How Toller Cranston redefined the artistry of men’s figure skating & became a queer icon

The following is an excerpt from Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion by Phillippa Cranston Baran, a new biography about the famed Canadian figure skater and painter, available now wherever books are sold.

It’s fitting that an unconventional skater like Toller Cranston reached the pinnacle of his competitive success during a truly unusual era in men’s figure skating.

In 1962, Donald Jackson had made history by landing the first triple Lutz in competition. Instead of inspiring the skaters that immediately followed him to attempt to duplicate his feat, many of the top-flight skaters limited the risks in their free skating programs.

Most elected to skate clean, attempting two or three triples, rather than dare to risk the odds. There were a handful of exceptions, of course, but on the whole, men’s skaters of the late sixties and early seventies were conservative, though confident and consistent.

By the mid-seventies, two groups of top-tier skaters emerged—the risk-takers and the reserved. In many international competitions, the results varied wildly from the school figures to the free skating.

The introduction of the compulsory short program in 1973 only enhanced the range. In fact, Ondrej Nepela, Jan Hoffmann, Sergei Volkov, Charlie Tickner, and Vladimir Kovalev all won World titles in the seventies without ever winning the free skate.

It was in this climate that a small force of artistically gifted skaters carved their own niche. Toller Cranston, John Curry, Janet Lynn, and a small group of others juxtaposed a rare talent for interpreting music with superb technical skill.

They were not, as some seem to surmise, artists who didn’t give a thought to athleticism. They drew from the exact same bag of technical tricks as their peers and had the elusive whole package.

While others won World titles on the strength of their figures, Toller Cranston whipped audiences into a frenzy and twice won the free skate at the World Championships. It didn’t matter who won the competitions—Toller was the skater that audiences remembered.

What made Toller’s success so remarkable was the fact he managed to win over judges from a different generation, judges with sensibilities so far removed from his own.

While he held fast to his artistic vision, their conservative vision of what great figure skating was supposed to look like was challenged to the very core. In her book Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport, scholar and author Mary Louise Adams aptly noted,

“It’s not altogether surprising that Cranston and Curry would show up at the same time, in the mid-1970s, to challenge, in different ways, the narrow masculinity that had taken hold of skating in the late 1950s and 1960s. Space was opening for men to represent a broader range of masculinities in public.

“Alternative arts and styles that had emerged in the counter-cultural movements of the late 1960s were moving into the mainstream. Singers like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury were flamboyant, androgynous, visible, and popular. Feminism and gay liberation movements, while still marginal, had some success in forcing issues of gender and sexuality onto the public agenda.

“For skaters who did define themselves as athletes, the culture at large provided a lot of material for inspiration. A little bit of space had been created within figure skating for men to pay more attention to artistry. But not all skaters wanted to claim it. Cranston was all angles and passion and baroque embellishment.”

Toller once said that although figure skating was very much a sport, “the final statement is artistic.” He believed that once skaters mastered proper technique, they had the freedom to interpret music and choreography in ways that expressed their individuality.

Yet, many skaters suppressed their true selves on the ice, instead parroting other skaters or mechanically doing what their coaches told them to. “To skate as you want,” he said, “is a gift and a pleasure which few people ever experience.”

It was a special gift he shared with all of us—one we should treasure and make a point of sharing with future generations, so their ideals of what skating is are challenged too.

Taken from Toller Cranston: Ice, Paint, Passion by Phillippa Cranston Baran. © 2024 by Phillippa Cranston Baran. Used by permission of Sutherland House Books.

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