jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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How do you spell success?

Hooray, made it through another busy semester (not quite over, but almost). I am counting my blessings.

The other day on a fairly busy session I decided to avoid the crowds by practicing my Shafer pushes in a little section of the center. In case you’re wondering what these are, here’s a video:

So off I push and run right into a little tot! Luckily, she was holding on to one of those metal frames they use for beginners–you know, the kind that the small hockey players grab and then use to ram one another. It’s survival of the fittest around here, I tell you.

She didn’t fall but looked at me, rather puzzled. I expected the immediate intervention of a parent-guardian screaming, “What, you ran into my kid?!!!???” But when I looked around, her supervising adult was busy on her phone and didn’t even see the mild collision. So we both went on our merry skating ways.

Despite these little incidents of terror, I’ve really been enjoying skating. I have been working on the same basic moves, but focusing on several related things.

First is making sure that I am actually always on an edge instead of just balanced over my skate. Sometimes I hit a flat, then try to recuperate the edge with my ankle or knee bend. This mistake usually happens when I change feet–just for an instant, but long enough to throw me off. Laurie reminded me (again) that my new skate actually should be placed on the other side of my midline. If I concentrate on this, it works like a charm!

On certain transitions, such as the back inside to back outside, I have become so used to setting down on a flat that I step inside my circle. I am practicing touching down my new (outside) edge so that it is placed on the ice right beside the other foot, and at the proper edge angle. This is revealing a lot of weird things about my back inside edges.

Second is pushing through my edge so that I get more power. The trick is to feel like I’m actually pushing my foot away from my body, rather than using my foot to push my body forward. You would think this would be same thing, but it actually feels really different if you are on an edge.

Third is thinking about the placement of the axis and different lobes on the ice. Since I have sworn off pushing from flat to flat, this means feeling like certain transitions are retrogressed.

I know, I know. These are all things I should have been doing a long time ago.

But instead of berating myself for being a skater-come-lately, I’m going to lavish myself with praise. I did all three things today, and the time flew by! And I didn’t run into anyone. Okay, there were only four other people there today. And I did have a near-miss when only Chris and I were on the ice and both of us were going backwards. But we didn’t collide.

Real edges! No ice casualties! No angry skating parents! Success!

I’m going to have to adapt this Bob Dylan quotation:

A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.
to the following:
Jo’s skating session is a success if she gets on the ice and gets off in one piece, and in between she gets on an edge most of the time. And she doesn’t knock over other skaters, especially small children.

 

Lesson notes:
Exercises:
  • Back to front choctaw, inside counter, back touch, repeat on other side. Think curves.
  • Cross in front, tuck behind, forward choctaw, back cross step (outside-to-outside), step forward into correct leading arm, repeat on other side: learn how to change your lead.
  • Inside mohawk (don’t touch down), push to back outside three: work on placement on circle; retrogressing Inside to inside push—you only need 30 degrees of turnout. Try the “reverse lean”: stay on inside but change lean before push.
  • Inside mohawk (don’t touch down, use that inside edge), back inside three (ankles together, not knees).
  • Inside three, step forward, cross in front, repeat on other side.
Basics:
  • back progressives: you are setting your outside edge foot too far into the circle: practice touching down with free foot. Practice “touch-down” exercise (don’t try to do this while doing progressives).
  • back crossovers: these are improved. Keep working on more bend.
  • forward outside three turn, back inside three turn: real edges into and out of the three turn; work on isolating free leg movement so it doesn’t throw you off.
  • forward outside loops: remember to continue to bend and deepen for the second half of the loop–don’t rush this part!

Here’s a terrific version of one of my favorite songs, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” as performed by The Main Squeeze: https://youtu.be/ko5roiJR8EY. 

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No one is alone

If you’ve seen the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, you will know that it’s not always easy to find your way through the confusing paths of life, even in a fairy tale. We hope for heroes and villains, happy endings, and clear moral consequences–but in reality, those neat fictions quickly vanish.

That’s why I find this song so poignant:

The past couple of skating weeks have been a thicket of confusion, with some really good breakthroughs and some very weird and random falls.

To begin with, I took a few days off skating to chaperone a high school field trip to Chicago, which was pretty fun. We went to the Field Museum, where I got to contemplate the hip structure of dinosaurs (legs more upright) and reptiles (legs sprawling sideways). I’ll just share the slides and spare you the reflection on how this makes me think about skating.

But when I got back on the ice, I kept falling down for different reasons: catching the back of my blade (since I once again forgot to point my toe), pushing off just a little too vigorously, and forgetting what I was doing in the middle of a mohawk.

