On my morning walk today I listened Radiolab, and found an unexpected treasure. In the episode On The Edge, there is a beautiful description of a mid-performance calculation/ improvisation by figure skater Surya Bonaly.
When someone is in flow state, frequently known as being “in the zone” time often seems distorted. The speed with which someone can think and plan is remarkably fast, yet can seem to them to be slower. This yields the opportunity to change, improvise and recover- often without the audience being able to detect anything at all.
As explained in the episode, Surya was injured for this performance. She pulled a muscle in her left leg the day before the competition, and she was also suffering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Surya couldn’t walk up stairs- she had to be carried. She was determined to compete, as this would be her last Olympics.
She managed to do a few triple jumps, but then…
Surya: “I was so much in pain, and toward the end of the program I was supposed to go for two more triples and I say you know what I’m not- I don’t feel it. I’m gonna crash, I can’t do it. I’m not capable, my leg is not with me anymore. I had a special thing in my back pocket, I say ‘Hey I can do it, it’s my last competition.’ “
Interviewer: “Is this all going through your mind as you were skating?”
Surya: “Oh yeah totally, you know me – it’s like a computer you know if I would’ve missed something – a jump – I would say ‘ Here I can fit a triple here, over there I can do a combo triple triple’ – I know I need to fit something…”
“You’re like the GPS lady, you’re like recalculating.”
“Yeah totally! ‘Rerouting- ok rerouting ok we have to do it right now!’ “
Surya then does a backflip, which is not a legal move in skating. As she does this- she makes another calculation. She remembers that for a jump to count, you have to land on one foot.
“I go ‘Oh good- you did it on one foot so just hold, hold! At this point it couldn’t be like totally illegal because as long as I land on one foot, maybe they will think about it.”
Surya says she is the only person to ever have done this. It is called “the Bonaly.”
I may borrow this term to describe my own spontaneous adjustments…
Surya’s move was interpreted as disrespectful to the institution of skating. She says it was not at all meant that way, she says “I was just trying to be happy.”
It reminds me of a favorite quote from Edie Sedgwick:
“It’s not that I’m rebelling. It’s that I’m just trying to find another way.”
Kate Conklin is a performance coach and teacher of voice and the Alexander Technique. Kate specializes in helping world-class performers whose work requires excellent technique and profound artistry. She teaches in Los Angeles and remotely via Skype.