(Warning: Some content in the following installment may be highly sentimental in nature.)
There are about 450 things I’d rather do on my days off than sit in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and sit in a rink for 8 hours absorbing information on the topic I already think about all week: skating. But it’s pretty clear our sport is undergoing a metamorphosis, and whether you think today’s skaters look like they are floating like butterflies or flitting around out there like nervous moths, the fact is that, due to the International Judging System, biomechanics, and a whole host of improved training methods, skating is changing, and we coaches best stay informed.
This is why two friends and I threw our overnight bags in my trunk and headed over the George Washington Bridge toward the Professional Skaters Association National Seminar held at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society (PSCHS) in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. In addition to keeping my PSA accreditation up to date (this now requires 28 credits every three years), I was interested in getting some survival tips on IJS, some new coaching techniques on specific elements, and maybe just some new ways of explaining the methods I already teach, all useful to my future in coaching. I ended up getting all these things, but I also took an unexpected stroll into The Past… both into my own and into the history of skating.
This started the night before at my mother’s house in Delaware (where we moved to train when I was 14) and where, for the purposes of shameless show-and-tell, I busted out my first dress: pink, and approximately the size of my adult hand. (I was so delighted to obtain this garment that I twirled around in it on my driveway wearing sneaker rollerskates.) This dress elicited from my guests appreciative oohs and ahhs then descriptions of their own first dresses, which, whether we still have these tucked away in our closets or not, we tend to remember with remarkable detail. This led me to drag out my last skating dress, the unveiling of which understandably resulted in quizzical giggles and my contention that, “Really, it made sense in context, I swear.”
This backward glance continued the next morning when we arrived at the PSCHS where, over the years, I commenced many a season by competing at Challenge Cup, and where I was honored to perform in a few Saturday afternoon Tea Exhibitions. Most notably, however, this is where I gave the Funniest performance of my career (and I realize this is not necessarily a category most competitors carry in their catalogues.) Suffice it to say that there was a good deal of “audience participation” in the form of laughter, a reaction that reached my ears all the more directly due to the fact that there are no boards, or plexiglass, around this ice surface.
But my own memories of this place are only the tip of the so-called ice…berg. The building was erected in the late 1930’s but the club itself has been in existence since about 1850 when skating took place on rivers and lakes and people regularly fell through the ice. Club members carried twine as a rescuing device, and hence, the humanitarian or “humane” aspect of the club’s name (which has managed to confuse more than a few kind locals who have carried stray dogs and cats through the front doors.)
Upstairs, where the Seminar’s off-ice portion took place, the club’s long and venerable history was in evidence at every turn: the large, curved mural depicting outdoor skating; plaques honoring the club’s Gold testers; a quaint glass case displaying “The McConnell Collection” of skating figurines; and last, but not least, the wall of windows overlooking the ice surface itself – the ideal perch from which to watch skaters perform whilst sipping tea on a perfectly civilized Saturday afternoon.
Maybe I have an over-developed tendency to let an environment infuse meaning into an event, but it seemed like this setting set a tone for the Seminar. Directly, or indirectly, much of it was about getting back to our roots. And this seemed especially fitting on the cusp of the competition season, with Regionals occurring around the country over the next few weeks, the winter months heralding increased group lesson enrollment, and all of us, in one way or another, getting “caught up in it all.”
So I was already in a contemplative mood when Sandy Lamb stood up to speak about Basic Skills. She started off by acknowledging that some of her first competitive students, Robbie Kaine and Tommy Kaine, were in the room and how lucky she felt to have students like them to start off her coaching career. She proceeded to embellish her Power Point presentation with anecdotes from her own experience, enthusiasm for promoting skating at the grass roots, and ways to keep it all Fun. I thought back to my own group lessons in the studio rink at the Madison Ice Arena, where the ice was the most pleasing color of royal blue, (well, it was the floor underneath that was painted blue, but it took a while for me to realize this.) My delight in these lessons was only mildly tempered by my brother’s mastery of that elusive Mohawk turn long before me (and in hockey skates). My aggravation with his speedier improvement was, however, pretty much forgotten by the time my first ice show rolled around: this event included costumes, a printed program with a picture of me in it, and…I could hardly contain myself…Spotlights!
