I skip into the den, sit cross-legged in front of the color TV set. Jeff and Scott, my brothers, plop beside me. Daddy turns the TV on to channel nine, gets comfortable in his brown leather recliner. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport … the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition … This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!” we recite with the announcer. This week, figure skating. The World Championships from Yugoslavia …
The skating glues us to the set while Momma sets up the TV trays for a snack. Milk, Pringles, Keebler Peanut Butter Filled cookies. The Russians dominate in pairs and ice dancing, but American Tim Wood wins the gold medal in the men’s competition. It doesn’t get any better than this at our house on Lundy Lane. After the program, Momma tells Jeff and me to go play outside ‘cause Scott has to take a nap. She likes quiet.
We grab our roller skates and head out to the carport, where we attach the metal skates to our tennis shoes, fasten the leather straps, tighten the clamps over the toes of our shoes with our treasured skate keys we keep on a string around our necks. Our driveway hugs our house on two sides, one side of it rectangular — our skating rink, or sometimes our basketball court, or hopscotch court, or four-square court — you name it. We work on a skating routine. Maybe we can create a show with the kids down the street, maybe charge adults admission. Then we head down the street to find more kids. Trying to do fancy moves is hard, but at least we can go fast. We careen down our neighbor’s steep driveway on our skates, onto Rosebud Drive, swerve the corner by our house on Lundy Lane, sprint to the end of our dead end street. Ta-da! Momma calls us in to rest before supper.
In the fifth grade my teacher at McBrien Elementary School in East Ridge, Tennessee, planned a trip for our class to see the Ice Capades in downtown Chattanooga. Immensely popular, the Ice Capades toured the country at the time. In honor of the special occasion, Momma buys me a new outfit at Loveman’s — an aquamarine miniskirt, a white turtleneck, a matching woven aquamarine vest, white lace tights.
The magic day comes. Not only do I get to go to the Ice Capades, but I also get to ride on a school bus. Normally I walk to school. Sitting on the bus, I feel like life bought me a double-dip cone. We arrive at Memorial Auditorium, line up to go inside. Our teacher directs us upstairs to the balcony. I carefully count the spending money in my purse that Momma gave me. I buy a program, then a box of Raisinets at the concession stand on the second floor. We finds our seats. Yes! The front row of the balcony — the coolest seats for some weird kid, flying-in-space reason. I bounce up and down, rip the cellophane off my box of chocolate-covered raisins.
The house lights go dark. The music comes up. Spotlights reveal a sheet of ice, a milky transparent white, like the royal icing on a bakery cookie but with a shimmer, as if thousands of aquamarine gemstones had been ground up, mixed in the water, frozen. Skaters spin, dance, jump over the surreal surface of the ice in a swirl of glitzy costumes performing the grand romantic episodes of life, I imagine. I leave Memorial Auditorium that day in a daze of happiness. On the bus back to school, I’m upset to see I’ve gotten chocolate on my brand-new skirt. I really must’ve forgotten my “self” during the ice show. Hope Momma’s not mad, I think.
The next Saturday, Momma drops Jeff and me off at the Southland Roller Rink on Brainerd Road — a fun palace, where a DJ commands a booth high above the rink, spins Top-40 tunes, gets the place humming with a pulse. Teenage girls with pompoms on the toes of their skates skate backwards, bounce along, doing moves like they’re dancing. I stare, my mouth open, aspire to be them. I figure I can teach myself, so I watch and practice. But it stumps me, and I can’t figure out how to do the scissor-like move they do while going backwards that whirs them around the end of the rink. I had no idea at the time you had to sign up for lessons and pay to learn that stuff.
The DJ tells us to circle up in the middle of the rink, then he plays the Hokey Pokey, and we follow the moves the other kids are doing. Song over, the DJ tells us to pick a number painted on the rink, one through six, and line up behind it. The kid at the head of the line rolls a giant fuzzy dice. The group behind the number rolled are out, and so on, until one kid is left standing. A skate pass and free Coke at the concession stand for the winner!
