An interview with Cecily Morrow. She’s a coach and former student of some of the best coaches out there (Carlo Fassi, Gustave Lussi, and Natalia Dubova). But her main and lasting contribution to the sport of figure skating has been her in-depth recordings of the teachings of Gustave Lussi and Natalia Dubova, through the video series Systematic Figure Skating (in four volumes) and Stroking Exercises on Ice. These invaluable resources are imperative for any skater or coach. We talk about how she captured these videos, and what Gus Lussi would have thought of IJS today. 1 hour
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: Well, that’s always a fun question [laughs]. But first, I want to thank you, Allison, for doing these interviews with people in the skating world. I think you are really providing a huge service to the skating community by essentially documenting a lot of skating history. It’s so much fun and such a great thing to hear skating friends talking about their lives and experiences. So thank you.
I actually have to save my most embarrassing skating moment until the end, because there’s a lot of back story to it, and I would be giving you the answers to all your other questions before I got to the embarrassing moment. So I have to start with some other ones [laughs].
On getting started in skating: I was a fearful child, not really athletic. I was more of an intellect, I loved words and books. And my family were not athletes either. My parents were, I’m not kidding, rocket scientists who worked for a time in the aerospace industry. And my mother to this day warms up on calculus problems before breakfast. So we really didn’t have a lot of athletic activities happening in our family. And we lived in Baltimore, Maryland, so there were no frozen ponds. When I finally did go to a skating rink, I loved it, but probably only because my mother held my hands the whole time. When she would let go to skate around by herself, I would hold onto the barrier and not let go. And eventually she bribed me off the barrier, and I became more confident and advanced.
After a while, I became so mesmerized with skating that I asked for a patch and freestyle session for my eighth birthday. On the freestyle, my mother told me to watch out for the older skaters — they were mostly juniors and seniors who were practicing double jumps. You have to remember that this was the era of Peggy Fleming, whose highest jump was a double axel. So I knew some of the older skaters in the club, and I remembered being on the sessions and watching them do these beautiful things. So after I saw something that I thought was fantastic, I would scurry over and tell them, that was so good! And one girl told me, you know, that was not the thing to do on a freestyle and I should just kind of practice by myself [laughs]. I was so embarrassed.
And then there was another moment that had a lasting impact on me. A few months later I competed in my first competition, it was a little club competition at what then would have been the preliminary level. And I remember the feeling of having skated my best in both the figure and the freestyle portions. I can still remember what I wore, and how my figures looked, and how it felt to hold my arms just so and stroke around. And after I skated we were all just standing around, and someone came running up and said, you won! You won! You beat Tracy! And I was pleased, but I was also stricken because I didn’t really want to beat Tracy. She was my best friend. I didn’t really understand what competition was. For me it was a performance, and I just wanted to skate my best. So when I went out to compete, I didn’t really think that anyone was going to be beaten. And I was embarrassed, really, to have done that, as if I had done something wrong. I wanted to be recognized, but for my own skating. My heart was never really in competing after that, really.
On her coaches Bob and Joan Ogilvie: I was very close to and fond of Bob and Joan Ogilvie. They were my first coaches, from age four to 11. I loved my time with them. After I turned 11 I left Baltimore for Lake Placid, and soon after that the Ogilvies left the US and I lost touch with them. But as luck would have it, I lived in Washington, DC, about a decade ago, and I happened to run into their son Nigel. So we all became fast friends again and had many lovely times together. I dedicated one of my videos to the Ogilvies because they were very concerned with freestyle basics, stroking and edges and turns.
They were basically the only pros for many years teaching everyone at the rink where I grew up, so it was essentially a social skating club of several hundred members, from beginners to senior national competitors. But there was also an adult community of judges who still skated, and older skaters who skated for recreations. And the Ogilvies created what I still think was the simplest and best club and competition schedule, and in-house testing and competitions and shows and group lesson program, for fostering large numbers of skaters on all levels, who skated together in one big rink community. Anyone who wants to know the specifics can call me. But through this program I felt that the Ogilvies managed to give us a love for skating to keep everyone in the sport for life. They managed to raise from scratch not only national competitors but non-competing non-testing skaters, who skated just for fun. And to me and many others, the Ogilvies’ system was their signature work. It governed our young lives and provided so much fun and happy memories. And the lower level of their program became the basis for the USFSA basic skills learn to skate program. I really believe that if that rink program was brought back, it would cure the problem that seems to be prevalent today, that a lot of skaters are dropping out once they reach a certain level. Or they feel they have to go to synchro because there’s not another outlet for them.
