This Site Is Not Endorsed by the ISU or Anyone Else But Me and the Ghost of Xenia the Cat

You want to know who Xenia the cat is? Go check her out here.

You gotta feel sorry for them. The most hated people in figure skating in Nagano -- with the possible exception of Pasha Grishuk, but that's to no one's surprise. It's almost a game.

"They" are the European ice dance judges who handled the Olympics.

They include among them some incredibly well-trained people and some very articulate people.

And no, I'm not taking this site down. Pucker up and squat. Yes, you.

They have some very good reasons for what they do. They are trying to preserve figure skating.

They had no input into this page directly. They do not know it is going up. I promise.

This is all my idea.

Let's get on with it.

I believe these were the free dance judges. I believe.

  1. (occupied by the Canadian judge.)
  2. POL: Halina Gordon-Poltorak.
  3. LIT: Eugenia Gasiorowska.
  4. UKR: Yuri Balkov.
  5. GER: Ulf Denzer.
  6. CZE: Jarmila Portova.
  7. RUS: Alla Shekjovtseva.
  8. ITA: Walter Zuccaro.
  9. FRA: Jean-Bernard Hamel.

First, I did my judging in real time -- no rewind, no replay. And I was exhausted. There were some extraordinarily tight pairs of skaters juxtaposed and some couples that a qualified technical judge could have come up with a reasonable justification for placing differently in the standings from my own evaluatoins. I wouldn't have done it that way, but I'm a hardcore "technical, then look at artistic" type person. That was a rough ride, ladies and gentlemen. A real rough ride. I'm not perfect. But neither are they. Nobody is. Including you with the blades under your feet. (ahem -- I'm really trying to be nice....)

Second, I don't back up all their results. In fact, I have had toe-to-toe screaming matches with some of these people over dance scores. Screaming matches, I said. But they deserve to have their good points brought out and looked at. And it seems no one else is doing it. So at least you can see these people are human. Very good at what they do. And, for the most part, really trying.

I have placed them in order of their judging seats, so that you can directly compare what I say to the results on your Olympic tapes.

Let's go.

POLAND: Halina Gordon-Poltorak. Not quite so good at catching technical problems as some of the others. But a total bear for matching line to music. She looks at the blades on the ice, matches them with the expressive movement of the body, and judges it all in time to the music. Excellent, excellent sense of whether the dance brings out the music. And will holler almost as fast as Alla will if her standards are violated. (Oooo -- one's eardrums do rattle for a while.) Totally cares about music and is passionate about seeing it expressed on the ice. I have literally seen her slap a blade when it violated the "rush" of the music. Don't mess with her. She will remember you. Like a bad note.

LITHUANIA: Eugenia Gasiorowska. One of these incredibly nice people the world produces every once in a while. And a totally awesome cook (I have had the pleasure once or twice). Very, very sensitive to the rhythm on ice and how it is expressed through the relation of the skater and the music. I can find no better way to express it. Good eye for rhythm on ice. Just good. Awesome sense of whether a dancer is on line or not. On line with the ice and the rest of their body. It's hard to put this stuff into words. But I'm trying. It's very eye-based and very tactile. But this is how I see her judge skaters.

UKRAINE: Yuri Balkov. Again, a really great sense of line on ice, and how a skater's body moves in relation to the ice. If you want someone who can pick up that conversation I talked about in the Bourne and Kraatz essay that a good skater will have with the ice, this is the man. He will know what you are saying, what the ice is saying back, and whether you are listening. And you will get nuked for not paying attention. This guy is big on respect for your sport, for the ice, for your skates, for everything. He is not mean just to preserve dead tradition, but because he sees that it is something old, something decent, and something worth preserving. This is the man I would go to without hesitation to find out if the line of my dance expressed the needs of the ice or not. I know that phrase, "needs of the ice" is a weird one if you're not used to thinking like that, but it works. Very well.

GERMANY: Ulf Denzer. There is a specific group of technical mistakes -- generally, being on time to the music, expressiveness to the public (and that can, indeed, be classified as a technical mistake) and such, that this man will pick up in a heartbeat. He can catch the broader strokes of line on ice, and has a decent idea of whether the music is being expressed well or not. This is the guy on the panel who can tell you if the performance is projecting to the back row or only to the second-to-back row. I have seen him do it on more than one occasion. And be verified later. Awesome. Don't throw an extra beat into your music and expect not to have to hit it on the ice. This guy will know. And so will the paper this guy is using to judge you with. Believe me.

