Finding Michelle Kwan: A Black Boy's Childhood on Ice
BY DENNIS NORRIS II
Long before it actually happened, I tried to tell the world that I was a figure skater. I tried on Saturday afternoons, back in the nineties when skating was on TV every weekend. I tried by pushing all the furniture to the edges of the living room. I tried by learning the proper technique for every jump and its takeoff years before I took my first skating lesson. And I tried by idolizing Michelle Kwan, by taping every performance on VHS, by learning all her choreography. I paid close attention to every opening pose, and assumed them when she did, matching my breath with hers, my movements with hers. I was a boy in those years, pre-pubescent, still under five feet tall. I knew little of the world, other than the fact that I loved watching figure skating. It enchanted me, captivated my attention for hours at a time. But for many years, for me, I thought skating was for watching, not doing.
I didn’t become a real figure skater until I was fourteen, which in skating, is geriatric. I had just started high school at University School (US), an elite, all-male college preparatory school. Though there were no formal gym classes, there was the expectation that every boy participate in some kind of sport, school sponsored or otherwise. I had never shown any real athletic talent in anything, but had obsessively followed figure skating ever since my baby-sitter exposed me to the sport in the early nineties. My earliest memory of fandom was in 1994, during the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Olympic controversy, though I know my enthusiasm came about years prior. So by the time the 1998 Winter Olympics rolled around, I’d been “figure skating” around the living room for years. I had plenty of dress socks—the best kind for slipping and sliding on a hardwood floor, pretending to jump and spin and fall. In middle school gym class, my favorite days were free days—I didn’t have to be bothered with kickball or basketball or running track. I was happy to be left alone pretending I was Michelle Kwan—that it was me moving across the ice telling stories with my body, presenting every detail flawlessly, from the top of my head all the way through my fingertips, to the point in my toes. I was Salome, I was Desdemona’s Dream; it was really my love story that built the Taj Mahal.
For years my parents avoided giving me lessons. I’d started gymnastics at a young age and quit when I was too scared to flip backwards. I’d been playing the viola since 4th grade and had private lessons, and by everyone’s estimation, wasn’t spending nearly enough time practicing. Academically, I was often called a “gifted” student, but never brought home straight-As. My parents reasoned that I had no business asking to try another activity since my math grades were consistently lacking. In truth, I think several unspoken things were at play. One, they didn’t understand my obsession—figure skating is an atypical obsession for most boys, but especially for black boys. Two, what they did understand was the expense figure-skating represented—a great one—and we were not, by any means, a wealthy family. And three, the troubling implication of raising a figure-skating son, and what I might turn out to be, in the context of a God-fearing family where the main breadwinner, my father, was a prominent minister in the American Baptist Churches.
"The sport, at its core, is less about hiding everything you are not, and more about finding a way to present and celebrate everything that you are."
But I was also an exceptionally spoiled child, the youngest of four, and unaccustomed to the word “no.” We lived within two blocks of a skating rink. One day, after school, at fourteen, I went to the rink, spoke with an attendant, and came home with a list of private coaches. I called two of them and scheduled a lesson the following Saturday. Then I went to my father, told him what I’d done, and said, “Well now I have a lesson so you have to pay for it.”
The wonderful thing about my parents is that they were extremely proud of their children. If you told them their child was talented at something, they were on board immediately, prioritizing our development as best they could. Because of that we quickly became a fervent “skating family.” I did the 6:00am practice sessions, the custom skate fittings, the multiple lessons per week—everything. The Norris family was all in. And I made remarkable progress in a very short time, winning medals at competitions, and learning, landing, and mastering the axel and several double jumps before I'd clocked a full year in the sport.
I have memories of my father, the calmest, most collected person I’d ever encountered, telling me at the conclusion of my freshman year that I might have to choose between figure skating, viola lessons, and private school because financially, the burden was too great to bear. For me, it would’ve been an easy choice. I’d been largely miserable at school. At US, a school where something like twenty-five percent of the students were “Lifers”, where most boys were wealthy, white, and straight, I’d had trouble fitting in. My freshman year English class was in a room located in the center of the building. There were no windows, and when you closed the door and turned off the lights, the room was pitch black. In the minutes before the teacher arrived, the other boys would do just that—close the door, turn off the lights, and harass me because of my sexual orientation—touching me in the dark, mimicking themselves involved in sexual acts with me, calling my name in a lewd manner. I never told anyone about this because I was so ashamed at my vulnerability—how trapped I felt. How deserving I felt.