So when the song goes “people make mistakes,” I can really relate. Ouch!

Happily, though, I think some of the soreness is actually due to progress, not just impact. Some of the falls were because I’m actually trying something new and going past my comfort zone (I don’t count the momentary glitch on the mohawk.) I have been really focused on using my core in skating, which means that my hip muscles are actually working harder. Here’s my list of action items:

  • Pushing onto a really good edge, making sure I’m in a good hip position (neutral), with core engaged and without using too much hip flexor.
  • Making sure my edges  remain active throughout their duration (I will write a separate post on using pressure rather than just momentum), which means that I need to be aware of my feet.
  • On my backwards edges, pushing with the knees and not just the feet.
  • Loops (I do love doing these). One of these days I’m going to work up a light entertainment program in which I am a barber shop pole.

Barber_Shop_Pole

So is my skating “good” or “bad” for the world? For me? For my dinosaur-like hips? I’m not sure. Luckily the “good” and “bad” of my skating are (1) not loaded with moral consequences and (2) not a zero-sum game. So I can always enjoy the fact that I am getting better without worrying that someone else is suffering.

The moral: Jo skates, and everybody wins!

That’s why skating is so good for keeping disenchantment at bay. At the rink, no one is alone–or if they are, they feel lucky to have private ice.

And sometimes magic happens. That’s why we like seeing our friends win gold medals at Adult Nationals!

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Sonia and Doug, 2018 AN Silver Dance Gold Medalists!

 

 


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Carrot cake recipe

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Well, it’s just crazy out there. It has been snowing all day, and the wind has been blowing snow everywhere so that shoveling is futile. It was pretty clear from the time I got up that it would be a good day to do some baking.

I took a visiting speaker out for brunch yesterday, and saw a gorgeous carrot cake in the bakery case of the restaurant. I didn’t get to have a slice then, but have been having visions of carrot cake ever since.

I thought I would do carrot cupcakes and share some with friends (well, whenever we dig out). I realized I didn’t have all of the ingredients for my favorite carrot cake recipe, so would have to brave the elements.

I stepped outside into snow up to my knees! Luckily, it was the soft and fluffy stuff, easy to kick through (and sort of fun to kick around). I walked over to the grocery store and picked up a few items, including a can of crushed pineapple and some cream cheese.

The cupcakes baked up nicely, though I think I had the top rack ones in just a few minutes too long. I brushed the tops with simple syrup just to get a little extra moisture in those (dry cupcakes are the worst).

We had tickets to go see a dance/music performance this evening. I kept waiting for the notification that the performance would be cancelled, but as of 6 p.m. I still hadn’t gotten any notification. My husband wisely suggested that we take the bus instead of trying to drive. After waiting for the bus a while, I checked email and was relieved that the event had indeed been cancelled–about time!

So after trudging home from the bus stop, I made some frosting for a few of the cupcakes. The rest will wait until we dig out. It may take a while, but at least if we are snowed in there are plenty of carrot cupcakes to eat!

Carrot cake

Makes a three-layer cake or around 30 cupcakes.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1-1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-3/4 cups grated carrot
  • 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 1/2-cups shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 (9-inch) round cakepans with parchment paper; lightly grease and flour. Alternatively, prepare cupcake pans.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.

Beat together sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Add flour mixture. When this is beginning to come together, fold in carrots, pineapple, coconut, and nuts if desired. Blend until just combined–do not overmix. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool and remove from pans.

Frost with cream cheese frosting or whipped cream/cream cheese frosting.

Cream cheese frosting

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 – 2 cups confectioner’s sugar (I usually use just over 1 cup)

Blend butter, cream cheese, and vanilla in a food processor; add sugar until desired level of sweetness.

Whipped cream/cream cheese frosting

  • 1-1/2 cups whipping cream
  • 1 cup sugar (or less)
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Whip cream separately until stiff peaks form. Beat together cream cheese, vanilla, and desired amount of sugar until smooth. Fold the cream cheese mixture into the whipped cream.

 


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Really?

So it snowed again last weekend, and I had to shovel twice before it all melted on Monday.  Then yesterday I walked outside and there were flurries in the air. It’s supposed to warm up in the next few days, but then they’re predicting another couple of inches of snow this coming weekend.

Really?

Even those of us who say they don’t mind Minnesota winters have had it. We are shaking our fists skyward, bemoaning the futility of it all. Or we are eating chocolate.

Or we are skating, thinking that even if the weather were nicer, we’d be inside anyway.

