jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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Dead or alive?

There’s been some really interesting research done on how flamingos can stand for so long without falling over. The New York Times article I read described how even dead flamingo bodies can be easily balanced on one leg.

Rather than flopping over as expected, the bird settled into a stable, one-legged posture that stayed put even when the top of its body was tilted backward and forward. On two legs, or if the foot was not right below the body, the cadaver was far less stable.

Live flamingos can balance on one leg even when they are falling asleep. Humans, on the other hand, have a hard time balancing on one leg when they close their eyes.  That’s because we sense instability and react by contracting our muscles (believe me, I’ve been there). Flamingos, though, take a passive approach, relying on body mechanics and gravity rather than on muscles and nerves.

By the way, this article is well worth viewing just for the picture of the adorable and thankfully very much alive baby flamingo, who is standing on one leg looking like he just completed his warmup circuit on the ice and is presenting himself to the judges.

Just put a pair of skates on him, and there you go.

I, on the other hand, have trouble standing on one leg even though I am very much alive. Both my coaches keep repeating the same things. “Don’t touch down.” “Don’t put your free foot down.” “If you put your free foot down, the edge doesn’t count.”

I keep waiting for one of them to break and say, “If you put your foot down one more time, I will kill you.” But they are professionals, and would not resort to that kind of threat. I hope.

And it probably wouldn’t work even if they did. If I can’t do it when I’m alive, being dead certainly won’t help. No, since I’m not a flamingo, I have to think of something else.

So today I was trying to put together a lot of different pieces of advice about how to improve edge quality. This has to do with being aligned over my skate, bending my ankle and knee, being on the right part of the blade, using my foot, keeping my body into the circle, pushing and pressing and bending and continuing to do so through turns and transitions. And I realized that I needed to come up with a simpler way to integrate all of these things.

So I just told myself that I wanted to have “live” edges, whatever I was doing. A “live” edge is one that is actively engaged and into the ice throughout its duration. A “dead” one, on the other hand, just sort of hangs there skimming over the surface.  It may be balanced on one leg, but it doesn’t do anything.

And what do you know? That seems to work for me. It makes my edges feel more dynamic and controlled. I have more flow in and out of turns. I can do those power pull-type pushes more often. I am less inclined to touch down. Hopefully this will eliminate any need for threats.

Not to belabor the point, but the flamingo just has to stand there, and I have to skate. I just have to!

Nice to know that I’m wanted, dead or alive. (Saw that coming, didn’t you?)


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I hear voices

How can it be mid-June already? Wow, it has been quite a while since I have posted here. I had to go back and re-read my last entry just to remind myself what I wrote there.

No real excuses–I haven’t left the country, or done anything really exciting. And I am still skating, so it’s not like I have nothing to write about. But as they say, life gets in the way. Family events (son graduating from high school, yay!) Yard work (weeds, boo!) Work projects (hiss!) Gorgeous weather that makes it hard to stay inside (double yay!)

Thankfully the rinks around here remain open, though hours have been cut back and I have to drive around more in search of ice time. Some of my regular sessions have been quite busy, since all the avid skaters are doing the same thing. Last week I was witness to one terrible collision between an adult ice dancer and an adult free skater. Thankfully no serious injuries, but scary. Still, I did find the occasional session that turned out like this:

That’s right, empty ice. Okay, so it didn’t last and soon I was joined by several families with small children. But for the first twenty minutes I was queen of the rink.

So what have I been doing on that empty and not-so-empty ice? Same old, same old. I keep thinking that I should get bored soon, spending so much time on basic things, but in fact maybe the opposite is (too) true. I feel alarmed when I can’t spend the first half hour doing progressives and chassés and back crossovers. Sometimes I come back to those things at the end of the session as well.

Maybe I am too easily amused, but I actually find lots of things to work on while I am doing those basic things. And I talk to myself (not out loud, and I don’t let my lips move, so as not to creep out the toddlers). Sometimes that voice sounds like Ari; sometimes it sounds like Laurie; sometimes it sounds like Justin Bieber (not really, but that song is catchy!) Here’s what I say:

  • Bend your ankles (keep pressure into the ball of your foot, and into those laces). Let gravity help you.
  • Where is your hip joint? Oh, there it is!
  • Really use that inside edge for the push.
  • Underpush means your skating hip draws back underneath you.
  • Don’t pitch forward. Don’t contract your core for those turns.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am going crazy, but who cares? I’m happy, so it’s all good. And when I get tired of talking to myself, there are other friendly folks to talk to. Sometimes we even wear stripes together.

