jo skates

Skating in the key of life


Happy birthday, Bach!

Depending on if you think of the old Julian calendar or the new (well, starting in 1582) Gregorian calendar, Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday is either March 21 or March 31.

In either case, here’s a video of a 1997 collaboration with Torvill and Dean and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pairing some lovely skating with the “Allemande” from Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suite #6. (My cellist son and I were amused by the actor playing Bach.)

Check out those impressive circles and the mirror effect. Enjoy!


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!


Use your words

I’ve been really enjoying the inclusion of vocals in skating music these days. Once in a while it does get distracting, especially for someone like me who really listens to the lyrics. But in many cases it is so beautifully worked into the inspiration for the program that it adds an entirely new dimension to the performance.

Like this case, the free dance for Spanish ice dance team Sara Hurtado and Adrià Díaz, whose free dance this year includes excerpts from “Meditation,” a song in Cirque Du Soleil’s show Zumanity. Their program does a lovely job integrating difficult elements (love those extended-leg twizzles!) with some beautiful music.

The overall effect appears to be familiar: a romantic pas de deux celebrating the kind of conventional, heterosexual, monogamous (and so often overly-idealized) relationship that dictates so many ice dance programs.

But wait, there’s more. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, they include this stanza:

So what kind of love is this,
This love that dares not speak its name?
This love that hangs its head in shame?
Is this so-called love even worthy of its name?

Whoa, it’s Oscar Wilde time. “The love that dares not speak its name” references “Two Loves,” an 1894 poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover, whose father had Wilde jailed for “gross indecency.” Wilde spoke openly about his passionate relationship with Douglas at his first trial.

The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

The song “Meditation” declares that love is “beautiful, fierce, and strong” and also that it is “a sacred flame that can’t be drenched/By icy showers of sobriety/Or a society/Strangled by notions of propriety.”

This really opens up the definition of love: much more inclusive, much more open, much more (dare I say?) true to the way love (then and now) is actually experienced.

Kudos to Hurtado and Díaz for including this in their lyrical and powerful program. In the ice dance world, which remains bound by all kinds of rigid rules, this is a welcome statement.

When my kids were little, their daycare teachers would tell them “use your words” to express how they felt or what they wanted. Use your words: that’s the ticket!

True love doesn’t lie,
It doesn’t hide,
And it will never be denied
The right to sing its furious song
In the sad, empty streets from dusk ’til dawn.
Love laughs at fear
And cries out its name for all to hear.

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Flow with the flow (and Mom’s sweater #2)

“Flow” is a term used in ice dancing to describe a fluid movement from one edge to another. USFSA lists under skating skills the terms “flow and effortless glide”:

Rhythm, strength, clean strokes, and an efficient use of lean create a steady run to the blade and an ease of transfer of weight resulting in seemingly effortless power and acceleration.

“Flow” is also a term used in contemporary theories of happiness and satisfaction in life. For psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state of full immersion in what you are doing, a concentrated state of being. In a 1996 interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi says that flow is “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

To achieve flow, you have to be absorbed in something that is challenging. You lose yourself in the activity and sometimes lose track of time. You gain a sense of clarity; you forget yourself and feel like part of something larger. What you are doing–no matter how laborious it might seem to others–becomes enjoyable for its own sake. Flow makes us happy.

Csíkszentmihályi says that “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times–although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, 1992: 3) He adds that “in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery–or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life–comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine” (1992: 4).

Flow is good skating and flow equals happiness. A coincidence? I think not!

IMG_3276When I stepped out onto the ice last night, Sonia immediately came up and asked “Is that one of your mom’s sweaters?” and offered to take a picture of mom’s sweater #2.  Sonia, you rock and flow! Thanks to Greg for taking the picture of both of us.

I’m adding this note about this sweater a few days later. It’s one of those that only buttons up part way. I noticed when I wore it to the rink that my mom, never one for fashionably low necklines, had added two tiny snaps above the buttons so that it closes up most of the way. Perfect for keeping warm at the rink. Thanks, mom!

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Growing a skater and reverse kilians

Am just getting back in the groove after some time on vacation, and I was reminded of how much skating is like growing a garden. Spend some time away, and it is alarming how quickly those weeds can grow. How did that arm get there? Why am I rocking over to an inside edge instead of just turning that counter? OMG, why is my head down again?

