Q&A: Ellen Burka

Discipline on the rocks

March 10 1980
Q&A: Ellen Burka

Discipline on the rocks

March 10 1980

Discipline on the rocks

Q&A: Ellen Burka

The skaters' T-shirts read BURKA’S BELLES or BURRA’S BOYS, but down On the ice Ellen Burka establishes domination over the heads and blades of Canada's elite corps of amateur skaters as no mere heart-level declaration can do. “Finish it, finish it, "commands the veteran coach, as one frustrated figure skater threatens to quit mid-solo after his umpteenth spill. Mrs. B. demands the moon and the stars of her pupils, and will go to almost any length to get them. She is irrepressible, and after 30 years ' coaching experience, as trainer of sixtime Canadian champion Toller Cranston as well as her world-champion daughter, Petra Burka; as coach of the top three finalists in the senior ladies category at the Canadian Championships in January; and as someone who has “had a hand in" tutoring fully half the competitors in this year's ladies singles event, Burka is still creating stellar Canadian figure skaters. On the eve of the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin in Dortmund, West Germany, next week, free-lance writer Sharon Clark spoke to Burka for Maclean’s.

Maclean’s: Canadian skaters have carried home few medals from recent world figure skating championships. Why

hasn't Canada produced any winners in the past few years?

Burka: But we do have top skaters. We have some supreme skaters who place 12th to 14th in world competition— that’s about the Canadian spot. An inferior French skater, say, that comes into the world championship is immediately

Maclean’s: How can we remove this handicap?

Burka: Well, first of all, the Canadian judges should be trilingual. I don’t think our people should go to international competitions not being able to speak French and German. Our judges attend the world championships and in their free time they go shopping in the village or skiing in the mountains and never talk to anyone, whereas the European and Asian representatives all know each other, they sit together and discuss their skaters. It makes a big difference to their perception of things. The judges and our representative in the International Skating Union should be colorful and well-spoken ambassadors for Canada. The judges we presently send out are often there for the first time and don’t dare to give their opinions. I will give you one example of what I mean: Gordon Forbes. He’s not my skater, he didn’t come first, but if Gordon Forbes should represent Germany or Holland or any country in Europe, he would be in the top five. Send him to the World’s now for Canada and he’ll be 12th to 14th and that says everything.

Maclean’s: Do our competitors train hard enough nowadays?

Burka: I think the past five years have been a very bad scene, and still we have top skaters. But I notice a lot of apathetic attitudes. It has something to do with the environment—kids have too much ice, parents are too permissive, children can stay out of school day after day and if they can’t get their way, they

seventh or eighth. In other words we have the skaters, but there is something wrong with the system that our athletes aren’t placing above the 10th spot. We can’t rely on talent alone. There’s just not enough promotion done for our skaters.

zwon’t even skate. Also there’s a lack of respect for the coach’s point of view. I mean, I have to force my training program onto them. They talk back. I’m stronger than they are, but how hard it is on me these days to draw out their talents. My training of top skaters demands total obedience and if I don’t get that, I drop them.

Maclean’s: You have so many top skaters, all demanding interesting and imaginative free-skating choreography. Do you ever have sleepless nights trying to invent new routines?

Burka: Never. When I see my students skate and analyse their personalities, I hear music and I see the program in my mind. I am a trained ballet dancer and was a painter before I started to coach, so I have varied resources to draw from.

Maclean’s: Is it a good idea to have our best competitors juggling university and other school attendance with their skating commitments?

Burka: It was the first thing I told Heather Kemkaran (1980 Ladies Champion) when we sat down in the spring to plan her comeback. You go to school, I said, and keep your mind occupied. I think this is the only way: college gives you an option after the skating ends. You’ll find that all the top skaters have succeeded in a second profession after their competitive years are past. By itself, skating dulls the mind. We have too many skating vegetables who do nothing besides skate, and by the time they’re 21 they’re so dumb that they can’t even skate anymore.

Maclean’s: What’s your advice to gifted skaters who can’t afford a first-rate training pr'ogram?

Burka: If you’re a top talent, even if your parents have to go into debt to support you, it should be done. You don’t lose any money on skating. The moment your competitive career is over, you step on the ice and make your money back. I don’t believe in this nonsense of not having enough money.

Maclean’s: What changes in competitive skating would you like to see instituted? Burka: Figure skating is a sport and an art. The media treat it like a creative art, but the sport demands athleticstriple jumps, quadruples soon and advanced technical skills. With all these difficult requirements the creative possibilities are limited. Ideally, the freeskating program in competition should be shorter, with more colorful programs added. There could be five or six competitions a year and as many “show” numbers, so that if the skater were in a mauve mood, he or she could do their mauve program, or if they wanted to show their silver number, they could do that. There’d be more choice, it would be a creative adventure, a ballet performance, dfi