Seriously, I doubt that the perfect turn can be described in words. In fact I doubt it exists. I doubt that even Mr. Barnes, who is great with the written word, can describe the perfect turn. When aesthetics must be judged, there is no "perfect".
Thanks for the compliment, but I think perfection in turns does actually exist, and it can be defined, described, observed, and understood very simply. While there's always some room for individual style, the fundamentals of the perfect turn are black and white. Or perhaps I should say, "left and right."
First remember that I am defining "turn" strictly and MUCH more restrictively than most skiers do. "Turning" is something I do when I intend to control direction, to go where I want to go. It is an offensive activity, a "go thought." It is to control line. It is NOT to control SPEED. If you answer the question "why do you turn" with something like "to control my speed," then I am not talking about those "turns." I call those things "braking." They are no less important, can also be "good"--maybe even "perfect"--but they are not what I'm calling "turning."
I'm also not, in this discussion, describing "pure carving," which has a different name, and is a different thing too. Turns control line. Braking controls speed. Carving controls neither! (But it's FUN, and it, too, can approach "perfection.")
DIGRESSION, for anyone who has not followed our discussions on these matters in the past (skip it if you'd like):
I am very aware that what I said above contradicts some of the most commonly accepted "conventional wisdom" of the sport of skiing. Most skiers DO turn to control speed--ask them and they'll tell you. Watch them, and their movements and tactics back it up. And their turns, as a result, are FAR from the "perfect turns" I'm about to describe. Most people's "turns" are defensive, meant not to "go that way," but to "stop going this way." That's not why they turn their cars, but for some reason that IS why they "turn" their skis.
Yes, turns AFFECT speed--although all else being equal, a better turn will affect it LESS than a poorer turn. A well-chosen and well-skied line eliminates the NEED for speed control--and skiing this "slow line fast" as a habit is the signature of great skiers everywhere. Likewise, braking (intentional skidding) usually affects direction, so most habitual brakers do have SOME ability to choose their paths--roughly! It's easy for them to get confused and believe that the braking movements they make are actually turns. But they're not! They're made for an entirely different reason than turns, made to control something quite distinct from "direction."
Ask Hermann Maier or Picabo Street or Bode Miller why they turn (in a race course)--clearly it isn't to slow down! They turn to ski the line they choose down the race course. Line is critical in most races--a foot either way can make the difference between champion and chump. So they, by necessity, make the kind of turns that I will describe. Sometimes even these guys aren't so concerned with their line, particularly in high speed downhill races. In these cases, racers too will do something fundamentally unlike the turns I'm describing. They'll go straight, or make "pure carves" when the line is not so critical. They'll hit their brakes when they need to. Most of the time, though, they strive for "the perfect turn."
So there are many other things we can do on skis--well, poorly, or theoretically "perfectly"--besides turning. We'll save those for other discusions.
TURNING is the direct result of the intent to control the direction I'm going, precisely. Any other intent will produce fundamentally different movements and have a different measure of perfection. You may not like my definition, which is fine, but you will have to understand it to make sense of the rest of this post!
Now then, THE PERFECT TURN.... (drum roll, please)
Guys, imagine that you are walking along the street and suddenly an irresistible goddess (ladies, feel free to switch the sexes here, if it makes the point easier to grasp!) off to your left waves at you, smiles, and says "come here." (Yes, it's OK to fantasize for a moment....) What do you do? Think about the movements, in slow motion. Your left foot and leg turn and move toward her. Your arms probably also swing in that direction, leading the direction change and movement of your entire body in the "desired direction." There are lots of movements involved, but they all have one thing in common: everything you move (intentionally) moves toward the goddess. Nothing goes the other way--unless you make a mistake--skid on the loose gravel, for example (or have a change of intent).
How vigorously you make the various movements depends on a few things. How abruptly do you need to change direction to go where you want to go? How badly and quickly do you need or want to get there? These things can alter the timing and intensity of the movements, but they don't change that one fundamental thing--everything you move when you turn left goes left; nothing goes right.
Now, let's imagine that we're walking down the same street when suddenly you see someone to whom you owe money. "Come here," he commands. But you don't want to go that way, this time! What happens? This time it's your right foot and leg--your OTHER foot and leg--that move first, and they move in the opposite direction, AWAY from where you DON'T want to go. And everything else moves away too--nothing moves left when you don't want to go left!
THE PRINCIPLE of POSITIVE and NEGATIVE MOVEMENTS:
Intent, here, clearly dictates movements. The "go that way" intent produces movements of one type. The "don't go that way" intent produces the opposite. For lack of better terms, I call movements in the direction you want to go "positive movements" and movements the other way "negative movements."
