Thursday, April 10, 2014

Check please...

While I'm ruminating about foundation figure skating terms which are simultaneously widely used but poorly explained, the one which *really* annoys me the most, (no doubt because of my personal lack of execution), is the term "check".  This was highlighted the other day when a fellow adult skater asked me to define the term.  After a bit of hem-hawing, the best I could do was to mumble something about moving one's arms and maybe the free leg in order to snuff out the rotational momentum initiated by the curve leading into a turn or jump or a spin.  I did a 3-turn to demonstrate "checking" but couldn't offer a concise description of the  actual mechanics of what was going on. 

Unsatisfied, I went home and did what any 21st century human would do; I went on a google-search safari.  My first stop was  USFSA's on-line glossary of skating terms.  Guess what?  It doesn't bother to list the word "check".  I suppose their stance is if you need to ask about something this basic, you probably ought to forget about figure skating and take up stamp collecting.

Googling a little deeper, <> wasn't all that informative either, saying only that "In figure skating, when a skater lands a jump or completes a turn, he or she checks the landing or checks the turn. Checking prevents the skater from continuing to turn or rotate once a jump or turn is completed."  Don't you just love circular definitions?

Other on-line sources were equally vague and continued google-trolling quickly disintegrated into nonsense; disclosure: no porn sites were "surveyed" during the creation of this blog post.  I was left wondering is there no source brave enough to define exactly what goes on during this mysterious "checking" business? 

I next dug out my three favorite figure skating books, sections of which I reread like a hypochondriac attempting yet another self diagnosis based on whichever demon has resurfaced as my wonky element du jour.  Here's how those authors weigh in on the subject :

Karin Kunzle-Watson's Ice Skating Steps to Success  talks about "turning within the arms".  This description may be perfectly clear to some readers but it leaves your old diarist more, rather than less mystified.

Carole Shulman's The Complete Book of Figure Skating comes a bit closer in defining a check, stating that one checks "to stop or control rotation by reversing the arms against the hips".

Finally, turning to Robert S. Ogilvie's classic book Basic Ice Skating Skills  I came across the following sentence in reference to a three turn:  "Check is the reversal of the rotation that is deliberately set up to make the turn."

I read and reread different parts of each book, sifting through the words like a fortune teller examining tea leaves in an attempt to integrate these three statements.  Maybe I should have dug out my "magic 8 ball".

Where did this consultation with the skating oracles leave me?  For one thing, it made me realize that although check implies the ability to control rotational momentum, successfully obtaining that control is achieved by different means during each situation wherein one is handed the fleeting chance of either extinguishing left over rotation or quickly spiraling out of orbit.

Using Ogilive's example of a forward outside three turn, from personal experience I can report that successfully controlling this single foot turn requires different applications of "checking" depending on how much speed a skater is carrying into the turn.  If I execute a FO3 at a pedestrian pace, a slight tweak of the shoulders might be all that's required.  If I barrel into the same turn with a lot of heat the turn then requires careful control of the arms, the shoulders, the hips, keeping the chin up, remembering to smile, and oh yes, that free leg had better not drift around too much or I'll be forced to put the free skate down on the ice long before I originally intended.  Unintentional "dropped 3s" don't git-ya where ya wanna go in terms of demonstrating control--especially during the Waltz Eight portion of the Pre-Bronze Moves test.

So, to a degree, the amount of speed or perhaps more accurately, the amount of momentum preceding the element dictates what the definition of "check" will be in that particular situation.  Check then, is not a "one size fits all" kinda thing.  It turns out to be a moving target.  I'm going to need literally hundreds of check definitions.  Let's see, there are six or so turns, each with eight family members, a half dozen single rotational jumps (forget about doubles; ain't happenin' in my lifetime), and several spins, all of which can be entered into with differing amounts of momentum.  Yep, that's a whole lot of definitions.   This is why no one but a foolish old diarist attempts to nail down the term.

So, I feel better for all that.  Sort of.  At least for the moment.  Well, not really.  The true skating hypochondriac is never far from his next demon... 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cleaning up fuzzy logic.

My "dawncing" partner is off motor racing with her leading man so it was just me and coach K. for this week's lesson.  This was actually a good thing in that it allowed me to at least partially clear up some poorly understood concepts.  Things like what exactly does a coach mean when (s)he talks about "flow" or "power"?  You hear these terms all the time but nobody defines them.  Defining things is an adult preoccupation.  Kid skaters don't bother worrying about definitions.  They just get on with skating.  But I'm adult (regardless of what my wife might say) and definitions are important to how I come to understand stuff.  With that in mind, we invested five minutes at the beginning of today's lesson talking over a few concepts.