Back then there wasn’t the tremendous financial pressure on the rinks to bring in money. Many of them were owned by private clubs or even individuals. But what was different about the structure was that even if you were a national competitor, you skated with your friends in these group lessons with Mr. Ogilvie, doing double toes and double loops. It brought everyone together. You could be a national competitor or you could be a teen learning a double loop. It was for pleasure as much as anything else.
On co-founding the Ice Theatre of New York: I was a young pro, teaching in New York City in about 1980. It was a very exciting time in New York City to begin with — pretty much anybody who was anybody showed up at Sky Rink eventually: Misha, the Protopopovs, Judy Blumberg and Michael Siebert, John Curry, Robin Cousins. So there were several young pros who still wanted to skate, and we were frustrated with the state of skating. We wanted to change things, although I can’t remember why [laughs]. We wanted to develop new outlets for performance, and draw upon the rich and plentiful dance world in New York. And I, always the academic, wanted to document the big jumps and fast spins of Mr. Lussi. So we felt that skating even then was losing the great line and lean of the skater and the beautiful flow, and the figures of Mr. [Carlo] Fassi, the posture over the turns and so on. What I wanted to do was standardize and preserve the best technical methods in the world, to teach to the company. And eventually we wanted to start a skating school like the New York City Ballet has for dance.
So we had these grand ideas, and I was busy teaching and attending Columbia University. But after a year or so, I remember sitting in a pros’ meeting at Sky Rink, and there was a pro there I hadn’t seen before. She was a woman with really long dark hair, and she struck me as vaguely European, but she was just really well-travelled and was actually Canadian [laughs]. So this was Moira North, and we became good friends. And around the same time a guy showed up at the rink, Marc Bogaerts, from the dance world, who was a choreographer. He said he had worked with ice and roller skaters in Belgium, so he choreographed a piece for Moira and Patrick Dean for the World Pro Championships in Jaca, Spain. And they won the free dance with this program. And I liked what he did, so I asked him to do some programs for my skaters. There was a large contingent of adult skaters at Sky Rink, and one young artist with a lot of enthusiasm for skating was Marjorie Kouns. She had a lot of interesting ideas, and one night Moira, Marc, Marjorie and I found ourselves in a bar laying plans for something new. Before we knew it, we had pledged to start this project. Marc laid $10 on the table and Ice Theatre was born [laughs].
I called the four of us the Ice Cube, but there were also people who came along later, and I called them the Ice Crystals. Like Jirina Ribbens, who was also Belgian and a skater, and she had worked for years for ABC and NBC and CBS covering figure skating events. So she pulled in a lot of people. She was very much a part of the engine then and now. But in the initial stages, there were so many people contributing support and ideas and enthusiasm. And thank goodness we had those adult skaters from the business world, because we were young skaters who knew our business but not necessarily how to start a non-profit. So we would gather at these Sunday morning brunches and have so many ideas but not know what to do. I remember one evening we had dinner and then went back to Mary Gaillard’s apartment, she was on our board, and she helped us hammer out a mission statement. That was how the performance end of it got going, although we did write in the educational arm of it, and I was sort of in charge of that.
At the time, the early- to mid-1980s, there were several of us teaching in the city who had taken from Mr. Lussi. And we taught the delayed axel from the rock-over and basically all the other stuff that Mr. Lussi taught. I wanted to document those things to train a company of skaters, but that of course took me off from Ice Theatre into different directions.
On preserving Gus Lussi’s teaching: The story of making Systematic Figure Skating, the videos, is really the story of what it was like being a student of his. And I have to tell you, I went to Mr. Lussi because I was a timid jumper. I was 11 years old in Toronto, at the Cricket Club with Petra Burka and her mother Ellen Burka, and Dorothy Hamill was there, and her mother and my mother became friends. And her mother said to my mother, if you really want Cecily junior to learn how to jump, take her to Gus Lussi in Lake Placid. So that really just changed my life. There was nothing like taking from him that I had experienced before.
