jo skates

Skating in the key of life


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.”



The other day I got a fortune in my cookie that read:

As one grows to understand life less and less, one learns to live it more and more.

I think this makes more sense to me in skating terms:

As one grows to understand skating less and less, one learns to skate more and more.

Worked on cross rolls forward and backwards today. OMG, another revelation (a.k.a. another fantasy of mine stripped away).

I used to have the impression that the objective was just to have a smooth glide (or a smooth ride) on one blade, with an effortless transfer into the next skate. So I’ve been blithely gliding back and forth between my skates on these, la di da di da. What I’ve been missing is the actual part of the stroke that puts more energy into the system, the angling of the blade outward that allows for an actual push. I need to create more force against the ice by not keeping my blades parallel, as well as using more ankle bend and foot pressure.

I have been wondering whether I am only just realizing the importance of these basic ideas because I never really focused on them before (too busy trying to make myself look a certain way, rather than actually analyzing the skating part), or because I was physically unable to do it (too many muscle imbalances on my left side). But it’s becoming clear to me that whether this originated in my head or below doesn’t matter; what matters is that now my body is working in a new way.

Some of this has to do with no longer dwelling in the perceived gap between thinking and doing. Skating for me has always played into the classic mind-body problem: conceptualizing the mind (having a thought or ideal) as distinct from the body (performing the tasks that the brain thinks about). My body has a problem doing something, and my mind agonizes over how to make it go.

What was missing from this formulation was the particular way that we “think” or “know” through the body. For instance, when I was working on those cross rolls, I could actually feel the resistance of the blade (when it was at the proper angle) on the ice. Both my coaches emphasize this feeling (what we call proprioception or kinesthetic sense) as a source of knowledge. Ari sometimes tells me that I (and other adult skaters) “think too much.”  I reinterpret this to mean that I have not been really been thinking enough through my body; instead, I’ve been willing my body to do things without actually doing what I am supposed to do.

For instance, I have had trouble turning my head to the right. When one of my coaches says “Look over your right shoulder,” I contort my body into some very strange shapes in order to do this.  And I wind up without even a glimpse of what lies beyond the right shoulder. Both Laurie and Ari have had to take my head (this happened in two recent lessons!) and turn it for me. And the fact that my neck and shoulder muscles are tight afterwards shows me that turning it in this direction is a new thing for me.

Bodily sensation (muscular position, speed, balance, tension) elicits emotion (excitement, elation, sometimes fear and uncertainty) as well as interpretation (a “good” edge, a poorly-executed turn, an indifferent body position). I’m trying to focus on the sensation part; hopefully someday I can integrate and make better use of the emotions and interpretations that come with them. Someday my skating body will catch up with my skating ego; at the moment, it’s important to relegate some of the ego to the background, like the helicopter skating mom that I have become to my basic skills self.

They say that as you get older it’s important to keep your brain active in order to keep those neurons firing. I am really giving my brain a workout these days by turning my head so that I can see over my right shoulder. Call it an exercise in “Jo-prioception,” if only to dignify the practice with a name.

There are many lovely photographs of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue out there, but have you noticed that so few show them turning their heads over their right shoulder? I highly doubt, though, that this is because they have trouble with this maneuver. No lack of Jo-prioception on Tessa’s part!

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