jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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.


Stop action

So happy for my skating friend Joe who just got back from Adult Nationals 2017. It was his very first competition and he got a gold medal in his event! Hooray, hooray!

Here’s my selfie with the AN 2017 Men’s Bronze 1&2 Gold Medallist.


Joe the Champ!

I have been just getting back into the groove myself after taking some time off for a work-related trip. Always good to take a break, even if it means my skates feel very strange when I put them back on.

Another thing that I realize is how quickly I lose those skating muscles even if I am doing off-ice exercises and using that hotel gym. My hips and glutes are sore today! It might be because I’ve had a couple of lessons that really focused on body positions and actions that are particular to skating. It’s hard to work on this properly off the ice.

I have three of these ideas that I’m excited to work on in the coming weeks. The first is to keep my hips in a more neutral position so that my knee and ankle bend happens more easily and I stay on the optimal part of my blade. I’ve been working on this in power pulls, and it really makes a difference in how much I can control the blade.

The second idea is to focus on my skating side being more mobile, and to reduce the amount of swinging or flinging that happens on my free side. This is particularly necessary on my back pushes and edge pulls. Instead of just turning out my heel and pushing, it’s like the Highland Fling takes over. Not efficient and not safe.

The third and titular idea is to stop the “stop action” skating that I’ve been doing. This means all the little pauses and sub-curves that happen because I don’t transfer my weight, maintain my lean correctly, or trust my edge. Chickens came home to roost today when Ari gave me a new exercise: back edge pull, change edge into a double three (back inside, forward outside).  I kept getting stalled out before the double three. The problem was my back inside edge; I wasn’t really on an edge and thus couldn’t turn my body in the correct direction to continue the rotational energy.

Some of this “stop action” has to do with the “imposter edges” that I have relied on: when I am not actually on an edge, but just sort of perched precariously over my skate. I eventually get on an edge, but not immediately, and by then it’s too late. So my skating feels (and probably looks) like there’s little pauses everywhere, moments when I stop moving and just sort of hang there.

Not a great thing for flow. And flow, as you know, makes us go. Especially when our names are Jo(e).

Lesson notes:

  • power pulls (settle into neutral position, don’t clench thighs).
  • outside 3 back inside 3 (don’t let hips come around to far, isolate push, turn foot out and push to send weight back; don’t push around).
  • cross strokes (leave some ankle bend in reserve for after you’ve brought your foot in, then push under and get a full extension by pushing your foot away).
  • back power pull into double 3 (back inside 3, forward outside 3).
  • just try double threes if this is too frustrating!
  • three step mohawk pattern outside-outside and inside-inside (strong positions, get on an edge right away, more speed, placement of new lobe is not diagonal).
  • inside mohawk, back outside three (placement along circle, check inside edge).


Bone skates, anyone?

A poem by Jane McKie, “Viking Horse-bone Ice Skates“:
The horse won’t know how its metatarsal
can be whittled by friction with the lake,
how the act of skating is part halting
glide, part planer blade; or how thick ice melts
back to health, its grooves, its scuffed ‘v’s, softening
to fill their own wounds. And the horse won’t know 
how the skating boy, who opens his mouth
as he flies, will lose three blunt teeth, two milk,
one new; how these teeth, also, will be found.

From Kitsune (Blaenau Ffestiniog:  Cinnamon Press, 2015)


This photo is of a pair of bone skates that were discovered in Dublin 11th/12th century AD. There is also an interesting webpage out there about Viking-age ice skates, complete with photos of the brave author who tried to reconstruct and actually skate on a pair of these.

Thankfully my skates, however old, are not made of bone and there is no loss of teeth to report here! I have had enough challenges on my relatively high-tech Reidell-MK combo.

Since I don’t have equipment issues to contend with, I have to up the ante a bit. I been trying to make myself work more on things that are out of my current comfort zone. This week, this has mainly entailed skating with my arms in different positions. Laurie has me doing progressives with my arms in fifth position: up over my head, and with my thumbs touching. This makes me much more aware of how used I am to leaning slightly forward and have my shoulders raised. Similarly, I have been doing back outside edge push backs with arms in first position, thumbs touching; again, this makes me realize how much my shoulder and torso have been distorted.

Since my edges are getting stronger, I have also been trying to work on getting better positions in and out of turns. I tend to flatten out edges just before I turn (don’t know why, since it makes the turn much harder).

