jo skates

Skating in the key of life


Skating through the wobble

So today I set out to make what I thought was an easy round of bittersweet chocolate pudding. I have made this recipe before; it is thickened with egg yolks rather than cornstarch, and is fairly easy to make on the stove. But alas, I ran short of cream and the milk-cream ratio was off. Then, because it wasn’t getting thick enough, I tried adding another egg yolk later. Big mistake. I had to strain the entire thing and it didn’t set correctly.

So now I have a bowl of pudding that wobbles. It is still pretty irresistible, and I will have no trouble consuming it. As dessert, it does the job; after all, you can’t taste the wobble.

I still have the occasional wobble in my left edges as well. Things have gotten way better in the past year: while my hip are still somewhat imbalanced at times, I can usually figure out a way to fix them using one or more of these fixes:

Skating side:

  • KEY: set the blade down at the proper angle (rather than setting down on a flat and rocking into the edge)
  • hip under
  • thigh spiraled out
  • get further back on the blade
  • pull up a tad on arch to correct pronation
  • correct upper body position
  • use foot pressure and ankle bend to deepen edge

Free side:

  • full extension out of push
  • don’t hike up free hip

But that wobble is there, reminding me of a time when I would set down my (usually left) skate and have no idea where it was going.

Hopefully that scary memory as well as the wobble will retreat into the past soon. There’s something comforting about not being able to remember things (like bad dreams and where you put your keys and the fact that you were once terrified of left three turns). But in the meantime I am trying not to fixate on that little shimmy side to side once in a while. After all, it doesn’t affect me that much after the initial set-down of the edge.

Trying to skate right through the wobble, rather than letting myself worry about it too much, is a new practice strategy. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into posture corrections on the local level, but I need to get myself moving again. Now that the new blades feel pretty good and my bruises are healing up (itchy stage, though, ack!), I feel like I need to spend at least part of the time putting things back together again so I don’t look like a stop-action film in slow motion.

I have started on the Viennese Waltz, which is short enough so that I don’t have an excuse to stop in the middle. At some point I will try to do an entry about the dance itself, but for now, these notes are from the last couple of lessons and practice sessions. Feel free to skip ahead to watch the Shibutani’s exhibition program:

  • exercise for cross behinds: slide chassé, cross behind in circle (work on hip position–spiral turnout; cross below knees, don’t uncross when transferring weight)
  • backwards circles for cross in front and push (tight feet)
  • outside-outside mohawk: push into correct body position, just change feet (pivot), don’t lurch over new side
  • outside-outside-outside, strong body position on left side
  • forward progressives: turn-out of left leg on left outside edge, free leg extension (contract quad harder)
  • back progressives: equal length, push on inside (bend ankle, push across and out of circle), free leg comes in on circle
  • stay out of guy’s way on outside edge while he is doing a three turn

This week I also read an article in the New York Times that talked about a study on running injuries. The study concluded that the impact of landing affected how many injuries female recreational runners suffered; not surprisingly, the ones who ran lightly on their feet, like insects running across the water, had fewer injuries than those that pounded along. I think the equivalent for skaters is that fluid, light, continuous motion that distributes force along each edge.

I can’t demonstrate this without the wobbles getting in the way, but luckily there are internet videos aplenty to help illustrate the skating equivalent of the water strider. Yes, “Clair de Lune” has been used a lot for skating, but somehow I never get tired of it, especially when it’s used like this.


Get back, Jojo

So I tried my best “oh woe is me I have new blades and can’t really skate” excuse with Ari on my lesson today, and for a while it I thought it just might work. After all, I can be quite pitiful when I want to be.

We started the lesson with some basic forward and back progressives in a circle. I felt pretty strong on the forward progressives, even with the inevitable adjustments: turn out the free foot more, sternum over the blade, make sure you are really on an edge. We worked on posture (drawing the upper body and head up to create space for the hips), bending the knee forward of the toe, articulating my ankles, and really leaning in the direction of the free foot.

I suggested that we use the pole harness for back progressives, but Ari willfully assumed that I was just kidding so I had to just do them unassisted. Lots of adjustments needed here. I am not quite on the right part of the blade yet, especially on the left side. My weight tends to sneak up towards the balls of my feet, which makes me pitch forward.

