The Rise and Fall of Ski BalletChris Cole/Allsport/Getty Images
It started with a dinner party. A few glasses of wine and a friend of a friend up on her feet on the far side of the table, striking poses, waving her arms, showing us her old moves. She’d competed on the freestyle skiing World Cup circuit in the 1990s, she explained. The discipline she’d competed in — a weird hybrid of figure skating and gymnastics, but on skis — didn’t exist anymore. No one at our dinner table full of winter sports enthusiasts had even heard of it. It was called ski ballet.
I went home that night and fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of grainy footage from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s: tasseled costumes, synthesized music, triumphant spandexed West Germans. In formal competitions, athletes skied down a smooth, gentle slope, combining jumps and flips and spins with complex edge work and sweeping choreography. The skiers were judged, as in figure skating, on a combination of technical and artistic considerations.
The videos I found were equal parts amusing and impressive. But they didn’t tell me where ski ballet had come from, or where it had gone. How does an entire sport just disappear?
It started — no, really — with the Vietnam War. After the draft and the protests and the flag-draped coffins, “the youth of America was starting to question the established rules and regulations,” ski ballet pioneer Bob Howard told me. So freestyle skiing was that, in fact, personified.”
Young people in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s “rejected the strictures associated with alpine racing and constipated European ski technique, innovating with mogul skiing, aerial maneuvers, and ski ballet,” longtime ski writer Leslie Anthony concurred in his 2010 book, White Planet: A Mad Dash Through Modern Global Ski Culture.
Today, any fan of the Winter Olympics is familiar with mogul skiing — where athletes clamp their knees together and bounce down a bump-filled course like human pogo sticks — and aerials, which features skiers flying through the air like gymnasts off a vault, completing twists or flips or other contortions in midair before landing on their skis. But the three subdisciplines began as one. In the earliest days, freestyle skiers — back then they were also called hotdog skiers, or stunt skiers, or sometimes acrobatic skiers — would combine the bumps and jumps of moguls, the big air of aerials, and the tricks and intricate maneuvers of ballet skiing into a single, madcap run down the mountain. They were crazy kids doing tricks on snow.
“At that time it was a start and finish gate, from the top of True Grit1 to the bottom,” says Wayne Wong, the sport’s first world champion and the inventor of a host of never-before-seen-on-snow tricks. “What you did in between was up to the individual skier.”2
“To me, the sport was all three events,” said Genia Fuller, who won three overall freestyle world titles in the 1970s. Even as the nascent sport divided itself into subdisciplines, with separate prizes for each, many athletes still competed in all three.
Freestyle skiing in its early days, Anthony told me, was “really on the ragged edge.” This trailer for a documentary about the 1974 pro tour shows the beautiful chaos of the early scene:
It began where other sports finish. “Freestyle skiing worked backward,” Jeff Chumas says. “We started out as a professional sport and then turned into an amateur sport to allow it to become Olympic-eligible.” Chumas competed as an aerialist from 1976 to 1980 and became the director of the United States freestyle ski program from 1985 to 1995.
So while the earliest days spawned a series of pro tours, by the late 1970s the athletes were considering whether to go amateur. “I remember sitting down in a meeting, I believe it was Oberjoch, Germany, in 1978 or 1979,” Chumas said. “There was a vote taken by the membership of those of us who were competing in either moguls, aerials, ballet, or all three, over whether we supported the concept of freestyle skiing becoming an Olympic sport. That was an affirmative vote.”
The question of status — amateur or professional — wasn’t the only one ski ballet was wrestling with. In the late 1970s, the fundamental nature of the sport was up for grabs.
“Suzy Chaffee had this great idea, let’s throw some music into this,” Howard told me. Chaffee, who became one of the highest-profile stars of the sport, had a figure skating and dance background, he said.3 “So she interpreted it in a dance way. I, on the other hand, was more interested in putting on some rock ’n’ roll in the background and just let it happen.”
Through the ’70s, Howard worked on tricks like the pole flip, where a ballet skier would plant his poles in the ground ahead of him and then launch into the air, flipping over — sometimes with an added twist or two — before landing on his skis. Meanwhile, athletes like Fuller were innovating in other directions: Fuller had been doing routines without poles at all, landing axels — the same jump that figure skaters do, completing one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, or three-and-a-half rotations — using only the edges of her skis to propel her into the air.
Wong had already bowed out. The streamlining of the three subdisciplines, the increasing organization, ski ballet’s drift toward choreography, and the figure skating model — “that was the natural progression,” he says, but none of it was what he’d signed up for. He’d been drawn to “the freeness of the raw sport,” he told me, and to the idea of pushing the limits of what could be done on skis.
In 1980, ski ballet had its debut FIS World Cup season. Howard swept the year, winning all five contests. The next year, he won eight of the nine events. On the women’s side, Jan Bucher, another founding giant of the sport, also swept her five events. She would go on to win a staggering 59 World Cup ski ballet events over the next decade.4
As the sport established itself on the international World Cup circuit, it also rippled outward into popular culture. Ski ballet played a role in Hot Dog,5 a 1984 comedy set in the world of competitive freestyle skiing (the New York Times called it “less moronic than it might have been”), and ballet skiers made appearances in everything from Chapstick commercials to Bond movies.
In 1986, skier turned filmmaker and fashion designer Willy Bogner released Fire and Ice, starring Chaffee and another early star of the sport, John Eaves, as a romantic skiing duo. Let’s go ahead and call this peak ski ballet:
It started with a goal. Ballet skiers had one main reason for giving up their pro tour and going amateur: to make it to the Olympics. For the 1988 Winter Games, in Calgary, Alberta, all three freestyle disciplines — moguls, aerials, and ballet — were admitted as demonstration sports.