Still hard at work, but at least my blades are nice and sharp (got them done last week) and made of metal, not bone!

Lesson notes:

  • progressives with arms raised in fifth. Head lifted too. No bobbing!
  • push back with arms in first. Watch that you are not setting down your left foot too far forward.
  • inside edges and forward inside threes. Be really clear about the edge and starting arm positions. Control rotation.
  • mohawk push back, back outside three. No delay on second edge of mohawk.
  • alternating back crossover, change edge. On back inside edge, turn in free leg (top of thigh turns in). Knee action to gain speed on the change of edge.
  • back to front choctaw, counter. Don’t change over and do a three turn instead of a counter.
  • swing roll with edge pull, change edge to quick mohawk step forward. Keep lean into circle, especially on right side.


Imposter edges and rogue free legs

Although I didn’t do much skating as a child, I have been working on skating for what seems like many years now. So it’s been a particularly humbling process to find that my edges, which feel so deep and heroic, are actually at times imposters: postures that pretend to be edges, but are really just accidents waiting to happen.

Similarly, my free leg sometimes makes me feel like there is a certain unpredictability to how a particular move is going to go. I can be all set up nicely for that turn or swing, and BOOM! Here comes the free leg out of nowhere, careening in an entirely different plane of existence, and pulling me off balance.

So I have two interrelated theories about why these imposter edges and rogue free legs have made my skating life into some kind of crazy spy novel. And however scary it is to imagine that I have been skating with imposters and rogues for this long, it is relief to realize that I can turn this story around just by realizing what’s going on.

So the imposter edge tends to happen when I think about balancing in a position rather than moving through an actual edge. I’ve been fixated on holding my body in a certain way and not thinking enough about how to move my body through different positions. One example might be on my forward inside, back outside choctaws (like in the Kilian). Here’s a picture of a novice Russian team doing this edge.


Maria Marchenko and Egor Pozdniakov in 2015

I have been fixated on getting a strong inside edge, which for me meant really cranking on that left ankle and foot and using a lot of left knee bend. Then on my lesson last week Ari pointed out that on that inside edge I am not allowing my body to rotate into the circle.

I believe that this is what we would call fighting the edge, right?

Doing a real edge entails not only bringing my left arm in front and around, but also allowing my lower body (yes, hips, too) to come around the inside edge. I practiced this last night and yes, this works much better. The real edge felt more shallow than the imposter, but it worked much better to get in and out of the turn.

So I think there is a key point here to be made about allowing my hips and upper body to move rather than locking them in place. This brings me to my second theory, which is about how I might have developed some less-than-constructive patterns  bad habits with my free leg. This is most apparent with my left forward outside three turns.

First, an apology for going back to my well-worn topic of these three turns. I honestly thought I had fixed them, since they do feel a lot better. But at my last lesson Laurie pointed out that I still was using my free (right) side to pull the turn around, even though I did it so stealthily that only catching me on video could prove the crime. (Okay, it wasn’t stealthy to her, since I couldn’t really keep my feet together and do the turn.)

The little rogue movement of using the free leg to pull around or touch down means that I am not using the correct skating side action. The rogue free leg means well; it’s like giving the weaker side an assist (like touching down, which I also do). But it also doesn’t allow the mobility and muscle action of the skating side to develop properly, which means that I’m not ever going to progress farther on these moves. I can get around, but I can’t actually do the turn. And there is a difference.

So the goal is to find and banish the imposters and rouges, which I suspect are hiding in plain sight!!! I won’t need a trench coat for this one.

On another note, I am enjoying seeing so many of my fellow adult skaters getting ready for Adult Nationals. The guys were out in full force earlier this week!

Who can resist this 1982 classic by the Weather Girls, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead? Hallejulah!

Some additional notes on posture:

  • outside edges, experiment with where your torso is; trying turning navel 30 degrees out of the circle.
  • back inside edge (don’t turn free leg in, turn it out)
  • back outside edges, let skating side dictate where the edge goes, not the free side.



A marked woman

It’s been a crazy busy body week. Friday I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a massage. My shoulders were so tight that my massage therapist suggested that I try cupping. So now I have these marks on my back that make me look like Michael Phelps going for yet another Olympic medal. Well, not really, but maybe it will make me better at a different kind of freestyle! Not that I have any plans to get back to jumping, but you never know. . . .


