jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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.



Labors of love

Sometimes I know that the things I do are impossible. For instance, I’m sitting here listening to versions of Guy Wood and Robert Mellin’s 1952 classic song, “My One and Only Love,” trying to determine which one I like the best. I keep thinking it must be John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman in 1963. I love how Coltrane’s plaintive sax does that little repeating pulse on certain notes, while the bass and piano catch him from the back. And then there’s Hartman’s vocal version, just the right blend of smooth and throat-catchingly beautiful.

Then there’s this 1962 version with Ella Fitzgerald singing with the Nelson Riddle orchestra. Lots of things going on in the orchestra (maybe a bit too much for my taste) but Ella’s voice keeps it steady and true.

There’s something really different going on in this 1957 Sarah Vaughan recording. Her amazing voice gives each of those words in the second half of the song a different emotional register. Suddenly the lyrics (which seem quite tame and devotional at first) seem quite wicked. Ooh, Sarah!

And then there’s the sweet cello version that my son just reminded me of.

It seems like all the jazz/popular music greats did versions of this song: Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, George Benson, Stevie Wonder. Recent versions include Danish singer Sinne Eeg, opera diva Renée Fleming, Sting, and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti with singer Paula Cole.

Lucky for me: even if it’s impossible to decide which one is best, it’s still fun to listen to them. It’s “not the triumph but the struggle” these days. I’m trying to keep that in mind, since my skating week has been a-bobble between highs and lows.

So earlier this week I had a lesson with Laurie that felt like another one of those real game-changers. We talked about activating core muscles in opposition to my free leg, so that as I extend there is a corresponding stabilizing action in my free side lower abdomen and hip.

Imagine a stretchy band that extends from the free leg extension across the front of the pelvis and then is anchored in the back. As the free leg stretches back and extends, the muscles in the skating side (particularly in the lower abdomen) also contract so that the skating side doesn’t get pulled towards the free leg. abdominal-muscles-diagram

When I first realized that I wasn’t consistently activating those core muscles, I had one of those “oh man!” moments. (Really? After all this time, I’m still not doing this right?) Similarly, on my lesson with Ari I was doing a back inside edge on my left side and he pointed out that I wasn’t actually doing an edge. Pronating my foot (sinking my arch towards the ice) helped me get on an edge, but then I felt way off balance.

So this week has been all about figuring out that I still have a ways to go on these basic moves. I figure I have three choices of how to approach this.

  1. I feel bored and frustrated that I’m not working on anything more challenging, so I give up skating and take voice lessons instead, aiming to make my own recording of “My One and Only Love” (the world can never have too many).
  2. I feel bored and frustrated that I’m not working on anything more challenging, but I continue to skate, knowing that my vocal capacities are limited to more tuneful renditions of early Bob Dylan songs and the Eagles “Hotel California” (just ask my skating friends, they know!).
  3. Having drunken the “happy edge” Kool-Aid, I decide that working on the same basic moves is a bit like singing the same song in different ways. I just have to play them all to figure out which way works best. La la la la.

Lesson notes:

  • loops: really make yourself do a loop, even if you have to do it two-footed. Work on keeping it small and tight through the second part, and changing arms appropriately.
  • alternating outside threes: three at the top of the circle, more speed, better half-circles all the way back to axis.
  •  forward outside three, change edge, back cross, step forward and repeat: push on all those strokes (especially the push under for the crossover), lobes need to curve more, pronate on that left back inside edge and lean into it so you can get a good push into the forward outside three
  • forward outside three, push back, back outside three with foot in back, touch-push to repeat on other side: don’t forget the extension on inside edge after back three
  • mohawk, change edge push back, back-to-front choctaw: use knee bend to really curve the change of edge, the back outside edge and forward inside edge (choctaw)
  • European pattern (woman). Ugh. Like a bad recording from a distant past. Just want to erase it.


Ankle allies

I have been looking through a number of websites for advice on how to improve my ankle  strength and flexibility. One site that I found particularly inspiring came from Chad Walding at “The Sitting Solution.” Here’s the video, complete with a really cute dog named Maya.

I was pleased that I’d already gotten a jump start on some of Chad’s advice. In addition to different foot exercises, I have been doing calf stretches for a while now. And I’ve always been pretty much a “barefoot in the house” kinda gal.

I’m definitely going to add to my daily routine what he calls the “womb squat” (at 8.07 on the video). I used to do these back in yoga class, but haven’t worked on them for a while.  Happily enough, when I tried one tonight my initial position was already better than it was a few years ago: I feel like my ankle flexibility is definitely better than it’s been in years. I was not able to hold it anywhere near ten minutes (even a minute was a bit much) but that was encouraging.

After watching the video, I have been thinking again about how important it is for me to keep working on that ankle mobility. After having had a number of ankle sprains as well as fairly severe ligament damage, I think I tend to err on the side of immobilization, trying to stabilize my ankles by locking them. It’s also easy to forget about them when they are encased in heavy boots.

Definitely my skating has suffered by neglecting those ankles. Not only do stiff ankles make it impossible to bend my knees adequately, but it’s really hard to shift weight properly without ankle movement. Something both my coaches have reinforced is that skating is not about just hitting a position and staying there; you dynamically pass through different positions. And it’s hard to do that unless all the parts of your body are working together.

So maybe between doing these squats and calf raises, I will develop ankles that can do this! And this!

Luckily, these lesson notes from last week were much more practical.

  • Exercise: back-to-front choctaw, inside counter, change edge, little touch down/push to back edge, repeat on other side
  • Exercise: tuck behind, mohawk, change edge (bend knee), step forward and repeat
  • Forward outside threes in a circle. Bend and push on inside edge (elongate push)
  • Alternating outside threes. After the three, free foot is outside circle and skating arm inside. Put the three at the top of circle. Really use your core to twist–not just arms.