Turns on skis, as I've defined them, are what I do when I want to "go that way." So the appropriate movements of turns on skis are also "positive movements." Negative movements are very simply wrong (for turning)--because they literally move me in the wrong direction. If the only kind of moves you know how to make when that goddess calls "come hither" are negative movements--you are not going to get a date!
Simple so far? Two fundamental kinds of movements, one (and only one) of which is correct for "turning."
How does this actually look, then, on skis? First, what options do you have with your skis? There aren't many--with your feet, you can turn them (pivot them) left and right, and point them in any direction you choose. You can tip them at various angles or flat on the snow. And you can push or pull on them, in various places. That's about it, isn't it? With the rest of your body, you can make all kinds of movements, but they're really only significant as far as how they affect these three things. Instructors traditionally call these three things "rotary," "edging," and "pressure control," and we spend our lives trying to improve these skills in ourselves and others.
So...imagine now that you're skiing along across the hill--a traverse from left to right (downhill is to your left). There's the goddess, down there, to the left. It's not too steep, you aren't already going too fast, and you need a date, so there's nothing to stop you. YOU WANT TO GO THAT WAY! Congratulations--a turn is in order, preferably a good one (you do want to look like an expert, right?) What do you do?
You turn your skis to the left, tip your skis to the left, and move the rest of your body to the left (not necessarily in that, or any other, order).
POSITIVE TIPPING MOVEMENTS:
To turn your skis left, you first have to let go of their grip on the mountain. You have to reduce their edge angle, by tipping them to the left until they release. Probably it was the downhill ski that had most of your weight and provided the main grip on the mountain (it's only natural--a car crossing a hill would have most of the weight on the downhill tires, too). So the turn begins when you release the edge of the downhill ski with tipping movements--"positive" ones, in the direction you're trying to go. Besides, you can't very well tip the UPhill ski down the hill without moving your downhill leg out of its way. So it all begins with a TIPPING movement of the downhill foot and leg to flatten the ski and release its edge.
That might be enough, too. Release that grip, and you're like a bowling ball--gravity will pull you down the hill. Keep tipping the skis into the turn, and the curved left edges will engage, pulling you around like steel rails pull a train. But of course, that bowling ball and that locomotive have no CONTROL of their line, so they're turning, but they aren't really making "the perfect turn." Let's say you REALLY want to get down that hill, and gravity's gentle arc isn't tight enough for you. YOU want to control your line--you can't wait for gravity and sidecut to do it. What do you do? You TURN your skis--as much as you need to.
POSITIVE TURNING MOVEMENTS ("STEERING"):
Your skis point across the hill. You want them to point DOWN the hill, to your left. How do you do it? You can point an arrow to the left two ways (or a combination)--you can move its tip to the left, or you can move its feathered tail to the right. Both result in the same direction of pointing, but one involves POSITIVE movement, the other NEGATIVE. So, like the arrow, "the perfect turn" involves steering the TIPS of the skis INTO the turn. Any movements that push or twist the TAILS of the skis OUT of the turn are negative movements, and are therefore incompatible with the "perfect turn."
What does this mean? Again, you can't steer the tip of the right ski left first, because the left tip is in its way. So again, we have to start the movement with the left (downhill) ski tip, to go left. Turn the left tip left to go left; turn the right tip right to go right--how many times have I said these words here in the Forum?
Now there are several possible ways to turn our skis (besides just letting them turn). We can jerk them both around by turning the upper body, or some part of it, first, in a "one-two" action--the classic technique known as "rotation." We can twist the upper and lower body quickly in opposite directions--known as "counter-rotation." We can jam a pole into the snow and crank our whole body and skis around by pushing on it--the ubiquitous "blocking pole plant." But all these techniques cause the tails to twist out, throwing the skis into a skid. They all involve negative movements. There must be a better way!
The only way you can actively turn the tip of your left ski to the left, without twisting its tail to the right, is to use your left leg and only your left leg. So, just like the movements you made walking toward the goddess, you turn your left foot and leg left to go left. As the left ski turns, you can simultaneously turn the RIGHT tip left, with your right foot and leg. The legs rotate independently of each other, beneath the pelvis and the upper body. Nothing goes right. Positive movements only.
How active should these movements be? The "perfect turn," of course, by definition, allows me to control my turn shape, to make any possible shape or size turn, MY choice. So I make these movements as vigorously and powerfully as they need to be to accomplish the task. It's very much like steering a car with the steering wheel--you turn it as smoothly as possible, as little as possible, but as much as necessary. Sometimes you might even hold it straight, making the turn BIGGER than the "natural" gravity/carved turn. And you even steer your car when you're going straight (except when talking on the cell phone and eating a Big Mac), so "steering the feet and legs" is something that happens continuously, with varying intensity, throughout all "perfect turns."
