jo skates

Skating in the key of life


Break it down

Following up on my binge-watching of the Grand Prix Finals, I discovered a video interview with Scott and Tessa from last month. It’s part of a series of interviews with Dave Wilson called “The Skating Lesson,” and there are all kinds of interesting folks on there.

I really enjoyed hearing Scott and Tessa talk about what it’s like to train with the best ice dance teams and coaches in the world and  win the Olympics. Much of it is undoubtedly what my fellow skating blogger George has referred to as “unobtanium.” (Another fellow skater/blogger, Mary of FitandFed, pointed out that this is from the movie Avatar, not that particular element on the periodic table that was named in honor of adult figure skaters!) But one thing that Tessa described did resonate with me personally. That was when she described what she did to avoid a third surgery after she was diagnosed with compartment syndrome in her calves.

She describes re-training her body to analyze her body mechanics and what she was doing to cause the pain and numbness. It is really amazing to hear someone who is much closer to skating divinity than I am talk about having to re-learn movement from the bottom up. That means breaking it down: not just skating technique but even standing and walking.

“Recruiting different muscle patterns.” Whoa, is that ever familiar! I’ve been reading Katy Bowman’s Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet (2011) this week, and realizing that I still have some pretty fundamental work to do with alignment, strength, and flexibility. Time for more off-exercises!

Going back to basics on my last set of skating lessons as well, stressing two related ideas on progressives, cross strokes, and the entry edge on turns.

First, I still tend to flatten at the end of edges, rather than bending my ankles and deepening my edges. The correct accentuation of the edge will make the edge accelerate, and allow for more speed. This bend will also make it possible for me to make smoother transitions, since I will be pushing onto rather than just stepping on the new skate.

Second, I need to use the energy of the push to propel the free side as well as the skating side. Laurie and I worked on that last push in the progressive before the series of cross rolls; that push onto the forward left outside edge also moves the left leg forward and across (like a grapevine step).

What I’m finding is that I do not always allow enough motion to happen in the hip joints, especially in places when I have to cross or scissor my legs. I will have to give this more thought, especially because I’ve gotten so used to trying to keep hip movement under check. Hmmm. . .

While I ponder that, I’m going to share some fun pictures of Chris and Lisa. I noticed that they were wearing the same color scheme one day and asked them to model their new pairs program for me. Since they are both into singles, modeling is about as far as their pairs career goes right now–but who knows?






Sweet spot

So after another few practice sessions, I decided that maybe calling myself “stalled” on my last post was a little harsh. After all, if I were a tennis player, nobody would fault me for spending an entire year or two working on a better backhand or putting more backspin into that slice (okay, that’s the extent of my tennis vocabulary). So what if I am still just getting those outside edges together?

I found an inspiring article that was published in the Washington Post some years ago. Rachel Cox writes about taking ballet as an adult and how hard basic posture is.

Striving to be taller is a large part of what we do in ballet class. Feeling “lifted,” pulling your sides up out of your hips, enables your legs to move freely beneath you. It’s a mysterious feat, a kind of isometric torso levitation that makes the simplest-sounding movements — stand tall, bend your knees, do a plié — extraordinarily challenging. They make you sweat even though you haven’t gone anywhere. After 20-some years, I still don’t do a very good plié. I’m working hard to carry out one teacher’s recent suggestion: “Push your pelvis forward through your knees.”

While I’ve been doing a lot of the same basic moves and exercises for a long time, what I’ve been doing with them feels different. I’m finally to a point where I’m fairly comfortable getting through these moves, and can concentrate on form and position (and hopefully add some speed), which in turn makes their execution (word chosen very judiciously) very different. In tennis terms, it’s like getting to the point in which you don’t just try to hit the ball any which way, but can control the way you hit it for maximum effect.

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about this week is the “sweet spot,” which in tennis is the part of your racket that gives you the most “oomph” when you hit the ball (see, I told you I had a limited tennis vocabulary). This term is also used in skating, most often to describe the specific part of the figure skating blade that works well for turning or spinning or twizzles (usually right in back of the ball of the foot).