There are other things that would help these back progressives, like making sure my forward arm is lower than my back arm. Or allowing my new foot to contact the ice and then drawing it in underneath me before I transfer my weight, instead to just stepping down.

As soon as the back progressives looked a little better (or maybe he’d just had enough), Ari was ready to move on. I thought we might try some swing rolls or something equally basic. Instead, Ari said, “Show me a Kilian choctaw.”

OMG. It’s been a long time since the name of any compulsory dance has passed his lips during one of my lessons.

Hearing that, I just went ahead and did an end pattern (though I’m always confused as to whether steps 5 -14 actually count as an end pattern). And since going through the motions of the Kilian has become my skating equivalent of doodling, the choctaw itself was not half bad.

What needed major reforms were the steps leading into the choctaw. I have been doing something akin to contortionism on these edges.


If you look at this video of Maya Usova doing choctaws, you’ll see these different positions in action.

Steps 5- 7 (Maya 32-33 seconds in) progressive. Arms/torso in neutral.

Step 8 (Maya 35) cross in front. Left arm in front and torso turned clockwise. Free foot comes in behind at what feels like an acute angle but is really parallel.

Warning: Among other bad things, I have been letting my left hip open up and get stuck behind my right.  To get in the correct position, I have to lift out of my hips, and feel as though my left hip is actually leading the circle, even though I am on my right outside edge. I also have to allow that right thigh to move inwards against the clockwise rotation of the torso–now that I know how to engage my adductors, this is less mystifying than it sounds.

Step 9 (Maya 36) inside edge. The left inside edge is placed beside the right, not behind it; right foot slides out in front. Left arm is still in front and torso turned clockwise; belly button towards inside of circle.

If I do all this, I can much more easily and immediately get on a solid left inside edge. Then the choctaw is relatively easy peasy (I just have to remember to do a weight shift towards my left hip on the outside edge coming out–see Maya at 37 seconds.)

Of course, Ari wants this sequence in both directions: “Ice dancers do things in both directions” (nyah nyah nyah nyah). So it’s time to work on reverse Kilians, which I have tried before. This will be my secret weapon, at least in my dreams.

The new blades have made this an exciting week. I am really jazzed to be working on steps of the Kilian again, as well as to get some insights into basics. One big thing to remember, which Ari underscored at the end of the lesson, is that I must get my weight on the correct part of the blade. This is really important, especially since on my new blades there are dire consequences for being on the wrong part of the blade.

By dire consequences I don’t just mean annoying scratchy sounds or a slight bobble here and there. I mean the kind of ungainly maneuvering for balance. Even worse, it can lead to Pain. Not the psychic pain that can lead to an existential crisis (“Why ice dance? Even when you get better at it, you just keep going around in circles?”) I scoff at that kind of pain most of the time, except when I’m feeling particularly down in the dumps. But I mean actual Pain, as in the pain in my left knee and foot, which went beyond the merely annoying to the noteworthy and Advil-worthy phase this week.

I haven’t had this kind of Pain in a while, so I attribute it to the new blades, which don’t let me get away with much. It may have been all that walking I did over the holidays as well. The knee pain is going away, but I am more concerned about the foot pain, which I worry might be a recurrence of my tendonosis/tendonitis. I wrote a post about this around a year ago, though I think I misidentified the affected tendon. I’m pretty sure have posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, which affects the tendon that runs from the calf to the bones of the inner foot.


At any rate, I have been working on strengthening exercises for the foot as well as continuing to work on better alignment overall. Hopefully getting back on my blade will help this.

Here’s a Beatles favorite to underscore this.

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back Jojo. Go home.



Skinny little Kilian

Starting skating later in life, as I did, has its ups and downs. The ups are that I now have the means to do it, at least in terms of  access to rinks and excellent coaches and a very supportive skating community. And I have lots and lots and lots of motivation, and nobody to fuss at me about how I’m spending my money and time. And I can drive myself to the rink. Ah, the joys of being a grownup!

And my left three turn is now a thing of beauty (on a good day) and my knees still work okay. So I should just stop here before describing the downs, right?

Never shy away from the dark side, I always say. Especially when it provides an opportunity for a quotation or two from Eric Franklin’s Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery.