"Flow" in simplest terms equates to smoothness.  It's one of those qualities that's hard to describe but you know it when you see it.  A skater glides effortlessly across the ice, blades noiselessly skimming the surface with one skating element seamlessly blending into another without discernible beginning or end.  A component of Flow is "power".  Without power, flow doesn't happen.

"Power" equates to the ability to accelerate.  That's not to say that power is all about speed.  Speed without control is not "power".  The genesis of power is found within the push.

In ice dance one must push back rather than to the side in order to avoid your partner's legs.  Poorly executed back pushes do not generate very much power.  Since I began skating with V. I've been compensating for my reduced push power by engaging in the dreaded "toe push" style of stroking, no doubt subconsciously trying not to trade kicks with my partner.  Today coach K. worked hard to correct that.  Pushing back at first felt very awkward and didn't generate much power but as she got me to introduce more knee bend my pushes started to produce more glide.  This felt great as long as I was straight line skating and didn't have to think about turning, but as soon as I started to dial progressives or swing rolls back into the picture the wheels fell off my "flow" wagon.  Clearly it's going to take a good bit of work to hoist your old diarist up the flow and power charts.  Not to worry--I'll get there.

We next talked about the subject of "Leading" verses "Tracking".  Coach K. started drawing little x marks on the ice to represent Synchro skaters in a line.  Coaching Synchro is one of her other assignments at our rink.  After a while, sensing that I was glazing over, she dumbed it down to just two Xs side by side, a la a dance couple.  In ice dance it's not always about the man "leading" the lady during the dance.  The roles of leading and tracking tend to change depending on which partner is on the inside and which partner is on the outside of a lobe (for the non-dancers in the audience, you can equate the word "lobe" with "curve").  For simple elements like progressives or forward swing rolls, the skater on the inside "leads" slightly, while the skater on the outside "tracks".  This relationship changes quite often even in the relatively simple preliminary dances.  The Dutch Waltz is an example:

At the start, in Kilian dance hold, I would be to the left of V.  After our four optional entry strokes we would enter the first lobe of the dance which calls for a CCW progressive.  I would be on the inside of the curve and hence be leading V. slightly.  After step three of the progressive our roles would reverse with V. leading and me tracking as we execute the second lobe, a 6 beat swing roll to the right.  We would continue to swap leading and tracking duties all the way around the pattern.

This will no doubt become second nature but for the moment there's a lot of push-me-pull-me stuff going on due to the combination of our lack of pair unison, weak technique and the centrifugal inertia (pulling us apart) and centripital force (pushing us back together) generated by skating the lobes of the dance, even at the modest speed required by the DW.  It constantly renews my respect for pairs who skate these dances with flow and power (you knew I'd some how complete the circle didn't you?).

But don't take my word for it; I'm no expert.  Lace up your skates and get out on ice.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Swinging into spring.

Yesterday V. and I had our second dance lesson.  Coach K. had us start out reviewing the DW but soon decided that we needed work on the individual parts.  The first video shows us unpartnered, working on forward swing rolls.  Normally, I (at least I think) can do a decent forward swing roll, but knowing that your coach is skating next to you, filming away with an iPhone tends to make one a bit cautious.  In the video above, my knees need to be softer and edges need to be deeper.  Coach K. keeps reminding me that dance should have a lilting quality and not look so wooden.  In my defense, it is difficult to be "lilting" and "swingy" while keeping in mind that jumpers (off camera) have the right of way during freestyle sessions.

She then had us practice swing rolls while partnered.  I'd been reading one of my skating books earlier this week and the author emphasized that one should make an effort to point the toe of the boot during the swing-through and avoid giving the impression of punting a football.  I think I took that suggestion a little too much to heart.  But that's the power of videos--you get almost immediate feedback and can work on corrections.  Almost as scary as looking in the mirror.  The more times I watch these clips the more I see that wants fixing (yeah, basically everything).  Towards the end of the lesson we put the steps back together and attempted the intact dance.  I'm hoping that when we look at these vids six months from now we'll be able to say "Wow, look at how far we've come."  Making the Dutch Waltz look good isn't easy--especially when you almost steer your dancing partner into the boards (!)  Did I mention that the lady skater needs to be brave? 

