jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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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.

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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.

 


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Where did everybody go?

This summer’s skating sessions have been quite busy. Granted, I usually practice on public sessions. And it’s been a rather cold and rainy summer overall, which means taking kids to the pool (or around here, the many water parks) isn’t always an option. Even the figure skating sessions are usually busy too, with kids trying to take advantage of time off from school.

So imagine my surprise when I went to an open figure skating session last Thursday, and I was the only one there for the entire time. Yes, one and a quarter hours of just me. There wasn’t even music playing until the rink staff realized how quiet it was and put the radio on.

Just me and Adele singing her torch songs. Not that I don’t like Adele, but there is a limit to how much I can hear about love lost forever before I want to scream. (“He’s not worth it!” “Just pull yourself together already!”) As if there wasn’t enough to be depressed about these days.

After a while, though, I realized that having the rink to myself meant I could (a) pretty much tune out anything these days when I’m working on those edges; (b) actually practice without worrying about running into someone; and (c) skate consecutive patterns to my heart’s content.

I ran through my entire usual set of exercises and found I had nearly half the session left. So I added in some stuff that I haven’t worked on in a while. One of these things was starting patterns from a dead standstill. It’s always tempting for me to take a running start into everything; it’s definitely easier, especially on a crowded rink, when I can just cruise into moves rather than standing there in a T-position looking for a break in public session traffic.

When I used to test and compete, I had to make myself work on that initial push and acceleration, and it never felt particularly good. But in an empty rink, and with my newly honed pushing skills and dissolving free leg, starting felt much better–at least until I started trying to do it in reverse (clockwise).  Then I had to go back to breaking it down to figure out how to get myself moving.

Basically, I am still needing to do more to keep all the proper muscles engaged as I bend and push. As this is something I have written about at length in this blog, I’ll just say that the correct pressure through the foot, ankle bend, and glute/core/back activation all matter.

Whenever I go back to something basic, I also have that immediate reaction: “Wait, didn’t I already go over this?” I have to remind myself that drilling basics is necessary at every level. No, I’m not regressing or devolving, I’m perfecting! (Snort of laughter). If I need conformation, all I have to do is watch those many YouTube videos of speed skaters perfecting their form, just trying to get that little extra boost. It is isn’t something you can do just by changing your outfit (though some may try).

This was confirmed in my lesson, which really put the alignment issues into play. Here’s my notes.

  • forward progressives: work on glute/core stability on skating side to offset beautifully dissolving free leg.
  • exercise: hold outside edge, bring free leg precisely and quickly back and in, while engaging glutes/core on skating side so that hips don’t shift.
  • back chassés: think about angle of back push and new edge.
  • exercise: back chassés, but bring two feet together before pushing to learn where the proper set-down is for the new foot.
  • back push from inside edge: glutes/core and hip alignment.

So here’s to the new semester, off and running. Here’s the scherzo (third) movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings (op. 20) to get us in the mood. Busy, busy, busy!


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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


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Give me one more chance

Sometimes my skating lessons feel like marriage-counseling sessions. My latest one:

Laurie: Move your ribcage farther to the right, over and beyond your skating side.

Mind: You mean that I’m supposed to put my upper body over there? That feels wrong.

Body: How would you know? You should trust your coach. And it doesn’t feel right to me, the way you’ve done it for all those years. How about how feel?

Jo thinks she’s doing the ribcage-thing, but she’s not.

Laurie: Don’t stick your hip out instead. That’s exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do.

Body: That’s right, sticking your hip out is an old trick that you always play on me to make things feel balanced. But they never are.

Laurie: Try thinking about it like a matador’s cape that you’re waving over your skating side. Yes, that’s it.

Jo does it. OMG. Body weeps for joy.

Mind: I am so, so sorry. All those years and I never listened to you. I just kept skating, thinking everything was okay.

Awkward pause, as everyone concerned reflects on this momentous breakthrough.

