We play instinctively but not without instruction: nurture informs nature. To illustrate the point, here’s a story about two skiing lessons separated by four decades, the most recent one a few winters ago. The lesson came free with a weekend lift pass.
I met the instructor, a flinty, retired physician, and he invited me to ski down slope for an appraisal. He caught up with me and glowering quizzically said, “Let’s see that again.” I pushed off, made a few turns, and pulled to a stop. “One more time,” he pointed me to the steeper terrain. I headed for a couple of moguls, feet together, concentrating on technique, meaning to look at ease.
This time he lifted his goggles, half-nodded, and fixed me with a look. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do you any good,” he said. “Then there it was when you picked-up speed.” And he shook his head from side to side as he pronounced his diagnosis, “You’re a tail-wagger.” He said tail-waggers like you might tell some villain “you’re mean to kittens.”
He had me there. Not about the kittens, but about the technique. I was carrying the burden of history that I first shouldered in a ski week in Vermont 40 years before. Tail-wagging was the surest evidence of the minor crime. My instructor then, an Austrian named Hans-Ruedi who admired the maniacal downhill style of his countryman, the Olympian Karl Schranz, didn’t like my skiing either, he said it looked “French.” After he asked me to show him my downhill stuff, I remember him saying “pas mal” with a chuckle.
As a matter of fact, I had been reading How to Ski the French Way by Schranz’s great rival, Jean-Claude Killy. And I’d tried to pick up the smooth style the French champion developed. Where Schranz was aggressive, Killy was suave. I wanted suave. Killy advocated holding the shoulders parallel to the fall-line and learning the art of glissement, the French term for “slippage” in the way of a gliding slide in a turn. Killy wrote, too, somewhat mysteriously of “the intelligence of the feet,” a harmony with the mountain that might be accompanied, I imagined, by lullabies played on concertinas.
Schranz and Hans-Ruedi, like other Austrians, advocated the “inside shoulder” technique that played out with a staccato rhythm more in contest with the mountain than harmonizing with it. (To imagine the rhythms of this Austrian style, think tubas and oom-pah-pah.)
National pride based in tradition stoked the clash of these styles. I ask your indulgence as the history takes a bit of unraveling.
From the late 19th century on, alpine skiers had barreled straight down slopes the way sledders and tobogganers do, with a wide stance and a wider disregard. When they turned, their eyes and shoulders followed the direction of the turn. But in the early 20th century, skiers learned to turn their seven-foot long skis without tangling them by keeping their feet together so that the two skis could act as one, in parallel. Their shoulders stayed perpendicular to an imaginary “fall line” that lay most directly down hill.
Learning to turn gracefully at speed without catching an edge required that parallel skiers learn the skill of un-weighting the backs of the skis in a rhythmic succession of short turns. French skiers introduced this style in the late 1930s, but Austrians tuned it up. By the 1950s the dashing Norwegian ski racer, Stein Erikson, was bringing the technique to Americans. Ten years later, I was getting instruction in the latest version from Hans-Ruedi in Vermont. The style went by the term wedeln from the German verb “to wag” as in wagging down hill like a tail. Sometimes theorists called this method “sensational wedeln” for the feedback that skiers learned to tune in to.
I did my best to learn to ski the Hans-Ruedi way, but ended up with a peculiar part-crêpe Suzette, part-schnitzel hybrid Franco-Austrian style. This was the menu item that so displeased the ski-doctor.
Over the intervening years radical changes in ski-technology allowed me to persist and even thrive in the offense of tail-wagging. By the early 1990s, the old straight edged skis that wanted to go straight down hill began to give way to new “parabolic” skis that narrowed at the “waist” and widened at the tips. These new skis had only to be laid over on their sides to let the skier follow and “carve” a turn through. These new skis wanted to turn.
The new curved edges made two difficult-to-learn downhill skills obsolete or useless—keeping the feet together and un-weighting the tails. Parabolic skis worked best with a wider stance. To those schooled with the old equipment—mossbacks like me—the new wide stance seemed almost indecently sloppy or naïve. Only beginners skied with their feet apart!
The new equipment encouraged a radically changed style from sharp, tight turns to wider swooping S’s making gravity seem less like a law and more like a guideline. (Think of a slide trombone.) To compensate for the increased speed and to preserve that offending tail wag, I would naturally lean back to check the velocity at the turn, adding crime upon crime.
For the skiing doctor, skiing this way, feet together and leaning back, looked exactly wrong. He prescribed a cure for my hard case: “TGIF! “Do you know what that means?” he demanded. I guessed that, this being a Sunday, we should rule out “thank goodness it’s Friday?” He liked my wisecrack even less than my skiing. “TGIF! Tips Go In First!” Lean forward, he instructed. “Tips go in first!”
Over the next hour I heard other insistent sentences. You’re trying too hard! You’re thinking too hard! Turn your leading knee out! Point your little toe down. Know the hill with your feet. And the clincher, “for Pete’s sake, spread your boots apart, you’re skiing like they did in 1968.”