Thursday I had a session with PT Sarah. We checked my hip joints and she said that I still have some frontal plane issues in which the left side doesn’t quite go fully back and the right doesn’t go front. Still working on that! But most of our time was spent on the issues with my right ankle and foot.

I have been trying to get more dorsiflexion on my right side, and things have improved to where I can actually do what Chad Walding calls “womb squats” without feeling like I’m going to fall over. But this past week I’ve had some pain in my right heel. Sarah said that as I am getting more range of motion (ROM), I need to strengthen some of the foot muscles that will help me with these movements. Sarah did some mobilization of my ankle, and the heel pain magically went away. How good is that!

We talked about the way my heel bone, the calcaneus, works with the other bones of the foot and ankle, such as the talus, which I have written about before.calcaneus

Now I am trying to be mindful of my calcaneus as well. Sarah had me doing foot circles while thinking about the calcaneus rotating around, rather than just swirling my foot at the ankle. This was really effective, and I have been doing these at home. I still have some trouble mobilizing the right side, but the heel pain has disappeared. Equally satisfying were her suggestions that I try calf raises with knees bent. This got rid of that horrible ratchet wrench noise that my right ankle makes when I point my foot and/or raise my heel.

I have been thinking about my left calcaneus as well, especially when I’m on the ice. On my left side, I have this tendency to put my weight forward toward the ball of the foot. Even as my positions are generally better, I still sometimes do this. But if I think about putting a little more pressure on the calcaneus, it really helps correct this tendency.

So a little more attention to my friend the calcaneus adds stability to both sides. I particularly like this because it’s not really about leaning back on my heels, which is a risky business with dance blades; it’s more about distributing pressure through the back part of my foot.

I’m skating through, nothing to lose
Spiral away, spiral away
Thinking hard, it fills my brain
Spiral away, spiral away
Put me down and I won’t fall
I am calcaneus!
Put me down and I won’t fall.
I am calcaneus!

PT exercises:

  • Foot circles. Mobilize the heel as you do the circles.
  • Calf raises with bent knees. Variations are (1) bend, raise, straighten knees with heels raised, lower; and (2) reverse: raise, knee bend, lower.
  • Stretch 1: on side (frontal plane mobility for right)
  • Stretch 2: feet hip distance apart or wider, shift weight to left side and bend left knee, press through “inside edge” of right foot to feel activation of left inner thighs and glute, and stretch of left hip.
  • Quad exercise. Lying on bed with one leg down, raise other leg to tabletop and straighten.

Skating lesson notes:

  • Forward outside, change edge, push (skating side lead, body opens  slightly outside circle, don’t pull shoulders back).
  • Outside three turns: keep the lean continuous into the three (don’t hook the edge).
  • Push onto back outside edge: make sure you are on an actual edge.
  • Loops: start with free arm in front, make tighter circles, work on change of body/arm position in second part of loop.
  • Back to front choctaws: step behind in that Ina Bauer position, really turn body and head into the circle on the inside edge, skating arm lead, get more speed.
  • Kilian choctaws (both directions): hold inside edge in (really turn body and head into circle on inside edge), bend into outside edge, new skating knee has to bend so that your body stays in back of the new edge. Hold the back outside edge (head looks back, skating arm in front of sternum, point fingers in correct direction, free leg turned out).
  • Alternating sequence of inside mohawk, push back, back outside three. Position these so you can do a long strong inside edge after the three: the mohawk and three head toward boards, and the three happens before the top of circle. On left side, the mohawk and push back need to happen quicker; remember that the inside edge is just a touch down.
  • Inside three, step forward, cross (get the underpush here), repeat other side (speed, lean).

Bright spot of the week: Ari said my left inside threes were so much better (“Awesome!”)


66 days

That’s how long James Clear in an essay for the Huffington Post says that it takes to form a new habit. Some folks say 21, but this article looks at research that says that on average it is 66, depending on the person, the activity, and the circumstances.

I was curious about this because it feels like I am moving into a new phase of skating, one in which I am (surprise!) actually doing some things right much of the time. My body is aligned, my hips are under me, I am bending and pushing correctly, I keep the proper lean into the circle (heck, I am actually making a circle), and I am on edges. Who would have thought? I still have to think hard about doing things correctly, and stop myself when I revert to old habits (usually when I’m tired or not concentrating). But this is way better than it was.

