my act together and to recoup from that fall.
So the important thing was, this same lady, who is a great friend of mine and who got me that contract, her name is Pat Eisemann-Logan — I finally said to her, Pat, what can I do for you? And she said, I’ll tell you what you can do. I would like it if you would come and sit on the couch next to me and tell me what the heck is going on with what we are watching. So I sat down one day and I just wrote out a couple of things, a few chapters, and she said, yeah, that’s terrific. And I love it because, number one, it doesn’t have to be The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire of Skating. It is a simple conversation. Conversations are meant to be interrupted, to have answers, to have somebody kvetch about it. Conversations can range from any subject to any subject, and that’s why I like the idea of this. I did not want to do a history of skating, which others have done before this, and I did not wish to do a biography. I think there’s far too much more of great interest around the world of skating. I wanted to do what subjects came up to my mind, what it is to watch for at the Olympics, and most of the questions you’ve asked me about this are all in that book. So it was a very pleasant experience for me, I enjoyed it no end, and I’m happy to have done it and done it the way I did.
Although I will tell you that there are three books that you write and three skating programs that you skate and three pictures that you paint. They are, number one, the book you plan, number two, the book you do, and number three, the book you wish you’d done [laughs]. So if you can put up with that, you’re a good gal.
AM: It does seem to have worked out that this is the book you wish you had done. You seem very pleased with it.
DB: Oh, yes, but there’s a lot of things that I . . . listen, if I had started with all the things I made notes of, I would have had six more volumes [laughs]. I don’t think so.
AM: Well, I do love the fact that even though it’s not biographical, that you have a lot of sprinklings of your history in there. I mean, I think that’s a great addition to the opinion pieces that are in there, because there’s definitely opinions in there as well.
DB: Well, it’s a conversation. It covers whatever’s on your mind. The one chapter that many people have criticized, they say, we know what jumps are, you don’t have to put a chapter in there saying the different jumps. But my doctor said to me, “Dick, my daughter skates and we all really like watching the skating, but I can’t tell one jump from another, how can I do that?” And it annoyed him. So I put in this brief explanation, if you don’t know what a jump is, there’s three or four or five or six pages of it, and if you already know which jumps are which — skip over it! This is not the end of the world book. This is not the end of the world subject. It is a conversational piece. And I hope like the devil that people can figure out that they can learn something from it. Because I enjoyed very much doing it.
AM: Well, great. And I do want to ask you some questions about it, obviously without giving away too much, because people should buy it and read it, of course [laughs].
DB: [laughs] Well, we don’t have long enough on this conversation, so go ahead and spring your questions.
AM: Well, one of the things you are concerned about is losing the theatrical part of skating. And I wonder, from a competitive standpoint, how you think it can be preserved. There are a lot of people trying to preserve it outside of competition, but in the competitive arena, what are your thoughts on that?
DB: Let me also start out by saying that competition, the Olympic Games which we’re about to start into in another day or two — they get the most audience. Figure skating and dancing, they’re kissing cousins, and figure skaters have the opportunity to become instantly famous and household names. Dancers don’t have that. So if a figure skater has that opportunity, and the Olympic competition is there, it’s marvelous that they take part and do it. However, figure skating is a complete sport. It’s a sport that has music, choreography, costuming, performance level, story level — it has so many different aspects that are intimately intertwined with each other. Figure skating is theatre, and I don’t care who tells me that it’s not. The head of the ISU, the head of the Olympic Committee, and a lot of guys get all honked about it and say it’s not a sport. Well, don’t watch it! If you think it’s not a sport, don’t watch it, and I couldn’t care less. However, the point is very simply that it is all of these things. It is theatre, it always has been theatre, and it will always continue to be theatre. And that is the very reason that makes it so popular at the Olympic Games.
Now the reason I’m saying this is, there’s an old saying that Oleg Protopopov used to tell me all the time, and that was, “Deek! Deek! You cannot have artistry without technique. But neither can you have technique without artistry”. The old votes, the old judging system had two marks. They were for technical merit and for artistic impression. The new marks, in essence, if you really want to see what the icing on top of the cake is, the subterfuge of it all, is they have all the marks that you get on your point system first, and then they have the component scores. Have you ever read the component scores?
AM: I have.