On the other hand, the garden metaphor is positive as well. Lots of repetitive tasks, lots of daily care needed for each tender little shoot. My mother, having grown up on a farm outside Shanghai, would speak of tiny plants with the same loving care that we often use for children, calling each “little cutie” (in Chinese). I’ve been spending at least a half hour or more at each practice session on stroking, progressives, chassés, back crossovers, swing rolls, and various turns. It’s like planting rows of seeds: mapping out the spaces, digging up the larger patch of ground, scooping out each hole, placing the seed inside, covering it, and smoothing the surface before watering it so that there won’t be those flooded areas and tiny hills that dry out immediately in the hot Minnesota summer sun.

Skating is blessedly much cooler (I love skating in summer). I’m not sure my basic moves are particularly cute, but I’m trying to give them the same degree of loving-kindness. With each exercise I have to work myself up to the requisite speed, figure out the lobes and edges, think about bending in some places (ankle, knee) and not in others (waist, neck). I imagine the lines of force running through my body.  I work on a smooth transfer of weight and also a continually dynamic motion from push to extension. I fight the urge to twist my body into the circle, and keep both hips facing forward (“like headlights”).  It’s hard. I think about Maia Usova’s three-turns. Sigh.

I take a break and play around a bit. The rink at Roseville was very quiet today, and I spent some time today playing with doing the kilian in the opposite direction. Wahoo! It’s actually a lot of fun, and feels like it will help to balance out some of the muscles that have been overdeveloped by going counter-clockwise all the time. Plus it makes the “regular” kilian feel easy in comparison. I was talking with Lenore today about doing the blues in the opposite direction, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.

So there is a place in the garden for the unexpected (the reverse kilian) as well as for the slow progress on my basics. Those are so much better than they were. On the left side I can feel muscles I’ve never used before, firing when I need them. I can feel a more correct movement of the torso against the hips as I try an outside bracket and then a counter. It’s all there, not only germinating but starting to grow. The change inside becomes perceptible, then defining. Plant, nurture, repeat. The same thing next time, only better.


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Fear and (almost) loathing in practice

If you read Pete’s story, you will know that we played “add a trick” back in the day. Nowadays I’ve been playing a new mental game on the ice. I might call it “What are you afraid of?” The idea is that I spend at least a little time each practice session doing things that I’m worried about, especially if the worry leaves me with the feeling that I really don’t want to do it.

This list doesn’t include jumps or spins. I’ve never been particularly worried about making myself into a human projectile with a pair of blades attached, but I gave up my beloved freestyle blades (big honking Phantoms that felt like a driving a Cadillac) over a decade ago. I was delighted to realize a few years ago when first starting to work on a free dance that I actually could spin and do half or even single jumps on dance blades (duh, Jo, what did you think–that they switch skates for the free dance?) The elements of the free dance that look scary from the outside–lifts, pair spins, twizzles–are challenging but actually really really fun. They are definitely exhilarating in a kind of “hold your breath” way but this is a plus. (At least for me: in the case of lifts, I’m not the one doing the heavy lifting.)

I’m talking about scary in a way that requires a bit of mental preparation. Ari has said that the difference between teaching kids and teaching adults is that the kids just do what he asks them to and the adults have to think about it (and in my case, talk about it). Not having done this as a kid, I’m not sure what skating would be like without a heavy dose of talk-therapy attached to it. So maybe talking about it here will save some time on the ice.

Some examples of things I’ve been making myself do:

  • Full patterns of the kilian (breathe, Jo, breathe)
  • Mohawks and back outside swing rolls (like in the Starlight Waltz)
  • Left forward outside three turns of all kinds
  • Turns that are preceded by a left outside swing roll: quickstep choctaw, Argentine tango twizzle

It has been a lot of fun skating in Portland. The ice is fast, which gives me the happy illusion that my stroking is more efficient. Everyone has been really friendly; I have met some of the same people that I shared the rink with last year as well as some new folks, including a woman who recognized me from this year’s Adult Nationals (she was there for interpretive and freestyle) and said something really heartening our free dance there. She said that she, as a Latina, really enjoyed the Spanish guitar/flamenco style, and she and her coach said I looked really “committed” to the music and choreography. So yay!

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Reunion with Pete and other skating matters

So I am at U.S. Adult Nationals in Hyannis this past spring, in the exhibit hall amongst the racks of sequined dresses and jewelry and skate guards and Dick Button memoirs, and I hear someone say “Did you go to MIT?” And I turn around and it is my friend Mickey, who I haven’t seen since I graduated in 1982.