Mind: I promise I will make it up to you! My ribcage will be better. Everything will be better. Can’t we just give it another try?

Okay, maybe that was a little too much. So here’s a song to bring this little drama to a close, Lake Street Dive’s sidewalk version of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back.”

And some pictures of folks who have my back. It takes a village! Or a Greek chorus!

Lesson notes:

  • progressives: inside hip leads, don’t crank shoulders around, just bring arm gently to front. Try holding inside edge: weight stays over the hip on the inside of the circle. When you go clockwise, make sure you are pushing back (not allowing your push to send you into the circle).
  • two edge pulls, push on inside edge to repeat on other side: keep free leg extended forward, don’t pull early, establish your edge-curve-circle first
  • inside “syncopate” with edge pull: use weight over inside hip to accentuate circle, do this with your ankle/knee bend, not upper body
  • three turn, edge pull: don’t twist into the circle after the three, instead, keep skating arm directly over inside edge. Turn out free leg–this is an edge pull, not a change of edge.
  • back outside edges: arms clasped in front, head in correct position; knee bends to counter stretch of free leg. Work on weak side.
  • back insides edges in “infinity” pattern: allow head and upper body to rotate; try thinking of the matador cape to really get your ribcage over the skating side.
  • back outside edges: correct upper body and head position
  • three turn: free leg energy goes in same direction as skating leg to eliminate separation after turn.


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Lower the bar

I just had one of the best skating sessions ever. It wasn’t because of having the rink to myself (lots of little kids EVERYWHERE!). It wasn’t because I felt particularly strong (left hip still stiff, left foot still twinges, right ankle, knee sore too). And it wasn’t because I landed that triple axel (SNORT! Almost choked on that one).

No, not even close. It was because I lowered the bar.

I’ve been lowering it for quite a while now. I think when I started this blog, I thought it would be a matter of just a few month of recovery from a foot injury, then I’d be back to working on compulsory dances. It’s now been, what, three years? Three years of working on basic turns and edges, stroking, progressives, and back crossovers. Three years of physical therapy appointments and off-ice re-training of what feels like every muscle, joint, and bone from the navel down.

No end in sight. As Elton John sings so memorably–and so many times–in “Rocket Man”: “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”

So my goals today?

  1. Get out there regularly.
  2. Basic positions: keep aligned through the hips, bend your ankles, and engage the feet.
  3. Remember that these positions are dynamic, not static. Move through them as smoothly and ergonomically as possible.
  4. Change up the moves once in a while so I don’t get too tired or lose focus on (2) and (3).
  5. Change the music so that I’m not listening to too many depressing songs about things taking a long long time.

And do you know what? I’m okay with this. I’ve mostly learned to be okay with it, just as I’ve learned that I’m supposed to move on an edge, not a flat (hello!). At my worst, I wish that I’d started this process earlier so that I’d be farther along in learning my way around my skating body. At best (and today was certainly up among the best), I let go of the wishful thinking and just focus on the basics of skating.

What’s been working pretty well is thinking about the movement of my joints while I’m skating. How do I make my hips, knees, ankles, feet do those motions smoothly?

Today I thought a lot about my feet and ankles, especially on the motion of my talus bone. I wrote a post about the talus some time ago, when I was having trouble with my left foot.

 

 

Today’s talus spotlight is on my right side. PT Sarah and I have been working to mobilize my right ankle (did a post on that side too), which has a lot of scar tissue and swelling from an old injury. Basically, my talus seemed to be stuck when I tried to flex my foot downward (as in pointing my toes). It is much more common for the talus motion to be limited in dorsiflexion, so I am a little bit strange in that way.

 

I will skip the gory details of Sarah trying to get me to where I could actually point my toes without a lot of cramping and a crackling, popping, crunching accompaniment as various tendons howled in agony. At least I didn’t cry. We’ll leave that for the skating lessons (just kidding, I don’t cry that much).