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Jo and Sonia in all our striped glory!

Lesson notes:

  • back crossover: bend further into the push, lower pushing hip, don’t transfer too early
  • forward outside edges: shins pulled forward as if with a stretchy band
  • always move hips over your engaged ankles (don’t release back)
  • back push, turn foot out, short push from heel, activate quad
  • outside edges strike down with foot angled in
  • outside three: strong transfer with ribcage over into circle, rise (don’t lose hips) into one big skating leg, feet parallel if need be
  • bend ankles
  • exercise: three crosses, then hold strong edge in circle with free leg strongly extended and turned out. Forwards and backwards.
  • inside and outside mohawks: don’t contract core (or break at hips), think elongated skating hip, look and lean in direction of free leg
  • try this sequence: inside mohawk, step forward, outside mohawk.

 

 


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Positive energy

Over the last week I have been weeding my garden. All that rain last week made it seem like a jungle out there. I spent most of yesterday and this morning wrestling with patches of dirt that want desperately to revert back to prairie grass. (I know, I should just let it go, but it gives me the illusion of control.)

This evening I opted out of watching The Matrix again and instead thought I’d get another couple of hours in the yard again. Here in Minnesota it stays light out for a long time in the summer. That, and the lack of mosquitoes, made it worthwhile to stay outside even though honestly I’m more than a little tired (and I still have a number of plants to put in and move around tomorrow).

But I’m happy to report that I finished getting most of the yard done while my sons and husband were upstairs watching Neo take the red pill. And just as I was dragging that third bag of weeds and leaves and sticks into the garage, I heard thunder, and boom, five minutes later it was pouring rain.

So here I am, all cleaned up and cozy and feeling both virtuous and lucky and listening to a very lovely version of Gabriel Fauré’s “Après un Rêve” transcribed for cello.

And to top it all off, I’ve had a really good few skating sessions to report on. Laurie pointed out that on my back pushes I wasn’t really positioned correctly over my skates. Instead of using the push to send my entire body back, I was sending my hips back–and you know what that means! (Skating gives new meaning to the expression “Butt out.”)

So we worked on trying to send the energy into my upper body instead. I am aiming for the opposite shoulder from the pushing foot. Here are some pictures to illustrate:

It worked so well that I have been trying to think about this with other pushes as well. It is making me way more conscious about what I am doing with my upper body, which admittedly has been quite vague at times.

All that positive energy has got to go somewhere!

 


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One size doesn’t fit all

So another adult skater asked me some time ago about my Transpack skate bag. I told her that I appreciated having my skates in those mesh pockets and separated from the inner compartment. While I wish there were some separate compartments for organizing and a bit more space for clothes and stuff, it’s fairly comfortable to carry around and I can even stick my laptop in there if I need to.

What I said must have convinced her, because she got one too. It’s also purple, but she was kind enough to put a ribbon on it so we could tell them apart. I took a picture of them together and noticed that hers is slightly thinner and taller. What’s with that?

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This got me thinking about how everyone’s journey to skating excellence–as well as the baggage they carry–is going to be different. In a week in which it rained every single day, and the temperatures have dropped back down into the forties, and I have to wear four layers of clothing at the rink (only two of which come off after warming up), that is important to remember.

It was also a week in which I wiped out several times doing fairly basic moves, and in which I just couldn’t seem to get over my edges. I still have what feels like a little glitch or delay after transferring my weight or doing turns. I am working on trying to feel connected and aligned more immediately when I change my position or shift my weight. Getting better, but it clearly is a multi-stage process, with lots of ups and downs.

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Hate the downs! Really hate them! But let’s have a little reflection. I know I am really good at reflection, even at time when I am not so good at skating. I could have avoided some of this frustration.

I can deal with being off balance and not feeling aligned.  I’ve been dealing with those things my entire skating life. But what I get worked up about is feeling like I don’t know what to do to make things better, when in fact I know very well what to do in order to improve. Two areas in particular that I didn’t follow through on: making sure I am sufficiently warmed up and doing my foot/ankle exercises.  This week I got really busy with some work projects, and rushed or neglected both my on- and off-ice warmups. I also spent way too much time hunched over my computer and stressing out about work.