Near the end of the session, the DJ tells the boys to stand on one end of the rink, then he plays a cool song, “Build Me Up Buttercup,” by The Foundations. The girls glide by, pick out a boy to skate with, to hold hands with. I’m shy, so it’s hard for me to smile at the cute boy I want to skate with, but it works out. The DJ dims the lights, flips on the rotating mirror ball, and the whole rink glitters with a kaleidoscope of jewel-like colors. That was as good as it got in my world back then, man.
In 1998 Isabel, my daughter, is eight years old. I see an ad for learn-to-ice-skate lessons that start in January on Saturdays at The Rink in Ithaca, New York. Wow, Saturdays would mean skating again, like long ago. There were no ice rinks where I grew up. My husband had first taken me ice-skating for fun on a date. The ad says there are lessons for adults and kids. Sometimes, it’s hard to know which category I fall in, but I sign Isabel and me up based on our ages. My goal is to learn how to skate backwards like the skater girls back in the day at Southland Roller Rink.
That January Saturday arrives. Tons of skaters, maybe eighty, buzz around the ice. I test out my rental skates, attempt forward crossovers on the end of the rink. The coaches in black and yellow parkas divide us into groups based on age. One assigns me to the adult group, shows us how to do a move called “Coke Bottles.” We’re supposed to make the shape of a Coke bottle with our blades. I love this move instantly because its name conjures up an icy glass bottle of Coke on a steamy summer day in Chattanooga. Next we perform “Coke Bottles” backwards. Great, I haven’t fallen on my face yet. Then a move called “Swizzles,” a wiggle-like move that scoots me down the ice, feeling my blades. Next we turn backwards on one of the hockey circles, pushing ourselves along by making a “C” shape with one foot over and over. It propels us backwards. Like soon we’ll learn how to do crossovers. Backwards. This is what I’m talking about!
Isabel and I race around the ice during the public skate that follows the lessons, practice our moves. My husband Jim, a Cornell professor, raises his eyebrows, gives me a look of dubious distinction from his six-foot-six-inch perch on hockey skates. Then we skate around, Isabel in the middle, holding hands. I can’t wait for the next week’s lesson to unlock the secret of backwards crossovers, the move I’d longed to learn in childhood, for it to flow through my body.
I’m back for my lesson the next Saturday and the Saturday after that. With a lot of practice, I eventually learn to pull the “C” shape I make with my outside skate across the path of my other skate, which I push underneath while going backwards. Eureka! Ta-da! Hallelujah! This is how you do backwards crossovers, the scissor-like movement that sends me flying around a circle or around the end of the rink.
I’m so hooked I can’t get enough of learning these skills. My next goal is to learn how to spin. The instructor has us start out with a two-foot spin. I stand with my feet about a foot apart, with bent knees, my arms out from my side — level with the ice — then I rise up, pull my arms in front of me until my hands meet. I spin, many times, around and around. This is as much fun as I’ve had with my clothes on in quite some time.
I sign up for the next six weeks of lessons in the spring, a set in the summer even, another set in the fall. I practice during public ice times at The Rink in Lansing or at Lynah Rink at Cornell. I skate twice a week, then three times a week. I see other adults taking lessons, learning to jump and spin, to ice dance. By the fall of that year, I ask a Russian coach, Alexandre Chichkov, to give me private lessons. Alexandre, a world junior ice dance champion with Oksana Grishuk, toured the world with the Bolshoi on Ice, while Oksana teamed up with Evgeni Platov to win two Olympic gold medals. His storied history inspires me, connects me to the days my family watched legendary pairs skaters Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov win gold medals on Wide World of Sports.
I join the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA, now USFS), and Alexandre starts me on the moves-in-the-field test track, one of three tracks that includes free skating and ice dancing. Moves in the field — the fundamentals of skating — are kind of like doing the barre in ballet. There are many levels to each track.
After a couple months of lessons, Alexandre signs me up for a test session on a Saturday at The Rink. Judges with an appointment from USFSA will be there to pass or fail the maneuvers I perform for my Pre-Preliminary Moves in the Field test.
