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The Comma Position
Form over function? Sure, with the help of stretch pants and cool hip angulation.
Those of us of a certain age remember the “comma position”: that very stylish, very modern, very Austrian stance many of us aspired to in the late 1950s through the ’60s. Its confluence with metal skis and stretch pants oozed cool modernity, helping elevate skiing culturally from an outdoor sport for vigorous sportsmen and women to an aspirational leisure activity for the upper middle class—akin to tennis and golf.
The comma position was old wine in a new bottle. It was hip angulation and its concomitant outwardfacing posture of the upper body—what came to be known as reverse shoulder and what we now call counter—but in a feet-together stance—and with stretch pants. Angulation, both at the hip and the knees, and counter had been essential elements of alpine skiing for a long time. They had played a more limited role in earlier decades, however, because the harder-to-turn skis of the era often required upper-body rotation from the skier to initiate a turn. That movement put the skier in a posture antithetical to hip angulation. Even so, in the later phases of many turns—especially on packed snow and in slalom turns—good skiers would angulate and counter.
As skis became more flexible, boots stiffer, bindings more solid and the slopes more packed, technique changed. A skier no longer had to throw the whole body into the turn, and the comma position emerged as a thing: an essential element of what the skiing world regarded as the new Austrian approach to skiing, epitomized by wedeln.
In fact, Stefan Kruckenhauser, Rudi Matt and the rest of the Austrian school responsible for codifying this style of skiing did not consider it uniquely Austrian. In their landmark book, The New Official Austrian Ski System, they asserted it was built on their study of the best skiers of all nations, especially racers, who skied similarly.
It’s hard to argue that the comma’s ultra-narrow, leg-and-feet together stance served a positive functional purpose. While hip angulation and counter were components of all the best competitive skiers’ technique, the tight stance never was. Its appeal was likely due to the way it aesthetically complemented stretch pants and to the fact that you had to be a pretty good skier in order to wiggle your way down the hill with such a functional handicap. The tight stance became to skiing what tail fins had become to American cars.
Stein Eriksen, certainly one of the best skiers of the twentieth century, employed significant angulation and counter during his dominating competitive career. But in the 1960s he carried the comma position to extremes. Sunlight seldom shone between his knees, and his commas came to look more like elbow macaroni. The public was wowed. Many aspired to ski that way. Few could. It looked sexy but was an example of form preceding function.
The narrow stance lost currency by the mid-1970s when most of the world moved on to the more feetapart, utilitarian look of “The New French Way,” which persists today. But skiers continued to angulate at the hips and counter with the upper body. They still do and always will, because those elements of ski technique—the functionally important components of the comma position—are essential to making turns on skis. Stretch pants or not, there’s no getting around that.
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