jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


Finesse, not force

So this week Laurie brought up an exercise that she gave me a while ago but that I’d conveniently forgotten to do. It’s for back crossovers, and as soon as she brought it up again, I remembered why it so easily slipped my mind. It’s hard!

The purpose is to increase power on the push you get out of the back outside edge. You stand still on two feet (trying not to panic), transfer your weight to the outside edge (inside foot), and then use all the power of that back outside edge bending and using the action of bringing the legs together to get the crossover going. If you’re really good at it, you can push all the way under to that nice inside edge with the leg fully extended.

Laurie got this exercise from Ben Agosto. I was going to entitle this blog entry “Curses, that Ben Agosto exercise!” but then after working on it for a few days, I decided it was actually not as bad as it seemed–or, at least, perhaps not as bad as some of the other exercises that I’m conveniently forgetting.

I’ve been getting a lot of exercises that I feel like I can’t really do at first. But I’m beginning to understand that the real trick to learning for me is to think not about whether or not I can do something, but rather in terms of what physical movements need to happen while I’m doing it. These exercises are getting at the heart of what I need to improve.

I am getting much better about recognizing how to line myself up properly and how to keep my body moving through an edge using mainly my hips, knees, ankles, and feet. I am still working really hard at getting these proper alignment and movement habits ingrained. It has taken me what feels like forever to get even a neutral hip position, especially on the left side, and I still have to think about it constantly. If I don’t have my hips in the proper position, I pitch my upper body forwards and then it’s game over.

Fortunately, this is much better than it used to be. Off-ice, my power body balance and strength has improved on both sides, and I am getting more flexibility in that right ankle. This week on the ice I have been working a lot on making sure my ankles press forward (skating shin at an angle) and keeping my feet engaged, which helps too.

It’s amazing how much of my hard skating work is mental work. It is not just about pushing hard–it is as much a matter of releasing those muscles that have been pulling me off my edges or stopping me completely. One of the things that I’ve been told recently is that I keep stopping myself from using the natural rotation that occurs in skating. This often happens on turns. But if I respond by going at warp factor seven (or thereabouts), I just kind of knock myself over.

Instead, what works better is if I think about how different joints are moving using gravity and the fact that figure skating blades are designed so that they curve naturally. The motion should just happen if you do it properly. No grunting needed.

My younger son recently got his driver’s license. He and I were having a nice relaxed chat, and he told me that sometimes when he driving our manual-transmission car and takes his foot off the brake, it starts to roll forward while in neutral. He claims it does this even when he is going uphill. I told him to be careful (trying not to hyperventilate visibly).

After I checking on him several times to make sure he had gotten safely to his destinations, I started to think about how this might work in skating. I should just be able to get myself rolling if I don’t put on the brakes!

Mainly, I have been concentrating on my femur head and its motion in the hip joint. I sometimes literally picture this joint in motion as I move through turns (one of the dangers of having watched a number of animated tutorials on how the hip join works).

A much more fun way to think about it is if I think about my skating leg a kind of a butter knife, with the top of the femur as the blade part. Then as I move around an edge, the action is like I’m spreading butter through the joint. I try for a nice, even, smooth motion, with just a slight rotation so that the femur/knife moves the joint to an open position. No sudden moves, or butter gets everywhere!


I have more to share, including a poem, but will put that in another post. Here’s a lovely tango by Isaac Albéniz (full name: Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual). Albéniz was a pianist and child prodigy, so it seems fitting to have this played by another musician who started his career at a very tender age, Benjamin Grosvenor.

Lesson notes:

  • back crossovers: (1) bend knees and ankles to get effective cross; (2) “Ben Agosto exercise”; (3) fully extend on underpass; (4) shoulders relaxed
  • check outside back left hip position: make sure hips are not rotated too far to outside of circle (this will make your right ankle flex)
  • three power pulls starting with outside, inside mohawk, rotate and repeat on other side: keep free leg extended on power pulls, use shoulders to properly check power pulls, not to create curve. This should develop ankle, knee, hip connection as well as how to maintain the curve and use rotation.
  • same exercise with inside three turns. Ack!
  • cross stroke, tuck behind (outside arm in front), inside choctaw, back cross stroke, repeat on other side: make sure you are rotated through the core before the choctaw.



Strategic amnesia

So this past week I had two awesome lessons. Again!

How many is that? I have lost count. But it’s like birthdays, who’s counting anyways?

What counts is the total awesomeness of the lesson. Laurie noticed that I seemed to be locking or jamming my hips. She told me to think of the femur as rotating ever-so-slightly in the direction of the edge. Sharp intake of breath! (No, that’s excitement, not a coronary about to happen.)