Okay, so it’s still winter in mid-April here. But at least several good things are going on with my skating. One began with the head weight idea, which I’ve been trying to work into all aspects of my waking life, including as I sit here now at the computer. I have now seen way too many pictures of bad head posture that results in inevitable doom (just google “bad head posture” and you’ll see what I mean). Anyway, I have been working on moving the weight of my head slightly back using my entire upper back and neck (rather than just trying to roll my head back, which did not work). And this seems to be working well not only to align my upper body, but also to place me in a better position overall.

I have better control over my edges. I’m bending my ankles more. And I am even able to relax my often too-tight hip flexors on command, meaning that I can finally sorta get that “flat front of hip” position that both Ari and Laurie have been telling me about. I was beginning to think that was some kind of strange genetic predisposition only granted to those with true talent and ability. But no, I can do it too!

It is not quite the dawn of a new skating day, since yesterday I was working on back cross rolls and had one of those falls that made everyone sympathetic in that way that they only behave when you are over 50. My coach Laurie even texted me later to make sure I didn’t have a concussion.

So okay, ouch. But at least my hip flexors were relaxed! And I was back on today, a little bruised but not too bad.

So here’s a little inspiration: not quite skating, but also balanced on the perfect blend of movement and stillness, gravity/force/momentum

Lesson notes:

  • inside three, cross in front, step forward and repeat on other side. Left side is better, but the right needs more foot/ankle action and more actual curve/turn.
  • forward three, change edge, back three, forward three. Place free foot forward before the back three so you can use it to create more rotational energy.
  • back choctaw, forward choctaw. Work on not pushing forward into the new edge. Make sure you are really using your ankles on those edges–no pretend edges!
  • rockers. Work on getting stronger edges coming out of the rocker.
  • counters. These are confusing, since they are sort of like brackets.
  • progressives in a circle. These are better! But make sure there is not an abrupt jerk when you push from the inside edge.
  • back chassés in a circle. This is to get the rise on the back outside edge.
  • forward three, back outside edge. Think about your ear staying inside the circle to correct that slight lean out.
  • back cross rolls. We worked on getting that real push. Then I fell. Ouch.

 

 

 


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Expect the unexpected

 

Snow storm in April? That is certainly not unheard of in my neck of the woods. Today I rescheduled my meetings in favor of working from home. I was glad to be spared much driving, but I am feeling the effects of multiple bouts of shoveling.

I am not sure exactly how much snow there is out there, but it’s been snowing on and off for about 24 hours. And the kicker is that even though it’s pretty much stopped (I think? I hope?) there is enough wind to blow the snow around so that it still feels like it’s snowing.

I thought I did a nice job clearing the sidewalk (corner lot, arghh!) and the driveway, but after another hour I went out again to face huge drifts. I’ve cleared everything again, but no doubt this will happen again.

Doesn’t this remind you of skating? At the beginning of last week I thought I had this head weight thing all figured out, but today at my lesson I was once again tipped forward towards the ice, with the inexorable pull of gravity working against me.

To be fair, I haven’t done much skating this past week. I had a work-related trip to San Francisco. Warm and sunny, no snow, great food. Sigh.

Anyone up for a trip to Nagano to join the snow monkeys in the hot springs?

The good news is that I am back on the ice. And that my lesson included an additional tip about the head weight thing. I shouldn’t be doing this by tipping my head back, but by putting the head and neck in alignment with shoulders relaxed down the back and lifted chest (though not pushing my ribs forward).

Getting this to where it feels natural rather than strained will be a challenge, kinda like keeping my sidewalk clear. But at least it’s a start!

On a happy note, here’s the lovely Asal, who passed her Bronze Freestyle test with flying colors! Hooray!

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Asal passes her Bronze Freestyle test!

Lesson notes:

  • Inside edges: practice the second half of the edge with a strong hold, then move directly to a power V push with no extraneous movement
  • Mohawk, back edge, turn (practice hold, rise and turn of head)
  • Swing roll: more twist on initial entry. Watch wrists!
  • Outside loop (enter as if for a hooking spin—get that loop smaller!)
  • Head weight is moved back with the entire upper body, not just by tipping the head
  • two-footed rockers, work on getting better edges immediately into and out of the turn, watch that you don’t block yourself with your right arm/shoulder
  • Forward cross rolls: don’t pitch forward
  • Backwards cross rolls: don’t swing shoulders around, movement should be more continuous
  • outside three, back edge (practice turning body, then head)
  • Head weight back is really working
  • Three step mohawk feet together after mohawk
  • Mohawk back outside step forward, cross roll
  • Really work on that cross roll, hips forward, don’t come up and over, cross at shins not at thighs
  • Mohawk, back outside, back cross, back outside three into mohawk and repeat on other side (axis)
  • Choctaw step forward, cross stroke (same advice), tuck behind, PRETZEL
  • Choctaw, back outside three


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It’s all in my head

That title doesn’t mean what you think it does. No, I’m not going skating-crazy, although the term “skatinsanity” does come to mind.

