jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


Endless season

Here are some words of wisdom from Yoko Ono’s “Season of Glass” (1981).

spring passes
and one remembers one’s innocence

summer passes
and one remembers one’s exuberance

autumn passes
and one remembers one’s reverence

winter passes
and one remembers one’s perseverance

Ono ends with the season that never passes, the “season of glass.” Or maybe what she really means is the season of ice.

That is because even as the seasons change, skating pretty much stays the same.

Lace ’em up, tuck the ends under. Swizzles, progressives, power pulls, cross strokes, swing rolls, turns. Wave to the guys who do the Zamboni. Say hi to my skating pals. Another set of those three turns that I love so much. Check my posture. Check my hip position. Check my ankle bend. Try to get a little more speed this time. Kilian. Now in reverse!

Another autumn shading into winter. Basil finished, tomatoes all gone (only lost one to the marauding squirrels this season).


It’s gone. But the ice remains!



Let the others run

I wrote this post three weeks ago, and I guess I forgot to hit “publish!” Just found it in “drafts.” Better late than never!

It’s time for the Twin Cities marathon, and as I sit here in St. Paul near Summit Avenue, waiting for my son to finish his music lesson with his legendary cello teacher, I can hear the cheers of the crowd greeting the fastest runners as they race to the finish at the Capitol.

There was a time when I thought it might be fun to run a marathon. I still think it would be fun–if you were a runner (which I am not any more) and if you were well-trained and motivated to run that far (which I never quite got to be) and if you were not content to sit in a comfy chair and blog on the Sunday morning of marathon day (which I am).

I can now claim legitimate reasons why I am no longer a hard-core runner. My misaligned hips! The scarring on my right ankle! My weakened feet! My dead butt (what runners sometimes call it, a.k.a the glute formerly known as dead!) My sore knees! The fact that I love comfy chairs such as this one more than I love running!

But the real reason is probably that I don’t think I can fit in both running and skating, and that skating wins, hands down. I do miss being outside, especially on beautiful fall days such as we’ve had. But I’ve turned into a one-sport gal, though I do some other things (Pilates, biking, occasional swimming or hiking) on the side.

The one hard thing about that is that I have to obey the ice times. That means when there are no sessions available, I don’t get that dose of skating goodness in my life and have to resort to chocolate, YouTube videos, and pictures of cute baby animals. And if I’m not online and don’t have chocolate handy, I just sit there and twirl my ankles around and around, seeing if I can get them to make that noise.

Can you tell that I didn’t skate yesterday, won’t skate today, and probably not tomorrow either? Arghhh!

I know it’s probably good for me to take a few days off, since last week I tweaked my right knee and it’s been achy for a few days. But it’s still hard!

So to remind myself to just chill, here’s a fun recording of “La Vie en Rose” played by twelve cellists from the Berlin Philharmonic. Not able to embed the video, but you can click on the link to play it on YouTube. Here they are, leaning in, looking regimented, geometrically dapper, relaxed, and even quasi-religious.


Gotta love it! If I ever do a compulsory foxtrot again, here’s what I gotta use!

Lesson notes:

  • forward progressives: engage skating hip (let it move back) with each stroke.
  • three turns: don’t tip body into circle (body should feel neutral relative to skate); use leg action to propel three turn. On right foot, remember to keep ankle engaged; body is forward (Eddie the Eagle).
  • back chasses: flex ankle to get more grip. Practice rise and fall. General note on skating backwards–watch your posture; don’t contract upper body backwards.
  • two-footed counters: change edge in between; don’t rush.
  • sequence 1: inside three, step rise, BEND, cross to inside.
  • sequence 2: five step mohawk (push!)
  • sequence 3: forward inside three, back outside three, edge pull.
  • sequence 4: forward outside three, back inside three, edge pull.
  • do 3 and 4 with free foot to heel, work on eliminating unnecessary wriggling.
  • do 3 and 4 with continuous rotation.


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.


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!