CZECH REPUBLIC: Jarmila Portova. Awesome lady. I would send my cats to her for skating training, should they so desire. Almost as good a coach as she is a judge. And that is saying a lot. I was thumbs-upping this woman left and right. She has one of the few really good across-the-board eyes for old-style Russian-type ice dancing. If there is something done wrong on the ice, she will slap down a notation in a second. Do not expect to get past her. Her judging papers look like hens have walked all over them. Very insightful hens. Who do not miss a thing. She will take a chance and mark you down rather than let it go so that you can learn from it and expects you to be a great ice dancer later because you were told of this. She really expects you to remember.

RUSSIA: Alla Shekjovtseva. Would be highly embarrassed to know that I was doing this. She is a very mild-mannered person who rarely speaks in a loud or even slightly raised voice. She is a sweet woman who believes in getting her point across quietly. But get it across she does. This woman is one of the great ice dancing walking encyclopedias, so to speak, of our age. Or any other. She is amazing. Her ability to catch the smallest of edgework problems with a skater's performance (and most of the problems we saw at the Olympics stemmed from edgework and placement difficulties) outdid even Xenia, the "infallible" skating judging cat. Xenia never lived it down. It is not nice to be considered to be practically a judging deity (never mind the fact she was a cat -- Xenia never did!) by all of North America and some of Europe, and then to be dressed down over a small mistake by a Russian judge. But Alla was right. That's generally the case.

ITALY: Walter Zuccaro. Technical maven par excellence and one of the few people alive who has the nerve to argue with Alla. He will be focused on the skates and maybe up to the knees while other judges might be catching the entire line of the body. That's okay. That's why they have multiple judges on a panel. And it's eerie to watch his evaluations total out to be the same as others who did not judge the same way he did. Sometimes, no matter how many angles you look at it from, a dance performance comes out to be the same. That's because everything affects everything else. Knows the blade from front to back and knows when someone is misusing it. Can spot different blade manufacturers five or six feet away. Now that's really tough. Sometimes he'll criticize harder than I would like, but hey. He's an expert and wants to make sure you listen. They all do.

FRANCE: Jean-Bernard Hamel. If I had a written or spoken evaluation of my skating from Jean-Bernard, I would be likely to take it very seriously. He puts a lot of thought and caring into his evaluations and is likely to even go a little easy in the service of not hurting someone's feelings. But if he sees something needs to be said, he will say it. And realistically, I can imagine no two personality types less likely than he and Alla to be in collusion with each other. If there was any collusion, it escapes my suspicion entirely. Alla is very intense, personal, and Russian. Jean-Bernard is a laid-back Frenchman who rarely gets along with anybody he does not have to. He is very nice, but will not be pushed into friendships or other alliances. He holds his own counsel almost fanatically.

Notice I didn't say they were perfect. Nobody is. That's the last time I'm repeating this. But at least now you have more of a sense of what kind of personalities and what judging strengths went into those results.

Y'know, guys, yes, there may be a problem with the European judges perhaps moving too slowly for American tastes. But that's mostly because we're Americans. Correct skating will be eaten up by these guys, no matter how hard you flaunt it. Ice dancing is ice dancing, and will be rewarded. Correct ice dancing. These are two of the people in the world who will pounce hardest on technical flaws. Alla will go after them with a veritable flyswatter. In each hand. You have to prove yourself to these people. It takes time. Learn to work your way up. And work on your edges while you're at it.

And I know of no one in this world who will reach out faster to examine another national style of dancing and award it as proper (if it meets technical standards of dance) than Alla. Good grief....what the heck do you want out of these people?

Go away.

I will leave you with this. My sense of the judging was that there were far more independently-arrived-at results than there were results where there could be any kind of collusion. Most of these guys treasure their privacy and prefer to come to their conclusions in silence. (And with some of these performances, you almost had to see them two or three times just to have any idea of what was coming up -- sometimes it can be that difficult). As I said above, sometimes you can take distinct styles of judging, especially in a sport as technical and detail-oriented as ice dance, and truly come up with the same results in just a few minutes' time. Tech -- dance -- music -- line. The skaters can truly come within a tenth of a point or so of each other. These guys have been doing this, for the most part, for a long, long time. You learn how to judge quickly. And it is difficult enough to improve in this sport without a whole lot of work that it is possible, truly possible, for skaters to present the same performances in terms of results from one competition to another. I have seen it myself. I've seen some of these guys ready to bash each other for grading down skaters they themselves had liked -- and then realized they all pretty much graded them the same. It can be difficult and confusing to understand ice dance from the outside. I hope this page has helped to at least alleviate some of the misunderstandings.

Can we at least see what these people did right while we're savaging what we think they might have done wrong?

1998 Worlds Update

Second Compulsory Dance: (And where, o WIGE, are the names for the first?)

  1. Katalin Alpern, Hungary.
  2. Evgenia Karnolska, Bulgaria.
  3. Heide Maritczak, Austria.
  4. Erica Sonderegger, Switzerland.
  5. Olga Zakova, Czechoslovakia.
  6. Yury Balkov, Ukraine.
  7. Elena Buriak, Russia.

