'Women's liberation' -- on the ski slopes

A ski week just for women? You've got to be kidding. At least, that's what I thought when my husband suggested that I enroll in a Woman's Way ski seminar, a kind of liberation movement tailored to the slopes.

With two children, a dog, a cat, and an endless fount of laundry, I'm not exactly sitting around looking for things to do. Besides, I've always despised ski lessons. My spouse put me in my first one when the temperature was minus 2 degrees. He was then my fiance -- and he almost lost his title!

Things didn't improve much when I underwent my first full ski week. It seemed I kept coming out No. 17 in a class of 18, and the instructor was always shouting either, "Bend ze knees!" or "Why do you leans over like you would be reading za newspaper?"

But somehow I found myself enrolled in a Woman's Way ski seminar at Stratton Mountain, Vt., with 23 other women -- rank beginners to expert skiers.

The program was founded four years ago by California ski instructor Elissa Slanger, who had concluded that women approach skiing differently than men. Not only do strength and style differ, she says, but women thrive in an atmosphere of mutual support and cooperation, while men tend to prefer a somewhat more competitive approach.

Slanger emphasized a gentle approach to "discovering" what it feels like to ski easily rather than try to follow another's instruction. The program includes "body awareness" stretching execises and daily "rap sessions," which stress that the way you approach skiing is the way you approach life.

"For me, it's really hard to be a beginner in anything," instructor Lyn Ballard confessed at one of our first group sessions. "It makes you feel awkward and weird." That from a ski instructor? She must actually be human, I reasoned.

Woman's Way is hardly an inexpensive way to master one's fear and limitations. It costs $210 for five days of instruction, and that doesn't include lifts or lodging. Still, the program has steadily expanded, until this season there are 21 seminars scheduled at seven resorts across the country. Escape, camaraderie, and progress in a skill you want to learn are obviously the lures.

Our days began with breakfast, followed by stretching exercises from 8:30 to 9. Instruction ran from 10 to 3:30, with an hour or so for lunch eaten together with our instructors (all female, of course). This was a plus, for it further eliminated any "role playing" division between instructor and pupil. I was elated to hear our instructor admit that ice made her tense, too.

We enjoyed cross-country skiing at night by miners' headlamps, learning how to "tune" skis for maximum performance, evening hot tubs, and a final giant slalom race. We didn't worry about what somebody else thought we should do or how well we were supposed to do it. The question constantly asked was, "What did you feel?"

If there was any doubt, it involved the occasional feeling that something was being withheld. Shouldn't we have more instruction? Were we getting our money's worth? But suddenly we would be bouncing down the slopes, singing, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," everyone discovering new things about the way it feels to ski. There was this marvelous feeling that the instructors were our friends, and that everybody had 100 percent support from her classmates.

By the time the week ended, I felt my skiing had begun to improve. But technical progress was not the main idea. Actually, the whole thing was probably a little like planting a garden. Sees were sown that I'm sure will be sprouting for the next 10 years. One of them is to be wary of allowing myself to be judged by anyone else's arbitrary standards.

My husband kept asking, "What did you learn?" And I kept saying: "That isn't the point. It isn't what we did, but how we did it."

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