Ran into Mickey, a friend from my MIT days. How great is that!

As we say in Minnesota, how great is that? Mickey was there to see a former pairs partner, and he happened to watch our free dance. And we chatted about all the good times at the MIT Skating club in its early days. I am so glad to hear that Mickey is still skating, in fact teaching skating in the Boston area.

Mickey mentioned that he had seen my good friend Pete, who was at my wedding in 1990, but who I haven’t seen since. This meeting inspired me to email Pete, who replied almost immediately, and and after a few emails back and forth, we made plans to get together again. We met yesterday for lunch mid-way between Brunswick and Newton, MA, in Portsmouth, N.H. It’s been nearly a quarter century since we’ve seen each other!

So a little bit of my skating history. I did not skate much as a kid, beyond a couple of turns on double-runner skates (ack!) at the makeshift rink down the hill (they flooded it one winter), a few skating parties, and some wonderful times, especially with my friend Connie, when the lake at Hudson County Park froze over. (I actually found a poem, aptly titled “Skating at Hudson County Park,” about skating there.) I did a little my first couple of years at MIT, on the freezing outdoor rink.

 The old ice rink was outdoors.

But when I was a junior there, they built a brand-new indoor rink (which they’ve obviously renovated since, hence the picture below).


I remember going to the open session with my seven-dollar garage sale skates, and being hooked. Ah, that first waltz jump! I went back nearly every day following, and did a PE class, then started lessons the following year with Barbara Pinch at Boston University. I met some wonderful people when we founded the MIT Skating Club: Mickey, Rachel (who I visited in Australia a few years ago), Peter M. (who gave me a tour of the Pentagon when he worked there–I will never forget eating burgers at Ground Zero), Ike, and Charlie (who took me through my first dance test, the Dutch Waltz). And of course, Pete, skating friend extraordinaire.

Pete lived at Baker House too, and he and I caught the skating bug together. We learned our single jumps together, goofed around on dances, watched skating on television, and sat in rapt attention on the bleachers at the Skating Club of Boston watching some of the competitors practice. I remember watching Laura Beardsley (whose claim to fame for me was not only because I saw her coaching a very young Todd Eldredge, but also because she was a former partner of Jim’s) do a lovely show program to “Endless Love.” I also remember watching Ari as a competitor (and now he’s my coach, how great is that!)

Pete and I met in Portsmouth yesterday. There was a power outage there, but we found a place to eat and then walked around and talked pretty much nonstop for hours. There was a lot to catch up on, and we spent quite a bit of time on the heart of the matter: skating! Pete has been off the ice for some time now, but he is going to get back on. I know that when he does, some order will be restored to the universe. I know that because, well, because I just know. If there is one thing I learned from studying physics, it’s that everything has a reason (or maybe it’s that we give everything a reason).

Here’s the sad part. My mother died last April, and it’s true what they say: that if you love someone, the time you have with them is never long enough. She was 93, but still, it wasn’t long enough. Skating has been one way of coping with the sometimes overwhelming grief that I’ve been feeling. I have been so touched by all the folks at the rink who’ve reached out to me. Tom told me about his mom, who passed away five years ago and who still waves to him in dreams. Ari, along with his intense scrutiny of all the problems with my back crossovers, always says something to make me feel better emotionally; when I had a terrible nerve injury some years ago that put several fingers out of commission, he said “You don’t need those fingers to skate!” and after my mother died he said, “You need to remember that a lot of people love you.” One of the wonderful things about skating is that you realize that it’s not just the ice that supports you and allows you to glide forward.

It’s because of Pete that I learned this lesson early in my skating career. When I went to graduate school, Pete was one of the people I missed most. While I was in grad school, he sent me a great short story that he wrote; after we reminisced about college and skating, Pete was kind enough to stay up too late last night and re-type it for me. Here’s the story, written October 30, 1983 for 21.755 (Short Stories). I want to share it on this blog along with his future skating adventures, so I’m inviting him to be a guest blogger (how cool will that be!). When I told her that I would be reconnecting with Pete, my skating coach and dear friend Laurie told me that in times of need, the spirits come to help you (she had a cool dream about ice dancing with Charlie White, but I’ll let her tell that story). So thank you, spirits, for sending Pete back to me!