Sixteen years ago ski instructor Elissa Slanger surveyed the group of women seated in a ragged circle in the Squaw Valley, California, ski school and said, “Please introduce yourselves and tell us why you’re here.” Thus was launched the first feminist ski week. Taught by women to women, Slanger’s Woman’s Way Ski Seminars highlighted what was then a distressing phenomenon. As more and more women joined husbands and lovers on the slopes, more and more women were stuck as “terminal intermediates,” able to negotiate an easy slope well, an intermediate slope acceptably, and an advanced run in fear, if not actual panic. Was this simply another example of woman as wimp?
You go, girl!
Never one to let a cliche go unchallenged, Slanger-whose adventurous past included a solo trip around the world and a stint in a Zen monastery in Japan-began to ask questions. Bolstered by ideas circulating in what was then called the human potential movement, Slanger zeroed in on what was going on in a woman’s head and not on her unbent knees.
I joined my first Woman’s Way seminar in 1978. About 15 of us-instructors and students-crowded into a hotel room for an after enjoyment, ski rap session. Refreshments were jug wine and cubes of cheddar cheese.
I was there to begin writing a book with Elissa. The other women, mostly in the 35-to-60-year-old range, were there as a last resort. Abilities ranged from virtual beginners to advanced, if not expert. But we all had this in common: years of lessons, of pushing to keep up with male companions, of frustration at no improvement, of self-disgust at turning to stone at the sight of a mogul field or a stretch of ice. As we talked about the day’s experience, all that and more began to surface: skiing to other people’s expectations, fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, the male model as a standard-all the dilemmas women were prey to in skiing and in life.
Elissa had trained the instructors in humanistic teaching techniques that emphasized what might be called “feminine” qualities: easy on the technicalities (no more “weight on the inside edge of the downhill ski”), strong on visualization “Picture yourself turning on top of the mogul”), evocative metaphor (“Pretend you’re squeezing grapes with your toes”), kinesthetic awareness (“How did that feel?”) and games. A human slalom with the students playing slalom poles for one another was a favorite.
These ski weeks were as much consciousness raising as learning to ski better. Elissa has never finished one-then or now-without remarking how rewarding it is to see new awareness, to see and be part of the bonding that takes place and the friendships that are formed.
Did the women learn to ski better? Most did, some advancing as much as two classes in a week, others making progress apparent only to an instructor’s eye. But most important, they learned to love skiing for itself, to trust their own judgment and to set their own pace.
Since those first Woman’s Way Seminars, skiing programs for women have proliferated, incorporating many of the techniques that Elissa pioneered.
Almost every major ski area claims to have a woman’s program, though some do little more than provide a woman instructor if requested. Some offer glorified ladies’ days-but lunch and a discounted lift ticket do not constitute a women’s program.
It’s the camaraderie, the more feeling-oriented teaching technique and the women role models that are the heart of good women’s programs. Annie Vareille Savath, who runs the well-regarded Telluride, Colorado, Women’s Weeks, understood immediately the value of the woman-to-woman approach.
Vareille Savath, who learned the Woman’s Way approach from Slanger, is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Telluride program and finds some changes in that decade.
“At first,” she says, “women came because they were having difficulty with the idea of the sport. There was a lot of fear. Now they come not so much because of fear but because they are stuck on a performance plateau. They want to make a breakthrough. It’s more positive.”
The differences between male and female are still evident: Women express their feelings more than men; men muscle their skis into a turn; women are more concerned with the subtleties of technique and looking good.
“Women learn faster because of that,” says Savath. “A man may think he’s a better skier because he goes faster, but it’s technique and the shape of the turn that makes a good skier.”
Sadly, Savath is also finding that women come to the program less physically fit than men. That can dramatically alter one’s ability to progress and enjoy skiing.
“Even now,” she comments, “girls don’t do sports as much as boys. It’s crazy, but that just hasn’t changed. Women still don’t push themselves physically as much.”
One of the newest programs is Janet Spangler’s Women’s Ski Experience at Okemo Mountain, Vermont. “One woman, a successful lawyer, had never done anything with a group of women, not even shopping, and she wanted to try it,” Spangler reports. “She loved it. Another one with a nasty divorce and children coming at her with all kinds of demands just had to get away. At first, she felt so guilty about the time and money she was taking for herself, she wouldn’t even sit with the group. But by the end of the week, she was transformed.”
But Spangler’s clients also express fear as a reason for attendance. Some experts believe that if the surge of adrenaline triggered by challenge were labeled “excitement” rather than fear, women would come to terms with it more quickly. Women’s Ski Experience addresses that adrenaline charge with the help of Mermer Blakeslee, a high-powered ski teacher who trained with a psychologist specializing in stress reduction.
Blakeslee teaches “focused attention”: the ability to banish fear of ice, fear of the fall line, fear of falling. One of her exercises is to send students on “sensation hunts,” paying attention to the feel of the snow and the sensation of movement.
“We put awareness where it should be instead of raping the mind with fear,” says Blakeslee succinctly.
Spangler is making some changes in her program next year: Her students want more skiing, harder skiing and more time together. So the Okemo program will increase time with the instructors (in last year’s program, afternoons were on your own) and arrange for students to be booked into the same lodges.
Back at Squaw Valley, how has Woman’s Way changed? Elissa still begins the sessions by saying, “Please introduce yourselves and tell us why you’re here.” But video has been added. The afternoon snack has improved. In a pleasant room under the clock tower not far from the base lodge where the daily after-ski session is held, the wines are prime
California labels and the hors d’oeuvres are the delectable likes of artichoke frittata, salmon mousse and thumb-size quiche.
The women are relaxed and happy after a long day of hard skiing for everyone-from the lone never-ever skier to the small advanced group that’s been chasing new powder. Comfortable together, they are less interested in baring their souls than their sisters of a decade and a half ago. This is no encounter group, mistrustful of men. They have chosen Woman’s Way because they like skiing with women.
“It’s more fun with all women, commented one in her evaluation. “Less threatening, no makeup.”
Some of the earlier shadows linger: perfectionism, other people’s expectations, the male model, but they do not go unchallenged. Bibitz Brown has been coming to Woman’s Way every season for years, introducing her troupe of daughters and daughters-in-law one by one to the seminars. This year her hard-skiing French daughter-in-law put it plainly: “I felt comfortable skiing for the first time since I was 10 years old . . .that was the age when men started coaching me.”
At the final session, skiers critique the week. As it was 15 years ago, the human slalom is a favorite. Also welcomed was the personal attention that came from small classes and sensitive instructors, and the camaraderie that evolves from sharing breakthroughs.