There is a different sweet spot on the blade for gliding, more towards the back of the blade. My goal for the past few practice sessions has been to hit this spot consistently as soon as my blade meets the ice. This is hard! I sometimes have trouble on my left side still, so I’ve really been working to put my weight farther back on the blade.

Mary, another adult skating blogger at “Fit and Fed,” recently posted some terrific notes on this that she got from a lesson she had with Ben Agosto. When I got done wiping away my tears of jealousy (why not me? It coulda been meeeeee!!!) I appreciated this advice:

He explained how the rocker has a sharper curve in front, so if you are more on the front of the blade you are on a smaller part of the blade and therefore both less stable and getting less of the blade into the ice. So on both forward and backward edges try to raise the toes a little and get a little further back on the blade. He said this would also help build up the arch of the foot.

But finding the sweet spot of skating bliss isn’t just about a certain part of the blade. For me, this concept is also related to correct hip position. When I really get my skating hip underneath me (which on the left side I’ve only been able to do recently), the edge stays secure. I feel like there’s a sweet spot on my hip, not surprisingly right where my femur goes into the socket. If I can access all the muscles around that point, I stay balanced.

Doing this consistently remains difficult. I have to keep thinking about my hip position, or I immediately revert to dropping my free side down and over. This is much more difficult on my left edges. I have been blaming this mainly on weakness on my left side, but I am starting to realize that it goes both ways: I need to find that sweet spot on both sides so that I can transfer my weight efficiently.

I will list details from this week’s lesson at the end. But I think a lot can be summarized by these basic principles: skate taller, skate faster, skate sweeter.

Here’s Rachel Cox again:

I’ve come to embrace the realization that just as you don’t have to be Rembrandt to paint or Horowitz to enjoy playing piano, you don’t have to be Nureyev or Fonteyn to practice ballet. Art is about process as much as performance, and there is always a new subtlety to master. There is the joy of moving in time to live music, the comfort of familiar patterns repeated and embellished. And if you keep at it, you find one day that your body moves differently, and your mood soars. Soon — if you’re like me — you can’t stop. If we can’t reverse our march toward oblivion, we can at least mark time with joy and grace.

Ooh, lesson time!

  • perimeter stroking. Don’t start the pattern too early; bend your knees.
  • inside three, step forward out of circle, progressive, inside three. I am calling this Lisa’s exercise since I see her practicing it all the time. She does it with pretty arm movements, though, which I cannot because I am terrified of that . . .
  • . . . left inside edge into the inside three. On the push to the left inside edge, turn out your foot (not your entire leg) and just push–don’t wait to transfer your weight. Make sure you are looking towards your free leg, and turning your body into the circle. Left arm should be in front.
  • inside closed mohawks. The initial skating side moves through what feels like an outside edge to become your new free side. Don’t let it drop into the circle.
  • European man-side-pattern, adding chassés. The chassés are supposed to make your push into the three more straight and give you more speed. I really need to start working on speed again!!! The three turn is done still going uphill.


Energy flows as water. . .

I look forward to a much more serene week, both on and off the ice.

Today I managed to get some thoughtful skating in, tucked into the cracks of a busy day. A mostly quiet day at the rink, concentrating on keeping my body and head lined up over my skates, using my blades (rather than hips and shoulders) to create edges, and allowing each edge to come to a natural conclusion before starting another.

Rise, fall, turn, change, push. At one point I thought of this quotation:

“Energy flows as water while the spirit shines as the moon.”

Lin Hwai-Min, founder of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, talked about this principle of tai chi as inspiring the choreography for the 1998 piece Moon Water. Some years ago I had a chance to see Cloud Gate do an earlier work, Songs of the Wanderers, and a few years later, one segment of their trilogy, Cursive. I have not had a chance to see Moon Water, but there are some video clips available, such as this one.