Towards the end of his book, Franklin takes on the idea of “pulling up” in dance or yoga, in which you try to maintain alignment by lifting the ribs, sucking in the abdomen, and tucking the buttocks under. The problem is that this desirable posture (“high chest” for dancers) is achieved through a constant activation of “voluntary control,” which leads to rigidity, poor breathing habits, and a lack of full spatial awareness.

When I read this, I realized that this has been me all over. I have been achieving a degree of alignment in skating through being a control freak: muscling through my edges and turns, rather than figuring out how to skate in a more efficient way.

According to Franklin, our emphasis should be on the proper conditioning (especially of the abdominals), placement, and technique to allow for “dynamic stability”: “the ability to maintain or to return to a position after a disturbance.” Skating is really “just” that: a series of dynamic positions. Our muscles work to absorb forces (up and down, forward and backwards, round and round), counter-balance (ankles press forward, free leg extends), and produce speed for the next position.

Certain muscles deep in the core really help with more efficient stabilization. (Other books I’ve read stress this as well; for instance, Annemarie Autere has described these inner muscles in The Feeling Balletbody.) But until this past year I haven’t really been thinking about how to use those. Instead, I have been trying to shore up instabilities and perturbations in my positions through tightening other large external muscles. I have been trying to lift parts of myself, rather than just figuring out how to lean in, bend in, and sink in. It has been like trying to defy gravity, rather than thinking about it as something that could be beneficial.

Franklin also thinks of gravity as his BFF: “If you join with gravity, you will be much more successful in the end.” He talks about achieving good posture through using our body’s response to gravity’s pull downwards, using “the ground reaction force as efficiently as possible”:

Guide this force up through your body (primarily through the bones). Liberated from their tasks of superfluous gripping, the muscles begin to create optimal alignment and lift. The nervous system becomes more alert, the reflexes more nimble. Freeing the muscles eliminates any controlled precipitation of weight down into the knees and feet. When you feel your weight, you gain control.

Franklin mentions that certain alignment problems happen when older dancers have adopted “cool” postural habits that they then don’t feel that they have the time to change. This feels so true of some of the things I have been doing inefficiently. They seem to work so well–up to a point! But I realize that I have been working way too hard. And honestly, I’m too old for that.

Plus I’m too old to waste any energy feeling sad about being too old to waste my energy. Ha! So the trick is not only to learn more efficient ways of doing things, but also to allow myself the mental time and space to let go of these former muscular habits.

Here’s where “skating like a kid” comes in. I love watching those skinny little kids fly around the rink, doing their footwork and their twizzles and their triple what-nots. You can tell when they’ve figured out the proper technique; they just seem to float over their skates. There is minimal extra force generated by large muscle groups. Those tiny little bodies have so little muscle to begin with!

So yesterday, I decided that I needed to do a skinny little Kilian pattern or two. Okay, this is just imagery; I missed the “skinny little kid” phase entirely. But it is possible to think about how skating would work if I were just a stick-like figure, rather than a supple and curved adult who can bend any which way (okay, that’s a fantasy too, but maybe closer to my twisted reality of late).

Three things that I noticed.

  • One is that the Kilian has become a compulsory that I just mess around with for fun. Wow.
  • Two is that efficiency and laziness are connected; it takes relatively little energy to do the Kilian in this way, so I can then go off and see what my skating friends are up to.
  • Three is that my alignment is much better overall.

Hooray for that skinny little kid in all of us!



Power of suggestion

It’s interesting how perception plays a part in movement. I’ve been having a lot of trouble with the right outside to left outside closed mohawk. By “a lot,” I mean that the last time I had a lesson on it with Laurie, she didn’t even recognize what I was trying to do. Ack!

This is the mohawk featured in the Silver Tango (also called the Harris Tango). It happens after the swing (which makes it a swing mohawk).

This is a dance I passed years ago; in fact, it was the first silver compulsory dance I passed (and on the first try!). I passed it at the standard level, which meant I did it both solo and with a partner. Not only that, but it was one of the compulsory dances that I did in competition for two entire seasons. So I’ve had a lot of mileage on this turn.