Literally, some of my skating problems have to do with the weight of my head. Laurie pointed out today that one of the reasons I’m not bending my ankles enough is that my head is tipped slightly forward, just enough to bring my weight into the wrong place. To counteract this, I send my hips back.

I have been told countless times to look up, but all I do is get my eyes peeking up while continuing to keep my head down. She suggested thinking instead about rolling the weight of the head back slightly. And what do you know? I was in a much better position on the blade, and was able to bend my ankles like a champ.

As I was looking for pictures of skaters to illustrate this “head weight slightly tipped back” position, I realized that they all have their head weight back! I could find very few pictures of elite level skaters who have their heads tipped forward as I do (unless they are doing it for dramatic choreographic effect, or have some kind of terrible moment that we’d rather not think about).

With their heads in the right place, look at them go!

 

This provides another way of thinking about body position. It especially helps on the transition from back outside edge to forward outside edge. Laurie suggested thinking about not only the head weight going slightly back, but also the movement of the nose “like a rainbow” as I turn forward.

I realize that all these descriptions are pretty strange to non-skaters. But one more before the “skatinsanity” is finished today. When I corrected my head position, suddenly everything got a lot better. My forward progressives were so polished, in fact, that Laurie suggested that I complete the picture by working on my hand position. I tend to droop my wrists (especially the right one) unconsciously, which looks more than a little awkward.  It’s an easy fix, but I haven’t bothered to do it.

As Laurie puts it, having that one strange wrist position is like being in a really gorgeous outfit, but failing to notice that there’s a piece of toilet paper stuck to your backside. Funny!

Okay, some lesson notes:

  • forward outside edges with hips facing forward (not opening outside the circle)
  • swing rolls: push onto new edge without “unfurling”
  • progressives forward and backwards: experiment with rolling the weight of your head forward and back
  • three turn, back outside edge: weight of head back, make “rainbow” with nose
  • Kilian choctaw: rotate core towards right twice (not just arm); don’t need too much body twist if your core is actually rotating.

And a musical selection that is totally unrelated–but I wish I could skate as well as Ben Bliss (what an apt name) sings. Like buttah!


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Skating knowledge

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

–Stephen Hawking

The one thing I will add to that wisdom is that the illusion of knowledge isn’t just about the things that we think we understand through our brains, but also what we feel through our bodies.

The accomplishment of a particular skating move, for instance. When I am able to move successfully from one edge to another, I feel like I’ve “mastered” something. I pat myself on the back. I keep doing that transition, thinking it is the right way to do something. I go on for years. It feels not just normal (“the way I do things”) but right (“if I did things another way I wouldn’t be able to do them at all”). I invest years in this kind of thinking.

At some point, I realize that I can’t go on doing things in this way. Maybe it’s that I can’t get any more speed, or I can only do this move in isolation. Maybe there’s some kind of pain involved that lets me know that what I’m doing is putting unwanted pressure on a knee, an ankle, a foot.

I start to realize that something’s wrong, not just with this particular move, but with the way I skate in general. A coach will point out that a particular joint (say, the hips) is not moving correctly. Even after working on a relatively simple move (say, chassés in a circle, or back crossovers, or swing rolls, my favorite) I realize that I don’t feel comfortable.

I’m told that the reason I can’t do something is because I’m literally moving the wrong way: my hip remains stuck in “forward” when at some point it needs to move back; my ankle still isn’t bending; I’m not on the correct part of my blade. And being told these things, I try to comply, but it feels really scary. After a few minutes, my muscles are exhausted, and I feel like my brain is trying to manage too many moving parts.

It’s terrifying not just because I’ve ingrained these habits but also because I’ve built up parts of my ego (the “feeling good” parts–oh no!) by thinking that I know how to do something.

So I go home, and rather than cry (there are far many more things in the world to cry about), I write about grunting and screaming in my blog. And I realize that in order to really learn how to skate, I have to let go of the overall illusion that I know what I’m doing.

I watch a few videos (Yuzuru Hanyu, Alexandra Trusova) and I marvel not only at those quads but the fact that their hips move in perfect harmony. And I read obituaries of Stephen Hawking and realize what a master he was–and not just of physics. And I go to bed early and sleep late (spring break, after all) and think about all the skating I’m going to learn today.