Katalin Alpern -- One of the neat people of ice dancing and a very good eye for technical marks. If your skates are out of place (and what else is there in ice dancing?) she'll tell you. I've known this woman to be phoned long-distance (and in Europe, that means across a couple of national borders) by people who didn't even like her to get a straight opinion of their kids' skating. The kids did much better. I promise. Another specialty of hers is straight classical dance technique -- you know, the "first position, second position, third position...." bit where you have a different basic placement for your feet and arms for each of the five basic ballet positions? Ballet and (to some extent -- sorry) modern dance basic positions and extensions are one of her strongest points. She responds well to classic, gorgeous costumes that truly project across the ice. Not because she hates the quiet stuff (look at what she's wearing 90% of the time herself), but because she knows it's good for dance. Technical reasons only for costume judging because she has sat in theaters from time immemorial and learned to judge what comes across and what doesn't. If it doesn't work, she'll tell you. And before you take that costume and placement evaluation (most often not real pleasing if you haven't checked in with her before) to heart personally, look at what she's wearing and how she's standing. Thank you. Now get on with it.

Evgenia Karnolska -- I really like this woman, but it has nothing to do with her judging. She is a technical bear. I have seen her rush out onto the ice to stop kids who were doing something wrong. (And that wasn't the only time she did it, either, guys!) She is very keen on correct and fast foot placement. She sees the corresponding arm lines that go with each footstep (and yes, there really is a hand-to-foot correspondence if you are feeling the lines right). Fast technical footwork, energy, and projection out to the audience. Beyond the infamous catch basin (which she would never say -- she prefers to politely say, "the first three rows"). To the "little people." And if those footsteps are fast and complex and nice and close together (remember my rule about the inch ruler being squashed between blades?), you're fine. Otherwise, oh well. Take a look at her written evaluations. They're really nice.

Heide Maritczak -- Oh, look out. If you're bitching about the entire body not being judged, if you're bitching about balletic line not coming into it.....brace yourself for the marks from the #3 station. You will find out. Oh boy will you...I truly wish I had on tape some of the comments she's made to people (and yes, we were dying giggling back there, people -- oh God, that was a night to remember!) Put it on the ice with the blades, but remember to extend up to the ceiling and look nice and pretty for the audience. I don't think I can sum up Heide any better. This is gonna be the judge to watch. She just about catches it all -- I've caught her a couple of times not catching a couple of technical points, but very few other people caught them, they weren't really pertinent to the judging, and she knew it. She had her eyes elsewhere. Go, station #3! Oh, this is gonna be fun!

Erica Sonderegger -- Nice woman. Very nice. Look at her for balletic line and extension and poise. She truly is a classically-trained ballet/dance person. Upper body above the knees -- that's her specialty. Hey, that's why they have a whole bunch of different judges -- to catch this stuff. She has been quite deliberately invited by the best to sit on judging panels to balance out the "feet people." If there is one fingertip out of line on that stretch -- boom. One foot out of balletic place as it should be on the dance floor -- boom. She'll catch it. Perfect choice, guys. Perfect!

Olga Zakova -- Ever notice the complex interaction between the knees and the feet of the skater? If she doesn't give it to them, they don't have those marvelous "soft knees" everybody whines about. She's also real good at head placement. (Remember that Coke bottle Andrew threw at a taped image of Irina Rodnina? Go check the Wildcat page -- that'll tell you just how crucial head and neck placement are.) She figures everything else will fall into line. It generally does. Just don't get into trouble with her about the knees. She has this thing about the lower calves -- I'm still learning from her. She makes the oddest things her specialty and goes out and learns about them for a couple of years and then starts screaming on judging panels. "The living conscience of the choir." You should hear some of the backstage arguments....

Yury Balkov -- Nice guy. Real nice. Looks for artistic form and placement, and is also aware of what goes on below the knees. How better do you say it? I've worked on how to describe some of these people for a while -- you know they'll show up on major panels sooner or later if you have a page like this. It's necessary. Arms and elbow position -- you know those nice round arm positions, looks like a ballerina? He's good for that. He will teach how important the elbows are in terms of extension and line. What else do I say? A Bolshoi freak. Take it from that.

Elena Buriak -- A hips-up specialist. Will notice the feet when they get in the way of the rest of the body (and how many times do I have to tell you how much everything affects everything else? It's completely fair! If your skates are off, don't think the rest of you won't be too!) I have noticed her zeroing in on shoulders and upper body/chest carriage. Yes, there really are articulating muscles in there. She can just about lecture on them. You won't get past her. Training always shows.

As usual, all graphics by