jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life

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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 and 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 back. 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!



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.




So while I think my skating is getting better overall, I still have trouble getting my hips in line while stroking onto forward edges. As Laurie pointed out today, I tend to strike off by pushing my skating hip forward so that the free hip pulls me slightly off the circle (or facing outwards). Not the best thing for stability or power!

I have had some success (a) making sure my blade is just a little bit farther out on the circle, and (b) trying to push my inside-edge hip forward. But it’s still awkward. We spent most of the lesson just on chassés and barely got to anything else.

So even as I sit here, I am feeling the frustration.

Maybe it would be better if I grunted. There was a N.Y. Times article that said that martial artists who grunted definitely kicked harder.

Or screamed.  Here’s another article about the choice of pillows. Even better, I don’t need a pillow at all!

Lesson notes (am screaming in my mind as I write):

  • Think of edges being more outside the body on the circle.
  • Think of turning as you are reversing the check.
  • Inside mohawk, back inside three, cross forward, repeat on other side (get that inside edge after the mohawk to grip right away)
  • forward outside three, push to back outside three
  • creepers down the rink
  • inside three, cross in front, step forward (open hips and place belly button toward center of circle as you are on the inside edge)
  • inside mohawk, pull change, cross in front, back inside.

Here’s an added video from the N.Y. Times “Speaking in Dance” series which apparently uses some backstage grunting.


Beware of the spread

Still working on those basics! And I am not even talking about basic moves. I mean basic movement.

At my last lesson with Laurie, two things became clear: (1) I am still not rotating my body and checking correctly on my three turns, especially on the right side, and (2) I am still not pushing correctly, especially from the left foot to the right. These things are of course related (as in, one is bad and two makes one worse). But since they involve different muscle groups, I’ll just target one at a time.

First, the upper body twist. Instead of twisting shoulders against hips and rising to the ball of the foot to turn my threes, I was dropping my weight forward and into the circle. Part of this is ingrained habit and part of it is muscle control and strength. When I finally started twisting sufficiently, I realized how underdeveloped my core-twisting muscles are.

In several posts I wrote three years ago, I described having trouble rotating or even turning my head to the right. Since then I’ve realized that this is only going to get worse unless I actively take myself outside of my comfort zone. This means working on and off the ice to make sure that I am actually using all the muscles (including abdominal, back, and shoulders) that are involved in twisting the torso.

I’ve been working on brackets too, and thinking a lot about the muscles that rotate the femur in the hip joint. But firmly rotating the torso is just as important in making these turns happen.

My second back-to-basics correction has to do with pushing onto my right outside edge. Laurie pointed out that I am doing something very strange with my left pushing side; instead of keeping my left side planted firmly over that inner pushing edge, I somehow release that side and even turn the pushing hip and foot out. This results in a contorted position that somehow has disguised itself as a push.

After correcting this, I realized that some of this may come from that misalignment that I’ve worked so hard to correct. The good news is that I can use some of the same techniques (like activating the adductors, and sinking the femur deeper into the hip joint) to get a better position and more stable push.

The bad news is that I can’t let my guard down on this. Constant vigilance! If I do let down my guard, it’s like I settle immediately into a hip position that is a lot like “man-spreading” and just as awkward.


It will be a week of core-twisting and “unspreading” for me! Will try to report back soon.



So I read an article from the Waldorf School in Philly about how skating improves both proprioception and the vestibular system that controls balance and helps coordinate movement.  This is yet another reason to be happy about skating!

My approach to practice these days has been less about attempting new moves, and more about learning new ways of moving. I am trying to improve my overall quality of motion as well as my range of motion. I have noticed a definite improvement in both.

So this week I’m working on four things that are pretty basic, but that somehow I haven’t been able to get my head around before.

The first thing is that I need to allow my core to rotate as I move along my edge. I have been pushing off onto an edge and then hanging onto that position for dear life. Then when I need to do something else (like set up for a turn or do a swing roll or cross roll), I have so much pent-up force that my free leg is likely to swing around like Thor’s hammer.

Okay, that was an exaggeration. It actually wasn’t that pronounced. I have been skating in this way for so long that I have been able to disguise this flaw with sheer force of will coupled with the admirable but misguided muscularity of my legs. It just took a lot more effort than these simple moves deserve.

But once Laurie told me to rotate my belly button around, these moves became incredibly easy. So all week I’ve been paying attention to the direction of my navel. It’s like I have an imaginary umbilical cord leading the way!

What this helps: forward and backward swing rolls, cross rolls, most turns 

The second thing is to allow my hips to move in tandem rather than trying to isolate them. Once I tried this, smooth core rotation became even easier. It became embarrassingly easy, in fact, considering how much time I’ve spent torturing myself by focusing only on the position and movement of my skating hip.

What this helps: cross rolls, setting up for three turns and rockers, edge pulls

The third thing is that I need to think about setting down my feet on edges that are outside the circle that my body is going in, not directly beneath myself. Trying to set my blade down directly beneath myself has been the reason I do flats so much. In order to do this on, say, cross rolls, I have to transfer my weight to a skate blade that is already past my midline, not underneath my torso.

This makes it possible to envision my body moving in and out of edges underneath my head and torso.

What this helps: cross rolls, outside edges, mohawks of every kind, choctaws, Kilian pattern (in both directions), crossovers, Rhumba in Olympics short dance (as if!)

The fourth thing is to keep my weight over my pushing foot just a bit longer so that I get stronger push.

What this helps: whenever I push onto a new edge (provided I put that edge outside the midline).