The music is from Bach’s Cello Suite #1: the “Sarabande,” played by the great cellist Mischa Maisky (at “a very slow tempo,” comments my son). (As in my earlier post, I’ve been trying to keep as much Bach in my life as possible.) As you can see, the movement is influenced by modern dance, traditional Chinese dance, and martial arts as well as tai chi.

What a gift it is to see (or hear or feel) something so beautiful that it makes you gasp.


What are you afraid of?

I’ve been writing a lot about happy skating, so it’s time to acknowledge and embrace the dark side. Here goes.

I’m no longer afraid of monsters underneath my bed or hiding in my closet (though I still avoid vampire and zombie movies, and I occasionally shudder when I remember scenes from The Blob [1958]).

X-treme anything is out, as are the tamer pastimes of skydiving, cliff diving, platform diving, any kind of diving. Oh, and surfing, too. Skiing down black diamond runs is thankfully a thing of the past. I can barely get myself to run across the street when the light turns yellow.

No, I save my fear factor for skating. It’s not that I shake and quake on the ice on a regular basis, but every so often I realize that skating has its terrifying as well as its gratifying moments, and sometimes the two go hand in hand.

I separate these into two kinds of fear. There is of course the performance anxiety that is a side effect of testing or competition. Shaky knees, sweaty palms, sweaty feet, rocks in my stomach, pacing, insomnia, panic: these are all as familiar as putting that special dress on.

But there are much more subtle fears that don’t affect me as dramatically, but nonetheless do show up much more often in daily practice, such as when I start some kind of pattern that involves a forward outside edge, when I do three-turns (surprise, surprise!), or when I do a left forward inside edge twizzle.

At a used book sale some years ago, my older son bought me a “Stop Anxiety Now” kit. ( I don’t even want to think about why he at age thirteen thought this was a fitting gift for me.) Among the many very useful pieces it contains (like a set of little signs reading “Stop!” that I’m supposed to post around the room to remind myself to stop feeling anxious) is a book that says, among other things, (a) to listen to what your body is trying to tell you, and (b) to write down the things that make you anxious.

Today, rather than chastising myself for doing these things the wrong way or pooh-poohing myself for being afraid, I thought about some of the ineffective patterns of movement that happen because I am afraid of something.

Situation 1. I’m afraid that I won’t get to where I want to be. When I start something on a forward outside edge, like an pattern of alternating progressives or chassés (or the start of certain compulsory dances), I tend to cut off the first part of the circle by heading diagonally across the circle (imagine cutting across a clock face from two to noon). As my lesson yesterday pointed out, this leads to rushing some steps and spending an inordinate amount of time on others. I do this because I don’t trust my edges to actually get me where I want to go.

Instead of distributing edges along the different parts of a circle, I try to take a shortcut. This actually makes the pattern harder because it necessarily distorts the shape of successive edges. (This is true of the Kilian as well, in which I worried so much about the inside edge before the choctaw that I didn’t realize I was shortchanging the outside edge before it.)

Situation 2. I’m afraid to let my edge rotate because it feels like I’ll spin out of control. This happens on three turns. Because I’ve had trouble getting on an actual edge using my left foot and ankle and leaning into the circle, I’ve been turning my upper body into the circle to create a sense of rotation. Once I get on a real edge, the extra rotation really puts my knickers in a twist. So I’ve been flattening my edges almost unconsciously, trying to make that spiraling-in feeling stop.

Situation 3. I’m afraid of collapsing in pain. In working on left inside entry twizzles, I realized that the initial inside edge actually made my foot hurt and that wincing made the turn impossible.

I’m not really afraid of the twizzle itself; I’m afraid of the pain that will happen when my left hip is out and my arch collapses.  I have been practicing this motion off the ice, working on stabilizing my arch (“short foot“) and lifting my right side. Hopefully this will help.

Okay, time for the set of inspiring quotations that urge us to face our fears. First Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

Let’s not forget Yoda:

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

And my favorite, a Japanese saying:

“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”


My supple brain on skates

It’s minus ten degrees! Brrr!

Not even listening to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” (Sixth) Symphony with its gamboling sheep and woodwinds can make me feel warmer today. But I do intend to make it to the rink to test out some ideas about how adults learn skating.