Ari noticed that I never really straighten my knees. He had me work on engaging my quad muscles because, well, that’s what straightens the knee (duh). I have to do this on my skating side as well as my free side. It seems remarkable that I can’t do this yet on both sides at once; when I focus on my free side, I seem to forget about the skating side, and vice versa.

“It’s just like the American Waltz,” Ari said, trying to be helpful. Of course, I have repressed all memories of how to do the American Waltz, just as I have relegated the European Waltz to the category of Things That I Have Done in My Past That I would Really Rather Not Remember (shortened version: The horror! The horror!)

But back to positive thinking. Laurie told me not to keep dwelling on how I’ve been doing things wrong. If I can manage that, it helps free up some brain space so I can concentrate on my rotating femur and engaging both my quads.

Wow, I feel really tall now. And my edges feel really much more natural.

So the question is whether I can remember these positive developments, even while I try to forget some of my old bad habits. As awesome as all these new things are, I wonder if I’ll remember how to do them the next time I’m on the ice.

To do: head up, lats down, core engaged, lean in circle, create “space” in hips, femurs rotate slightly, ankles flex, legs straight (when doing the American Waltz and other straighten-the-leg challenges).

Not to do: look at ice, raise shoulders, hips go back, weight falls out of circle, femurs locked in hip joint, stiff ankles, legs sorta bent.

What was it that Hamlet’s dad–yeah, the ghost–said?

Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me!

(Hey, I just had the best idea for Halloween…)

If this list doesn’t help, I’ll use sticky notes!

  • inside edges with natural, femur-rotating movement
  • progressives with natural, femur-rotating movement (and no undue upper body rotation)
  • swing rolls with natural, femur-rotating movement
  • three turns with natural, femur-rotating movement
  • forward outside three turn, edge pull, rise to straight knee (still on inside edge). Don’t forget about the quads.
  • same thing, only from forward inside mohawk. Don’t forget about the quads.
  • forward inside three turn, edge pull, rise to straight knee (still on outside edge). Quads.
  • Outside-outside mohawks, stay on circle, practice bringing free leg in on a diagonal to instep. On left outside entry, imagine an obtuse rather than acute angle of leg to hipbone.





Get a grip!

So Laurie noticed two things on my lesson last week that I need to work on. One came up with counter-clockwise back chassés.  I don’t engage my foot when I push backwards off the inside edge, which means that I lose out on force and stability.  I was dutifully rising and bending on the inside edge, but that was a deceptive feeling, since I basically just used the rise to flatten out that edge.

Once she told me to “get a grip” with my pushing foot, it got much better. At least it did on my left side, where my foot and ankle are nice and strong now. (On my right side, I am still struggling to push correctly, which entails pointing my foot and stretching that oh-still-so-stiff ankle.)

The other problem was that I was still was having trouble keeping my hips in place while transferring from right to left. We worked for a while on just pushing onto a forward outside edge. First we dissected the inside edge push on the right side (which turned out to have a similar need to “get a grip,” and not allowing the edge to come around enough). And then we turned our attention to that left outside edge, in which my hip and the rest of my body was still strangely contorted.

It’s testimony to how contorted it was that I don’t even know how to explain what I was doing (though it’s sorta like having my left hip always ahead and above my right). Instead I will just think about what Laurie said, which is to imagine my left skating hip as being slightly below my right, both on the inside (pushing) edge and on the new edge. This allowed the lean to happen through the hips rather than through the upper body. Another way of thinking about it is that the hips pretty much just stay right next to one another, though because of the lean it feels like one hip is slightly below the other.

For all that I think am improving–feeling like everything is getting better in terms of holding an edge and keeping my hips in place–it’s a bit alarming how all these momentary lapses (a.k.a. “flats” or “hips out of whack”) keep coming back to haunt me.

It’s like the Ghost of Skating Errors Past! But like all ghosts, it means that something hasn’t been resolved.

Back to the drawing board! Luckily I can work on these two things ad nauseam. I’ve even been standing by my desk shifting my weight from one side to another, trying to figure out how the different muscles work. There is something so basic about this that I’m just starting to figure out. I have a whole different set of sore muscles (right glutes, now!)

I would love to end this entry with more than just a note about my sore muscles, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do before the weekend comes to a close (sigh!)

Oh, I know. I’ll post food pictures from the past week!


And a link to “The Nightingale,” which is part of Otto Respighi’s “The Birds” (a set of pieces written from 1928, based on the works of composers from the 17th and 18th centuries, and imitating the sounds of different birds). Enjoy!

Here are some lesson notes, since it will be a while before I can do more than just get a grip.

  • inside edge, pull change to outside, cross stroke to repeat on other side.
  • three forward cross strokes, deep outside edge with free foot in, outside three turn with skating arm in front. Use foot action to turn, rather than twisting upper body.
  • inside edge, cross behind to outside edge, cross stroke to another outside.