DB: Then you know that they mix together choreography, step sequences, footwork, et cetera, et cetera, and they have something like 27 or 28 different criteria to figure and allot to a skater’s program within about two seconds. That’s almost an impossible thing. And also, you will never know what it’s about because it’s secret. All I’m saying is that yes, there are many other organizations — there’s Disney on Ice and Stars on Ice and individual singles skating here and there, and there’s ensemble skating with the Ice Theatre of New York, and there’s synchronized skating, and there’s all kind of things. But it’s the theatrical performance level that mesmerizes us. I mean, why did we look at Katarina Witt? Not only was she sensational looking, but she had personality and pizzazz. Let me ask you a question. Why is Evgeni Plushenko such a hot subject? I’ll tell you why. Because he has personality. He’s a great jumper, not a great spinner. But he has personality. He has pizzazz. And you can’t take your eyes off him, watching what he’s going to do. He will bamboozle you with his wrist movements . . .
AM: He’ll make you think he’s skating with those wrist movements [laughs].
DB: Of course, I’ve seen him do that half a dozen times. He stops and does a bunch of fancy wrist movements around his belt line, and that’s supposed to be great theatrical skating or something. Let me tell you something. Who is it that you want to watch at this Olympic Games? Who is it they are looking forward to watching?
AM: Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown.
DB: You mean you want to see the competition between them.
AM: The competition between them, but I think both are so wonderful. They bring something so different.
DB: Absolutely right. And so do half a dozen of these skaters. I think what you really want to see also is [Meryl] Davis and [Charlie] White and how they impact the show. And who do we remember out of the past? Come on, you remember the stars that had pizzazz, that had presence, that grabbed you. There’s a whole chapter in my book there about entrances and exits, and it’s all about the difference between an Irina Slutskaya entering the skating arena — the first thing she does is skate over to her coach, takes a swig of water, high fives her coach, and adjusts the pants on her dress. And the next thing she does is blow her nose. Now, come on, is that theatre? That’s not a humdinger of an entrance. The point is that, how does Katarina Witt do it? She doesn’t lose for one moment the presence, the theatre aspect of it. And the gal we remember most of those two has gotta be Katarina Witt. And that’s why there’s a chapter in the book called “Where Are You When We Need You, Katarina Witt?” And . . . what else can I tell you? [laughs] This is my favorite rant.
AM: You’re passionate and I love it. I love every minute of it.
DB: Well, come on, you know, it’s a fun activity. It’s a very complicated activity. It has so many elements to it that you simply cannot avoid any one of them. And the level of performance is one of those characteristics.
AM: Yes. Well, you are a vocal critic of the judging system, but I am curious because you have said that there are parts of it that you think are worth preserving. What parts would that be?
DB: Well, for example, I think you should always have a markdown if you fall. Right now what we are seeing is — how many people fell in the last  National Championship, both men and women, in the different parts. How many people fall down?
AM: Not a lot this year, actually.
DB: Well, Ashley Wagner, she did. But you’re being rewarded if you do a quadruple jump and you fall down but you’re rotated almost enough to complete the thing in the air. This is all part of Ottavio Cinquanta’s desire to — if he had his way, he would not have any judges there at all, and it would all be based on points and timing.
I would like the fact that there would be no reward at all for a fall. And a deduction if you fall down. I write about this in my book, there was a communiqué from the ISU explaining what falls were. You don’t know what a fall is, I don’t know what a fall is, certainly. But this rule came out and then three months later, there was — I mean, the question was, what part of the body was the fall on, was it on your bottom, was it on your core, and if you were on your fanny, were you on one buttock or another buttock or were you on both buttocks [laughs]. And then along came three months later this explanation, this clarification, and then changes to the rule that explained what a fall was [laughs]. So you have to read all that to understand the sense of the nit-picking.
Now listen, let me tell you something else, and I write about this in the book . I challenge you to count — take one of the ladies anywhere, not necessarily Ashley Wagner, but start with a young lady and start counting the number of times when they’re doing step sequences and all of those wonderful things, where they raise either one or the other or both arms over the level of their shoulders. And if you start counting, my bet is that you will get to 20 very, very quickly, and then you can stop. They’re like flailing windmills. That’s exactly the point. That does not augur well, in my book.
First of all, there’s just gotta be less talk about it. Why do you have to have something that is exactly two minutes with so many seconds on either end of it? That isn’t the way. You should have one program that is your technical program, and one program that is your creative or other program, but neither one should be acceptable or be able to be marked well unless it has the qualities of the other one. One should be of technical merit and one should be of — the old judging captions, artistic impression, they are in a sense that way now, they’re just called something different, it’s technical marks and the program components.