I read an interesting blog entry in Neurosciencestuff on adult learning and brain function (“Old Schooled“) that echoed some of the things I’ve heard before about the differences between how adults learn and how children learn.

On the up side, the article suggests that adults can learn things as deeply as kids, given proper physical fitness and attention. The idea that old dogs can’t learn new tricks is more cultural myth than actual cognitive science, and while there are certainly differences between children and adults in visual and linguistic perception and motor skills, the adult brain is pliable, and as the article says, “it’s never to late to charge those grey cells.”

The differences, though, are the environments for learning. Adults don’t get to focus exclusively on learning certain skills. The article cites Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests, as saying that “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around. . . If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

Adults don’t test themselves regularly to remember what they’ve learned. And there is a difference in approach and confidence as well. As Ari and I have talked about, adults (surprise, surprise!) be their own undoing:

Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. This could be one of our biggest downfalls. “Adults think so much more about what they are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Children just copy what they see.”

According to the article, adults sometimes develop “overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning” and are too rigid about their activity.

The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue. Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks – when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it. The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

So the upshot is that adults should rotate through different skills using a “carousel” approach, making our brains work to apply what we’ve learned in new ways. Laurie and Ari have been doing the carousel thing to me all along. Those guys are genius!!!

And if all else fails, a little bit of arrogance is a good thing.

“As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I’m convinced that has a big impact on performance,” says Wulf. To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball. While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average. They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn’t get an ego boost.

More exercises:

  • Progressive, then a deep swing roll with an edge pull (make sure you really use your lean, don’t twist your upper body, and end the swing roll with the skating side arm forward)
  • Since you are having trouble doing that, try just edge pulls, making sure you do the edge pulls to gain speed forward rather than trying to create full half circles.
  • Oldie but a goodie: back crossover with change-edge in between (turn free leg in on inside edge, draw in free leg and bend both knees together, don’t do that annoying little free leg flick-thing)
  • So you think you can dance? Okay, now mohawk, change back inside to back outside (turn free leg in on inside edge, draw in free leg and bend both knees together, don’t do that annoying little free leg flick-thing), step forward outside, step forward inside, repeat starting with mohawk in other direction.
  • Almost forgot this one: forward cross stroke onto right, do what Ari calls a “syncopate” (not to be confused with a “sycophant”), which is to rise and sink, like in the Foxtrot. Repeat in other direction (cross stroke onto left, syncopate. This one is great for building strength in the hip muscles (especially in the rise and fall), and practicing that “short foot.”
  • Yay, my Euro-pattern threes are better! I still need to to work on stronger free leg extensions on the forward edges. These will counter the force of the skating side.
  • And one more important thing that I will test myself on today: I need to correct my posture skating backwards.  I discovered in doing my “short foot” thing in back outside-outside transitions (like in the dance-that-shall-not-be-named) that my weight was towards my toes, leading to (oh no!) that dreaded position that looks something like this:


rather than this:


Learn like a child, skate like a girl. I’ll dose myself up with arrogance and get out there.

Because “Jo” plus “why?” equals joy!


Teaching cello, learning skating

Maine is for writers. I’ve found my spot at the little kitchen table in the middle of the kitchen, with the morning sunlight streaming in through the window and my cup of tea steaming there to just the right temperature. I can see why this is a special place for writers; it feels as though here the right words just come to when you wish them.

I am here in the town of Brunswick, Maine, and I have yet to find a spot in the world that has been more generous or welcoming. People open their homes to us, smile at one another on the sidewalk, stop for pedestrians in crosswalks (okay, that one is state law but impresses me nonetheless), bake us cookies in the middle of the night (thanks, Janet!), tell us where to get the best lobster rolls, and tell us stories.

