A few years ago, my dad took a vacation to Hawaii. While he was there, he tried surfing for the first time. Even though he’s a good athlete, and solid swimmer (a former lifeguard), he didn’t have much luck. As he explained it, he was able to get to his knees, but couldn’t progress upwards from there and stand up without losing his balance. During the few times that I’ve tried to give people surfing lessons, kneeling on the board is one of the mistakes I strongly caution beginners against (the other is to never, ever, ever let the board get between you and an incoming wave). It’s an understandable habit for anyone to develop – it makes sense to progress from your stomach to your knees – but I think members of my father’s generation are much more susceptible to this tendency, due to a fundamental difference in the way they approach athletics in general.
Stacey Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) contains a few very important pieces of information that help explain the evolution of modern skateboarding. Chief among these is the illustration of the relationship between skateboarding and surfing, and how early skateboarders were attempting to imitate maneuvers that were performed in the water (something that is fascinating to me personally is how a reverse has taken place and now surfers often try to emulate maneuvers that were originally invented on skateboards). Equally important is the documentation of how a severe drought in the mid-seventies in Southern California led to the evolution of vertical skateboarding. And of course, the film pays a great deal of attention to the lifestyle that was associated with the early days of skateboarding, particularly amongst the original members of the Zephyr skateboarding team from Santa Monica. But something that the film isn’t quite bold enough to assert, but I think can be fairly argued, is that the physical orientation of a person riding a board – the very stance itself – served as a line of demarcation between generations.
Imagine an airplane. The direction of travel is the primary axis, and we can consider the wings of the plane to act as a horizontal plane. Imagine the airplane climbing or descending. “Pitch” is position of the nose – it’s the rotation of this plane along a horizontal axis perpendicular to the direction of travel. Now imagine the airplane performing a barrel roll. “Roll” is the rotation of the horizontal plane along the axis of travel. Finally, imagine the plane turning left of right, without banking. “Yaw” is the rotation of this plane in its own axis.
Previous generations tended to react from a straightforward position. The feet are even with one another; perpendicular to the direction one was facing. This means that pitch, forward balance, is controlled by the ankles, knees and lower back. Yaw is controlled by the hips. And roll, which is controlled by the relatively weak obliques, is essentially left to trust – as Larry Craig taught us, the best way to avoid losing control of roll, from a straightforward position, is to use a wide stance. In a boardriding stance, some of this is all shifted. Roll is controlled by the ankles, back and knees. Yaw is still controlled by the hips. And pitch is controlled primarily through the obliques.
Is either better? Not necessarily, no. But they certainly are different.
The difference between stances is most easily seen in the difference between skiing and snowboarding. As wakeboarding is to waterskiing, snowboarding is part of the revolution in riding position that skateboarding helped inspire. Skiing, with its straightforward stance, is better suited to maneuvers where pitch is important – negotiating moguls, or doing backflips. Snowboarding, with its sideways stance, allows for deeper carves – harder, tighter turns (I haven’t been able to determine how the slalom times match up against skiing times, though I’m certainly curious) , and the tricks tend to be focused around horizontal rotation – spins.
In the early days of surfing, the penultimate maneuver was to “hang ten” – to trim the board along the wave properly and walk far enough out onto the nose that all ten toes could hang over the leading edge of the board. The competition sequence of Dogtown and Z-Boys, when the team makes its first appearance in front of the skateboarding world in Del Mar, California, showed that early skateboarding prized the same type of tricks – feats of forward balance that relied on a straightforward stance, like balancing on the nose of the board. As surfing evolved, the tricks tended to be focused more around the “bert” turns pioneered by the surfer Larry Bertleman – and these were the tricks that the Zephyr team brought to Del Mar with them. And these tricks were entirely reliant on this sideways stance.
There’s about forty different songs that get used in Dogtown and Z-Boys. And I’m not even sure what the song is used here with the end credits. But it’s a fascinating film – and a brilliant rumination on a movement that changed the way youths faced the world.