Alas, in the past few years it seems to have taken a turn for the worse. (Okay, bad pun, but I have to laugh about it.)

So yesterday I decided to stop trying to do what I think is this mohawk. Instead, I thought I’d work on it as if it were an entirely new move, one I had never done before. I’ve been watching that video of Alexander Zhulin demonstrating these in the other direction (like in the Rocker Foxtrot), and I thought that I would just call it the “Zhulin.”

And what do you know, it worked. Zhulins in both directions up and down the rink, no problem. I even asked Kari what the outside-outside turn looked like, and she said, “a mohawk.”

No, it’s a Zhulin. A right outside to left outside closed Zhulin.

I’ve also had some success with another idea from Eric Franklin, whose awesome book Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery has been my bedtime reading for about a year (some things can’t be rushed).  Franklin tells us to imagine the heads of our femurs as buoys floating on the water. As we bend and straighten our knees and ankles, or as the leg moves in the hip socket, the buoys move gently up and down in response to the level of the water. The important thing for me (Miss Misaligned) is that they stay at the same level in the water.

Franklin suggests using this buoy idea for the head as well. The difference in using Franklin’s imagery, as opposed to simply saying “hips forward” or “head up,” is that it helps reinforce how movement is continuous and constant, rather than interrupted by sudden changes of position. It is also a positive rather than negative correction. Much better than telling myself not to be a bobbing bird.

Plus it’s fun, being at the cold rink (getting colder, now that it’s September and fall weather is upon us) and imagining a warm summer day out on a boat or at the beach.

The idea of floating in the water works for both gentle and more vigorous movement. This past summer we saw several duck families hanging out by the rocky coastline of Reid Beach State Park in Maine. The waves were quite large for the little ducklings and they would get washed up and pushed down by the action of the water. A few of them would be submerged for a while, but they always popped up looking none the worse for wear.

Lobster trap buoys.

Ducks and ducklings at Reid Beach State Park (Maine).

Ducks and ducklings at Reid Beach State Park (Maine).

It’s a buoy! It’s a duck! No, it’s my femur! Floating through a Zhulin!


Oh, so that’s how it goes!

Now that there is a movement afoot to allow skaters to choose their own music for compulsory dances (hooray!), I have been thinking about all kinds of possibilities. I am just starting to think about music for the Kilian.

It’s a little fast (or maybe it’s just that my skating is a little slow) but I’m thinking maybe George Ezra’s “Budapest.” It’s upbeat, it’s steady, and it’s repetitive without being annoying. And it’s catchy as a song can be.

The only issue is that it is hard to understand what the song is actually saying, as evidenced by this adorable video that shows schoolchildren trying to figure this song out.

Honestly, I was like that about the Kilian. For the longest time, I couldn’t really figure out how this compulsory ice dance worked, even though it has long fascinated me. I remember watching my first ice dance coach (Eric of the neat feet and precise edges) solo this dance, and thinking “Wow, I can’t wait until I can do that!”

Since then, I’ve watched countless good skaters do the Kilian, and each time as they move proudly through the two-beat edges, sail through that choctaw, and move smoothly (like buttah!) through that “barrel roll” (continuous rotation of shoulders) afterwards, I still think “Wow, I can’t wait until I can do that!”

I’ve had some great lessons on it, and pored over the instructional videos. I’ve even (get this!) done this dance in competition (luckily, my partner lived).

Still, up until fairly recently I felt like the Kilian was beyond me. Something was always off, and I would fix one edge only to lose another. I felt like I was always holding my breath through the choctaw section; after a couple of times around the rink I’d be oxygen-deprived. (And there were six patterns required for competition, arghhh!)

I think the basic issue had to do with my mistaken assumption that learning compulsory dances was all about executing a series of steps, rather than thinking about how one might use these steps to express something else.

I can’t resist quoting the legendary Mr. Howard here, who says that the problem with many young musicians is that all they want to do is learn to play repertoire, when what they should be doing is learning to play the cello. Once you’ve done your homework trying to master technique, working on repertoire is like dessert.

So I’ve been working hard on technique for a little over a year now, and now I’m ready for some dessert. This means giving some more time and energy to the compulsories again.

The Kilian should be a good touchstone by which to judge whether my edge quality, body position, speed, lean, and flow have improved enough so that some expression (other than fear, dread, and loathing) is actually possible.

