Around the rink they flew, all manner of skaters executing unusual shapes and steps, all in the mold of blade master Gary Beacom, a 56-year-old pied piper of sorts. There were falls. There were smiles.Giggles to be sure. A tiny girl clearly unafraid of the odd slip – who undoubtedly had never heard of Beacom – young skaters, adult skaters too, all drank in the funky Beacomisms.
Gary Beacom performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photo by Beverley Smith)
Beacom had folded his personal challenge to perform his signature piece “I’m Your Man’’ 100 times (anywhere anyone would have him) in memory of the song’s author, Leonard Cohen, into a seminar hooked into the week of the World Figure Championship in Toronto. He performed that routine, once again, and then taught them the skills to do it in a freeform kind of way.
Gary Beacom, the pied piper. It’s not so easy to do what he does. Witness the splats. (Photo by Beverley Smith)
With all of the skills he showed off – and more – Beacom won the men’s World Figure title last week with great ease, displaying edge qualities rarely seen today, since compulsory figures were dropped after the 1990 world figure skating championships in Halifax. To see Beacom trace a figure is akin to watching Yo-Yo Ma stroke his cello.
One of the event judges, 1962 world champion Donald Jackson waxed enthusiastic over the prints that Beacom left on the ice, especially a complex creative figure that Beacom did on one foot. “Just gorgeous,” Jackson said. It was not only the well-traced design that gave goosebumps; It was the way he did it, in endless motion, in fine form, body never breaking, slipping around the curves with speed, as if he had been doing it forever. “He had control of his whole body,” Jackson said.
“He has balance to die for,” Isabelle Duchesnay once said.
Before he was awarded the medal, Beacom gathered speed from one end of the arena to the other and planted a double Axel with aplomb. Fellow competitor Shepherd Clark saw it, and threw his arms into the air. Then the others began to applaud. He also did a single Axel over the red carpet to the podium. And all probably on his figure blades.
Beacom was always the creative one, right? The cerebral one. The one who always thought up different ways to skate an edge, or express a piece of music, to even skate with boots and blades on feet AND hands. So from whence comes this ability to do figures so well?
It always started with figures. Beacom is who he is because of figures. From the time he was a young skater, he learned special figures, even though their heyday was from 1870 to 1890. He studied the lost art under Tim Brown, who was a four-time U.S. silver medalist during the 1950s. And he studied under Sheldon Galbraith, a stickler for detail and for rules. So was Beacom, believe it or not.
“Not everybody thinks about Gary Beacom as a rule person, because I’m kind of creative and out there and I do things that are not inside the box,” Beacom said. “But I do like to stay within the rules.”
When one thinks of Beacom and compulsory figures, one recalls his utter frustration after the third figure, a back change loop, at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. When judges placed him 11th on that figure, Beacom kicked the boards, his emotions overcoming the usual decorum.
“My figures at worlds met the exact specifications according to the rule book,” Beacom said. “And nobody else’s did. My figures looked weird because they followed the rule book.”
Others, he said, skated a flattened middle circle because it was easier to do so. And Beacom’s figure was the correct size: rules stated that they must be the height of the skater, minus the head. And that’s how big his circle was. It was perfectly lined up. Beacom expected to win that figure. Inside, he knew he wouldn’t.
“I was angry,” he admitted. “I had my temper tantrum there. But that’s in the distant past now.”
Still, it’s clear that Beacom has learned how to use his blades to do everything he does. Beacom can do footwork from one end of the ice to the other. He can blitz the ice for longer with high-risk edges and complexities. He can do off-balance footwork, swinging his arms in opposite directions to the norm. He’ll lean to the left, and be on an edge he has no business being on and staying upright, on an edge that would be impossible for most. He used to have rubber ankles, too. And Beacom would use antique figures in his choreography. Only a student of figure skating might recognize what they were.
Beacom only reluctantly agreed to take part in the World Figure Championships last week. He’s busy building his seminar, teaching and choreography business around the world, from his new home base in Obertsdorf, Germany. He was invited to a figure workshop last October at the North Toronto Arena, where the world figure championships were held. After he underwent some arm-twisting, he thought it would be kind of cool.
“I’m quite glad I did,” he said. “It is a real challenge and it’s a really good foundation and a good way of honing the skills. I’ve already noticed that I’m free skating better now that I’m practicing figures.”
Since figures have been dropped from ISU competitions, Beacom has noticed a decline in actual skating ability. “The name of the sport is still figure skating [unless you skate in Canada, where Skate Canada has dropped “figure” from the name],” Beacom said. What they are doing out there nowadays is not figures.”
Figures are always on one foot, not two feet at a time. And everything is traced on curves. “What you see out there now is straight lines and two-footed skating,” Beacom said. “And a lot of jumps. We’re seeing a lot of quads and the girls are doing all triples now. It’s really quite remarkable what they do, stamina wise and technique wise. But skating has lost its beauty and charm in my view.
“I think there’s something really nice about seeing nice curving edges all the time, rather than skating down the rink straight on a flat, pausing for a long time, then cranking off a jump. It doesn’t have appeal for me.
“And it’s the hard way of doing things. Curves lead so naturally into rotations, so if you want to do an easy jump, do it on curves.”
