What is this “Freestyle” thing all about?
noun - denoting a contest, race, or type of sport in which any manoeuvre or movement is allowed and competitors are judged on their artistic expression, acrobatic skill, and athletic expertise.
Freedom of expression is the essence of freestyle, and it always has been. Whilst the modern, popular derivation of ‘freestyle’ snowsports may be quite unique, ‘freestyle’ as a concept has been around for a long time and it exists in many, many sports, not just of the ‘action’ or ‘extreme’ variety.
Even from the early days of skiing you could argue that the ‘flat-land’ spins and leg lifts reminiscent of the ‘ballet’ of figure skaters, which were performed by skiers decked out in woollen jumpers in the pre-war Olympics, were a form of freestyle.
But while these two disciplines might be labelled ‘freestyle’, anyone who has been out on the snow in the last 10 years will know that 'spread eagles', 'daffies' and ex-gymnasts pulling super-fast spins and somersaults off a near-vertical jump don’t quite cut it in the modern world of freestyle skiing and boarding.
And funnily enough, despite the early days where skiing and snowboarding diverged in philosophy and execution, with modern freestyle the two forms of snow sliding have come almost together completely so that each applies to the other.
Basically, you cannot explain modern freestyle skiing without first understanding a bit about its most dominant influence: freestyle snowboarding.
A bit of background on freestyle
To find out where ‘freestyle’ is at now, we have to go way, way back to the early days of skateboarding, and even surfing. Anyone who has seen the inspirational movie Dogtown and Z-Boys, which documents the beginnings of ‘West-Coast style’ skateboarding in the early 70’s and how it dictated the current direction of skateboarding, will recognise an attitude and emphasis on style that permeates snow freestyle.
For the Z-Boys it all came down to the style of the rider – not what ‘trick’ you performed, but how you performed it. It was not about speed, who finished first or who was the strongest, but who had the most style.
It’s all about how you looked – it had to be pleasing to the eye of the spectator and fellow skater for you to earn the respect and applause of your peers. But by the same token, everything was done in a core group of your best mates where encouraging shouts and cheers boost the individual to seek new highs of performance and execute new tricks.
The Z-Boys took a free-flowing, low-to-the ground style of surfing and applied it to the street, and then into empty swimming pools and finally into the air when they started to shoot above the lip of the pools. As the skaters started to get ‘air’ out the top of the pool, they were forced to grab the skateboard to keep hold of it and spin in the air to land back down safely.
From there it wasn’t long before halfpipes were invented, and skaters started pulling more stylish and exotic airs, grabs, spins and even inverts. And the original Z-Boys did all this with a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude that thumbed their noses at authority and the staid rules of the contemporary competitions.
Anyone who has skated in the past couple of decades would realise that this sort of attitude and emphasis on style is the dominant philosophy of skating to this day.
The influence of skateboarding on freestyle
But why do I mention skateboarding so much, you may ask? Well, without the influence of skateboarding, freestyle snowboarding and hence freestyle skiing would be a completely different beast.
While freeride snowboarding has always taken its influences from the flowing style and carving turns of surfing (as these elements can be easily applied to deep powder and big mountains) the urban style of skateboarding is where freestyle snowboarding gets it cues.
In fact, some argue that without the linking factor of snowboarding, the two original board sports of surfing and skateboarding would have diverged over the years so much in philosophy and style that there would be basically no ‘cross-over’ between participants any more.
If you look at the majority of snowboarding tricks, everything was first done on wheels and concrete, and snowboarders just transferred what they knew to the snow. If you take a look at the early snowboard movies from the last 80’s/early 90’s you will notice a greater emphasis on ‘soul surfer’ type big-mountain powder riding and flowing turns, with less emphasis on ‘tricks’.
Also, early snowboarders came predominantly from the ranks of skiers who were giving this new ‘fad’ a go, and so in Totally Board, the original movie in the epic “TB” series, you will see no-grab airs and ‘helis’ transferred directly from two planks to one.
It wasn’t until around about 1992, which coincided with the release of Totally Board 2: A New Way of Thinking that you start to see ex-skateboarders hit the hill and try tricks that they can perform on concrete out on the snow.
These skaters brought with them the concept of ‘grabbing’ the board whenever in the air, giving more balance and compactness to the manoeuvre as well as making the trick look more stylish and under control.
From simple ‘grabs’ came the concept of ‘tweaking’ and ‘boning’ out the board – effectively straightening a leg, or contorting the body and board so that the air/grab was even more stylish, as well as more difficult to perform. Vert skaters in plywood halfpipes originated ‘tweaking’ and ‘boning’, and whilst a snowboard halfpipe was more like a rough ditch at the time, shredders took this cue and directly applied it to their sport.
But where snowboarding started to create its own language and culture also came at the same time with the introduction of the term ‘jibbing’. In the seminal 1989 video Totally Board, one snowboarder, Nick Perata, stood out amongst the pack for his skate-influenced style of riding and in his section you will find the first time that the expression “jibbing” was mentioned.