And in a way, I think I was ashamed for those boys—for what they showed themselves to be.
In any case, my father worked it out: I continued skating, I continued playing the viola, and to my dismay, I remained a University School student.
"[My parents] didn’t understand my obsession—figure skating is an atypical obsession for most boys, but especially for black boys."
Recently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lost black boyhood. In light of our current American context—in which black boys are under systemic attack—I find myself consumed with giving boyhood, particularly black boyhood, its due, both intellectually and creatively. Certainly there is something special about childhood, but there is something particularly ethereal about an unsullied black boyhood. I say this because an unsullied black boyhood (a boyhood free of societal pressures, expectations, and limitations) is a precious and short-lived thing. In America, where, historically, we were called “boy” by white men as a way to undermine our humanity, little progress has been made in this regard. We are not allowed to be boys; we must, from a very young age, be “little men.” Sometimes our own fathers expect us to meet this standard. We must act like men in a world that considers us men if we are to have any chance of survival.
Serious. Respectable. Masculine.
There is vulnerability in softness, and there is softness in boyhood.
Following a silver-medal winning performance at Nationals that went viral and ultimately won Jason Brown a place representing Team USA at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, one of the sports’ most prolific choreographers, Sandra Bezic, said of his performance, “It’s what’s exciting about skating. It can accept all kinds. There’s room for all kinds.” Bezic was referring to consideration of Brown as a skater with great artistic skill and no quadruple jump, as opposed to one of his competitors who skated right before him and dazzled the crowd with flawless quads and artistry that many in the skating community consider to be lackluster at best. It’s an interesting statement to make about a sport whose greatest problem is a lack of access for people who are not wealthy and not white, and with that lack of access, is experiencing a dwindling cultural relevance in a demographically changing America.
But Bezic’s words speak to something inimitable about figure skating. The sport, at its core, is less about hiding everything you are not, and more about finding a way to present and celebrate everything that you are. I certainly felt that way during my skating career. It was a safe space, a free space. I got to do what I wanted, was encouraged to look inside myself and take what I found and mold it, shape it to be presented to an audience. That, openness—that freedom, or unsullied space—was not a weakness in the context of figure skating. It was a strength. It was the thing that could make me a champion. I understand now that it’s what drew me to the sport at a time when I otherwise did not feel safe bringing my inner life to the fore. What attracted me to figure skating was the space it granted me to be the boy I was meant to be, which is not the boy the world wanted me to be, or thought I could be if I was to thrive.
And this is where I must think back to those years before I ever set foot on the ice. Those years when I pushed aside the furniture, put on my church socks and a tank top, slipped a VHS tape into the TV and pranced around the living room. I jumped. I soared. I did spins, tried footwork, and all the while I told myself that this moment was my Skate America, my Nationals, my Olympics. I wondered whether I could hold up under the pressure of the glaring lights, the massive audience cheering loudly for me because I represented Team USA. When I skated in my first competition, when I landed my first axel, and eventually the only double axel I ever landed, I could only think back to those days in my socks, pretending that I was doing double axels, triple Lutzes, and camel spins. The most revolutionary thing a black person can do is to do what they want to do, simply because they want to do it. This, to me, is the definition of freedom.
For me, figure skating—a sport that predominantly involves white women and girls—was unsullied. On the ice I was free. I was in control.
Dennis Norris II is a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2016 Tin House Scholar, and a 2015 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. His work appears or is forthcoming in Bound Off, Madcap Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Awesome Sports Project, Apogee Journal, paper nautilus, and Hello Mr. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and Haverford College. He is currently the Fiction Editor at Apogee Journal and co-hosts the popular podcast Food 4 Thot. He lives and works in Harlem.