I’ll take an edge pull with that, please

This post has been sitting here for a week with just two words in it, and now I’ve deleted those two words (which were “the ilium”). I was intending to write about the iliac crest (or top part of the hipbone) and how femur bone moves in the hip joint one way and then another. But then I realized that I didn’t fully understand the anatomical issues that I was trying to write about and then I had lessons this week and gave up the idea entirely.

Thank goodness. One of the things I learned this week was that I wasn’t really keeping my skating hip over my skate. I thought I was, until Ari pointed out that I was confusing my hips with my stomach. Don’t laugh–they’re not that far apart! But in skating terms, they are worlds away from each other.

So even if I had a great theory about how the hips work, it would be a moot point. Instead of theories, I’ll just write about fixes, like the following:

  • Glue your free legs together. I’ve been doing forward three turns with a little glitch in them. The glitch happens when I bring my free leg in and rise for the three; as I turn, I momentarily separate my legs, or even just my feet, and then bring them together for the turn. Laurie has me bringing my free leg in and then acting as though they are glued together; this forces me to use only the skating side to initiate and turn.
  • Turn your free foot out. Forward inside edges. Back outside edges. Back outside three (which is a back outside edge + a forward inside edge). Do you sense a pattern here?
  • Free side travels far. This is on back inside three turns, which I have only been able to do with my free foot behind the skating foot.  I’ve been trying to do these with the free foot extended in front, which means that the free side has to move around the skating side.
  • Where does your weight fall? Skating forward: weight in front of heel. Skating backwards: weight in back of the ball of the foot.

Time to put this post out there. Got to work on distinguishing my hips from my stomach. Oh, and on all those ##$%@!!! edge pulls that Ari gave me. I swear, this week’s lesson with him felt like one edge pull after another. Here we go with these exercises (the sanitized version, with profanities removed).

  • Outside closed Mohawk, two edge pulls, step forward on outside, repeat.
  • Creepers with added edge pull after back outside three (don’t forward to turn foot out on inside edge).
  • Forward outside three, push to back outside three, inside edge pull, stroke to forward inside three (free leg stays extended), cross front, back inside three, edge pull (skating hip under!) swing.
  • Inside mohawk back inside three, edge pull, swing.

Here’s a song entitled “Patience” by the late, great George Michael.



So skating went on hold for a week while I was in Oregon. One of the highlights was watching the eclipse, which was magical. We made it to the zone of totality, and had perfect weather. Hooray!

There are lots of better pictures available online, but I can’t resist sharing a few of my own. That’s sort of the idea of the blog, no? There are far better skaters out there whose ice-worthy efforts deserve more attention, but since it’s my blog, my own skating takes on epic proportions.

One thing I noticed from the eclipse is that even though the entire experience didn’t last very long, it felt like time slowed down on the way from light until dark and then back again. It’s probably because we were all so focused on the moment, really capturing every little change in light and temperature, rather than getting distracted by other things. It’s funny how long even a few minutes can be.

So time is relative, but it doesn’t take an eclipse to teach us that if we are figure skaters! Those free programs (or three patterns of a compulsory dance) can feel like an eternity.

What’s more, I find I skate my best when I am not just trying to get things over with. This is not about skating more slowly; I definitely need to move more quickly over the ice. It’s about making movements more deliberate, so that I make sure I engage the right muscles and don’t just drop or throw my body into things.

My theory is now that really good ice dancers must have that elongated and “floaty” look because they don’t rush the way their extensions come in. I don’t have a way of really measuring this, but it almost seems as though it takes as much time for the free leg to come in as it did to extend.

I tried this today, and it seemed to work well with the idea of the “dissolving” free leg that Laurie suggested last week. It was a bit hard to get focused on anything at today’s public session, though. My skates felt strange after a week off and I definitely needed to get my sea legs back. Plus the session was really crowded with lots of kids and clueless parents–one even carried a full cup of coffee around the rink until he spilled it by the boards, which made quite the mess.

Looking forward to working more on my eclipse-inspired elongated, floaty, and dissolving free legs later this week. In the meantime, I’ll share a lovely gift I got from a seven-year-old artist, David. The reverse sides of this wooden heart show day and night–or maybe an eclipse!



Delusions dissolve

So now my free legs are fully extended and my quads are fully engaged!  I am getting a solid push that sends me flying onto a new edge, which feels pretty awesome. It feels awesome, that is, until I release the extension to bring the free foot in. Then waaahh, all hell breaks lose.

Laurie pointed out that I was allowing the now-fully-extended free leg to come in with such force that it knocked me off my edge. She told me that I should think of the free leg “dissolving” into the skating leg. Wow, that made an incredible difference. I now feel like both legs are working together, and it’s way easier to maintain a good lean and keep the weight on the right part of my skating blade.