My aim is not only to get through the Kilian, but to do the Kilian, “that light lively march.” (Next step is maybe to learn to ooze the Blues, but first things first). I want to be like the little girl at the end of that video who knows all about Budapest. And Hungary. Confident, eager, happy.

We should all have a little bit of Hermione Granger in us. Someday I’ll be at a social dance and the Kilian will come on and rather than sinking into a corner I’ll be thinking, “Pick me, oh, pick me!”

Until then, just sing along with me (if you can figure out what he’s saying!)

Give me one good reason
Why I should never make a change
Baby if you hold me
Then all of this will go away


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!


Drawing the alphabet

It’s been a rough few weeks at work; I took on some extra administrative duties this term (sucker, I know) and every time I think I’m caught up there’s some new request or complaint in my in-box. So here’s my Friday afternoon dilemma: should I try to answer some more emails? Catch up on paperwork (a.k.a. write more soul-sucking administrative prose)? Finish that book review? Or post another blog entry?

Ha, that’s a no-brainer.

Skating has been challenging this week. I’m tired and my legs and ankles feel stiff and a bit sore. And my foot hurts. The difference in my leg stability remains marked; my left hip still goes out and my right side drops when I don’t consciously think about it. Sometimes I feel like I’m learning to skate all over again (which is to some degree true). One moment I think I’m making progress and then wham! I realize that I’m still pitching forward and breaking at the hips, and that my head is totally in the wrong place, and I’m not really on edges.

To sum up with a joke: what happened when the elephant stepped on the grape?

It let out a little whine.

Okay, I’m the grape today, I confess. Still, I’m nowhere near the end of my rope, at least skating-wise. Even at its toughest, skating remains far superior to just sitting around adding more soul-sucking prose to the world.

Plus, I have a new favorite off-ice exercise: standing on one leg and drawing the alphabet with my free leg. This was suggested as physical therapy for my foot, but I’ve found out that you can do it with your entire leg to develop better mobility and balance. I’ve been doing this at random times during the day–while my tea brews, at the bus stop, while the Zamboni finishes its last round–as well as during my morning and nighttime exercise routines. My balance is much better in the morning than late at night (no surprises there).

And hooray, I made it up to “Z” today on both legs.

(If you want to try this, here’s a warning: it’s helpful to have something close by to grab onto in case there’s a tricky letter or two.)

I’m especially hoping that this leg-alphabet will help me learn to isolate and control the motion of my free leg, and help me learn to move more fluidly and easily. I think the hardest thing (and I got a lecture on this from Ari at my lesson today) is not to try so hard that I wind up muscling my way through different moves. (If you are on an edge, three turns are supposed to just rotate on their own; you’re not supposed to have to make them turn, unless you are going a mile a minute, which I most assuredly am not.)

Sometimes to let things go, though, is harder than to make them go. Sometimes–especially if you’re using to working hard on everything–you have to discover ways to make yourself release those muscles. Drawing the alphabet with your free leg is impossible to do if you clench your leg muscles.

Here’s another such idea. The other day on the three-step outside mohawk (14-step/Viennese mohawk) exercise, Ari told me to bring my free leg around by thinking of using the muscles on the underside of my leg rather than the quads on top. This made quite a difference. I read on this ballet blog posting that you are not really using hamstring muscles for this–but what it does is to allow the quads to release rather than “pull” the leg upwards. It is much easier to support the free leg in this way as it comes around for that outside mohawk.

And it will really help in those compulsories where the leg does do a high extension (grand battement), like in the Blues or Westminster Waltz. Here’s the ballet teacher’s perspective again.

In my classes, I typically try to encourage this release by asking students to imagine energy or breath flowing down the spine, the back of the leg, and out from the toe in a “J” shape as the leg lifts in grand battement. When the focus is on this rather than pulling the leg upward, I find most students let go of some of that excess tension.

That floaty free leg is a thing of beauty. Here’s a picture of Lauren Nohe and Justin Koleto from the 2004-05 Junior Lake Placid competition.


Good thing they don’t have to draw the alphabet while they’re skating the Blues.