This really made a difference in how skating felt. And if there’s anything that brings me down, it’s when work interferes with skating!

So hopefully this week will calm down a bit and I can report back on a happier ice time. In the meantime, it’s lesson notes!

  • inside threes (engage glutes and hamstrings, not quads; let upper body follow curve)
  • rising and sinking on progressives; really extend through that push (think about making the big “ice cream scoop”); work on really pushing on that right inside edge (go for the “c”)
  • Viennese mohawk, hold firm on that outside edge and bring new foot in (practice just this part); don’t push off with free leg too far behid
  • three step inside mohawk pattern
  • outside three, push back, back cross, back outside three, toe step and repeat (bend and push out of the three)
  • outside three, two back crosses, step forward into forward cross, repeat
  • forward inside three, back outside three (make sure you do an actual back outside edge, don’t rush to get into the rotation for the back three)
  • forwards and backwards perimeter stroking (think about the pattern)
  • inside mohawk, back outside three (really push onto that back outside edge)
  • forward inside three, back outside three (allow free leg to rotate open and then come behind)
  • European man’s pattern: skate through, not around the three.


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Starting from scratch

Thursday’s quiz: what do all these ice dancers have in common?

a. Gorgeous edges.
b. Gorgeous skating costumes.
c. Gorgeous partners.
d. Gorgeous flowing (or sculpted) locks.
e. Ankles that bend past 90 degrees.
f. All of the above.

So guess which of these answers I’m obsessed by these days?

I’ve been religiously doing my ankle mobility exercises and calf raises, doing ankle massage to reduce scar tissue, and dutifully allowing my ankles to bend and my shins to press forward whenever possible. The result is that I have realized that my lack of ankle mobility and my imposter edges are related.

When I bend my ankle more, my weight feels like it shifts forward towards the ball of my foot. That means (a) that I can actually apply pressure, or “press” into the ice, in order to deepen my edges, and (b) that instead of being back on my skate, my body is centered more towards the part of the blade that has more curve to it: not as far up as the “spin rocker” but farther up than I have been skating.

I feel like working on getting more ankle bend will lead to a win-win situation. This helps me feel more connection between my  blade and the rest of my body (including being able to push much more through my entire leg). I also feel like my turns happen more easily because I can deepen my edges by using my ankles rather than the rest of my body.

The challenge will be to maintain and ingrain these new habits of ankle-bending. I have been trying to make myself hyper-conscious of what I am doing. It’s like having to rebuild my entire skating repertoire from the ground up again.

So I’m starting from scratch–and not even doing a spin! Will report back with lesson notes and maybe an update on my flowing locks as well.


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Humiliation, skating style

I am still waiting for the moment when I can truly feel smug about skating. Oh, I have my occasional moments of major skating pride now and then. Sometimes I’m out there feeling pretty good about my edges, feeling like the flow is happening, feeling groovy. I can’t see my own face, but I imagine that some kind of insufferably self-satisfied expression passes across my otherwise blank or terrified visage.

But then reality strikes. There are basic things that I am still having trouble with! Argghhh! “This is why you take lessons,” said Ari when I told him that this week (initiated by the change of skates) has brought out everything I hate about my skating.

Excuse me, coach, I thought I was taking lessons so that I could feel smug someday.

Boy, was I wrong. Instead, I feel like a beginner nearly every time I have a lesson. The funny thing is that the more I realize that I am doing things wrong, the more I want to skate. Both Ari and Laurie have been giving me corrections, like the skinny ninja idea (gotta love that one!), that radically change the way different moves feel. So I’m going to spend some time here detailing how I am reworking basic moves and changing my posture and technique.

This is the skating equivalent of “Humiliation,” the party game played by literature professors that David Lodge describes in his academic satire, Changing Places (1975) in which “each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.” Writing down all these basic things I still can’t do correctly is rather humiliating, but heck, I can score all kinds of imaginary points just by admitting them.

 

The first few are rather big concepts, so I should get extra points.

