Sports fans who thrill to the daring athleticism and dazzling artistry of the Olympic ice skaters competing in Sochi, Russia this month, owe a debt of gratitude to Jackson Haines, the New Yorker who became the father of modern figure skating during the 1860’s and 1870’s.
Born to a well-to-do New York family in 1840, he studied dancing in Europe as a youth before returning to New York City to work as an actor and ballet master. According to newspaper accounts, he was living in Troy when he won the first “national” skating championship in 1863 under rules formulated by the New York Skating Club. In 1864, he won the championship again but his skating style was not well received by the American skating establishment.
Competitive skating at that time called for skaters to draw complex patterns, or figures, on the ice with their skate blades. A stiff, formal style of skating was expected. Sometimes, skaters were not allowed to move their hands above their elbows. Compulsory figures were a required part of skating competition in the U.S. until they were eliminated in 1991.
The ballet dancer inside the 24-year old Jackson Haines rebelled against this rigid skating norm. He added leaps and spins to his routines and used his arms expressively to the dismay of the American skating authorities. Spectators in the U.S. dismissed Haines as too flamboyant, too theatrical, and too effeminate.
In search of more appreciative audiences, Haines left America in the winter of 1864-1865 and took his skating style to Europe. He also brought with him a new kind of skate that he had designed. Instead of being attached to the boot by means of straps or clamps, the steel blade of the skate was screwed on to the heel and toe of the boot by means of plates. In addition, the blade had a rounded toe rather than a sharp point and two supports rather than three.
Skating to music and adding more turns, jumps and spins to his routine, Haines toured all the capitals of northern and central Europe to wild applause. Billed as the “celebrated American ice dancer,” he astonished and surprised audiences with his jumps and pirouettes which were described as “poetry in motion.” One observer described Haines as “now gracefully swinging, now carried away like a whirlwind, now leaping from the ice, all with inimitable charm and grace,”
In 1868, the blue-eyed, curly-haired 28 year-old electrified skating fans in Vienna when he gave an exhibition for the Vienna Skating Club to music—a march, a waltz, a mazurka, and a quadrille. Haines’s style soon became known as the Vienna Style, and in later years, the International Style.
For his performances, Haines invented a new spin which the skating community initially called the “Jackson Haines spin.” To do this spin, the skater bends the skating knee while spinning and sits down during the spin, keeping the free leg pointing straight out. Today, a “Jackson Haines spin” is commonly referred to as a “sit spin.”
Haines wore various costumes including those of a Russian count, a prince of fairyland, a lady, and sometimes even a bear. When he finished performances, he usually skated backwards with his cap touching the ice as he bowed to spectators. After the applause died down, he would cross his arms and skate in a large curve or spiral, standing at the finish, motionless as a statue.
Haines was a European superstar for eleven years. Ice skating rinks and babies were named after him. In either 1876 or 1879, the records are unclear, Haines died after catching pneumonia while traveling by sleigh from St. Petersburg to Stockholm. He was buried in Kokkola, Finland. The inscription on his gravestone reads, “In remembrance of the American Skating King.”
Jackson Haines’s style of skating did not become popular in the U.S. until many, many years after his death. The first U.S. figure skating competition that included the International Style was not held until 1914. Haines eventually received the honors due him from the national and international skating establishment in 1976 when he was inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame and the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.