Beacom injected a double Axel into his “I’m Your Man” routine and it’s easy to see his strong curve on the ice as he launches himself into the air.
Beneath him, the curved entry, visible on the ice. (Photo by Beverley Smith)
Case in point? Mao Asada comes from the Midori Ito “school” of skating, where jumps are important. And when she switched to Nobuo Sato to fix her issues, he faced a tough task trying to change her technique after years of doing things another way. The muscle memory had been so ingrained. Shoma Uno comes from the same school as did Asada in the beginning: he skates in straight lines. And he skates much of his routine on two feet. As for Zuzuru Hanyu? He’s been known to practice figures under Brian Orser in Toronto. And edge work is an important part of schooling in the club. It’s not a surprise that skaters from this school excel.
Many skaters do jumps the hard way now, even as the bar keeps going higher and higher. And injuries are far more common. “There’s an upside and a downside to the progress that skating has made,” Beacom said.
Tracing figures has its downside, too. While doing them, you are always looking down. As a free skater, you do not want to be looking down, but rather looking up and projecting into an audience. “This is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to get back into figures,” Beacom said. “I didn’t like the idea of looking down and it’s kind of a habit that I’ve gotten into from doing so many figures and I have to constantly remind myself to keep my focus up. But I think there are more pluses than minuses in doing figures.”
Beacom didn’t have to pull old figure blades out of mothballs to compete last week. He really is a skilled blade master in many ways. He can work the blade himself, as an expert skate sharpener. Earlier this year, in China to do a seminar, Beacom found that his luggage didn’t arrive. So he was forced to go shopping for another set of blades. He found a set made by a different manufacturer than what he is used to.
Because he figured he probably wouldn’t use them for free skating again, he had no qualms about altering them to become figure blades. He shaved the toe pick off and put a two-inch radius hollow in them. Translated, that means the hollow for figure blades is a lot shallower than those for free skate blades.
Beacom mounted them on a new pair of Edea boots, and sharpened them himself. No doubt, they had precision sharpening. He had no excuses and didn’t need any.
His figure boots were works of art, actually. Stationed permanently in Germany, (at least when he is not out and about doing seminars), Beacom designed the choreography for the free skate of rising German pair stars Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. With it, they won a bronze medal at the 2016 world championships in Boston.
Savchenko got hold of Beacom’s boots and – because she has a bling business – she decorated them with sparkly stones. “She puts Swarovski stones on gloves and tights and just about anything she can get her hands on,” Beacom said.
He admits, he’s not really a sparkly kind of guy. “But reluctantly I agreed to have her put those on and I guess it makes me feel very special,” he said.
Beacom sparkled, too, during his “I’m Your Man” seminar. He had retired that popular number after performing it about 500 times, but when Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 7, he decided to bring it back in tribute to an artist he admired, the so-called Godfather of Gloom.
“It’s a wonderful piece of music,” Beacom said. “And Leonard Cohen in general is such a great musician, thinker, performer and I was saddened by his passing. I thought it would be nice to do a tribute.
“It’ was a signature piece of mine. I got a lot of attention from it and people loved that piece,” he said.
Beacom, performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photos by Beverley Smith)
He’s performed it on an outdoor rink in beautiful Bled, Slovenia in early December and in Innsbruck Austria, too. And he’ll do it again in Tallinn, Estonia on Jan. 14. Before the world figure championship began, he performed it at the Scarborough Ice Galaxy in Toronto for Special Olympic skaters.
The steps in that piece are meant for entertainment rather than as a complex display of skills, Beacom admits. Yes, there are some straight lines and two-foot skating in it. That’s when he added a double Axel, to show off some skill. The emphasis, he said, in that piece is the way it has been choreographed musically. “I listen to the rhythm,” he said. “And I stay on the rhythm the whole time. I listen to the melodies. I try to hit the highlights. I feel the character of the music. This is something that figure skaters can improve on: their musicality. And their component score.”
Since Beacom has moved to Europe, he has travelled the world to give seminars. He has no trouble filling up his dance card in Asia. He’s spent a lot of time in Japan, where he has been well received. He’s building his services in Europe. Next week, he’ll be in Turin, Italy, then Tallinn, Estonia and Helskinki, Finland.
He’s even given some lessons in Japanese. “I know all the body parts,” he said. “I know how to say up and down and right and left. I don’t have perfect grammar, but I’ve learned.”
He gives lessons in French, German and Italian, too. He speaks many languages, some better than others. In Italy, he taught a 6-year-old girl who could speak no English at all. “Most of it is demonstrating,” he said. “I don’t need to speak a lot, but sometimes it comes in handy.”
He has more than half a century of experience as a figure skater. “It’s nice to be able to pass on what I’ve learned and developed over the years to the next generation of skaters,” he said.
There are many from other generations who remember the Beacom mystique and still applaud it. It was not for nothing that Beacom’s first job as a pro skater was on the Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean World Tour back in the 1980s.
From John Thomas, who was a Canadian medalist in ice dancing and a contemporary of Beacom: “You are a national treasure and a true inspiration,” he said on a Facebook post after Beacom won the World Figure championship.
“You make me proud of my sport and proud to know you. Still, I think unless you have changed, you used to be a crazy driver. I will not drive with you. Other than that, they need to make a statue of you to honour you and your amazing talents.”
It’s Beacom in a nutshell.