jo skates

Skating in the key of life

Compulsory dances, ahoy!


So this entry has two parts. The first is the part I started writing a couple of days ago; it features an article that I found in the N.Y. Times that says that skating can help improve your balance (well, duh!) just after I had one of those days (you know what I mean, we’ve all had them) when I thought I was back to square one. The second part then muses over the fact that you can have a really, really bad day on the ice, go to sleep sore and grumbling, and then (voila!) have a really, really good day.

Part 1: What happens when autopilot is not an option

Yet another op-ed in the N.Y. Times that confirms the value of skating, especially for older adults. This one was about balance, and it cited a recent study that showed value in doing athletic activities, like skating, that demanded learning new motor skills. Scientists found that “novelty and unpredictability, rather than repetition” is linked to “motor cortex plasticity,” a measure of the brain’s ability to change its wiring in response to new stimuli.

Both types of athletes have highly trained calf muscles, but endurance athletes use them repetitiously, in a way that the brain consigns to autopilot. Sure enough, plasticity in the area of the brain that controls calf muscles was no different between endurance athletes and nonathletes. In contrast, the dancers, gymnasts and skaters, for whom autopilot is not an option, showed dramatically higher plasticity: Their neurons were primed to keep learning new motor tasks.

It is good to know this, because after not skating for much of last week, I spent my first day back thinking that I’d forgotten everything. Panic ensued. I hadn’t felt that much “off” in a long while. Whoa, what was that? Was that an edge?

I tell myself that it’s nice to know that my motor cortex plasticity is being developed (go, you neurons, go!), and that even if I might fall on the ice occasionally (ouch!) it is all in the service of decreasing the chances I’ll fall outside of the rink at some later date.

I’m not quite sure if this justification makes sense, but hey, whoever said that skating makes sense?  My favorite line from the article was the following:

Simply staying upright is, in some ways, a full-body exercise.

So true, so true. . . .

Part 2: Onward to the compulsories!

So I got back on the ice today a little wary of what might happen next. It’s summertime, so I had to drive a little further to skate and missed seeing the familiar faces of my skating co-conspirators. It was literally just me and three pairs of pre-teen hockey boys on the ice for most of the time. One hockey skater that I sometimes see showed up but he was having trouble with his skates and left after just a few minutes; another woman I didn’t know was also there going round in hockey skates for a while.

The ice was fast, the pop music was loud, and the boys were fairly mellow. It was a really good session. Let me count the ways!

To begin with, I am getting more and more mobility and strength–and proprioception–on my left side. I’ve been trying to think about how my hip and leg bones and joints are moving while I’m skating, which actually helped a lot today (more on that later).  Some of my swing rolls felt pretty awesome (totally spherical!) and my edge pulls easily went from one end of the rink to the other, no sweat.

I was also able to make some progress on two basic pushes that have been eluding me. One is the back inside edge to back outside edge; the other is the back outside to forward outside. I tend to rush both and simply step (or even, fall) from one edge to another, rather than letting the initial edge rise, letting that ankle bend, and getting a good push onto the new edge.

Kseniya does both very well in her European.

The best thing, though, was that in the final half hour I actually worked on some compulsory dances for the first time in months. (That is not entirely true, since I have been doing a little bit of Kilian each session–I figure it’s like taking vitamins–but I’ve been largely holding off on other dances in favor of rebuilding my basics.)

I’d been thinking that I ought to get back into doing some of these dances before too much time goes by. And since things were going so well, I thought, why not start today?

I approached them in the same way that I have been doing my different exercises: breaking down different sequences, thinking about circles, that spherical lean, and knee action (rise and fall), and making sure all my edges are true and my pushes solid.

No music yet, and just remembering the patterns. But I did just enough to realize that this is the way to go. Kilian, Starlight Waltz, and Viennese Waltz today! Most excellent!

Hooray for motor cortex plasticity and all other good things!

Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

6 thoughts on “Compulsory dances, ahoy!

  1. Way to go on practicing the compulsory dances! My coach took that seminar with Ben Agosto (at your rink, right?) and has given me a bunch of dance exercises as my warmup. I have definitely seen an improvement in my skating, so it shows how powerful dance can be for a skater’s overall technique. And yes, it’s always weird to go back on the ice after taking some time off. Edges totally feel different, but your body remembers everything – for the most part! 🙂


  2. Ooh, I would love to know what the dance exercises were. And yes, I’ve grown to like the compulsories after all these years–still not the same wow factor as freestyle, but fun in their own way.


  3. The Times article adds data to what skaters, dancers and gymnasts anecdotally know: these activities at the very least help preserve balance. Nice article!


  4. Thanks, George! I think they should use us as experts!


  5. That was a fascinating NYT article, thanks, and it’s always nice to be told that we are doing the right thing! I hope I get up to the dances that you are working on eventually!


  6. Thanks, Mary! I hope to make them a regular part of practice from now on, like working on a program.


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