Skaters pack the warming room of The Rink on the Saturday of the test session. My turn. I skate over to the hockey box where the judges are sitting. I give them my name, and the one assigned to my test tells me to begin. I must perform four moves in sequence to complete the test. I take my starting position, then stroke down the ice, execute forward crossovers counterclockwise on the ends of the rink to complete one lap. Next I do the move clockwise around the rink.
I use a T-stop to indicate I’ve finished the move, look at the judge, at her black coat, her Russian-style fur hat. She looks down to make a mark on her paper. My legs shake, my heart makes a kind of banging that feels like I’m having a heart attack. This is as nervous as I’ve ever been in my whole life.
Next I execute outside edges, alternating left and right feet, down the length of the blue line. Then inside edges down the blue line, like in my lessons with Alexandre. I perform a spiral down the length of the ice, first on the left foot, then the right. The most difficult move comes last: the Waltz Eight — a figure eight skated with perfect balance, performed in the middle of the rink. I do my best. Did I wobble? Not sure. At least it’s over, I think. I skate over to Alexandre, who’s been standing by the side of the ice during the test doing his coach thing, watching me.
“You did good,” he says, but doesn’t smile. Russian-style.
I put on my skate guards, go sit on the bench in the warming room, try to breath like a normal person — not like a thirty-nine-year-old woman who’s just taken a figure skating test that was harder than childbirth.
I unlace my skates in a daze, put on my tennis shoes, stare into space. Did I pass or fail? About ten minutes later, Alexandre walks in holding a sheaf of papers. He sits by me on the wooden bench, looks at me funny — at my terror-coated eyes, maybe? I check the test paper he hands me. The rows of boxes, numbers, and comments are a blur I have to decipher later. I focus on two words at the bottom. One says Pass. One says Retry. Pass is circled.
“Congratulations,” Alexandre says. “You pass test.” He smiles.
Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! I jump up, feeling like the ten-year-old girl I was at the Southland Roller Rink on Brainerd Road on a Saturday in 1970. I slap Alexandre a high five, then go to the pro shop to buy a tee shirt that says:
Figure Skating is Life. The Rest is Just Details.
Today I lace up my skates at The Rink in Ithaca to go out to practice. At this point I’ve passed thirty-six figure skating tests in moves, free skating, and ice dance. I have a lesson with Jeff Petri, my coach for the past ten years, who has taken me through the silver, pre-gold, and gold levels of adult ice dancing. With Jeff coaching me, I earned the Adult Gold Ice Dance and Adult Gold Moves in the Field designation from USFS. I received certificates and gold pins for those from USFS. Gold stars, like in school!
For the last two years, I’ve been practicing the Midnight Blues and the Yankee Polka, international dances in the final level of ice dancing. I’ve never worked so long on a dance. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pass them, much less pass all the international dances. So far, I’ve passed three of the ten. They’re super challenging. “A project,” Jeff says.
Can I stay in good enough shape? Will age, will illness catch up to me? In the beginning, more than ten years ago, I broke my left arm—my humerus—by falling on the ice, then the olecranon in my right elbow. I was in the hospital once for a month, for two surgeries. But I came back from all of those mishaps, stronger than when I started by a long shot.
I drop off my box of tissues, my water bottle by the side of the ice. Twenty degrees outside today. I zip up my red Ithaca Figure Skating Association jacket, stroke down the ice, do crossovers on the ends of the rink. Then I execute a quick move called a mohawk to turn backwards, stroke around some more, do back crossovers. Warmed-up, I skate to the side of the rink, take off my jacket.
“Hey, man, is it time for my lesson?” I say to Jeff.
“Yeah, let’s get to it,” he says.
I smile. “Right on.”
I remember the slogan on the tee shirt I bought so many years ago:
Figure Skating is Life. The Rest is Just Details.
Figuratively speaking, yep.
(Dedicated to Jim, who first took me ice-skating.)
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