I was a student from his from about Christmas 1969 through to 1975, and then of course I worked with him as a coach in the 1980s and 1990s, sharing students with him. But when I was 11 years old, Mr. Lussi was already a legend. Just to give you an example, one of my friends in Lake Placid in the first summer I was there asked who I was taking lessons from, and I said, Mr. Lussi. And she said, oh, you take from God [laughs]. And that is really how almost everyone saw him at the time. He had almost a dozen Olympic and world champions under his belt by then, and still more to come with Dorothy and others in my era. It was a wonderful time to be there in Lake Placid, because he had all the champions of all the countries coming to him besides our senior and junior champions like Dorothy and Gordie McKellen and John Misha Petkevich and Robin Wagner. During our lessons, Mr. Lussi would tell us stories about these champions. For example, if he saw me getting frustrated, he would say in this very authoritative Swiss-German voice, “John Curry came to me, and he jumped one way and spun the other. He was British champion but he was going nowhere. I made him change the direction of his spins. For six weeks I kept him on this little patch working on the spins and wouldn’t let him jump. He was madder than hell” [laughs]. But you hear this at 11 years old, and you think, OK, this isn’t too bad, I can do this, at least he’s letting me jump [laughs].
He cared very much about all of his students, and wanted to do the best for them. And he wanted them to be the best. And he had this way of inspiring you that was so deep and so essential to your being, and to your future life. That was the thing that Carlo Fassi said really impressed him as a student of Mr. Lussi’s, that Mr. Lussi inspired his skaters to greatness. So he took me out of my fear. I had been with the Ogilvies and I realized at a certain point that I didn’t know exactly how to do what I was supposed to do, and it made me timid. So Mr. Lussi took me out of that fear by allowing me to discover through a sort of Socratic question and answer session, layered with this stories and discussions – we discovered this freeskating system, and it was a technical system that gave a skater a deep understanding and firm foundation of physics and the body working in concert. He provided us step-by-step knowledge with precise positions, what every part of the body should be doing at every moment. And with the reasons for the positions. And he had instructions not just for the jumps and spins, but he wanted you to stroke away from the barrier in an elegant certain way that set his skaters apart. And everything fit together, that’s why he called it Systematic Figure Skating. Very modular.
On Lussi’s teachings and the new judging system: He would not have enjoyed the skating of today. He did not like combination jumps and spins. He felt that it took away from the spectacular huge delayed rotation jumps that he developed in the last few decades of his teaching career and life. He felt that anything else was just tricks. He didn’t like this sort of jumping around in spins, he would say, “these goddamn changes of position” [laughs]. He told me he wouldn’t swear on the videos, but there was some editing [laughs].
On Lussi’s nicknames for elements: A lot of them were from songs, from the era of Dick Button. For the flying camel that he developed with Dick Button, he would tell you, sing “Over there! Over there!” I guess it was a war song.
These things stuck in your mind, you never forgot them. I wrote everything down exactly the way he said it, and tried to preserve them all. For “Praise the Lord and pass the foot”, when he asked you to do an axel, he didn’t want you to do it the way Sonja Henie would do it, around the corner and on the curve. He wanted you to do a delayed axel. And that meant that you approached every jump from a straight line, and as short as you could make it. So that meant for the delayed axel your takeoff edge was only four feet long, as straight as you could make it, and it had to come right off the toe. There was no skid, no going around the corner. And you had to launch yourself straight up and forward with your arms and legs wide open, and just hang there for as long as you could, and with your head spotting to keep you in that position. And at the apex of the jump, at the very end, you would then quickly snap your arms into his rotation position, and then out again before you even got close to landing. You’d have to have your landing position in the air already before you landed, and then push out of it to create speed on your landing. But this “Praise the Lord and pass the foot” was the initial takeoff, where you had to kick your free leg all the way out as far as you could, straight, no bend and no around to the right at all. The “Napoleon Bonaparte” in the sit spin was the actual sit position. He didn’t like the knees together, he had a fight with Robin Cousins about that. He wanted the free leg bent and parallel to the ice with the knees apart, the bones apart. He had many things like that.
On getting Doug Wilson to help with making the videos: Doug was always wonderful. I met him in New York when I was there, and he was familiar with Mr. Lussi because of Dick Button and ABC Sports. So I guess I was in the midst of writing the book with Mr. Lussi, and I wanted to do a video counterpart. Doug volunteered to direct the video, and he suggested that because of Mr. Lussi’s advanced age I should contact a PBS station to get any kind of footage at all. So I contacted a producer at PBS and she said, oh, I love this idea, but I’m busy for about a year [laughs]. In the meantime I had gotten a couple of publishers for the book, and I was teaching and doing Ice Theatre, and so much going on that I really couldn’t do it all. So I went off to Smith College and honed my writing skills. And I was in my sophomore year and I had waited two years to call the PBS producer back because I was kind of busy [laughs]. And she said, this is a great time, let’s do this.
