I recently had the audacity (or good sense, take your pick) to compare Wollman Rink in Central Park to a slice of pizza, thereby further validating my theory that all roads lead back to New York’s favorite food-on-the-go. But, truthfully, when I have the opportunity to skate at Wollman these days, I am reminded of more than just dinner.
I have had the honor of sharing the majority of my Wollman experience with ice dance team, Isabel Elliman and Dmitriy Serebrenik, pictured above, who started and finished their seven-year competitive career together at this rink. To my knowledge, they are the only national competitors in recent history to train mostly outdoors. This is impressive for several reasons, and from a coaching perspective, it is unique indeed.
For one thing, Isabel and Dmitriy skated before school, which meant that their training days commenced before dawn, at 5:30 AM, and therefore literally in the dark. Because I was afraid to trek into the park at this eerie hour on the mornings when I coached them to fill in for my brother, I would meet Isabel and her father beforehand so I could tag along with them. Rarely, in our 5-10 minute walk would we see anyone, let alone anyone threatening, but while we were chatting I was alert nonetheless, certain that we were going to get pounced upon by bears, or bandits, or the boogeyman himself.
Once safely delivered to the rink’s lobby, Isabel’s father wished us well then turned around back toward home where Isabel’s younger siblings would soon be starting their own days. Dmitriy was already in the lobby, stretching out his legs. He had gotten up at some ungodly hour, something like 3:45 AM in order to ride the subway in from Brooklyn.
Once they were on the ice and were starting to warm up, and I glided around willy-nilly, assessing their knee bend, their posture, and commented accordingly. But I couldn’t help also taking in the scene.
There is something cozy about the fact that the Wollman ice surface is situated slightly lower than the grounds around it, kind of like a sunken living room. On one side sits the rink lobby, the roof of which serves as a public platform, so that, during more humane hours, passersby can watch from above. The embankments on the other two sides of the rink are lush with landscaping. When it’s dark, the trees and shrubbery along the barriers are lit from below, which creates a sort of mood-lighting, the equivalent, almost, of candlelight.
There are also the buildings of Midtown Manhattan just beyond the trees – The Plaza Hotel, The Trump Building, the Time Warner Building – all of which contributed to my sense of being surrounded and practically “hugged” by the city. Before 6 AM, these buildings had only a smattering of lights on in their grid of windows, a ratio that changed as morning progressed.
But for that first half hour or so, before morning broke, it seemed that the three of us were the only souls awake, and, in fact, maybe the only people in the universe. It was the good type of solitude, not lonely but peaceful, the kind you wish could last.
It was also extremely productive, however fleeting. I especially appreciated the chance to use the setting as a coaching tool. In my quest to get skaters to “project” to the audience (real or imagined) I often ask them why they would want to stare down at the ice when there are so many other interesting things to look at. The problem is that, in most other rinks, I have to sound excited and flourish my arm Vanna White-style toward a scenery that includes, for example… “The Home sign!…the Away sign!…those beautiful red lockers!…and how about that large beam!…and just look at those fascinating copper pipes!…” At Wollman, I could make this argument far less facetiously and pick out spotting points that really were of interest. For example, on the first side of the Golden Waltz, I could call out the words “Pierre Hotel!” and they’d both gaze up and out in its direction. Once indoors, at a competition, I’d say the same two words and get the same result, with a chuckle.
What was even more pronounced than the visuals of that majestic setting at that hour were the sounds, or lack thereof. No horns yet honking. No brakes yet screeching. No cabbies yelling. No cell phones ringing. No trucks yet delivering ingredients to the pizza shops on every block. And relative to an indoor rink: no dehumidifiers blowing, no fluorescent lights a-buzzing, no motors churning. Just stillness, over-layed with the sacred sound of edges. That crunch, that bite, that rip we’re always talking about and aiming for.
This sound alone was enough to make me a purist. It was admittedly difficult and rare for me, as a competitive skater, to experience that simple satisfaction of skate against ice. I experienced it as a coach, several times, through the blades of these two skaters on those mornings.
Of course, from a training perspective, it wasn’t always nirvana. All skaters deal with a set of struggles and ever-changing variables: muscle cramps, blisters, cold, fatigue, the pressure of homework, growth spurts, inadequate equipment, crowded sessions, and the list goes on. For Isabel and Dmitriy, one of the most constant challenges was The Weather.
In fact, the first day they ever skated together, it was pouring rain. They skated through three inches of water. But they, like many skaters at Wollman, had a postal service mentality: they’d skate through rain, sleet, or snow (within reason, of course.) Sometimes, it was a matter of peering through the lobby windows, wondering if the conditions were going to improve or if we should just unlace and finish the lesson on the floor. Or it was a matter of taking breaks every 30 minutes in order to warm up, or to dry off in the shelter of the lobby. Sometimes, while watching them do a Freedance run-through, I’d brace myself against gusts of wind, get hit in the face with a leaf, and wonder how they were staying on their feet. It was an unusual sensation to see snow accumulating on my students as I was talking to them.
Of course, this made them, like most New Yorkers, very adaptable. At competitions, for example, they could roll with almost anything. Is the ice soft, hard, bumpy, filled with ruts? At least its not covered in leaves! Is the rink large, small, or shaped like a rectangle instead of a slice of pizza? They’d quickly acclimate. Is the rink freezing cold? Seemed like a sauna to them. I started to think you could throw almost anything their way – turn off the lights, turn on a wind machine, scatter pebbles on the ice – and they’d be unfazed. As a matter of fact, they’d probably manage to enjoy it.
And this leads me to the most lasting impression I have of their partnership: that their mutual desire to skate came very obviously from within. After all, nobody would wake up that early to skate through the elements all winter, then travel over hill and vale to find clear freestyle ice to train on in the summer months, then push through the usual setbacks such as injuries and disappointments…nobody does all this, and so good-naturedly, unless they really love it. As a coach, dedication of this magnitude is something special to witness and to participate in. I consider myself fortunate, along with my brother, to have shared in such a unique partnership, fostered in no small part, by the unique setting.
Those mornings at Wollman would start off in darkness, but, on the clearest days, the atmosphere would gradually shift through gray to an icy blue, until the sun rose pink onto the buildings, accompanied by the sounds of the city. Next would come a burst of orange, shards of yellow, and an almost blinding white. Through all these shades of sunrise, Isabel and Dmitriy practiced a progression of Compulsory Dances, Original Dances, and Freedances – Intermediate level, then eventually Senior – before rushing off to school. While they enjoyed many triumphant moments at rinks around the country, and their lives will lead them to many distant corners of the world, I have little doubt they’ll always carry around with them that particular slice of ice.
The last time Isabel and Dmitriy performed together at Wollman, in January of last year for an exhibition, it started to rain. This couldn’t have been more appropriate. This time, it was dusk. While the audience pulled their hoods over their foreheads and reached for their umbrellas, Isabel and Dmitriy were characteristically undeterred. They not only skated, but they smiled and performed their way through the drizzle, even as it gradually started to soak their costumes and their hair. As I was forced to do many times in their presence, I struggled to hold back tears of pride and admiration.
While Isabel and Dmitriy took their bow for friends, family, and fans, a surreal mist rose off the ice all around them. Or, if you subscribe to the pizza theory, you could say it was steam.
Thank you for reading.