AM: So I wonder, you do outline at the end of the book your wishes and suggestions for better scoring, and they do include that the two programs should be different and that there shouldn’t be a time limit.
DB: Put it this way, there should be a time limit, but a generous one. I mean, during the World Professional Championships, we recorded the length of time of every skater, and only once did somebody ever go over, I think, maybe four and a half or five minutes. So if you have three and a half minutes or four minutes, a generous thing — what difference does it make? Why do you just have to limit yourself? This is just the one program, not the technical program, the artistic impression program.
AM: Well, I’m curious, what do the powers that be think about your ideas? Have you gotten any feedback?
DB: No, I don’t have feedback, because they . . . Ottavio Cinquanta does not want any subjective judging there. Remember, he is a speed skater, and all he can see — number one, he has two goals to his agenda. And once you understand a man’s agenda, you will understand what he will do. His agenda is to have, number one, to never have another scandal like we had in Salt Lake at the pairs skating competition. And number two, he’s all for eliminating anything subjective about the sport. He would like it to be like speed skating. You get over the line first, you’ve won. Now that is not figure skating. And besides he’s said it too many times, and he’s the one who put the new rules system in. My chapters go into all of that and show the chicanery that was involved with it. And now because he [laughs] made a contractual offer and placed every officer in their position for an additional period of time, he will now remain as head of the ISU until the year 2016. It’s a chapter in the book as well.
AM: You have always been an advocate for great spinning. You’ve talked about Dorothy Hamill, Lucinda Ruh, Ronnie Robertson, so I have to wonder, that in the new judging system, it has to be nice that at least you see the spins getting rewarded even if you don’t always love the positions.
DB: Well, I find that the multiple levels — you know, everything that you look at, there’s a grade of execution, there’s a level of difficulty. If you add more moves and turns into your spin, you get more points. But nobody gets points for blurred spinning. Nobody gets points for the things that used to make the audience stand on their feet and cheer. Spinning is just as important as jumping, and it’s one of the two major technical elements in skating, the other being jumping and then of course there’s spinning. And when you see somebody moving from position to position and changing their edges, all that sort of thing, you’re not looking at the spin. At least have one spin that reflects the total true quality of a fast, delayed, long lived spin, where everything counters on the centering and everything counters on the blurring of it and on the finishing of it. Look, I don’t have to have everything that I like, it’s what other people like too, but I will tell you, there’s very little to cheer for when you get a 243.8 personal best score. That doesn’t give the average person an understanding of what the heck the score is all about, except that somebody else can get 283.9. And I trust that was more than the first number I gave [laughs].
AM: Well, I’ve actually always wanted that. I’ve always wanted there to be at least one spin that was skaters’ choice, if you will, that they could do just for choreographic effect. Just like they’ve finally done with the step sequences, where you can just do one that you don’t have to do without so many turns and flailing and windmilling, but it’s one that just works with the music.
DB: Well, there’s very little — you can’t really create things that are unusual or unexpected or different and expect to get anywhere under the current judging system.
AM: Well, you have of course mentioned before that the ISU needs to be split, that skating shouldn’t be run by a speed skater any longer. It’s going to be a while, of course, since Ottavio wrote his own contract . . .
DB: Well, of course he did, and nobody stood up to him. Nobody was able to stand up to him because he has cultivated so many federations which are all speed skating federations which get their money from figure skating. So what do they care? Why would they care what the rules for figure skating are, any more than a figure skater would care less whether the speed skating race is another 50 meters or not? That’s up to the speed skaters to understand that. And the very fact that they — did you know that there are over 80 federations in the world of skating?
AM: I didn’t know there were that many.
DB: Over 80, and most of them all — the majority either are speed skating or joint speed skating and figure skating. And they get money from figure skating, the ISU pays them money from figure skating. And the end result is that of course they’re going to do what he wants.
AM: Do you think there’s anyone out there right now who can challenge him, who can be the next great leader, to separate the two?