It is a wonderful place for music and that is why I am here: to accompany my younger son to the Bowdoin International Music Festival, where he studies cello with the “legendary” Peter Howard. I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching Mr. Howard teach Dylan for two years now. Observing and listening to his lessons (he, by the way, is a former hockey coach as well) has given me some wonderful insights into my skating. I am not a cellist (though I do play the clarinet and dabble in piano and voice), so the actual technique is lost on me. Beyond the advice on specific bowings, fingerings, string crossings, and the like, though, there is much wisdom on learning how to practice, perform, and understand oneself as part of something that requires years of dedicated practice.

So Mr. Howard, this one’s for you, a few of the insights that I’ve borrowed for my time at the rink.

ON PRACTICING. The number of hours a day is not so much the goal as is mindful and focused practicing. In both music and skating, the mechanical repetition of movement can be damaging  mentally and physically (the ruts that one falls into in skating are not just in the ice). I shudder when I think of what I used to do when I was learning how to do axels many years ago: I would just keep attempting the jump until I accidentally hit upon something that worked. This meant that I could just as accidentally lose it for days, weeks, or for good. In retrospect, fewer repetitions would have been better, each with the objective of a more natural takeoff edge and motion, using the foot to rock up onto the pick for that last bit of propulsion in perfect unison with the free leg. I saw a young woman at the rink yesterday who did this beautifully; you could see every bit of her blade being used both on the takeoff and the landing. I’m not even tempted to try axels again, even with this wisdom in mind. But in ice dancing this works as well, which brings me to my next point.

ON HONEST PLAYING. This seems self-explanatory. No affectation. No extraneous motion that screams “Look, I’m doing something hard!” No makeup and no frills that don’t have any real meaning or purpose. But everything that is there, every note, every step, every detail is important no matter how small.

ON THE USE OF THE BOW. When we first started lessons with Mr. Howard, we heard that on the cake for his eightieth birthday party was written “Bow change motion, no matter what your age.” One of the most mesmerizing things about watching an accomplished cellist is the movement of the bow arm, which can be as fluid as water, stalwart and relentless as a train, decisive as a rapier. A magic wand. It takes years to learn how to make the linkage of arm and wrist, and hand, wood, and horsehair move like that, and look perfectly natural.

The basic laws of physics govern this movement; they also determine the movement of the skating body. Skating, like bowing, can be broken down to analyze what kind of movement is possible, given the boot, the curvature of the blade, and the moving body. I have not worked on the “moves in the field” (which replaced school figures a number of years ago) for a while, but it may be time to go back to them. In the meantime, I am working on all those basic edges and turns, trying to find what possibilities of movement are available to me. Mr. Howard says that before learning to play repertoire (this piece or that piece), one has to learn to play the cello. I have reached a point where just getting through the steps and pattern of a particular compulsory dance doesn’t cut it for me. So it’s back to what seems like square one. But if John Curry and Tessa Virtue can do this, so can I. Okay, not a fair comparison (much younger, and Olympians, and so on). But if it’s good enough for Dylan at age twelve, it’s good enough for me at age fifty-four.

ON PERFORMANCE. Mr. Howard always asks his students “Why do you play the cello?” He then gives them the answer: “For other people.” Success in music and skating is cumulative; public performance manifests the experience of many hours of practice over many years. Musicians and skaters spend hours a day focusing on what often seems like personal, individual performance. How does one do that without becoming hopelessly self-indulgent and narcissistic, or self-destructively critical? Mr. Howard is always telling Dylan to think about the deaf lady in the back row, to be generous with his sound. Translated into skating terms, we can think of what we do as being generous with our bodies, allowing other people to enjoy our movement as much (or even more) than we do. Skating, like music, becomes not so much about individual achievement as about sharing, building a relationship with other people.

Obviously I have learned a lot from Mr. Howard about what it means to be a good teacher. For my own teaching, I have learned much from my own music teachers as well a number of terrific skating coaches over the years: Barbara, Eric, Bert, Andrea, Kathy, and my current wonderful mentors Laurie and Ari. What they’ve taught me is that good teaching (you know, the kind that sticks) can’t be broken down into a number of hours or a certain amount of information: it’s all about very special people and the relationships we have with them.