But trouble was already brewing. “In those early days of it being an Olympic-eligible sport, freestyle skiing was fighting a very significant battle,” Chumas said. “In the United States, and under the direction of the United States ski team, we were fighting for precious few resources against very well established sports like Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and the like. Freestyle skiing was not clearly understood back in those days.”
Ski ballet, as Chumas recalls it, did not win over fans in Calgary. “Its debut as a demonstration sport in 1988 did not do ballet skiing any favors,” he told me. “It was not received well, and I would venture to say that from that moment on, it was probably doomed.
“It didn’t do well with TV ratings, it didn’t do well with respect to how it was viewed and reviewed. Which is not to say that there wasn’t some great ballet skiing that happened.”
West Germany’s Hermann Reitberger took the top spot in Calgary. Reitberger, with a mane of curls worthy of a glam metal band and a bedazzled, flowing black outfit capped by white gloves, was a technician: Linking trick after trick with grandiose choreography, he didn’t put an edge wrong. His sleek, stylized winning performance epitomized how far ski ballet had evolved from its wild roots:
At the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, moguls became a full medal sport while aerials and ballet remained in the demonstration category. Then, in 1994 in Lillehammer, aerials advanced to medal status and ballet was dropped entirely. Meanwhile, snowboarding — which was at least as much an outgrowth of skateboard culture as it was from skiing — was exploding. In 1997, the first Winter X Games was held, and in 1998 snowboarding made its Olympic debut. Increasingly, skiing and snowboarding were being drawn under the ever-broadening umbrella of extreme sports. The future, it seemed, was Tony Hawk on snow, not Nancy Kerrigan on skis. To the extent that there had ever been room for choreography and costumes within ski culture, that window was closing.
For Chumas, it came down to money and numbers. “One of the problems that freestyle skiing had, and probably still has, is for some reason, after its heyday as a professional sport in the early-to-mid-’70s, it just never generated membership,” he said. “It never generated the numbers of participants that would merit strong sponsorships and a large amount of national and international interest.
“Ballet was really more of a performance art. So yeah, I think there were some cultural issues. But again, it did not generate membership,” he said. He estimates that during his tenure as director of freestyle skiing, the number of registered ballet skiers throughout the country was in the hundreds. (Aerials and moguls, for their part, were only in the low thousands.)
“Let’s compare it for a moment to snowboarding,” Chumas said. “One of the reasons why snowboarding became very successful as an Olympic sport is because of the vast numbers of people that it brings to the mountain.”
Justin Holland skied the World Cup circuit during ski ballet’s final years, from 1995 to 1999. His frustration with the loss of his sport was still palpable when I called him to talk about his career. Holland has heard various theories about the IOC’s refusal to admit ski ballet to the Olympics — lack of sponsorship, poor marketing, a reluctance to admit another judged sport after all the trouble figure skating has caused over the years.
He recalls the authorities adding more and more rules and required elements to ski ballet in an effort to satisfy the need for objectivity in determining a winner. “They were obsessed with trying to fit the square peg into the round hole,” he said. “Olympic events had to be measured on some sort of ruler.
“So the sport just became more and more prescribed, and as a result, formulaic, and that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a lot more free-form. So right when the sport was supposed to be breaking out and becoming an Olympic event, we basically strangled it in its crib. And then it was only a matter of time.”
After trying and failing to get the sport readmitted for the 1998 Games in Nagano and the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Holland and his colleagues were told in 1999 that the 2000 FIS World Cup season would be ski ballet’s last. Some of them hung on for one more year. Holland retired, figuring that carrying on to the bitter end would be too depressing.
These days, aside from an occasional old-timer dusting off his old gear,6 ski ballet has vanished from the mountains. “I was a three-time world champion,” Howard told me. “In a sport that no longer exists.”
Here’s a performance from one of ski ballet’s final FIS events, in 1999:
As snowboarding stormed the slopes in the late ’90s and ballet skiers fought a slow, losing battle to keep their funding and status, another skiing revolution was brewing. In February 1998, Salomon released the Teneighty, a ski that had an upturned tip on both ends, like a snowboard. For the first time, Anthony wrote in White Planet, skiers could “ride up and out of halfpipes, rotate, then re-enter backward and slide down without digging their tails in.” The twin-tip innovation brought skiers to the terrain park. It allowed the flowering of ski slopestyle and halfpipe, both of which became Olympic events in 2014, alongside their snowboarding counterparts.
The “New School,” or freeskiing, as it’s known,7 has the technical seeds of ski ballet — and the early, rule-breaking ethos of freestyle skiing more generally — still within it. “[The Teneighty’s creators] were really just trying to get a ski that you could play in pipes and parks with,” Anthony said. “But that territory had been traversed early on by ballet skiers.”
Steve Hambling, who competed as a ballet skier for Canada in the 1970s, is now the director of a freestyle skiing program at the resort where he learned to ski. He’s happy to see the sport live on through the New School, and he told me he still busts out his old ballet gear from time to time to demonstrate the sport for his athletes.
“For sure, nowadays the kids do chuckle when they see it — because it is humorous, right?” He told me. “You’re going, ‘What the fuck? These guys did this shit?’ But then that day, or the next day, they’re trying to imitate it. And yeah, they’ll laugh at it — we all had pouffy hair, and the one-piece suits and all that shit, right?
“Listen, when we were doing it, and people were watching back then, nobody laughed. People were like, ‘Holy Christ, these guys are amazing.’”
Genia Fuller still remembers the disappointment of hearing that the sport she helped invent was vanishing from the world. “I was very bummed,” she told me. But mostly she lingers on the good memories of those years.
“It was phenomenal,” she says, “the moment in time that we had.”