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Littell's Living Age/Volume 169/Issue 2181/Dutch Skating-Grounds

Holland is the paradise of skaters. In that odd country, "where up trains run on the down line, and the cows are tied to the ceiling by their tails," a great many things go by contraries; and skating is one of them. The weary waiting for a black frost to solidify the waters of deep lakes and treacherous ponds, which in England tantalizes the possessor of "Acmes," prevents his sleeping o' nights, and drives skate-makers to suicide, is to the Hollander an unknown mortification. Not that he can obtain a frost by wishing for it, any more than the wind will rise by whistlng from a hill therefor; but a comparatively slight frost serves his turn, and his skating is attended with much less danger than always lurks beneath the frozen surface of a mere. In a land which can be inundated in a few hours a sharp winter brings the best of skating to everybody’s door. Skating is, indeed, almost the only violent exercise for which the Dutchman has any liking; and in the winter he holds high carnival on the ice. The number of skating-clubs between Northern Brabant and Groningen is infinite; but it is in the provinces north of the Zuyder Zee — Friesland and Groningen — that the best skaters are to be found. These are the classical training-grounds of the Dutch ice-artists.

When there is likelihood of a frost, the only thing necessary to secure a good "surface" is to open the sluices used for irrigation and inundate the great flat meadows. The operation is superintended by representatives of the skating-clubs in the neighborhood. A space of some six or eight thousand feet in circumference is staked out around a given point, the water is allowed to flow in until it is of a convenient depth, and the sluices are then closed. Directly the ice is sufficiently thick (this winter it has sometimes not been more than three or four inches, owing to the impatience of skaters to be "at it," but it is usually much denser) a number of workmen are told off to keep it clear of snow, should any fall, and to sweep it carefully at frequent intervals. Then begin a succession of skating competitions. These competitions are got up by the local skating club; sometimes they are international, but clubs and individuals are constantly competing among themselves. The prizes offered on these occasions are often of a considerable money value, and the funds for providing them are supplied by the small sum charged for admission to the skating-ground and entrance fees paid by the competitors. All the world skates when there is ice, for skating is a universal accomplishment among all classes and the buxom — almost too buxom — Dutch ladies glide along with an ease and grace which come as a surprise to the foreigner who has remarked the awkwardness of their carriage in the streets. There are fashionable and unfashionable hours for skating, as for all things else, even in Holland, where fashion is less imperious than in some other countries. In the morning the "society" people disport themselves; in the afternoon come the tradesmen and their wives; while in the evening the ice is crowded with work-people and others whose business allows them no liberty till then. On the competition days the ice is reserved, during specified hours, to those who pirouette on skates for pelf.

The best skaters, and those who carry away the largest number of prizes, are usually crack members of crack clubs. As soon as the competitions and the value of the prizes are announced, the clubs scrutinize the lists and decide what prizes their members shall compete for. Those who are to represent the club are of course chosen for their skill; each society is therefore certain of being represented by its best men. As all the expenses of the representatives to, from, and during a competition are paid by the club, the rank and file of the members have an inducement to excel likewise; for it is possible in this way to obtain a good many pleasant holidays in the course of a winter without spending anything. The money won becomes the property of the club; and at the end of the season the total is equally divided among the members, a small balance only being carried over to the following winter.

The champions of the respective clubs go into training as severely as professional pedestrians and bicyclists. For a week or eight days before the competition they live quietly and sparingly and drink but little schnapps. This abstinence from the national beverage, with its flavor of common gin in which a warm candle-end has been actively stirred, must be a severe trial to a well-regulated Dutch constitution - During the octave of training the champion does very little work, abandons himself to repose, and, oddly enough, appears but rarely on the ice. When the hour fixed for the competition arrives, he is careful not to show himself until the last moment; and then places himself in evidence with dramatic suddenness. The competitions are usually of three classes; swiftness, elegance, and the clearing of obstacles. The latter is amazingly difficult, even to experts; yet there are in Holland a large number of skaters who can with ease and grace clear, in full career, the straw-covered spaces intended to represent natural obstacles upon the ice.

The most rapid "record" of the present season has been made, not by a Hollander, but by a Dane named Chorwald, who at Copenhagen skated a distance of six thousand three hundred feet in three minutes and forty-four seconds. This feat gave him the victory over Paulsen, the Hamburg skater, himself the vanquisher of the famous Dutch "artist" Bruinsma, who was for some time the first of Continental skaters, it may be interesting to add that the best Dutch skaters do not fix their skates solidly to their boots. They fasten them but slightly, with the points inclined inwards; a method of arrangement which, it is said, permits of much straighter progression than that generally in use in England.

A Dutch skating-ground during the fashionable morning hours is a very animated and picturesque scene, full of brilliant spots of color. It is the highest mode for ladies to appear upon the ice with a posy or bouquet of natural flowers, generally the offerings of male friends. The Dutch florists regard skating as an even more sacred institution than schnapps.