jo skates

Thoughts about skating and the practice of everyday life


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Skinny ninja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson notes:

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


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Brave

Okay, I am giving myself a pat on the back for two reasons. One is that I am actually posting twice this week! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that.

Two is that I did a session with an entirely different pair of skates and blades. And even though it was excruciating, I stuck it out until the bitter appearance of the Zamboni.

I have been meaning to do this for a while. The skates that I’ve been wearing are now just about six years old, and getting really worn. There’s a hole inside one of them and the tongue on the other one cuts into my ankle.

Instead of going for a new set of boots, though, I thought I’d try to go back to an older pair that I wore for about three years and then put aside. I really liked how this pair fit, and I don’t really want to break in a new pair right now.  I put the old ones on a few weeks ago for a trial run. They seemed to have life in them still, and plenty of support. The dance blade on them was fairly worn and had some rust spots, so I couldn’t really skate much then. But the fit was promising.

So I had the old blades sharpened, and tried this different set up tonight. I brought both pairs, just in case. Changing back to these used skates was very different from getting a new pair. This used pair of boots felt really comfortable, and I could immediately bend my knees and ankles much better than I have been. This meant that I could get into a much more aligned position on most of my edges. This was a real plus.

On the down side, the blades were both very sharp and much more worn than the ones I’ve been using. This meant I spent the first half of the session fearing for my life and skating in an uncharacteristically timid way (even for me!)

But here comes the pat on the back part. I didn’t give into the urge to change back to my other boots. By the end of the session, I felt much more comfortable. Even though it will still take some getting used to, I think I will officially switch over this week. I’m not going to change blades yet, though; I will wait until I’m sure that the used boots will still work.

I used to hear Sara Bareilles’s song “Brave” at the rink a lot, and it always inspired me to get out of my comfort zone. So here goes my soundtrack for the week:

 


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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.

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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).


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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)

bone-ice-skates-Viking

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.


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Ankle rocker

So after watching lots of videos from Worlds 2017, I feel a little maxed-out on skating commentary. So apart from the very brief lesson notes (double threes, navel towards the circle, open mohawks, more speed), I will just write about the very useful article that I found about improving my “ankle rocker” range of motion. Track coach Chris Korfist makes a really compelling case for why ankle function is crucial to speed for runners.

Mr. Korfist talks about how many athletes work on developing hip extension and strengthening glute muscles, but don’t think much about the way the ankle works. He describes what happens when the  “ankle rocker” (the way the ankle moves when one is in the middle of a step forward) is inhibited or locked. The body cheats by swinging the free leg around at the hip in order to compensate for this lack of motion, or the knee buckles inward, or the arch collapses.

It is this motion of the ankle that allows for efficient weight transfer and proper alignment. An athlete can be strong in other ways, but “it is proper ankle rocker that dictates an athlete’s ability. ” As I read this detailed account, I realized that my “ankle rocker,” particularly on my right side (the ghost of broken fibula and torn ligaments past) is really inhibited, and the inability of both my ankles to rock properly affects a lot of the movements I do both on and off the ice.

The article doesn’t specifically talk about skating, but I can think of many ways in which the same principles apply. Just think about the rocker of the blade as following the proper motion of the ankle!

Mr. Korfist gives a number of useful suggestions about how to make progression on developing the “ankle rocker.” He includes a video from Dr. Shawn Allen of “the Gait Guys” that has a couple of really good exercises that I’ve been doing for the past couple of days. Call me optimistic, but I think I can already feel a difference in the way in which my ankles and feet are moving. As Mr. Korfist says, this isn’t a magic bullet–but for me it’s hopefully (hahaha!) a step in the right direction.

Here’s our post-skating (post-mortem?) session!

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Jo, Marc, Joanne, Sonia

 


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Brain matters

The New York Times came out with another article in support of adult skating: well, actually in support of country dancing for older people. The University of Illinois did a study comparing the effects of walking, gentle stretching/balance training, and dancing on a group of people in their 60s and 70s who, while all healthy, were fairly sedentary. After six months, the group that was participated in regular bouts of country-dance choreography (three times a week for hour-long sessions) was the only group to show improvement in the brain’s white matter. White matter is the “wiring” of the brain: specialized cells and their offshoots that pass messages from neuron to neuron and from part of the brain to another. This slows down as the brain ages (as I can attest to, unfortunately!)

This group of country-line dancers actually showed improvements in the density of the white matter in their fornixes (the part of the brain associated with processing speed and memory). While the other groups improved their general fitness, they did not show this increase. While six months of tests didn’t reveal changes in cognitive ability for any of the groups, the conclusions looked promising for the benefits of dance.

But what about skating? Well, between all those challenging sequences of moves and the fact that I am trying to move in ways that feel entirely new to me, I would expect that my brain is getting rewired every time I step out onto the ice. Even if I never pass another skating test, my white brain matter will just get denser and denser. And that’s a good thing. Now where did I leave my keys?

So after yet another lesson that proved I wasn’t really on a left forward outside edge when I thought I was, I have come to the conclusion that I need to set my new foot down waaaay outside the circle that I think I am making. It feels like I have to exaggerate and cross my left thigh in front of the right. When I do this (both on and off the ice), I can definitely feel a stretch in the muscles of my hip joint: those same familiar muscles that have been tight for years now.

So now I have another way of assessing my body mechanics: if I don’t feel that stretch, I’m definitely not far enough over. Practicing this the last couple of days has made me aware of (a) how much better this is than how I used to skate, and (b) how much strength and mobility I still need to develop in that left hip. My left glutes are pretty sore!

Laurie gave me another exercise that I am using to put some mobility back in my ankles as well as check my alignment. I strike out on an edge, bring my feet together (am trying to practice good foot positions with toes actually touching), do a little extra rise and bend with my ankle and knee, and then do that “bob” again just before pushing into the next edge. We started doing this on progressives, and I have been trying it with other sequences as well.

This reminds me of an exercise I got a long time ago when I was taking lessons with Bert Wright in LA. He would have me do an edge and then bob up and down on it to get the correct alignment. Laurie has added the push, which means that I have to use the motion to deepen the edge into the push. This has made me really aware of my ankle motion, which I will write about in another post.

Boy, my brain’s white matter must be getting denser, because I’m remembering all too well how much work skating is. And how tired those muscles can feel at the end of the day. Time to get out the foam roller!

butthurts


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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.

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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.