DB: I think probably everybody is scared beyond belief. You see, the impact of the Olympic Games is always the most publicized event, but I can guarantee you, even the world championships which are taking place after the Olympic Games, they’re not going to be on live. They’re going to be in about two weeks in a summary program on NBC. Now maybe there’s some obscure cable system or Ice Network that will show them, but you have to buy that cable system. I’m sure there will be recordings of it. But [laughs] here’s a world championship that will be coming up a month later than the Olympic Games. Wouldn’t you think it should deserve — and it used to always be very much of a highlight. Now it’s sloughed off and it’s shown a week or two weeks later after the world championship is over. I don’t like that.
AM: I don’t either. All right, well, let’s move on from the judging and talk about which skaters for you right now are really exciting. You’ve mentioned Davis and White.
DB: Well, look, let me tell you something. My book covers a point about to wilt or not to wilt. When you have somebody who simply does not wilt, that in itself is exciting. And many a time, those people that can rise to the occasion, and suddenly pull together a program that is phenomenal — it’s what you want to see. I mean, I found myself rising out of my seat when Jason Brown performed, because he in a sense broke the rules. It will be very interesting to see how he fares in this international competition, when he has competition from not only Jeremy Abbott but from Chan, Plushenko, Denis Ten, Javier Fernandez, and the Japanese skaters. It’ll be very interesting to see how he compares in that to them. Remember, the National Championship is one where it’s a single country. And there aren’t countries that are vying to improve their lot because that’s the way they get money from the ISU. It’s a different situation. I hope like the devil that he does brilliantly. I find him a fascinating skater and I was entranced by the choreography. And the choreography was done by Rohene Ward. I remember talking to him a couple of years ago, saying, you are going to keep on skating, aren’t you? And he said, no, I’m not. And I felt that was a great loss. I’m very happy now to see him back in force as a choreographer.
AM: Yes. And I’m happy to see someone, that he has a student that can interpret that choreography so well. Because, you know, Rohene was a very unusual talent, and oddly enough Jason has a lot of the same qualities, with his extreme flexibility and his showmanship.
DB: Wait a minute. Are you telling me that that flexibility can’t be gained by other people? They can, if they would understand what that is and follow that.
AM: No, but I think Rohene was very unusual for a male skater to be able to use it to choreographic effect.
DB: Why as a male skater?
AM: Well, because most men, if they could do the splits like that, they certainly wouldn’t lower themselves on the ice and pull themselves back up and do a lot of — Johnny Weir could lift his leg all the way up before a lutz, too, just like Jason and Rohene can, but it is unusual.
DB: Well, that’s because they don’t follow that either. If you look at the number of skaters among the ladies that . . . well, look, there’s a totally developable way. Guys can learn. You see it in gymnastics, for heaven’s sake, If they do it, why can’t figure skaters? Look, this is called the development of the — right now, I can guarantee you there’s very, very little of the component score voting for some of the stuff that Jason Brown did. He was marvelous in the fact that he did not open his program with the single most difficult jump that he could. I’m really fascinated to see how the international version of this will work out, the international competition coming up in the Olympic Games.
AM: So you did mention that he is a bit of a rule breaker in that sense, and you have said in your book that rules are made to be broken. And you did use Torvill and Dean as a perfect example of that, of course, from 1984. Is there a rule that you see right now that you wish someone would break, or push a little more?
DB: Yeah. If you look at the rules of the component scores, you will see that, number one, they include skating skills, transitions/linking footwork and movement, performance and execution, choreography, and composition. Now what is the difference between choreography and composition, and transitional and linking footwork and movement, et cetera? I mean, aren’t these the same things?
AM: To me they are. To me it’s semantics.
DB: That’s right. And isn’t it better to have a skater develop that through their own intelligence rather than having to control those step sequences through it? And the linking movement and the linking footwork? And the transitions and the linking movement? [laughs].There was a wonderful English lady who would always comment on English television, and she had a very high voice, and when it came out, linking movements, we were all happily amused [laughs].
AM: Well, that’s a good challenge for the next person listening to this, to try to push those boundaries a little bit per Dick Button’s request. All right. So, you have a chapter on music choices, and there are a lot of choices as you know that are constantly overused and that we are all tired of hearing about. So is there a piece of music that you have never gotten tired of hearing, that you feel is underutilized?