Ooh, ooh, what my body can do! Of course, I’ve been told to do these things numerous times before, but for whatever reason, it has taken me this long to develop enough jo-prioception and vestibular wherewithal to make them part of my skating toolkit. I definitely appreciate how all these things make my body feel more efficient and confident.

As Laurie says, why take the bus when you’ve got a Lamborghini in the garage?

I am so lucky–on my lessons I get great skating advice and humor too!




Great Scott!


Regardless of how they do this time around, Virtue and Moir will always be in my  pantheon of ice dancing deities. So I was watching this video about the development of their Moulin Rouge free dance (it has since been blocked on YouTube, sadly, so I can’t share it here), I was amazed that at one point Scott got a coaching tip on an back inside three. He was told that he should just let the turn pivot, rather than muscling it around.

That’s exactly what my coaches have been telling me! Great Scott!

In her recent Fit&Fed post, Mary’s coach told her to identify “the elephant in the room”: the moves or aspects of skating that you should address and change asap. My elephants have been announcing themselves with regularity over the past few years, but I’ve now reached the happy stage when things in general feel much more stable and I’m no longer skating in pain.

This is happy, yes, but also a little too comfy. The elephants are clearly there, but they are no longer quite so obvious, at least not to me. That’s where the coaches come in handy to wipe the skating-euphoria-induced grin off my face.

Both lessons this week were on fairly basic elements, allowing us to focus on some basic things that are still. . . well, quite elephantine. I’ll detail them here.

Inside mohawks. I learned that what I thought was a wonky and unstable back inside edge exit was really a problematic entry edge. The entry edge started flat and took a deep curve for the worse before the turn, which meant that the exit edge had to perform a kind of rescue mission. Smooth even curve into the entry edge and everything is beautiful again.

Back inside push onto back outside edge. Okay, this is sooo basic but has been sooo hard. Laurie pointed out that I have been setting my back outside edge down inside the circle, which means an automatic flat or even inside edge. She had me doing back chassés and putting my back outside edge down right behind the inside (pushing edge), which felt like I was stepping outside my circle with an angled foot.  Hard to describe, but definitely different from what I’ve been doing and definitely better.

Ari and I discussed this push as well (well, he basically talked and I listened, thinking to myself, “oh woe is me!” for doing it wrong for all these years). His advice was more about keeping the pushing foot on the ice longer. What distinguishes this from two-footing is that you basically keep your weight on the pushing foot rather than partially transferring it over (“oh woe is me!”)

Once I am on a back outside edge, I have to learn to keep my weight inside the circle. I tend to try to stand up over my skate rather than using my lean even as I rotate my body. (Trying to stand up over your skates only works if you are going really slowly, as I have been, but if you are trying to get speed, it totally doesn’t work!) Laurie gave me a great image: think of your body as being on an axis (or spit), and rotate the entire thing on the same plane as your lean.

That’s me, rotisserie Jo!

So all of these things boil down to (a) putting your feet in the right place on the circle, (b) maintaining lean, and (c) just letting rotation happen normally as part of the action of the curve, rather than forcing the turn or the edge.

The good thing about these tips is that they make just about everything I do better. The bad thing is that not doing them makes things really really hard.

So what choice do I have? Great Scott!

Lesson notes:

  • forward inside mohawk, back outside three
  • back chassés (placement of outside edge)
  • back inside threes (lean is different from other edges, not into the circle)
  • two foot rocker exercise
  • one foot rocker exercise
  • inside mohawk, push back, outside three
  • inside mohawk, back inside three (feet together after mohawk)
  • forward outside double three, cross stroke, other direction (allow rotation with free side back, don’t spin around)






Chocolate shortbread


This chocolate shortbread recipe is easy and deliciously chocolatey. The only tip is to make sure the shortbread mold (if you are using one) is well-oiled (I use cooking spray). The last few times I’ve made this chocolate shortbread recipe, it was a miserable fail getting it out of the pan.

But today I made sure the sides as well as the bottom were generously oiled, and it came out great!

Crisp Chocolate Shortbread (adapted from Mrs. Witty’s Monster Cookies)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened (but not melted)
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon (or big pinch or a few shakes of) salt

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F with rack in middle.
  2. Cream butter with sugar and cocoa, then add vanilla.
  3. Sift together flour, cornstarch, and salt. Combine all ingredients until dough comes together (it will be crumbly but should stick to together when squeezed).
  4. With plastic wrap or bare hands, press into well-oiled shortbread mold. You can also use an ungreased 9-inch pie plate, smoothing it into a round that stops just short of the sides. If you are using a pan, you should cut it into 12 wedges, cutting only halfway through the dough, and use a fork to make decorative sides and put several holes into each wedge.
  5. Bake at 325 for 30 minutes, checking about 20 minutes (dough should be “delicately springy” in the center). If using a pie plate, cool the entire pan on wire rack; cut before it has cooled completely. If using a mold, cool partially before unmolding (I run a sharp knife around the edges first); cut while it is still warm.
  6. Alternatively, you can make wafers. Roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick between two sheets of plastic wrap, then cut with a pastry cutter or sharp  into 1-1/2 x 2 inch oblongs and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Use a fork to put 2 – 3 sets of holes in each, pricking all the way through.
  7. If making wafers, bake at 325 for fifteen minutes or until just firm. Cool on wire rack. Sprinkle with sugar if desired.

Store in plastic wrap or foil at room temperature for up to several days, or refrigerate for several weeks, or freeze for longer. If it has been refrigerated or frozen, you can warm it up in a 300 degree oven for 10 minutes before serving at room temperature.