Thursday, March 27, 2014


V. and I have been skating together as a pair for a total of two times.  She's a quick study.  Makes me glad I had a five month head start or I'd be looking pretty stupid at this point.  Tonight after I finished my freestyle group lesson and took off my boots, I noticed a dab of white polish on the outside of my right boot as I was wiping down the blades.  Dang!  Two laps around the course doing the Dutch Waltz and we're already swappin' paint!  Hot Damn--this is better'n NASCAR!

I'd best be careful--our Canasta Tango might turn into a "Canasta Tangle".  Note the gouges in the leather in addition to the white stuff.  That woman means business.
The other thing I've learned is that coming into swing rolls with the mass of another skater gives things a whole different feel than when practicing alone.  The extra weight equals extra momentum which carries you deeper and faster into turns, progressives, etc. than when skating alone.  Kinda like hopping out of a sports car and into an 18-wheeler.  We had a few near misses with the skating public the other day but (so far) haven't taken anyone out.  It reminds me of what mother always said--"Yeah you damn kids, it's all fun and games 'til one of yers gets hurt."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bad Dog.

I was working on my one-foot forward spin last Thursday during group freestyle.  A day earlier I was actually hooking the spin and getting a couple revs maybe every fifth attempt or so.  But during the lesson I just couldn't seem to get it to work.  Coach M. suggested several things and there were tiny improvements.  Finally he said "I like the preparatory and entry edges but after that things fall apart,  you're not keeping your back straight.  A skater at your level should get this."  Ouch!  A skater at your level should get this.  Ow, Ow, Ow!

I think every skater and coach have these "motivational" moments; the skater just can't seem to grasp and produce something that the coach has been going over ad nauseam and also thinks of as level obtainable.  It's a double edge critique.  On one side, the comment suggests that the student in question is good enough to be at a "certain" level.  The other side is, despite that, the student isn't producing the goods.  Along with this is the accompanying faint wave of disappointment which briefly washes over the coach's face as the student continues to produce one failed attempt after another.

Sigh...  Yes, I know exactly how your dog feels when you discover the broken lamp in the living room or dog hair on the sofa that the dog "knows" is off limits.

He left me with another observational tip to think about and turned his attention to the other students.  I kept plugging along and did manage to hook a couple.  I some how managed to hold on to one spin for at least four well traveled revs.  One of the better kid skaters who was practicing for the rink's up-coming showcase event next Saturday looked up and said "Wow, nice Twizzle!"  I thanked him and indicated that it wasn't supposed to be a Twizzle... He gave me an "Oh, sorry" and quickly went back to working on his program.  So, yeah, I now know what a Twizzle should feel like, just don't expect me to be able to duplicate it any time soon.

At the end of the lesson my coach skated over and said "I saw improvement in the ones you managed while I was working with the others.  Ah, the Carrot!  And--also confirmation that teachers really do have eyes in the backsides of their heads.

Sunday we skated the afternoon public.  It's March now and diaristdaughter and I agree that the crowd seemed a little thinner, indicating that the novelty of all those Christmas ice skates is starting to wear thin as the days grow longer.  The center circle didn't have as many kids milling about as in the immediate past few weeks and so I got to work on that forward spin.  It is getting better.  Maybe by this Thursday's lesson it will pass muster. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Meanwhile, at Mrs. K's Dancing Academy for Wayward Figure Skaters...

It seems like my ice dancing effort has planted a seed at Bowie Ice Arena and that seed has produced a tiny shoot.  At last week's lesson I heard the familiar music for the Canasta Tango coming over the rink's sound system and for the first time saw three kid-couples practicing that very dance.  I was momentarily jealous--I never get music over the speakers when I dance!  The kids were practicing the three preliminary dances in preparation for the ISI conference competition which I think is to be held in Chicago at the end of May.

Another sign that dance is making a comeback at our rink is that V., one of the synchro team ladies, expressed an interest in dance and asked if she could join us.  Another student was most welcome as far as coach K. and I were concerned. 

Now, for your diarist, this is kicking things up a notch.  Up to now, discounting one trip around the rink with coach K, I've been solo dancing.  That's probably a good thing in as much as I'm a slow learner and at least in the beginning it was enough to master the steps, the timing and (more or less) the on-ice placement of the pattern for the three preliminary dances without the added complication of partnering. 