DB: Look, these pieces of music are time-honored pieces of music. So if you look at, for example, Swan Lake, I still will go, when I go to the theatre in the winter time, I still will go to New York City and see Swan Lake. I mean, it doesn’t stop any more than certain songs that you get tired of. It is the way they’re developed, and I do a whole thing in this book on the development of music by the skater, and whether they understand what the music is saying. And when you pick a piece of music like Carmen or Swan Lake, it comes with over a hundred years — one comes with much more than a hundred years and one comes from close to a hundred years — of very fine history and development and interpretation. Are you telling me that because six skaters do it within a two-year period of time that you’re tired of it? I find it’s that the skater hasn’t developed it. We’re always seeing different interpretations of dance, and if you get tired of Swan Lake being done, then try to bring a great quality into it that makes it sing. Swan Lake is wonderful for skating because it has long sweeping movements. It is not Irish clog dancing or step dancing.
AM: Well, I think if you’re going to pick, and this is my opinion, but I think if you’re going to pick one of the commonly used pieces, you better make it good and different and that’s what I think — Samantha Cesario, I don’t know if you saw her program, when she did it this year at Nationals I thought it was fantastic. And I am not a fan of using Carmen because I think that after Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt had the battle of the Carmens, you’d better leave Carmen pretty dead. You know? [laughs]
DB: But one of the things is, you have to understand what the music is. I write about this in the book, and I talk about Mao Asada who is a lovely skater and a very nice person. But she had all the white feathers and all the music, et cetera, but there was no understanding of the movement of a swan in that. There was no understanding of the history of Swan Lake. I mean, you can’t have a program that has been performed for more than one hundred years now, nearly one and a half centuries, in great companies with great choreography and great sweeping music, and not understand what that performance level is. You must understand the music, you must be able to — and there are different interpretations of the music, different orchestrations, there are many times different ones. Whatever the piece of music it is that you choose, you can find sometimes more than one interpretation, and unfortunately we don’t hear about that on the commentary, I don’t think.
AM: Is there a piece of music you would like to hear more?
DB: Look, that’s like saying is there a great skater that I’d like to see more of. Always! Always. I like great skating. That’s all I’m saying, I like the best. And I want to be — it’s theatre, it’s athletic ability, it’s competition, it’s technical demands, it’s music, it’s choreography, it’s costuming, it’s the whole kit and caboodle. And I guarantee you, do you think they’re going to cut out — I wouldn’t be at all surprised, if Ottavio Cinquanta had his way, that he would make everybody wear the same costume for the team competition.
AM: They were talking about that. One of the articles this week was talking about putting all the athletes in Nike outfits [laughs].
DB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, remind me of one event I don’t want to see if that’s the case [laughs]. Oh, gawd. If you have a great product, don’t mess with it. Skating was a great product. Now we’ve messed with it so completely and for so long that it’s very disheartening. Remember, you’re not a member of the rules committee if you’re not making rules. If you’re a rule maker, you have to be making rules or otherwise you’re not a rule maker.
AM: [laughs] They got a little over-zealous. All right. Your commentary is epic. People still talk about it, they miss hearing you, your catchphrases have inspired a drinking game and compilations on YouTube. And you have gotten some heat for your comments such as “refrigerator break”.
DB: I’d like to address that. What the heck, would it have been better if I had said, it will give you an opportunity to make a toilet break? I don’t think so. A refrigerator break — you know, I think I got over 1100 letters from people saying that I had only said that, I wouldn’t have said that if this, that, and the other thing. And I wrote each one of them back and I said, look, Angela Nikodinov was a very talented skater, but she was skating against Michelle Kwan, and there is no problem coming in second behind Michelle Kwan, but she was coming in fifth, fourth, second, third, fourth, that sort of thing, floating around. But what she allowed you to do was to lose your sense of concentration on her. That’s where performance level comes in. She was a gorgeous, lovely skater, with wonderful technique and very, very beautiful on the ice. But she allowed you to lose your sense of concentration. She allowed you to switch off and take a refrigerator break. And after I answered that, I never heard anything more about it.
AM: But she did listen to you, though. Because she came back amazing the next year. She made you pay attention.
DB: [laughs] Well, that’s my gold medal. My gold medal is when I hear, when I make a criticism of somebody and then I see later that they have either improved it or changed it. One of the things I always said about Evgeni Plushenko was, way back in 2002, I said, he’s a wonderful jumper but he’s a lousy spinner. And the next year, or two years, I was at a championship, and he said, how are my spins? Are they better? So he was listening, and he made it good. And his spins were better. And that’s a great compliment to me, when somebody does that.
