By Dan Balkin
HoliMont Snowsports School
Music aficionados might remember this immortal question. In 1973, the California super-funk band Tower of Power released a song called What is Hip? We can safely assume they were not singing about skiing. After all, in 1973, to be “hip” meant to be super cool. I’m sure you do not spend much time reflecting about 1973, but let me briefly refresh your memory. What was hip in 1973? Led Zeppelin, George Foreman, Secretariat, the Watkins Glen concert that drew more long-haired hippies than Woodstock – and Annemarie Proll – one of the greatest skiers of all time.
Yes, Austrian Annemarie was definitely hip. In my mind, she still is. But one of the crazy little things about skiing is that the laws of physics have not changed since 1973. In other words, we have much better ski equipment 41 years on, but great skiing is great skiing – then and now. Excellent skiers of any era have always used their hips as a reference point for balance – for your hips are located dab-smack in the middle of your body. That said, let me rid you of a common skiing cliché. Many skiers (and instructors) assume that their hips are always the location of their center of mass – and that their center of mass should always be over their feet when they ski. That is partially correct. What is incorrect? Our center of mass is SOMETIMES (not always!) in our hips. What is correct? Our center of mass should ALWAYS be over our feet.
If this sounds paradoxical, let’s consider the lovely, fearless, and uber-talented Lindsey Vonn. As you know, Lindsey excels at speed events, especially Downhill. Picture Lindsey in a tuck position – her hips are actually quite far behind her feet, but her center of mass is still perfectly balanced over her feet (when one is skiing 70 mph+, having your center of mass balanced over your feet is not a luxury, it’s a necessity). How did Lindsey manage to keep her center of mass over her feet when her hips are so far behind her feet? By bringing her upper body so far forward that it is horizontal to the snow. The same principle applies for skiers negotiating extreme steeps or big moguls (think of a mogul skier in a “jackknifed” position while absorbing a giant bump). How is this possible? In Ron Lemaster’s book Ultimate Skiing, he explains that in these circumstances (steeps, moguls, ski racing) our center of mass is sometimes actually floating outside of our bodies, between our thighs and our forward flexed (jackknifed) torso – but it is always over our feet if we wish to ski in control and in balance. (By the way, I am not implying that competitive and extreme skiers never get their hips over their feet – they often do as they transition from turn-to-turn.)
Having said all that, the ski instructor cliché to keep your hips over your feet is sound advice for most skiers most of the time. Why? First of all, even in expert recreational skiing, our torso should be slightly flexed forward – but is rarely flexed forward into an extreme (jackknifed) position. Therefore, our center of mass is in our hips, especially when we begin a ski turn. Why is having our hips over our feet at the initiation of a turn so vital? Because it is normal for our hips to move slightly back as we progressively flex our ankles, knees, and hips to absorb the forces generated by a ski turn. And there’s the rub – whatever that means.
For if we do not re-center our hips over our feet as we begin every turn– and some skiers do not – we will perpetually ski out of balance. In short, our center of mass will always stay behind, not over, our feet. I have a simple exercise to help you realign your hips with your feet every time you initiate a ski turn. On a gentle run, place both poles in one hand and start down the slope. Whenever you start to turn, pass both poles behind your back to the other hand. To accomplish this, your hips will come forward and be over your feet. From this “forward” position, you can afford to have your hips move slightly back as you progressively flex your ankles, knees, and hips during the turn. As you repeat the poles behind the back maneuver, the hips will continually realign over your feet. Balance is elusive, and we are ceaselessly making adjustments to stay in balance. Practice this exercise for a while and you will become accustomed to moving your hips forward (over your feet) to find a balanced stance when you initiate every turn. It’s simple, beautiful, and it works – kind of like your favorite three chord Stones song.