Swing roll redux

Oh give me a poem ’bout some blades made of chrome
And a rink where the ice skaters play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And my edges are awesome all day!

Home, home, I’m deranged. At least it felt like that earlier this week, after spending most of my lesson working on forward swing rolls yet again.

This was my choice, mind you. I have very patient coaches. Laurie in particular doesn’t complain when I ask to work on the same moves week after week. I think she knows me pretty well by now, and when I get a bee in my bonnet about something, I am determined to see it through.

I have all these memories of stubborn me as a kid, trying to accomplish the near-impossible through sheer force of will. I remember trying to get the car out of the icy driveway by pushing it uphill (both stubborn and stupid), or practicing sustained notes on the clarinet while looking in the bathroom mirror–daily for a solid hour until the rest of my family nearly went insane.

Gee, I hope my coaches don’t go insane. Or roll their eyes so that I can see them (what eye-rolling you can’t see won’t hurt you).

Anyhow, on my swing rolls I am working on being on the correct part of my blade with my hips nicely lifted, maintaining my lean, getting a good S-curve change of edge, bringing my feet together in an inverted “V” (toes in, heels out), and (wait for it. . . ) putting my new foot down on an angled edge almost as if I am going to push under the old one. 

This last idea is because I have been setting my new blade down on a flat too far forward, which means that I don’t transition smoothly to a new edge.

For the record, I also worked on alternating forward three, back three (outside and inside) moves. These are improving, but I am still having to be reminded of basic things, like striking out on an edge without rotating immediately, rotating completely before striking off on the back edge, and transferring my weight fully onto the back edge.

Practices these days are pretty much limited to moves and exercises. I begin with swizzles, stroking, swing rolls, progressives and chassés, and cross rolls. Then I do some of the various turns, back threes, loops, alternating turns, mohawks, choctaws, and twizzles, focusing on whatever new exercise Ari gave me the previous week. I will throw in a few patterns of the Kilian for fun some days, but only if I have time. I find myself spending much of my time just on progressives and swing rolls these days.

After an hour or so on the ice I am totally exhausted, both physically and mentally. What I’m trying to work on is not just getting through these things, but focusing on really foundational things.

  • Engaging the correct muscles (especially glutes) and being lined up correctly (especially hip, knee, and foot).
  • Lifting out of the hip and not dropping the free side.
  • Feeling engaged all the way through the blade (connecting all the way through my skating side).
  • Lean. Always being on a real edge. Maintaining that real edge.
  • Push. Being on an edge immediately (angle of blade, set down).

Sometimes I wonder if I’m making easy things hard, or if these basic things are actually hard. I guess it doesn’t matter: for me, they are hard to do correctly and therefore hard.

I did find a set of blog posts from Jaya Kanal, called “It Figures!” that give a lot of good advice on postural restoration, lift, alignment, and skating. Since much of what I’m discovering is kind of muddled up in this blog, I definitely recommend reading what she writes and watching the videos she includes.

And if you’re sick of hearing me talk about swing rolls, go ahead and roll your eyes. I dare you! Just don’t do it where I can see you.




More on turning in

Day after day I’m more confused
So I look for the light in the pouring rain

I just love that song: “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray. And it just so perfectly captures how I feel about figuring out that I need to turn my toes in more.

For years I’ve been telling myself to turn out, turn out, turn out. And my body was not particularly well balanced, but heck, I thought, I’ll just turn out more and see if that helps. And then, last lesson Laurie told me to turn in my toes and put my heels out, like an inverted “V” and BOOM. Edges.

Day after day I’m more confused. But I feel like my weight is suddenly in the right place, especially on that left skate. And I feel like everything is connected: blade, foot, ankle, lower leg, thigh, hip, and even upper body. I bend my ankle and I can feel my entire body activate on that side. Oh joy. Oh rapture.

But wait! Reality check! Before I go off the deep end of enthusiasm, I suddenly realize that can’t find any pictures of ice dancers who skate with their toes turned towards each other. So what is really going on?

I suspect that what is happening is that this is not so much about turning my toes inwards as it is about the way that this angle allows me to put more pressure into the ice, especially through the back part of my blade. I don’t have to actually turn in; I can get the same feeling if I am in parallel and just push my heel outwards against the ice.


Is this what they are doing?

France Figure Skating

Why else would she be smiling? Unless that’s not really a smile. . . 

I think this is consistent with some of the hip misalignment and strengthening issues I’ve had in the past. Definitely this turning-in business feels like it kicks on some of those inner thigh muscles (I found this post from a site called “Mix Fitness” really interesting). This whole thing reminds me of a post I wrote some time ago about turning inward.

I told Ari today that I feel like this gives me more traction. Traction is good, he said. He must have truly believed that, because after my standard alternating three turns, we launched into a whole new set of exercises.

Lesson notes:

  • alternating three turns (don’t over-rotate three, don’t pitch forward)
  • cross swing roll, quick mohawk (Paso Doble): left inside edge after the mohawk has to be really quick! Don’t let your hips go out.
  • forward cross, tuck behind, forward choctaw (like in the Kilian), back cross, step forward on outside edge and repeat on other side. Remember correct arm positions, work on strong back outside edge after choctaw
  • inside mohawk, change edge, push back to back outside edge, back to forward choctaw (strong forward inside edge), repeat on other side.
  • twizzles from back outside edge. Both sides. Don’t overthink this. No hesitation between turns.

And when my mind is free
You know a melody can move me
And when I’m feelin’ blue
The guitar’s comin’ through to soothe me