Elissa Slanger had traveled around the world, doing odd jobs or staying with friends. When she reached California, she realized she had found what she wanted, and dug in. She hung around Squaw Valley that first winter, ski-bumming. Finally, she joined the ski school staff. Today she is a corporation and is writing a book.
Slanger's metamorphosis came with an idea -- an idea whose time was right. She is the mother of Woman's Way, a ski-week program for women that is the latest wrinkle in ski instruction.
Woman's Way is a teaching system that includes skiing lessons, body awareness, yoga exercises, group-cohesiveness activities, woman's-movement philosophy, assertiveness training and "inner" skiing. Slanger says she came upon this formula all by herself, nurtured by the body-aware, Consciousness II environment in California.
Woman's Way got its start about three years ago when Slanger realized that her pupils at Squaw Valley thought she taught differently from the other ski instructors, almost all of whom were men. Women asked to be in her classes, and men sent their wives and girlfriends to her. She looked carefully at what she did, compared it to what the male instructors did, and found that the difference was that she was supportive (some might call it "motherly"). She didn't teach by challenging, but encouraging -- and apparently met a need.
In January 1976, she ran her first Woman's Way ski week as an experiment with 15 women. They all loved it, and recommended it to their friends. To Slanger's surprise, they came again and again, and a new approach was born.
Although Slanger downplays the similarities between Woman's Way and Inner Skiing, in fact there are many. Many of the exercises are the same, and the approach to skiing is the same -- the emphasis on feeling the skiing, not thinking about it.
Slanger says that Timothy Gallwey, the guru of Inner Skiing, owes a lot to her. Gallwey worked with insturctors at Squaw Valley before writing his book. He taught them the principles of Inner Tennis, and they helped turn it into a ski technique. Slanger says she shared with Gallwey many of the techniques she was already using.
This season, Slanger and a staffer are touring the country running seminars. They use local women ski instructors to help run the five-day, $200 (instruction-only) seminars.
Days start with body awareness exercises developed by Slanger and a friend, and end with communal dinners and evening activities. In between, the women -- five to an instructor -- ski together and lunch together. The seminars are for women at all skiing levels, from beginner to expert. Basic instruction is concentrated at the beginner level. Other classes work on improving rather than learning, having fun rather than working.
Class exercises include such Inner Skiing techniques as "skiing like animals" ("You can usually tell what kind of animal a women is trying to be," said one instructor who worked with a Woman's Way group. "You may not be exact, but if people are skiing like eagles they definitely look like birds") and skiing like someone they know ("People who ski like perfectionists ski perfectly, people who ski like racers ski fast," the instructor said).
Slanger said that women who attend her seminar often make basic changes in their attitudes, which carry over to their nonskiing lives. She explained that the ski situation is a more intense microcosm of life. "Every trait is exaggerated on the slopes Most women don't have challenges in their daily lives. The drama on the slopes brings out things that are patterns in their lives." Slanger said the women often identify things they don't like about themselves and use the seminar to work to overcome them.
Those who have been through the Woman's Way seminars are positive about the skiing experience, but vary in their belief that it has changed their lives. "It's a warm, supportive group, and it is fun," one woman said "but I didn't make any real changes in myself -- nor did I want to. I did ski better, however," she added.
Slanger says that the purpose of her seminars is to help women have more fun on skis. She says that basically women are not encouraged to enjoy sports. The male-orientation of most sports is the competitiveness, and women often do not partivipate because they don't want to be competitive.
In a 1977 story in Skiing magazine, Slanger said: "Many women are conflicted in a sports situation. They need to be taught to change from the passive role many of them have been taught to an active one. They need to be taught to show aggression."
Slanger's method includes both assertiveness training and a willingness to accept -- in her words -- "where a woman is." Women are not pushed into skiing faster or on steeper slopes. On the other hand, they are asked to explore their unwillingness to ski faster or on steeper slopes in the hope that they will understand why they are staying where they are. She draws a fine line, one that is often difficult to maintain.
At one ski area in the East where she ran her ski week, several of the male instructors wanted to get in on the training. Her refusal to allow them to be a part of the course or to be included among the local instructors amazed them. "Why couldn't I learn about this? Why couldn't I learn to teach women?" one of them asked. Slanger says she segregates her students and teachers because too often women give up when they are taught by, or alongside men -- they are afraid of looking silly when they try new things.
"I don't know what they do that is so different," one of the male instructors said, "but I sure would like to know."
Woman's Way's Eastern base is at Stratton Mountain, Vt., although Waterville Valley, N.H., also has played host. The home base is in California. For more information, write Woman's Way Skiing Seminars, Box 1182, Tahoe City, Calif., 95730.