PUSHING & PULLING, FLEXING & EXTENDING, and OTHER POSITIVE MOVEMENTS:
Let's look at WEIGHT TRANSFER. Conventional wisdom has long held that we "should" ski on the left ski when turning right, and transfer weight (or balance, pressure, or "stance foot" if you prefer) to the right ski when turning left. Here too, skiing is like driving a car--weight moves to the outside in a turn. But has anyone ever told you that you "should" or "must" transfer weight to drive a car? Do you tell your passengers "everyone lean to the right now so we can turn left"? Somehow I doubt it!
What really happens on skis? Let's go back to that left turn from a traverse on a not-steep hill. In fact, let's go all the way back to the example of walking down the street. "Come here" she says. Everything you move, moves to the left. And where does your weight go? To the right foot, of course, immediately, even as you move left, away from it!
Now back to the skis. You release its edge and turn the left tip downhill, and your whole body moves downhill with it. If you do it quickly and accurately, your weight MAY move to the uphill ski--or it may not. If the hill is steep, your balance may remain on the downhill ski as you release its edge and steer it into the turn. As the turn progresses, though, eventually the right ski becomes the downhill ski, and your weight will naturally move there, aided by the centrifugal force that results from the turn--as in the car. So yes, there is a weight transfer in most "perfect turns," if we're balanced, and we allow it to happen.
HOWEVER--if you decide that you "should" transfer your weight to the uphill ski from the start, something else happens. Back to the fantasy: you're traversing again, left to right, balanced naturally mostly on the downhill ski. The Gravity Goddess beckons.... What happens if you "transfer your weight" to the uphill ski? You have to move something--or everything--UP THE HILL--away from the turn, away from the Goddess, in a negative direction, and your chances for a date are the only things that go downhill.
So the weight transfer is a natural outcome of a "perfect turn." It is result, NOT a cause of turns, and not a necessity! Weight transfer results from accurate movements, good balance, and the forces of the turn itself. In some conditions--notably deep powder--the identical movements will NOT produce a weight transfer. Clearly, there are fundamental movement patterns that characterize "the perfect turn," and these often result in a weight transfer, but the weight transfer itself is hardly a fundamental requirement!
Missing this point can have unfortunate consequences, at any level. Yes, because "weight transfer happens," the ability to balance on one foot is an essential skill of the expert skier. But the advice to lift the downhill ski--or even lighten it--before other turning movements, results in negative movements. Of course, the wider your stance, the MORE you have to move uphill in order to balance over the uphill ski. A very narrow stance minimizes the negative effects of an active, "early" weight transfer. But it doesn't eliminate them, and two wrongs don't make a right (or a left).
Furthermore, with either a very narrow stance, or with all your weight on one foot, you lose the important ability to steer your legs independently. The only way you can turn your right tip left when you have all your weight on it is to use your upper body--rotation, counter-rotation, and/or blocking pole plant--or to wait patiently while gravity turns it for you. None of these options, as we've already discussed, represents our "perfect turn."
What about UNWEIGHTING? Unweighting--intentionally lifting your skis off or almost off the snow, usually with some sort of "up" move or hop--accomplishes one thing very well. It makes it easier to twist the skis or displace them sideways into a skid. Since, like a car airborne over a frost heave, we have no control of our direction when we're in the air, unweighting is NOT part of "the perfect turn." And since skidding--as in "skidding off the road"--isn't much help in our quest for precise line control, there are two strikes against any intentional unweighting move.
But there are exceptions (naturally--it was getting too simple). Like a car again, we can only turn so tight. If you HAVE to turn a car more tightly than it's tightest turning circle, the only way to do it is to move the BACK end OUT. And the only way to do that, besides putting it in reverse, is to lift the back end and move it sideways, or lift the whole car and pivot it. Not easy. Not usually desirable. A negative movement. But if you HAVE to do it, if you can't follow "your" line without it....
So it is with skiing, even in the perfect turn. To make a very quick, sharp direction change, we DO have to pivot the skis sometimes. Pivot quickly, then engage the edges to grip. To do that, unweighting helps. The very tight turns that racers sometimes make, especially in slalom, often involve unweighting. It may be subtle, often just a result of "rebound" as the skier releases the pressures of the last turn and the skis and legs spring back. But those who argue "never unweight" and/or "never twist the skis" in a turn, forsake the option of truly tight direction changes.
POLES and the Perfect Turn
Planting the pole on the downhill side may look like a positive movement. But if you put any pressure on it, which way does it push you? The blocking pole plant, which we've already discounted as a way to turn the skis into the turn, also pushes your body the "wrong way." It is a negative movement.