One of the nice things about keeping this blog is that in reading past entries, I can tell that my proprioception and muscle control have improved a lot. I credit both of my coaches as well as PT Sarah with figuring out which muscles weren’t activating. I can actually feel where I am over my skates, and though I don’t always get to the right positions immediately, I can usually fix things by lifting more through the hips or bending my ankles and pressing through my feet.

Here are some of the things I’d like to make a habit of by May 19:

  1. Skating with a good lean. This doesn’t just happen through putting my foot down and hoping I will be in the right place; I have to make it happen by putting my body weight into the circle. Maybe I could think of this as “skating assertiveness training.”
  2. Sending my energy through my skating thigh bone. Maybe if I do this, I’ll have thighs like the pros. (Was thinking of writing a song, “Meryl Davis thighs” to the tune of Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes” but then seeing the weird costumes and proudly synthetic fabrics of her video reminded me of how strange this all is, and I had to stop–thankfully for you all.)
  3. Rotating my trunk appropriately so that  I am balanced correctly (see my last post for details).
  4. Knowing when to rotate the thigh internally. This is especially true of the free leg thing on back inside edges.
  5. Achieving optimum head position. Lifted, looking in the right direction.
  6. Bending, pushing, stretching for continuous flow. This one has been a tough one for me, not just because I am somewhat lazy (me break a sweat?) but also because I have never felt quite confidently balanced enough to keep from checking my flow. But I think a big difference is having more ankle and foot mobility as well as improved items 1-5 above.

So the 66 day challenge begins. Here to wish me luck are good skating friends, and two dogs (who belong to my son’s music teacher), who remind me of what I have to look forward to after a vigorous session of continuous skating flow!

Lesson notes:

  • Exercise: inside mohawk, back change edge, back-to-front choctaw. Lean toward new leg on back inside edge, turn in free leg on inside edge (rotate legs in hip sockets), generate speed with back edge pull, push on all strokes,
  • Exercise: chasse, syncopate, cross cross, outside edge, repeat. Maintain lean.
  • Exercise: mohawk, push back, inside three. Pull, pull, pull! Opposite arm on inside edge coming out of three (face outside circle).
  • European threes. No delay before the three, entry edge, arm/torso rotation, and lean should deepen edge automatically. Straighten legs; thighs touch before anything else does. Make sure the correct arm is in front sooner. Don’t forget the ankle bend and push on the back inside edge after the three.
  • Outside outside open mohawks (Viennese). Do real edges throughout; don’t let the free foot coming in to pull you out of your lean. Face where you are going, and don’t allow the free side to head backwards after turn.

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”–Arthur Ashe


Beyond the plane

Brace yourself, another thought is coming.

I have been trying to get my head around another concept from my last lesson with Laurie, which again started with swing rolls but then became another more general mind-blowing revelation about what I am not doing correctly: using my entire body to maintain my lean into the circle.

Now, I am certain that I have been called out on this before, but sometimes these revelations block out any inkling that I have been forewarned. It’s like when the dementors finally do appear in Harry Potter–yes, we knew they were out there, but life was just so normal that we thought we were okay. And then, gasp, scream, there they are and you have to deal with them with special chocolate and such.

Okay, not that bad. There are far more things in this world deserving of “Expecto Patronum!” these days! Maintaining the lean simply takes some adjustment of my upper body, particularly the head. I need to get used to turning my head and the rest of my body properly as I move over the skate. This means that the head and the upper torso do not necessarily stay in the same plane as the skating leg.

On swing rolls, Laurie had me move my head to where it felt like it was waaaay inside the circle. I also have to keep my skating arm right ahead of my skate (if I were to drop a glove, I would run it over). When I did this, it was immediately easier to maintain my lean and flow. I did not have to struggle to pull my body over my edge; it simply was there.

We did the same thing on back swing rolls, forward chassés, and forward outside threes. So much better!

I may get these basics yet, especially if I procrastinate as I have been, drawing imaginary lines mapping out the body planes of beloved ice dancers. Much more fun, though, than drawing (shudder. . .) dementors. Just in case any dark thoughts persist, I added in this superhuman picture of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon as a charm. I can’t even imagine how this lift works.