It Figures
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Mar 2014)

            You know those little kids at the ice rink? The ones in the actual skating dresses, doing jumps and spins and all manner of Olympic-looking stuff? I was not that kid. I was the one who felt it totally unreasonable to expect the blade to hold me up if I was moving forward on my right foot, and leaning over to my right as far as the instructor seemed to expect me to. Skating on my right foot and leaning to the left, sure. Cake. Because I could always put my left foot down to catch myself in a pinch. But leaning way over to the right? With no extra foot over there to drop down and save me? No sir. And that was the end of my childhood figure skating career.

            I had acquired a bit more faith by my mid-20s, when I learned that a nearby rink offered skating lessons for adults. The program was based on the United States Figure Skating Association’s Basic Skills, made up of eight levels. I had conquered the dreaded “forward outside edge” on my own time, so I came in at level #5. This is where I met a very impressive group of people. I may have been the youngest, and the oldest looked to be in his early 60s. Everyone there was just a grown-up looking for a challenge, and willing to put up with a few bruises along the way.

            Along with my entire group, I learned to master a two foot spin, which was one of my life’s most exciting achievements until I learned the one foot spin, which blew my mind until I got to the first baby steps of leaving the ice, the precursors to jumps. Leaving the ice! Whoa, Nellie! Terrifying, and then deeply satisfying. Sure, satisfying, partly because my senses prickled with the awareness of how I had conquered a (totally reasonable) fear of jumping and landing on ice with blades strapped to my feet. But it was also satisfying because of how cool I thought it made me look. Those first few times I actually took off and landed without injuring myself or screaming, I had to fight the urge to point at my feet and yell to passing strangers, “Didja see that? Huh? DID YOU?”

            The teacher of offered some great advice during session #1 that I will now pass on to you. Guard it well. Here it comes. Don’t wear jeans for ice skating. Instead, put on some trackpants, the kind that are slippery or shiny. Wear regular sweats underneath if you have to to keep warm, but on top, go with the plastic pants, baby. Because when you fall – and you will fall – you will not go thud, the way we have all gone thud and made the people near us grunt, “OOF. That had to hurt.” Instead, you will slide. Ahhh. A glorious, far less painful option, made possible only by materials that do not occur in nature.  

            Thanks to that teacher’s advice, yours truly invented a new skating move. We were working on spins, and I had just started one when I fell, landing square on my behind. Right away, I realized two things: 1) I was uninjured, and 2) I was still spinning. On my butt. So, I shrugged, struck a pose, and smiled. With my arms extended, delicate hands positioned just so, I completed several more rotations to the applause of my classmates before slowing to a gentle stop, and dubbed this technique The Flying Butt Spin™. I performed it more times than I might have liked over the course of my subsequent lessons, but such is life for the most innovative of athletes.

            Almost all of us stayed in the class through level 8, but we wanted more. The rink added another group level for us, and this is where we began to learn real jumps, with a 1/2 rotation in the air. WILD! Then a full rotation. WHAT? As exciting as that was for me, I was purely giddy about learning the scratch spin. This is what you usually see at the very end of a routine. The skater starts spinning with one leg out, arms akimbo, then brings it all in, whizzing around faster and faster until the arms go overhead for the big finish.

            It’s great stuff, and very educational, as I gained a new appreciation of physics. For one thing, it is surprisingly difficult to raise your arms while spinning fast. Similarly, when you feel snot hurling itself out of your nose with great purpose, you can sniff as hard as you like, buddy. No dice. You are powerless; either you stop the spin, or the entire snot family that had been squatting in a room near your frontal lobe will grab their suitcases and jump out in a line yelling, “FREEDOM!” This is why you see skaters blow their noses just before they go onto the ice to compete. Because, when they are finishing off their routines, cameras zoomed in on their faces, they don’t want snot flying out of their noses. I can’t lie, though. I bet it would look really fascinating in slow-mo.

            There were no more skating group class levels the rink could add for us, so our little group disbanded and we parted ways. Some continued with private lessons, which I did for a little while. But it was far more costly this way, and far less fun without company. Still, I did learn a few things. I got the tiniest taste of how skating is a far more difficult, complex mixture of strength, balance, speed, precision, and endurance than most people give it credit for, because it is topped with huge, melty dollops of grace and presentation. The best skaters make us forget that their sequined selves are frolicking about on hard, slippery, unforgiving ice. But I never forget that now.

            Now, I can tell a toe loop from a flip, a loop from a Lutz, and an Axel from a Salchow. That feels good. Now I can skate to the center of the ice, leap into the air, rotate (not much, but just enough to make it legit), and land on one foot, without falling, and without fear. That feels great. I did a camel spin once. Just once. That felt fantastic. That’s the one where you spin on one foot while your other leg goes up and your upper body goes down, so you look something like the letter T. It is a sweet memory, because I could never quite duplicate it that day, and it was towards the very end of my lesson-taking days so long ago. I may try again at some point. Why not? Best case: camel spin! Worst case: the return of the Flying Butt Spin™. Win-win.

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