WESTERLY— Cheryl and Charles Malfetti of Westerly were vacationing on the slopes of Colorado almost 30 years ago when they came to realize the potential of a unique winter sport: ski dancing. It is a blend of downhill skiing combined with couples figure skating-style turns and moves.
“That’s when we found out we could ski together,” Cheryl said, explaining that Charles held her up while skiing down a bunny hill after she injured her leg on the first day of their trip. What began as an impromptu idea has blossomed into a competitive sport, with two events drawing teams from around the globe, and an International Ski Dancing Association, which the Malfettis founded.
The key to it all is the skis, 80-centimeter models with turned-up tips and metal edges, created by the New Jersey ski designer Richard Gauer in the early ’80s.
“It was serendipity,” said Charles of their close proximity to Gauer. “Without the ski, we would be nothing.”
The shorter, curved skis allowed the couple to ski close together, performing turns without their skis getting tangled. Both were intermediate level skiers, and Cheryl also had a background in figure skating, allowing them to progress to more advanced moves with relative ease.
“You have to really like each other,” she said. “You have to be patient and you have to trust your partner.”
While Cheryl said that several regional slopes, including Bretton Woods in New Hampshire and Wachusett in Massachusetts, are among their favorite locations to ski, they have been invited to ski at events worldwide, including in the Alps, parts of Canada and the western United States.
Charles named a trip to Switzerland as his favorite ski dancing-related travel experience, though not for the actual skiing component.
“The skiing was not great,” he said, explaining that the ski areas are quite far from the lodgings, and were not as well-groomed as those in the United States. “But the people were great, and the culture was so amazing.”
Last year, the couple was invited to Lebanon to perform at the opening of an international hotel, but was advised by the U.S. Embassy not to go.
“The mountains are right on the border between Lebanon and Syria,” Cheryl said. “They told us that if we accidentally skied over the line into Syria, they wouldn’t be able to help us.”
The international association the Malfettis founded unites ski dancers worldwide. It has more than 200 members in the United States, as well as participants from Canada, Japan, and other countries, according to the association’s website.
It was when Cheryl first learned of a ski dancing association in Japan that they reached out to other countries to put together the first international competition, held in 2003 at Bretton Woods with 26 teams hailing from Japan, Canada, England, Ireland, and Italy, as well as several from the U.S.
Like figure skating, each pair is judged on a set of criteria, including costumes, connectivity, speed and fluidity of turning.
Cheryl said she had hoped their creation would become an Olympic event at one point, but she has since realized it would not a realistic goal.
The high costs of the equipment and access to a ski slope, plus the unique nature of ski dancing, make it difficult to compete in popularity with other forms of skiing and figure skating, she said.
“The skis are so small, it’s beyond most people’s comprehension,” Charles said. “It’s kind of like Irish step dancing: It’s great to watch, but nobody’s rushing out to do it.”
While they will not be traveling to the Olympics in Sochi, the couple still enjoys skiing and performing at local ski slopes, where there are always crowds of fans watching and cheering. At many local ski resorts, they often ski near the lifts so those traveling up the mountain can watch, Cheryl said.
“The people are always very interested and receptive,” she said.
“They’re like a captivated audience,” added Charles.
For more information on ski dancing and the international association, visit skidancing.net