Instead, I will triumphantly say that I have much more mobility this week on the right side. Thank you, Sarah! I was also able to identify immediately what I was doing with my feet and ankle bones, and think about this while I skated. It is amazing how much easier skating moves are when you can actually use your ankles.

So here’s some notes about my off-ice exercises for my right ankle as well as skating for the week. Let me end with a triumphant song and totally trippy video from Elton John (just substitute “skating” for “standing” and you’ll get the idea).

Ankle exercises:

  • Stretch and mobilize big toe joint.
  • Point foot while thinking about creating more of a transverse arch. Then move toes up and down while keeping foot pointed.
  • Place foot on exercise ball, and use plantar flexion to move ball up and down the wall.
  • Practice walking through your big toes.

Skating:

  • Cross rolls with hands clasped in front so that you don’t use your shoulders at all.
  • Mohawk, back three. Work on continuous motion and pushing.
  • Swing roll, change edge, mohawk, back three, forward inside three, repeat on other side. Make the motion continuous.
  • Alternating chassés, hold the inside edge for almost a full circle before doing the final stroke. Work on hip position (flat front of skating hip) and leg extension.
  • Alternating progressives, and hold inside edge for a long time. Work on hip position (flat front of skating hip), leg extension and really good pushes.


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Leprechaun dance

Okay, so I can’t remember where I put my phone or whether I closed the garage door. (Luckily, there’s an app for that! Oh no, it’s on my phone!)

But today I heard a song on the car radio, Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” and immediately thought of a program by Yuka Sato in a professional competition. I remembered her nifty footwork sequence accelerating through the refrain.

I looked it up on YouTube, and it is from 1996! And she is wearing an adorable bubble-gum pink dress that goes perfectly with the infectious pop beat.

I also found a lovely program that she did this year to “Clair de Lune.” I am happy that she is still skating, and I really like the choreography that she uses here–especially that opening sequence of edges. That long back outside edge has filled me with new “edgy” ambition!

But enough about skating legends. How is my skating going? Well, it is less beautifully organized than Yuka Sato’s.  In fact, it is somewhat disorienting, kind of like that Donna Lewis music video (which I don’t recommend actually watching if you are prone to anxiety–just listen instead).

Overall, I think I am making progress. I am figuring out how to lean in the right direction. I am actually pushing under on some of my cross strokes and crossovers. And some of my mohawks actually have bunny ears. And I’m getting better at isolating my free leg from my skating leg. Laurie is having me practice what I’ve been calling the “leprechaun”: moving my free foot in and out of correct position without displacing my skating side.

irish-dancer-animated

Even better, I am mostly (though not 100%) pain-free! Still have some stiffness in the hips and occasional knee issues on the right. Oh, and let’s not forget that ongoing problem with my left foot and right ankle. And on and on. Will save that for another post when I’m not quite so bouncy and more organized.

Lesson notes:

  • back crossovers: arm positions less forced, more into circle
  • backwards perimeter stroking: really curve that inside edge on the step out after the cross
  • inside mohawks: pivot foot
  • MORE SPEED: use lean and ankle bend to create edge, don’t stick hip out
  • mohawk, back outside three, forward inside three, toe tap to inside: figure out how to make these turn quickly, turn out your free leg on back outside three. Try variation with push back after the mohawk
  • swing roll, change edge, mohawk, step forward and repeat: practice bringing in free leg and then doing a power pull before allowing free leg to swing through.  Lead with opposite arm, then switch.
  • outside (foxtrot) mohawks: use back rather than hips to figure out where to put new edge, lean on outside exit edge
  • back crossover, push directly over and from the hip (not backwards)
  • clockwise forward progressives: make sure head is facing in correct direction (slightly into the circle in direction that you are going)
  • back cross strokes: don’t turn out skating hip (turn out from free foot), start push as free foot moves down (don’t wait until it is down)