Let me tell you:  skating pattern dances while hanging on to another skater is a BIG step.  The best way I can describe it is to say it's like the difference between arithmetic and calculus.  Most peeps can add, subtract, multiply and divide but being able to integrate and differentiate opens the door to a whole 'nother universe.  And so it is with partnered ice dance.  One still must concentrate on remembering the steps to each dance, the timing specific to a dance, and the placement of the pattern on the rink, but now one needs to do all that while maintaining "pair unison".   This introduces an extra layer of complexity.

Coach K. started off by having us simply stroke around the rink just to get used to the experience of skating as a pair--kinda like training a team of horses.  No progressives, no swing rolls, just stroking.  This was good because I soon found out even the method for forward stroking, the simplest of all skating elements, is different in dance hold compared to that used by a freestyle skater.  Freestyle skaters push the blades to the side for an elegant line that emphasizes full extension.  Do that in dance hold and you and your partner will have bloody legs and/or tangled skates.  One must push back and not to the side.  However, one also must NOT push with the toe.  This is accomplished with more ankle flex than your diarist is used to.  In ballet there's a word for this: relevé.

Thankfully the Dutch Waltz doesn't require the amount of ankle flexion demonstrated in the video above, but you get the idea and your partner will thank you for that.  The take home message is: flex the ankles, stay the hell off those toe picks and don't side push.

Coach K. ever mindful of the ticking clock for our rapidly dwindling freestyle pick up session told us to do it again but this time to incorporate swing rolls on a six count.  Did that.  Next she dialed in progressives and chassé steps and voilà we had all the elements required for the Dutch Waltz.  

V. proved a very quick study and was able to digest the pattern well enough for us to stagger around and ice in a rough semblance of the dance.  While doing this a strange transformation occurred:  I've been practicing this dance and several others with coach K. for a couple months now, but until today I've been invisible to other coaches and students.  Suddenly, now that I was clinging to another skater, we were on everybody's radar screen. As we glided by I heard one coach say "Oh, another dance couple, how nice!"   

The next thing I heard was the music for the DW over the rink speakers.  V. and I queued up behind the three kid couples at one end of the rink.  We were stacked up like airliners awaiting permission for takeoff.  The kids launched into the dance with 10 or 15 seconds between each pair and we followed.  We managed three repeats of the dance before the music ran out.  We did this without falling or shedding blood so I'm calling our first dance, shaky as it was, a success.  

Enough time remained for our coach to introduce V. to the steps of the Canasta Tango but we had to get off the ice before we could skate it.  Next week.

V. and her significant other are heavily involved with sports car racing, so as soon as the local tracks heat up she will abandon me and coach K. for the intoxicating allure of burning Castrol R and high octane motor fuel.  Our dance pairing is thus destined to be short and sweet.  Also at the end of May the rink will melt the sheet and close for its annual two months of maintenance.  We'll need to make good use of the time remaining.  It will be interesting to see what if anything I'll remember when the ice reforms in July.  C'est la vie.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Scratch Spin

Went to the Sunday afternoon public today.  The public was unflinchingly out enforce.  I got in one or two Canasta Tango patterns before the place went totally nutz.  After that I decided to migrate to the center circle, push a few wannabie ice tourists the hell out and work on my scratch spin.  No, no, I'm not that intimidating--just a teddy bear, but don'cha know I actually managed to hook a couple of those spins.

After working on this particular element for weeks, without success, today the penny finally dropped.  I think the thing that did it was me stepping back into almost to the beginning of the circle one creates, starting with the RBI edge.  I know, I know-experienced spinners are saying "well duh".  Granted, I can't cross my free leg in front of the skating leg, but damn it, I can occasionally hook the spin!  For maybe 2, sometimes 3 revs.  WooHoo! The crossed leg will come later.

The best part is that E., one of the rink coaches, sadly neither of mine, was out in the center circle when I hooked one of the better ones and she said "I saw that!"

Now, my rule of thumb is this: if a coach sees something, then it really happened.  Time will tell if I can repeat this next Thursday when coach M. is watching...

Towards the end of the session, a tall, lanky kid in rental skates with zero skating skills cut across my path while I was winding up for a spin.  I'd been watching him all session.  He and his pals had been skating waaaaay beyond his particular skill level and he was, frankly, one scary fall away from a busted leg.  Bottom line: I was standing after contact and he left the ice shortly thereafter (yes, under his own steam).  Just doin' my part to keep the ice safe.

Did I mention that last Thursday (the 13th) was my two year "armaverary" wherein I broke my right arm?  I tell ya, this figure skate crowd is rough--even rougher than the church choir singers and ex-English majors diaristwoman hangs with.