So she and I started to work on that, and it was a great success. It was selected by PBS to air nationally and internationally. And then at the end of my senior year, it was airing on PBS, and I guess through that the excitement started again about Mr. Lussi and his techniques. And Mary and Evy Scotvold said they would take Paul Wylie, and they agreed to be filmed. And that’s how it all started with Doug, he put it all together. At the end of my senior year, it was so busy with trying to get the word out about the documentary, and final exams, and graduation activities, and moving, and job interviews and that sort of thing, and trying to orchestrate this shoot. That’s what led me to my most embarrassing skating moment.
The story of her most embarrassing skating moment: We had all arrived in Lake Placid, and I was exhausted because it was two weeks before graduation and I had to pull all this together. And I wasn’t ready myself because I had gotten everything else orchestrated but not myself. So it was the night before we started and I had dinner with Mary and Evy, and Mr. Lussi always had a lot of people watching his lessons, teachers, parents, students, coaches, whatever. And I wanted to try and give that kind of effect. So I thought it would be great if Mary and Evy and I were on camera with Mr. Lussi, with Paul and my former student Julia Simkin. Now I hadn’t seen Julia skate in years, but I assumed she still had all the big jumps, and Mr. Lussi thought she was going to be world champion someday, and she was a beautiful huge jumper. But what I didn’t know was that she didn’t have those jumps anymore.
So the next morning I guess it was kind of decided that we weren’t all going to be on the set because it would take the focus away from what we were trying to do. Evy wasn’t too excited about that, he was a little mad at me because he had gotten up early, so that wasn’t wonderful. And then Mr. Lussi started working with one skater at a time, and that wasn’t working either because Paul was missing what I wanted him to get in terms of the teaching. I felt that he’d come to get these lessons with him, so he should be on with Mr. Lussi. So we put the two skaters together and that was better, and then eventually I was so frustrated about not having us all on camera, and the way things were moving I really couldn’t help Mr. Lussi focus on the progression that I wanted things to take. So by lunchtime I was in tears with Doug Wilson [laughs]. And he was so wonderful. He said, have you ever heard the Rudyard Kipling poem “If”? He started to quote it in his melodious voice, and that helped me feel better. And then he said, this is television. You can fabricate it to what you want it to look like. So he sort of helped me through that. But it was embarrassing — and then Julia couldn’t do the jumps, and I think Paul and Mary and Evy were looking at me like, what did you teach this girl? [laughs] But she had been to another pro after I left New York for Smith College, and they had completely changed everything. So there I was in this situation, and it wasn’t pretty. And I still don’t think it’s been resolved. So Paul, Mary and Evy, if you’re out there, I’m sorry [laughs].
On the influence of Lussi’s methods today: There are pockets of teaching styles. For instance, I was on the phone last night to a Lussi student who teaches in Connecticut. She is a staunch believer in the Lussi method and that’s what she teaches, strictly that. So there are these pockets, mostly I would say in New England and some in Colorado. And then there are others who still teach the jumps that go on the curve. And I think that the jumps being taught along the curve came back — it’s funny, Dorothy Hamill says that Mr. Lussi’s technique may be old but it’s still the best, but the jumps on the curve is actually an older technique that Mr. Lussi rebelled against. But it came back to the US in popularity when the Russians like Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul were winning, and then the Russian coaches were coming over to the US. I actually had a Russian coach tell me that Mr. Lussi’s method was the American method, and in a sense he was right. Because what existed before then was doing the jumps on the circle. And Mr. Lussi rebelled against that and developed the whole system whereby if you take the jump on a straighter trajectory, you’re going to get more distance and height and control, without putting the angular momentum on the jump right away, that rotation as you’re ascending. So when he and Dick Button and his other students went over in 1946 and 1947 to Europe, they brought this new American system of jumping. And then he tried to refine this for the next 40 years of his life into the delayed jumps, even the doubles and triples. So it really is the newest technique out there, even though it’s been years since he died.
On the response to the videos/DVDs: Tremendous, they’re very very popular. Unfortunately, I had to take a little gap in between producing the first few volumes and then Volume 4 because I was raising my son and I was homeschooling him. So I really had to devote my life to his life, but now I have time to finish Volume 4 and I’m definitely going to do that. Everything was shot back when we were doing it, all the footage is there and intact – it just needs to be assembled. And Dick Button recently pledged to help with that. He’s a huge help, a wonderful man.