SWINGING the pole down the hill, though, can help lead and direct the rest of the body's movements into the turn. An active pole SWING, with perhaps just a light touch for timing, is appropriate in "perfect turns." Here too, though, it depends on the speed and intensity of your movements. Poles extend our arms, and the pole swing is the skier's version of the arm swing that we envisioned in the walking direction change fantasy. Casual, slow walking may involve no arm swing--I often have my hands in my pockets. But RUNNING brings them out, and the faster I run, the more actively I involve my arms. Skiing is the same. Active pole swings are an affectation at low speeds with gentle direction changes, but they become increasingly important as things get "dynamic."
FORE-AFT BALANCE and "LEVERAGE"
Pressuring the tip of an edged ski causes it to engage more stongly, and to bend into a tighter arc. Of course, it also causes the TAIL to lose some grip, and to straighten out. So, while we CAN tighten the arc of a turn to some degree by "levering," it does NOT make a cleaner, less-skidded turn. Most "perfect turns," therefore, involve pressure centered over the ski's "sweet spot" throughout the turn. However, maintaining this centered pressure distribution requires a lot of fore-aft movement by the skier! Just remaining in balance on skis, as they speed up and slow down, travel downhill, across the hill, up the hill, around turns, over moguls and through changing condtions, requires vigorous, continuous, and skillful adjustment forward and back. This seems to be a big debating point--should we move forward and back on today's skis, or not? Yes, we move fore-and-aft, but no, we don't (usually) need to shift the pressure on our skis along their length! "Perfect turns" happen in the center, in balance, "cuff neutral" in the boots.
The perfect turn is simple and clear, and it is easy to learn to identify movements that are appropriate, or inappropriate, at any skill level. It is a question of fundamental movement types, not of a stratospheric level of expertise and athleticism. "Positive movements" are the single, defining characteristic of the intent to go where you want to go. To turn left, nothing should move intentionally to the right. While there may be some inevitable skidding, there is no INTENTIONAL skidding in a "perfect turn," from the introductory (wedge turn or basic parallel) level to the expert's dynamic turns. But it is not necessarily a "pure carve" either. Active steering of both skis INTO the turn, throughout the turn, gives the skier the precise control of the direction the skis point, and of the shape of the turn, that DEFINE the "perfect turn."
To boil the technique down to its simplest essence, remember this one simple thought: to go left, turn the left tip left. To go right, turn the right tip right. This simple movement, of course, requires a good, functional stance, and good balance. Because it entails other essential fundamentals, such as releasing the edge of the downhill ski, and because it emphasizes movements at the bottom of the "kinetic chain," this simple little instruction is often enough!. You CAN'T turn the left tip left without first releasing its edge, so "release the edge" may even be an unnecessary instruction!
In PSIA terms, this "perfect turn" is what the "Center Line" of our skiing model depicts, at various levels. It is the movement pattern and skill blend that results inevitably from the intent to control direction, to follow a precise line either of my own or someone else's choosiing. Even a first-time beginner, asked to (try to) follow a curvy line drawn on the flats, will blend rotary, edging, and pressure control skills, weak though they may be, to accomplish the task. And even an expert would not be able to follow that curvy line without the help of all three skills. No one would be able to (or likely to try to) follow that curvy line with "negative movements." No matter how hard you do it, pushing your tails to the right won't move you to the left!
Despite its perfection, the "perfect turn" is only A goal, not THE goal, of great skiing. There are lots of times when I don't care about my line, when pinpoint control of my direction is unnecessary. Cruising down a wide open groomed run, speed is no concern, line is no concern, so I'm free to relax and just play with the mountain and my skis. Pure carved turns--the pursuit of g-forces--let go of the wheel, tip 'em up on edge and let the skis run with no active steering--that's "perfection" in these conditions. But park a snowcat below a roll in front of me, or add a crowd, and my priorities change--I've got to either GO around them--with a "perfect turn", or STOP before I hit them, with "perfect braking." Pure-carving involves simply tipping and balancing on skis--no rotary, and no skidding. Braking is the opposite of turning--it involves all NEGATIVE MOVEMENTS and INTENTIONAL skidding. Great skiing involves mastery of the entire spectrum from pure carving to straight-line braking.
There are many great ways to get down a mountain on skis--but only ONE way to make "a perfect turn!"
(P.S. By-the-way, neither I nor my description of the "perfect turn" have any connection whatsoever with the American Skiing Company's "PERFECT TURN" (TM) ski school program. If there is any similarity between "my" perfect turns and their "PERFECT TURN (TM)," it is purely coincidental!