Kat Arbour’s presentation on Periodization was excellent. Her and her colleagues’ cutting-edge work in Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology at the University of Delaware has contributed greatly to the science of this sport. I was fortunate to train in that program in the years after Ron Ludington first moved to U of D, over 20 years ago. It was exciting for me to participate as a subject in several studies, the nature of which I barely understood. It is (and was) great to see that most of what we achieve on ice can be quantified, therefore repeated, and improved upon, ideally with minimal injury.
Doug Haw (coach of, among others, Brian Orser and Jenny Kirk) started his presentation by harkening his grandmother and her encouragement of his figure skating back in Canada, though he started in hockey. He also detailed his own background with the PSA and American figure skating, despite being Canadian. He explained that much of his education has been derived from analyzing skaters, both live, and on video. He struck me as a true student of the sport, and for this reason, also a true educator. I was impressed, and inspired, to say the least, by his verbal creativity, including a whole host of catchy aphorisms and poems, and an evident commitment to also keeping skating Fun, an aspect of this gig all of us can stand to be reminded of.
Later, for the on-ice portion, with microphone in hand, Haw encouraged us to keep coming back to the tracings on the ice, to look closely at jump take-offs and spin entrances. It was a clear, bright day and sun reflected off the ice through the backdrop of glass brick, so even from the bleachers, it was possible to see the tracings of the demonstrators. I’m not someone who laments the termination of Figures, but I understand why people do, and respect those who had the patience and talent for them. As I gazed at that gleaming ice surface, I could almost make out a phantom figure eight, or a whole line of them, running the length of the rink. I was reminded that Figure Skating didn’t originally include jumps and spins; it was named for the figures, or the intricate marks left on the ice.
Okay, so obviously the almost surreal beauty of this rink and this day had, by this point, put me in an altered state, a state of severe sentimentality. But who could blame me, sitting under that gracefully curved ceiling, with a wall of mirrors on the far end, a pair of banners touting home-rink Olympic Champs, Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, and that conspicuous absence of boards, providing an unfettered view of it all? Let’s face it, most new rinks in this country are about as interesting as warehouses, so it’s nice to be in one that has a little personality. Of course, I wasn’t always such a purist. When I was younger, I probably would have said that some of my favorite local rinks now – Playland Ice Casino in Rye, NY, Harvey School Rink in Katonah, NY and EJ Murray Rink in Yonkers, NY – were “old,” “beat-up,” and “dirty.” But something has been happening to me lately, and I think it might have something to do with maturity. (After all, I’ve even found myself listening to jazz music with some regularity.)
During Cheryl Demkowski-Snyder’s presentation on IJS Choreography, we were treated to a quick performance by elite ice dancers Kim Navarro and Brent Bommentre, skaters Cheryl coaches with Robbie Kaine. After a few earnest but low-level freestylers showcased their footwork sequences, Kim and Brent seemed, in comparison, to re-define “edgework” (and they did so in blue jeans after standing around all day…) I am a big fan of theirs, in part for their incredible basic skating skills and, even more so, for what always comes across as their real, honest enjoyment of what they’re doing. I think it’s important to remember and try to impart to our students that, while our seasons are planned around those precious and nerve-wracking moments of competing, it all starts with and comes back to something very simple: a pair of blades, a body (or bodies), and a sheet of ice, just like it did on the rivers and lakes of Philadelphia and on frozen surfaces around the world.
Later that night, as we sat at a standstill on the NJ Turnpike, I had to smack my own cheeks a few times to keep myself awake. Then, slap-happy in a rest stop parking lot, I even tried a few flying sit spins, employing the Doug Haw method (and absolutely no muscle control whatsoever). Back on the road, with the traffic finally moving, I had to admit to myself that, tired as I was, I was also excited to get back to work the next day. It’s like I was somehow getting nudged forward by everything that has happened before.
Please share: What rinks bring out the Skating Purist in you? Any fond memories of PSCHS? Click on “comment” below.
To read more about the history of PSCHS, check out:http://www.pschs.org/Set_About_main_history.htm
To see the schedule of upcoming PSA educational events, check out: http://www.skatepsa.com/Calendar-of-Events.htm