AM: So how many skaters would you say have come up to you and talked to you about your comments about their performance?
DB: Well, I had a lot of skaters say, can you point it out to me. One of them was Jason Dungjen and his partner, Kyoko Ina. Kyoko Ina had exquisite posture and stretch and arching of the back, and Jason was like a nice all-American skater without that same stretch. So when they did a pair move, hers was extended beautifully and his was not parallel to it. As soon as I pointed that out to him, he understood exactly what I was talking about, and I think they worked hard on it. So that was a great honor to me. That is my gold medal, my reward, when a skater will do that. And look, you really only criticize, I say this in the book, you really only criticize a skater if they’re talented. If they’re not talented, it doesn’t spark comment.
AM: Would you say the refrigerator break comment was the largest reaction you’ve gotten over the years from fans, or was there another one?
DB: It was one of them. Another one of them was when I commented one time about, I think it was crossing the street in New York, and everybody said, oh, you wouldn’t have said that if the skater that I was referring to wasn’t black. And come on, I encourage my kids to cross the street, I say, stop and look in both directions, otherwise you’ll get run over and then you’ll look like a pancake on that road. It’s about an awareness of your surroundings, and you’ve got to be aware of the surrounding effect in an arena. How many times do you see — go back and look at programs. That’s why some day I would like to see a great media museum of skating. Because if you go back and you look at these performances and you consider them, then you will never forget that. And it will apply itself, it will be another basis for another understanding of what it is that you’re doing.
Every position you take on the ice should be thought out. You cannot just do these positions where you see the skater come out and they take their position and the free leg toe is pointed behind and to the side of the skating leg — you know, the kind of position you take where one foot is flat on the ice and the other is on a point behind you. Look at the number of times you see, what is the position of that foot? Is it turned under, or is it not in an elegant position? If you want to see proper position, look at Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, and John Curry, and Janet Lynn, and Peggy Fleming. And Dorothy Hamill, who became an infinitely better skater after she had won the Olympics. I was a better skater after I had finally learned, long after I had retired, and learned from — there’s a whole chapter in this, it’s called “Open Your Eyes, Dummy.” And it was my opening my eyes which led me finally to understand what the heck skating was all about.
AM: Well, I would love it if we finally had a media museum with all those performances.
DB: There is the museum in Colorado Springs, but it doesn’t have any money. US Figure Skating is not really going to support it because they want to support skating today. But sometimes the education, the media education is imperative.
AM: Yes. Well, I am hopeful that one day will come to fruition, that there will be a central place where all that is housed, and it’s not just YouTube [laughs]. So, all right, your book, I sort of felt like as I was reading it, and this is sort of getting heavy here, I really felt that it was a metaphor for living a balanced and fulfilling life. It talks about centering yourself, breaking the rules, having a solid foundation, fighting the good fight, not wilting under pressure, and having a whole lot of fun. Do you view skating that way?
DB: Yep. You know, skating is no different than gardening, than painting, than anything else. You know, I hope you’ll come some day and see my garden lecture [laughs]. Then you can do a conversation on that for a different sport. But all of these things intertwine. Why do you dress the way you do? Why do you speak the way you do? Why do you live in a house, if you have the opportunity to live in a house, why do you choose the style of house you do? All of these are inherent in skating, and they are inherent in everything else. It is called not only what the eye beholds, it’s what the eye registers. One of my pet peeves is watching skaters take position in the center of the ice, when they skate down and they’re on one foot, and the other knee is bent. Time after time, you look at that particular entrance move on one foot, and it’s not a beautiful move, but yet there is every skater doing it. What is that move, what is that position supposed to be? If you ask the skater, what are you trying to express by that, are you expressing a welcoming moment to the crowd? You don’t have to be on one foot to do that. Take a look at it yourself, and I urge all your listeners to take a look at that, and take a look at the number of times an arm flings above the shoulder. And question each and every one. Peggy Fleming, always, I would see her in front of a mirror at a rink, constantly checking out the way she finished a turn or a pirouette, or made a turn, and how the dress worked with it. She was constantly looking at that. And you will find that she does not make a move even today without knowing exactly what that position is, whether she’s on skates or not.
Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov, and I talk about this in the book, I went up to Lake Placid where they were getting a lifetime achievement award, and of course the Lake Placid club or whoever it was didn’t have any money for publicizing it, and it was an almost empty arena. However, the Protopopovs skated in it as if they were skating for the King and Queen of England. And Oleg took an opening position with Ludmila, and you take one look — without them moving one inch, they took a position, and I said, that’s it, that’s their whole performance right there in that position. They were stunningly beautiful in that position. And they’re well into their 70s, and there was the story, right there. My problem is, I can’t look at skating — that’s one of the sickening things with having watched it for so long, is that I’ve seen extraordinary performances, Belita Jepson-Turner, Noffke and Schubach, pairs skaters who were champions of the US in the 40s, the movement, their parallelism of their moves was extraordinary. They couldn’t do throw axels and they couldn’t know what triple side-by-side jumps were and so forth, but their pair skating quality was without compare. I mean, it was just extraordinary.
All I’m asking the skaters to do, and everybody else to do, is to look at it, and say, why are we doing this? Each step, what is it supposed to do, and is it? Does it interpret the music and does it interpret — John Curry, we did a thing with Ice Theatre of New York, Dance on Camera, at Lincoln Centre over the weekend, and it was all about, it was a great deal of comment and production in the John Curry film of what he was teaching skaters and the way he was making them look at film. Slavka Kohout used to do that. She would take all her dancers in to see the ballet, or any other production that had dance movement in it. It wasn’t about seeing it, it was about registering it. And that’s the important thing. If there’s only one thing I hope for in this book, with a little bit of tomfoolery that you don’t get stuck into something serious, and, number two, that it opens your eyes.
AM: I love that. All right, I just have one more question for you, then, since we are just days away from the Olympics. I am curious what you think about the new team event.
DB: Oh, I don’t really think much about it at all one way or the other. I think if they want to do it, that’s fine. It gives a secondary skater a secondary choice, and it gives somebody who may not win a medal another chance to win a medal, and I’m fine with that. I don’t have any great problem with it. You know, God bless them, what they’re doing is trying to get another set of television exposure, and that produces money and blah blah blah. The one thing, though, that I did understand was that when the rules were not quite set in Budapest, at the European championships, the newspaper people were asking Ottavio Cinquanta what was the rule about such and such, and he said he didn’t know. He said, you have to ask the Russians about that. Well, hello! Are the Russians the ones that are controlling the sport? I mean, the Russians are a hell of a good skaters, and very efficient, and they’ve got a wonderful team going, but are they the arbiters of our sport? That’s my complaint. “I am a speed skater, I know nothing about figure skating.”
AM: I know, it’s incredible. Well, I agree with you that it’s wonderful that there’s another opportunity for skaters to get medals, because there’s just been the one chance all these decades. But I also don’t think that it was done for any reason other than ratings and money. I’m cynical enough for that. But I’m glad to see the skaters get another opportunity.
DB: Right. But you’ve also got to remember that that’s why figures are no longer with us. They didn’t bring in any money, nobody watched them, they took a lot of time, they were expensive, and they didn’t add anything to the income. So this is another one that adds to the income, and it really doesn’t change anything. I’m sure they’ll all do their same programs that they will do again. They’re not going to create a new program now. They might for another year.
AM: Maybe for the next round. But we’ll see. To be determined [laughs]. Well, I am going to take you up on your offer and invite myself to one of your garden lectures someday.
DB: [laughs]. All right. I just finished one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one at the Botanic Garden in Arizona, and I’ve done several in the New York area, in the New York and Connecticut area, and maybe there’ll be one in the early spring or so in a nearby city to New York. So I’ll let you know.
AM: Please! And as we’ve discussed I’m hoping to come out and see you in a couple of weeks, and do another interview more about you.
AM: And I hope that you’ll let me come up and take a look at your fantastic art collection of skating art.
DB: Oh, you’re more than welcome.
AM: I would love it.
DB: You’re more than welcome. You have a good one, my dear, and keep the faith.
AM: You too. Enjoy the next couple of weeks of good television.
DB: Thank you, ma’am.
AM: And there it is. I have finally had my dream of interviewing Dick Button. I can now die happy. I think. Although, as you heard, he did want to have another conversation later. So we will plan to do that.
And until next time —
May you be a pioneer with whatever you choose to do. May you be as opinionated and passionate about your life’s work as Dick Button is about his life’s work. And as he says in his new book Push Dick’s Button, on page 46, and yes, I’m paraphrasing just a little bit: don’t skate to Carmen.