NEUTRAL POSTURE. Both coaches are still trying to get me to skate without letting my hips go back and ribs pop forward (my anterior pelvic tilt mode).

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Ari suggested that I think about pointing my navel upward. He also suggested thinking about knee bend as controlled by the glutes and hamstrings, rather than the quads pushing forward. This helps (especially on outside-outside mohawks).

ANKLE BEND. Laurie noticed that I am not actually bending my ankles. This means that when I think I am bending my knees and try to stand up straight, I wind up sitting back on my skates in posterior pelvic tilt. But when I think about relaxing my ankles, I have a much better position on my blades overall. I will have to think (and write) more about this issue, but for now I’ll just record what she said: that if your ankles are flexed properly, you shouldn’t be able to look down and see your feet, just your thighs and knees.

USE UP THE ENTIRE LEG ON THE PUSH. This is another way of getting a full extension out of each push.

DON’T PUT THE NEW FOOT DOWN OR CHANGE YOUR EDGE PREMATURELY. I tend to be impatient about moving to the next edge before I’ve even finished what I’m doing. Just hold still and nobody gets hurt! (background music by Grace Jones)

Other lesson notes:

  • back outside-outside transitions (bring new foot in, change edge with new foot slightly in front, don’t let free side swing around to change lean)
  • back crossovers (posture and ankle bend; additional humiliation–I actually got leg cramps from doing these the other day!)
  • inside-inside mohawks (don’t let feet separate, posture, should feel like marching)
  • outside-outside (Viennese) mohawks (pattern on two count lobes, head and shoulders, look in the direction you are going on exit edge)
  • back progressives (engage left inside edge for push, changeover should happen quicker and with the blade, not by just moving upper body)
  • forward swing rolls (use the skinny ninja idea with the free leg, sneaking up behind and coming through narrowly; don’t change edge too early; maintain that edge!)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Skinny ninja

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

–Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Dynamic quality is the pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality, the source of all things, completely simple and always new.”

–Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

One of the things I love about skating is that there are these occasional moments when things just kind of click into place. I can be struggling in vain for what seems like (no, what really is!) years to get all my different body parts organized. And then one of my coaches will say something like “Bend your knee more” or “Don’t slouch forward” or “Lean into the circle” or (my favorite!) “Get on an actual edge.” Boom, the clouds part, and it’s skating epiphany time. Suddenly everything just sort of comes together.

So at yesterday’s lesson Laurie and I were working on forward outside three turns, and she told me to think about entering the three turn like a “skinny ninja.” What this means is that I have try to make my body as narrow as possible on the entering edge. The “ninja” part is that I can enter the edge efficiently, not presenting my body so broadly all over the place.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m like one of those big round targets slowly bobbing up and down at the shooting gallery. They are much easier to hit than the ‘skinny ninjas.'” “Precisely,” Laurie said. And then we both laughed, imagining the difference between skating like a stealthy skinny ninja and skating as if I were shaped like a bulls-eye or a duck or cow or clown face.

I wrote in an earlier post about Carlo Fassi’s description of doing figures as if one were in a plastic tube.  I think this is a similar idea, except there’s speed involved. The ninja moves narrowly and quickly in a poised and organized manner, not with free legs and arms dangling around like naughty bits.

So I tried to find some pictures of skinny ninjas and clown face targets, and I did find an entire web-based game that generated a whole page of skating ninjas. For the targets, nothing came up that was appropriate and not terrifying. (You would not believe the number of creepy clown images there are out there!)

So you’ll just have to take my word that skating like a skinny ninja is the way to go. There are a lot of friendly skaters who nod their heads politely when I tell them just that. But just wait until I start skating in my shinobi shōzoku!

Lesson notes:

  • Alternating back progressives. Work on back position (natural curve in spine), don’t initiate the change of edge with your shoulders and hips.
  • Back cross, change edge, push to cross in front. The power comes from (1) being low enough on your back inside edge so that you can push into the ice on the rise; (2) pushing under into the cross (work on these separately in crossovers); and (3) pulling into the change of edge.
  • Inside mohawks. Remember that the heel comes in first, and that you have to open both hips (from the back, not just turning out your feet); draw the new foot into position rather than thinking of transferring weight over (you have to be aligned correctly over your entry edge to do this).
  • Skinny ninja three turns. This idea works for a lot of things.