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Hughes blog: The theatrical case of Dick Button

Olympic legend connects skating, dance at Ice Theatre of New York event

Sarah Hughes had a grand time hanging out with skating legend Dick Button.
Sarah Hughes had a grand time hanging out with skating legend Dick Button. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(02/11/2013) - "Dance and skating are like kissing cousins," Dick Button proclaimed, pausing for a moment to allow the words to sink in for an added dramatic effect. "But, like relatives, there are also differences."

If anyone knows how to grab an audience, it is Button, who chose to open his 40-plus-minute venture into the history of dance and skating at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Feb. 2 with that carefully constructed analogy.

The two-time Olympic champion-turned Harvard Law student turned television analyst/commentator/producer has worn many hats throughout his life, but his latest may be his most compelling: teaching people about the intricacies of figure skating in a format that left the evening's audience wanting more.

Among his many Dick-isms sprinkled throughout the night: "Skating is also blessed with being the only form of movement where you can move without moving."

The evening was a mixture of Button speaking about Olympic-style skating in the 1940s through today, theatrical skating over the past few decades and his dance career. He played footage of Charlotte Oelschlagel (she of the famed spiral), Sonja Henie and others to help illustrate points he was making.

How did this skating and dance lecture come to fruition? The unique history of the sport, Dick says.

"Skating developed outdoors in the winter on lakes in the Alps and canals in Holland and later came inside," Button said. "The real essence of [skating] is that it has one foot in theatre and one foot in sport. And that, of course, is both an advantage to it and a disadvantage.

"It has the great value of being the major element of the Olympic Games, because if you are lucky enough to win the Olympics, it can catapult you into instant fame, whereas a dancer has to perform for years unless they have the luck of either defecting from a country that doesn't like them or doesn't want to let them go -- or of winning a role in a movie."

The first film clip presented was of him, much to the audience's delight.

"I'm showing just a brief number of subjects that I'd really like to get into, and I hope that will give the world of skating some perspective [on the relationship with dance]," Button explained. "The first film I'm going to show -- and I dare to show you films of myself, which I cringe at when I watch them now because, remember, that was slightly back in the dark age of skating half a century ago -- is a practice session in St. Moritz, Switzerland, at the Palace Hotel, the epitome of glamorous hotels in St Moritz. It has -- what anybody interested in the theatre would appreciate -- the world's most gorgeous set: the mountains in the background, the cool crisp of the glowing of the air.

"The main thing about it was that emphasis was in technique in the Olympics in those days (in the 1940s). It was all about technique as opposed to position or artistry."

When there was a slight technical glitch with getting the film going, Button made a few self-deprecating jokes.

"The only thing I can tell you is that it is extraordinary skating, and it has exactly exquisite style and position. Now, having said that, I'm afraid they're going to bring the film on, telling the truth."

As the film rolled of him in a textbook-worthy, sit-spin position, he remarked, "Can't you just feel the cold of the air and the preciseness of it?"

As the evening progressed, he highlighted films of him dancing a number with Gene Kelly (which was just fantastic), Robin Cousins performing an intricate footwork sequence on the ice at a world professional competition, and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's creative "Mack & Mabel" as well as their "Bolero" number from the 1984 Olympics.

No evening on artistic skating would be complete without a snippet of Gary Beacom or Toller Cranston -- and the Ice Theatre of New York, which put on this inaugural event, delivered.

In fact, the entire evening was wonderful -- from Button to Moira North (founder and director of Ice Theatre of New York), to the panel discussion afterward in which I participated alongside Button, North, JoAnna Mendl Shaw (choreographer, on faculty of Juilliard and Alvin Ailey school), and Alberto del Saz (former ice skating champion from Spain, current artistic director of Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis companies).

A short cocktail reception followed, where Dick graciously shared his thoughts ranging on all subjects, including the most recent U.S. championships in Omaha.

British ice dancing champion Sinead Kerr, who also performs with Ice Theatre of New York, went the following evening and agreed with my review.

"I thought 'Dance on Camera' was fantastic, a really fun evening," she told me. "Dick Button was very funny! And," she added, "I loved seeing the old videos of him, Belita -- who was stunning! -- Gary Beacom, etc., and learning more about Ice Theatre and how it is looking to progress."

Celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day on Capitol Hill

Feb. 6 marked the 27th annual celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. The day began in 1987 as a way to remember Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman for her athletic achievements and her work to ensure equality for women's sports, and is currently celebrated through various events held around the country.

Since I wrote a lengthy blog on this last year, I won't recap the entire day, except to say it was a worthwhile day on Capitol Hill spreading awareness of the benefits kids reap from being involved in sports. My sister, Emily, came along this year to represent the Women's Sports Foundation along with me, 2012 Olympic rowing champion Esther Lofgren and X Games skier Grete Eliassen.

Emily wrote her college thesis on the importance of sports-based youth development programs in low-income communities where kids are at a high-risk for dropping out of school, criminal behavior, being involved in illegal activities, etc., so she brought another perspective to the way these programs and sports can help inner-city neighborhoods.

I spoke on a panel at a mid-day briefing alongside Olympic gymnastics champion Dominique Dawes -- who currently serves as co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition -- Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy at Women's Sports Foundation; Sydny, a 14-year-old volleyball player and member of Girls, Inc; Shawn Ladda, past president at the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport; and Neena Chaudhry, director of equal opportunities in athletics for the National Women's Law Center.

The panel was especially powerful when Dawes spoke of how her gymnastics coach helped transform her from a "dreamer to a doer" and led into Sydny speaking about how being a part of a volleyball team has empowered her.

"I'm not the girl I used to be," Sydny said of her former shy self.

She also shared how she now has the confidence to pursue her dreams.

Maryland representative Donna Edwards also stopped by to enthusiastically share how sports have influenced her life. The most memorable part of her speech might have been how she used to play football when she was a little girl and now plays on the male-dominated congressional football team. Following that anecdote, she briskly picked up her purse and ran out of the room in her heels to cast a vote.

One Year to Sochi!

Can you believe we are now less than a year away from the opening ceremony for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia?? Well, we are.

To mark the one-year countdown, Emily, Sasha Cohen, three Olympic hopefuls and I rang the closing bell at NASDAQ. For those who don't know, NASDAQ is right in the heart of Times Square, so we were really in the middle of all the New York City action. Especially cool was how our photos and footage of us was streamed out to huge televisions in Times Square (and CNBC on television) for everyone to see. I'm not sure I've ever seen our faces so large and pixelated!