The new timing on my swing rolls and three turns is way different, and I don’t feel like parts of my body are getting whipped around at lightning speed. As a result, I don’t really feel like I’m actually doing all that much other than just making sure I am engaging those happy ankles.  I no longer have to work so hard to keep everything together.

But in an odd way, I sorta miss that wild free leg. I realized that swinging my free leg around gave me the illusion of power and force. Now my leg comes in so quietly that I can’t even tell how fast I’m going. And even though things have improved, I don’t have to work as hard. It feels strange!

One of the adjustments I’m just going to have to make is to persuade myself that I can accomplish way more with real technique than sheer force of will. I am so done with throwing my weight around!

The brute force method only takes you so far, but it’s a hard habit to break for someone like me.  I will just have to learn to swing something else other than my free side.Mace

I can’t believe that I have never included this trippy video for Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” on this blog. But it’s good timing for it, since it’s been a really rainy week and we can all use a little sunshine.

Lesson notes:

  • inside mohawk 3 step pattern: hips into the circle, use your lean.
  • back cross, change edge: think about direction you are heading, force into the ice for that change of edge.
  • inside mohawk, back outside 3: work on getting both pushes solid.
  • creepers (forward outside): don’t touch down
  • cross front, tuck behind, change edge, outside three: don’t get caught with weight outside circle
  • progressives: “dissolving” free leg
  • forward inside swing rolls: think about the turnout of the free foot on the end, and on the new edge
  • back inside swing rolls: adjust lower body, not upper body
  • feet together, shift weight, don’t compensate through upper body


My free leg is my friend

It is has been a rocky road on the way to my total skating makeover, but I’ve decided that constant criticism and self-deprecation are not the way to go. I haven’t really been yelling at myself, but that snarky little inner voice (“what the heck are you doing?”) has been pretty vocal lately, to the point that I can detect it even in my highly censored little Mary Sunshine blog.

Sarcasm? Me?

I have made some pretty important discoveries this year, like realizing that I need to work on my right ankle strength and mobility, or not popping my ribcage, or shifting that right side slightly more to the right (wow!). Every time I figure something new out, it’s like I have an entirely new body part to keep in mind–and to keep track of.

This has been both psychologically and physically exhausting.  I feel like every week I discover a new set of muscles that I haven’t been using. I am constantly sore in different places, and sometimes I’m so tired at the end of the day that I don’t know what to do.  I sit down to do some stretching and I think, just shoot me now and have done with it.

And then I start laughing, because this is really all my doing. I’m the one who wanted to learn how to skate correctly–not just barrel through different motions, but really learn how to do them. And this is exactly what it takes.

I can either accept this and embrace it for what it is, or I can turn and run full tilt towards another activity. Like. . . hmmmm. . . .

Okay, let me tell you about my great discovery this week, which happened while I was having a lesson on (surprise!) forward progressives in a circle. Laurie told me that I wasn’t engaging my quads as part of my extension, which meant that I wasn’t fully straightening my free leg and I wasn’t completing the push and I didn’t have the force of the extension to counter-balance the skating knee bend.  Which is quite a mouthful, but then again, this was quite the revelation.

I haven’t been thinking much about my free leg extension at all. In fact, if I had to sketch out who I thought the main character of my skating body drama was, it would definitely have been the skating leg.  Yes, the skating leg would dominate, and the free leg would just be the sidekick, just sort of hanging out at best or at worst just dangling there while the skating leg charmed or used its spidey-sense or kick-boxed its way out of any sticky situation.

But no more. Once I actively engaged the quad of the free leg, it became its own raison d’être. I realized that this was not just about getting an attractive extension, but about a fundamental principle of balance. Without the necessary muscle tension on the free side, there is nothing to counter the awesome force of the skating side.

So instead of sitting there inadequately stretching (I’ll do the stretching later) I look at pictures of ice dancers and think about how they are engaging the quads on their free legs. After all, as Laurie said, this not only looks better, but “it’s correct.”

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)

Awesome use of quads on free legs!

A few pictures later and the snarky voice is silenced by the joy of contemplating fabulous free legs! My free leg is my friend!

Lesson notes:

  • head and back position, “unflare” ribs rather than drawing them down
  • forward inside edges, draw free leg through without disrupting edge by tracing half circle; arms more neutral–don’t pull yourself forward by the arms and shoulders
  • back inside edges: squirrel tail towards boards, practice doing this with two feet evenly weighted in order to learn to do it without sticking your hip out
  • progressives: tighten quad on free leg to avoid leg kicking up
  • do same thing on push into three turn; arms more neutral; try to do a tighter circle and deeper edge (learn to use rotation rather than “steering” into it)
  • practice rising while maintaining ankle bend and weight forward on blade
  • practice keeping free leg straight (tighten quad and bend ankle)
  • exercise: straight down the rink, extend back (stretch knee forward), then rise up with feet together–hold tightly for several beats