The circle game

Happy Pi Day! Gotta love this particular one: 3.14/15. We are celebrating at 9:26 with different kinds of sweet and savory pies.

In honor of Pi Day, some reflections on skating in circles.

In years past, I have never fully appreciated the circular patterns at the core of ice dancing. I think I was so fixated on balancing on top of my skates that I didn’t focus enough on the larger shapes in compulsory dances or the free dance. (Stay erect and move forward at the same time? Too much for my pea-sized brain to handle!)

But now I have grown to fully appreciate that thinking in circles makes what we do on the ice easier. Take progressives, for instance. It is so tempting to push really hard into that first outside edge, shortchange the second (the underpush onto the inside), and then try to make up the loss of energy with the third push back onto another outside. This means that my progressive sometimes looks like the top half of a clown shoe (and feels just as bad).

But place the same progressive on part of a circle and the difference is amazing: even pushes, consistent depth of edges, less fatigue, and no more clown shoe!

I am trying harder now to think about the different moves in a compulsory dance not a linear sequence of steps, but as edges tracing segments of circles. If you look at compulsory ice dance patterns, the circles are always there, dictating edges and placement, telling us what to do and where to go.

Many of these dances have the same basic shape, with different edges and turns tracing out several lobes down each side and an end pattern.

The circle rule hold true for harder dances as well, such as the Golden Waltz (the competitor’s version). Here’s the basic pattern.


If you squint hard, this general idea doesn’t look that different from the patterns of preliminary-level compulsories such as the Dutch Waltz or Canasta Tango. In fact for those of us who need reading glasses for the fine print, the similarities are striking. Take away the twizzles and other fun stuff, and it’s just a grown-up Dutch Waltz, no?

Okay, I don’t really believe that. But the principle of circular motion is similar.

A circle is basically a set of points that keep the same distance from a fixed central axis. We go round and round, maintaining our space from the center. If we cut inside or outside, hoping to save some time or energy, we wind up compromising what we set out to skate in the first place.

Ice dance is not alone in its circular motions; here’s a fun picture from the frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816).

Detail from frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the Waltz, clockwise from the left (the musicians are at far left). At that time, the Waltz was a relatively new dance in England, and the fact that it was a couples dance (as opposed to the traditional group dances), and that the gentleman actually clasped his arm around the lady's waist, gave it a dubious moral status in the eyes of some. (from History of Dance, by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp)

Detail from frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the Waltz, clockwise from the left (the musicians are at far left). At that time, the Waltz was a relatively new dance in England, and the fact that it was a couples dance (as opposed to the traditional group dances), and that the gentleman actually clasped his arm around the lady’s waist, gave it a dubious moral status in the eyes of some.
(from History of Dance, by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp)

But with circles galore, waltzing is double the fun on the ice! Here’s Scott and Tessa in the 2010 Olympics, whose Golden Waltz really captured the beauty of going round and round, especially in waltz tempo.  You can see the circular motion from their heads down through their feet. I especially love the action of Scott’s tails and the camera angles that show their skates!


Ode to the European Waltz

At my lesson this week, Ari had me doing the side pattern from the European Waltz. We’ve been working on the man’s part for so long that it took me a few tries to get back into the woman’s steps. And then I realized how much repressed trauma can be buried under my smooth mask of skating joy and calm.

OMG, not the European Waltz! The dance that shall not be named! It was the first compulsory ice dance that I ever failed. I passed it on the fourth try, only because (a) I took enough cold medicine (for a bad cold, I swear) to put myself into a kind of altered state, and (b) I watched Torvill and Dean’s legendary Paso Doble OSP on television (yes, it was that long ago) right before the test.

The European Waltz is pretty much three-turn city. The pattern goes something like this: left three turn, back outside right, back outside left, step forward to right three turn, back outside left, back outside right, repeat the whole thing, then do three repetitions of a three-turn-to-back-outside-edge. The test requires three patterns, not short and definitely not sweet. It goes round and round the rink for what feels like forever.

Oomph pah pah, oomph pah pah, threatening imminent doom with every pulse of 3/4 time.

After I passed, I thought with relief that I’d never have to work on it again. But oooohhh nooo. . . . to progress further on the pre-gold dances I am faced with the brutal reality of the Starlight Waltz end pattern, which has two of those end pattern Euro-threes capped off by the oh-so-delightful foxtrot mohawk.

