Friday, December 02, 2005


Best skater ever

I'm talking about Natalie Dunn, who, as you'll notice in the picture to the right, is on wheels, not blades. When I was a kid in competitive roller skating, the sport was all about Natalie Dunn, and for good reason: She was the first American woman to win the artistic roller skating world championships in 1976, defended that in 1977, and appeared on National TV several times, where she was interviewed by Jane Pauley and taught Gladys Knight and the Pips how to roller skate on the Mike Douglas Show. With Natalie captaining the ship, it looked like roller skating was set to become the next big thing, and finally move out of ice skating's long, chilly shadow.

Of course, she wasn't on television just because she was one of the century's most amazing athletes. She was also drop-dead gorgeous; a mix between Natalie Wood and a gypsy dancer, with a strong, powerful body and a naturally graceful line that followed her on and off the skating floor. I remember a conversation I had with a bunch of other skating munchkins one year at the regional meet, in which, while Natalie was warming up for the Senior Ladies Finals, we compared her to every movie star we could think of and deemed her the most beautiful "lady" (we used the word "lady" back then) in the world. She was certainly the most glamorous, as well as the most prestigious, phenomenon to rock our shared hometown of beautiful Bakersfield, California.

Back then, I was wowed that the world champion of my own sport lived in my own hometown, but I was really a crusader for her further glory, proclaiming to everyone who would listen--with copious meticulously-explained technical evidence--that she was better than Dorothy Hammill and Linda Frattiane put together (I was such a geeky kid, too adamant about almost everything), and I wished everybody else in the world could see her skate, too.

Thirty years later, after thorough review of my many years of diligent figure skating viewing, I still think she's the best skater ever, and here's why: First, look at the line in that picture I posted. I'm sure she studied ballet, but the elegance and perfection of the shapes she made with her body and the way they flowed between one another were instinctive, I think. When she was skating she became a presence rivaling any prima ballerina or opera diva, a presence much more commanding and moving than she ever dared let loose while in her street clothes. And I guess now I'm moving into a separate, though related, part of her complex excellence, and that is her soul, which came shining through with a soft, burnished, moody glow when she was skating. It felt like praying watching Natalie skate; the auditorium or rink always went very silent. She was one of those skaters for whom skating is the most perfect expression of their selves. There are artists like that in every field, whether artistic or not. These charmed people are so turned on (and completely unself-consciously so) by what they're doing that they almost seem to become the thing itself while doing it. Natalie was one of these everyday alchemists, and all of us fledgling skaters got a big hit of that kind of powerful connection being around her.

Aside from her artistry, which she would surely vehemently deny, always casting herself as a hardworking craftsperson before anything else, Natalie was a technically breathtaking skater. She was ultra-smooth and fast, never slowed down or telegraphed too long before a jump, and pogoed straight up into the air, always higher than anyone else, with textbook-perfect upper body form and a tight, low wrap that was the envy of all us wild daredevil kids who couldn't get our free legs below our knees on our double jumps. Meanwhile, Natalie was popping off triples that looked as easy as doubles, but somehow more exhilarating, and she spun like a top, too,with the kind of centered, centrifugal force that can be mesmerizing.

To showcase all of these both hard-won and native qualities, her programs were sturdily crafted, beautifully choreographed, always elegant, and set to music that was uncannily suited to her style and tone, even when it was the same old Tchaikovsky et al. that everyone else was skating to. I remember one program in particular--it might have been her '76 world championship program in an early rendition--in which, at the beginning of the traditional "slow part" (you know, when the music gets dreamy and the skater calmly does her loop and salchow, maybe a double axel, and a couple of spins before revving up for the grand finale), she stopped dead and did a set of serpentine loop school figure moves that were perfectly timed to the interlude portion of Weber's "Invitation to the Dance," and the crowd at the competition went wild. It was the kind of simple, understated, yet astounding, move that Natalie was always pulling out of her boots. Her skating was always a couple of steps more focused and more sophisticated than anybody else's.

And she always had tasteful costumes. That counts for a lot, as far as I'm concerned.

Unfortunately, the move into the limelight that Natalie was prompting for roller skating back in the 1970s never came to fruition, though it's getting closer all the time, and roller skating has advanced at the same rate as ice skating as far as technique and program sophistication go due in no small part to Natalie's continued leadership from her helm as owner of Skateland in Bakersfield, which she took over from her Mom and Dad many years ago. Natalie has produced a great number of champions since she switched from skating to coaching over twenty years ago, and shepherds a large contingent of podium-hoggers through the national and world meets every year. This year, her daughter is skating at the senior world level for the first time, and it looks like she's set to follow in her mother's toestop marks. Omar, Natalie's dad, says (with typical grandfatherly pride) that his granddaughter is even better than his world-champion daughter was at the same age. I haven't seen her skate, but no matter how good she is, Natalie Dunn will always remain for me the pinnacle of figure skating prowess and finesse.

My dream television special event would be a compilation of all the very best world and Olympic figure skating performances both on blades and wheels. I'd bet anything that at least one of Natalie's would make the cut no matter who the judges were, and I'm sure if a larger audience could see her skate, there might be a larger group of people who agree with me about her status in the sport of figure skating, on or off the ice.

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I was friends with her for many years and skated out of San Diego. We used to write back and forth... I won regionals a couple of times and placed 2nd at nationals as well. Natalie (Butch)as her dad used to call her, was in fact the best ever. No doubt. So fun to watch. I used to practice with her at her dads rink...before regionals. Awesome times.
Hands down is the greatest role model this sport could have, and should be the face of roller skating. To this day you will not realize how much this woman has accomplished because her humility and love for the sport out shines her own accomplishments. She pours her heart and knowledge into skaters and does it with a genuine power that is absolutely effortless for her.
She is a true inspiration.
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