Perata defines jibbing as basically using every possible feature on the mountain and riding things in new ways possible that skiers had never before thought of. This means riding up tree trunks, sliding along logs, fences, rails and tables, ‘bonking’ rubbish bins and other objects, pulling little tricks off bumps and lumps of snow around the hill and basically just sliding over everything that you possible can.
Clearly, the concept of jibbing came from the urban assault of skateboarders who slid their boards and ‘grinded’ every handrail, gutter and ledge in cities around the world.
So with the prevalence of jibbing, an important idealogy of ‘assaulting the mountain’ and seeing the snow in a new way was born, and if you flick through any current snowboard magazine you will see that jibbing is alive and well – so well in fact that it has turned full-circle on skateboarding and now some pro-snowboarders make a living purely from sliding their boards down handrails and ledges in snow-bound cities, or even dumping snow on the ground in front of and after a rail if all the snow has melted away.
Snowboarding’s influence on skiing
In the mid to late 90’s a revolution in skiing was born: shaped skis. Ski manufacturers had seen the carving style of snowboarders riding boards with a concave radial sidecut, and applied this revolutionary design to skis.
This allowed skiers to dispense with short turns, close knee placement and discover shorter skis, sweeping “GS turns”, wide leg stances and long carves in the snow. A whole new world opened up, and skiers more and more began to appreciate that snowboarding actually did have something to add to the sport, and was not the threat it was first made out to be.
From shaped skis came the next revolution: twin-tipped skis, where a skier could ski both forwards and backwards without digging into the surface. Skiers had seen snowboarders ride, and perform tricks, ‘switch’ (ie opposite to the normal way they rode), and so for skiers ‘switch’ meant riding backwards. Skiers could perform spins in the air where they only came half-way around and landed backwards, or even took-off backwards.
Skiers, by this stage already used to taking a lot of cues from snowboarding, began to grab their skis to add style, and tweaking the skis behind their back or otherwise to demonstrate their stylish expertise.
Skiers also started to want to slide rails and other objects, as well as hitting halfpipes, like they saw their snowboarding brothers do. This was ‘new school’ freestyle – radically different from the staid, and what they saw an increasingly unstylish and uncool, Olympic freestyle.
And with this new-school ideal came a whole new language, once again borrowed from skateboarding and snowboarding (eg how is it actually possible to perform a ‘mute’ grab on skis, yet the description is used by skiers), as well as borrowed fashion concepts and a bit more of a mountain guerrilla attitude.
It has reached a point nowadays where the two snow sports have joined forces in a freestyle assault on the mountains: most modern ski trick names come from snowboarding, snowboarders and skiers are fully integrated and ride together all the time, especially in terrain parks and halfpipes (which was not so common a few years ago), freestyle ski and snowboard competitions are often held side-by-side and at the same time, and looking at a freestyle snow-slider without their snow equipment you would be hard-pressed to work out if a rider is a skier or a snowboarder.
A crew of freestyle riders, no-matter if skiers, boarders or both, ride together in a form of encouraging brotherhood where new tricks are encouraged and applauded, and even the highest level of professional competitors are ‘stoked’ when their opposition pull-off a particularly spectacular and impressive trick for the crowd. At the moment, freestyle is at a great and exciting place, and it can only get better.
Freestyle snowboarding is the practice of doing different kinds of tricks on a snowboard, hence the name freestyle. Tricks can either occur on the ground (e.g. jibbing, bonking, grinding, pressing, buttering etc.) or in the air (e.g. spins, flips, grabs).
Freestyle snowboarders typically use shorter boards and softer boots than other snowboarders, as the shorter board length reduces the weight and moment of inertia, making it easier to spin and maneuver, and the softer boots make the board more forgiving to control for the particular demands of freestyle riding, such as slower speeds, high landing impacts, quick turns, and imperfect landings.
Softer boards allow the snowboarder to press, or butter, with ease, but many freestyle snowboarders, especially halfpipe riders, use stiff boards that have a lot of "pop" to allow them to jump higher and absorb hard landings.
Most freestyle boards are directional, in that the tip is typically softer than the tail, and with the bindings and center of the sidecut located slightly aft of center. As on a freeride board, this can make turn initiation more forgiving and help float the tip in powder and variable snow.
Some freestyle snowboards are true twins, with the Sidecut Radius being equal on both rails of the board and the stance centered on the board. Riding a Twin Tip board makes it easier to land switch and compensate for changing riding conditions. Softer boots and boards also allow riders more flexibility in body movement and the ability to reach very convoluted or stretched out, stylish body positions (known as tweaks).
Freestyle snowboarders often 'detune' or dull the edges of their snowboards so as not to catch them on rails or boxes when jibbing. One exception being in the halfpipe, where edge hold can be critical.
Freestyle snowboarding is arguably the most popular discipline, and is certainly the focus of most of the lifestyle marketing in the snowboarding industry. Freestyle is probably most demanded because of the thrill. Freestyle snowboarding can be done almost anywhere that has snow.
Freestyle snowboarding is influenced greatly by skateboarding. Many ski resorts operate terrain parks which often simulate the urban skateboard environment, complete with halfpipes, handrails, boxes, and machine-formed jumps.