On what she appreciates about Lussi’s work now that she is a coach herself: I think I’d have to say I appreciate his courage. His courage to pioneer everything he did, invent everything he did, and not just follow along with what was standard at the time. He had a great story about the invention of the delayed axel. He had a student, Barbara Jones, who had a terrific split jump. And one day he said to her, why don’t you take an axel like that, with your leg stretched out like that into the axel? And that’s how the delayed axel was invented. And he was called down to the committee room, it’s a great story he tells, “I was called down to the committee room and they told me, you can’t teach a jump like that to a lady, it’s unladylike and dangerous, it’s likely to hurt her” [laughs]. He’d tell this story on the lessons, and look at all the ladies doing doubles and triples, and he’d say, “I told them I didn’t give a damn what they wanted, I was going to give them what I wanted to give them”. And that took a tremendous amount of courage, to go against what the officials were telling you that you had to do. And he had them rewriting the rule book with his innovations. And I would say that I’m kind of sorry that we’re all so intimidated that we really don’t do that any more.
When I was starting to document his teaching methodology, he would come in every day and say, where do we go from here? Why do we go into this world that doesn’t exist? And he was talking about quads. Why do we just add one more rotation? The audience doesn’t know, unless they’re told that it’s coming up – they have a hard time distinguishing a triple from a quad. I’ve heard coaches say they can’t tell a quad from a triple. And these are people who teach triples. So his point was, we need to do something new.
And we actually did something that was new, which would be perfect for the IJS system of judging. We started a competition in Lake Placid as part of the summer freeskating competition, this was back in 1984. I had this idea that we should judge apples to apples and oranges to oranges. We would take a draw of three elements, say a double flip and a sit spin and a piece of footwork. And you would all skate the same elements, and it would be judged like a figure competition, on a patch of ice. And the judges would get onto the ice and pace out the distance of the jump, and you could judge the height of the jump from the barrier, there would be markings on the wall. And they could judge the entrance edges, whether they were clean, and the landing, whether it went onto a back inside edge and then pulled out, which is quite prevalent today. And then you could also really look at the position in the air, and judge the way the skater presented himself or herself before the jump, the whole composition. I think the IJS system would be perfect for that, and I think it would make an interesting television broadcast, because it would be something that the audience could relate to. And in television you could have slow motion and freeze frame and all that, similar to the way they broadcast the high diving and the freestyle skiing, the aerials. You can really look at these technical elements in different ways.
It was very popular, this event in the competition in Lake Placid, and at one point it had the most entries in that particular event. But then the short program was coming in, so it kind of got changed and it ended. But you could have separate medals for the overall elements and for each of the individual elements, and then you could leave the actual freeskating program alone, and put in the spread eagles that went around the entire rink, or the Ina Bauers that went all the way down the rink on the diagonal and went around the curve. Those things you could still do if you have the time. And a lot of us are concerned that these things are being lost, like the layback spin where you are in that beautiful position for the entire spin. That’s the kind of speaking out that I would like to see happening more, and I think Mr. Lussi had the courage to do that.
And he wanted all of his skaters to have guts. He would use stories of his youth to inspire his students to have guts. He was a ski jumper, and if you were trying to learn the double axel or the delayed axel, he would tell you the story of how he went off the ski jump and broke his skull and was in the hospital for a year. And on your lesson he’d take your finger and put it in the dip in his skull where the metal plate was put in to hold his skull together. And you’d think, oh my gosh, I have got to have the guts to do this jump [laughs]. And if you didn’t do the delayed axel the way he wanted it, you didn’t have enough guts or have the arms outstretched enough or the leg kicked out enough or whatever, he’d tell you the next part of the story, which was while he lay in the hospital, he had roommates that came and went. And one guy was in for a few months, and he was a ski jumper. And while they were together in the room, they talked about how to get the greatest flight in the ski jump. And he said that he came up with the idea to leave the arms open and the legs open on the jump, so that you’d catch the greatest air and therefore the greatest distance. So his roommate healed and got out and went back to ski jumping, and started doing it this way, and completely changed the sport of ski jumping. And you’d be standing there on your lesson, and he’d say, “That’s why the ski jumpers of today jump with their arms open and their legs open” and you’d be thinking, oh my goodness. And his granddaughter Katrina was one of the first freestyle skiers, and when they take off they’re completely outstretched and open, and then when they get to the top with the highest air, that’s when they start tumbling and spinning. And he influenced that.