Had I passed my pre-golds soon after my silvers, I might have been spared testing the Starlight Waltz, which some years ago was made into a pre-gold dance (when I started ice dancing, it was tested at the international level, after the gold-level dances). But I took a set of breaks from skating, and a long long break from testing after doing the silvers. I actually do like the Starlight, aside from those wicked three turns. The repetitive three turns make European Waltz harder, because for me it’s like repeating the same mistake again and again and again. And again.

Both my three turns and back outside edges are problematic. Luckily, it’s the same basic challenge with both: not using the inside edge to lower myself down on the knee, and not placing the new foot on the ice. Unluckily, this causes the same problems: instead of lowering on the inside edge, I’ve been falling into the circle on my three turns (not lifting my heel), not lowering down but falling from the inside edge onto the back outside edge. I’ve also been sliding my feet from outside to outside on the transitions, missing those loveable “rockover” inside edges at the end of each outside edge. I need to work on controlling those inside edges in order to create a genuine, bona fide (really, truly, madly, deeply) push from one edge to another.

Some days I find myself watching those how-to videos (boy, can Maya Usova ever lower herself down on that inside edge!)

and thinking to myself, yeah, right.

I’m not sure I am conveying the proper tone of optimism about this process. So in the spirit of a modern dance teacher I once had who said “Your weaknesses become your strengths,” I am trying to stay upbeat and just keep at it.

So I tell myself that the European Waltz is a great dance with which to develop proper technique. It’s not fussy, there are no special features; it’s just rise and fall, three turns and back edges–and lots of controlled inside-edge pushes. Just my kind of thing, no? I even wrote a little poetic tribute to the European waltz in the style of Emily Dickinson. Here’s her original poem:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery itself will do,

If bees are few.

And here’s my version:

To do the European you need a back edge and one three,

One back edge, and a three.

And melody.

The melody itself will do,

If threes are few.


Remembrances of lessons past, car chases, and the kilian

It’s been another really good skating day, in spite of a bad cold that made for canceling lessons this week. My eccentric foot exercises seem to be working already (unless I’m just imagining this out of wishful thinking), my hips are still level (!!!), and when I was working on the kilian, something popped into my head that seems to be really, really useful for me.

I had this image of my hip joints being like two balls attached by a band, with the free side hip pushing the other one along (not directly from the back, but sort of on the side and towards the back) and giving power to the skating edge. As the pattern changes circles, the leading hip and the following hip also change. The following hip puts its force into the leading hip.

I must done a dozen patterns before I realized that I had encountered a similar idea before. Like biting into Proust’s madeleine, this image took me back to a lesson I had a long time ago, probably when I first started taking from Ari. We had this lesson on three-turns in which Ari described the hips working like cars. On the forward outside edge, the following hip drives into the leading hip (in this case, the skating side) for the forward outside edge. Then the skating hip moves into a three point turn (the free hip also turns). As it does so, the hips change places relative to one another. This prevents the free hip from swinging around during the turn.

At the time, this idea baffled me and so we put it on hold. But now it’s all coming back to me. So my “ball” imagery is just a variation on that lesson, except no three-point turn. I checked with Ari, who seemed a bit mystified at my jumping up and down after suddenly recalling something he told me at least fourteen years ago. But he was a good sport and went over the whole idea again for me.

Given my hip issues, I’m not surprised that I haven’t used this concept until now. But I plan to go to town with it now. In general, which hip is leading and which hip is following depends on the direction of the circle and whether one is skating forwards or backwards. The leading hip is not always the skating hip!

Since I distinctly remember that not too long ago just balancing over my skates was a challenge, having this new idea to work with is truly exciting. Like Ari’s lesson on keeping my weight over the inside circle, this is a game-changer. Better later than never! And it works wonders for my kilian. Here’s the pattern of that compulsory dance, which I need to review.


I was so excited by this hip-ball/car thing that I made up a little set of illustrations using pool balls (a little strange, I know, but easier for me than trying to draw).

It seems to work as well with the quickstep, and I cannot wait to try this on other moves and compulsories as well. Wish me luck!