The Sorcerers’ Apprentices

Portrait caricatureI flipped through Outdoor Life a while back as I was waiting for the doctor. There was a big spread on ski lodges. I remember seeing a similar spread in some magazine or other about a year ago. A couple of those lodges actually had ice skating, too.

I’’d love to go to a lodge like that where I could skate. I started taking skating lessons a few of years ago, as a way of staying fit, and now I’’m really into it.  I’’d love to spend a weekend at a “skating lodge”; eat a hearty breakfast in front of a roaring fire in the lodge dining room and then go out and “hit the ice”; come back for a hearty lunch, a little shopping, perhaps another skate, then a sumptuous dinner, again in front of a roaring fire, with an excellent wine and some kind of wicked dessert.

Why don’’t lodges advertise skating the way they do skiing, I asked myself. But then, I realized the answer: —skating is not so much fun as skiing. I love skating. I mean I really love it, but you have to spend countless hours at it before it is as fun as the first few trips down the slopes. Physical law, specifically gravity, works with you in skiing. It will pull even the rank beginner down the slopes so he’ll experience the thrill of speed, of wind in his face.

Gravity is the enemy in skating, though, and where it takes you, you don’t want to go. You are constantly fighting gravity when you skate, whether it is gravity that drags the leg, that is supposed to remain extended behind you after each stroke, prematurely back to the ice, or gravity that makes rising on one leg again and again to facilitate the notorious “double-sit push” so seemingly impossible.

Igor Yareshenko, the former Olympian who now coaches at the Skating Club of Wilmington, makes his students do one hundred deep-knee bends with their backs up against a wall. Everything is in the knees. Skater’s knees are like pistons, the really good one’s, anyway. Watch the ice dancers out there bobbing gently with each stroke. It’s almost as if the ice were not frozen, but fluid, and they were buoys bobbing gently in the waves. It’s all in the knees.

Those skaters make it look effortless, that gentle rising and falling, but it takes years to learn to skate like that. I still haven’t gotten it right, and I’m just talking about regular old straight stroking, nothing fancy. It takes years to learn to skate like Elizaveta Stekolnikova and Dmitri Kazarlyga, the couple who demonstrate the moves on the videos, “Stroking Exercises on Ice: The Dance Training Methods of Natalia Dubova.”

I watch those videos over and over again just to see their beautiful skating. They’re instructional videos and yet I think the skating in them is more beautiful than in any competition or ice-show I’’ve ever seen. I like the explanations too. I think they make the skating even more beautiful. All the slow-motion close-ups with the voice-overs explaining things such as the importance of rising on the skating leg over a turn, or how the free leg must briefly become one with the torso so that the skating leg can act independently of it. I think I have never seen anything so beautiful as the apparently effortless movements of that couple as they demonstrate some of the simplest and yet most fundamental elements of figure skating so that they seem like natural movements; so that to do them any other way would seem to require more effort.

Figure skating is one of the most difficult of human endeavors. I saw proof of this a few years ago over at the Class of 1923 Skating Rink on Walnut just behind Drexel’s Creese Student Center. I spend most of my lunch hours over there. There are only about a half a dozen of us who go there regularly for these mid-day public sessions, and we have gotten to know one another. There are often a few beginners along with the more skilled regulars.

I saw a guy there one day who was really good, frighteningly good. A couple of the regulars are decent jumpers (meaning they can do axels, the one and a half revolution jump), but this guy was doing triple jumps and flying by the rest of us with such speed he was generating wind.  No one knew who he was. I noticed, however, that he had a Drexel shirt on, so when he finally stopped for a minute, I went over to talk to him. His name was Michael Solonoski. He’ was a freshman in the architecture program and, of course, a competitive figure skater. He skated down at the University of Delaware with, among others, Jeff DiGregorio, who trained Olympic champion, Tara Lipinski. He was preparing just then for the South Atlantics, a qualifying competition for the national figure skating championships.

I’’ve seen a lot of good skaters. I started skating at the Skating Club of Wilmington, one of the top training facilities in the country. You can watch world-class skaters there any day of the week. Like most clubs, the sessions are divided according to skill level, so you’ll never see beginning and advanced skaters on the ice at the same time, the way you could when Michael Solonoski practiced at the 1923 rink. This kind of juxtaposition is crucial, however, to understanding how much work is involved in becoming a skilled skater.

Skaters such as Solonoski make skating look easy. It’s tempting, as you watch them, to think that you, too, might be able to skate like them with a little practice. But when you see great skaters on the ice with real beginners, you’ll have an entirely different perspective. Compared with the beginners, they’ll seem almost magical. You’ll think that perhaps they’re not really normal humans being but some kind of changelings, that they did not have to learn how to skate like the rest of us, but were born knowing how.

They weren’t. They start taking lessons when they are very young because they want to learn to spin and jump, to do all the fun and exciting stuff. Then they find out that they have to endure hours of tedious, repetitive exercises every day for years to acquire the skills that form the foundation for those more complicated maneuvers.

Figure skating demands all the physical discipline of ballet, but requires one execute his balletic maneuvers on what is effectively the head of a pin. Figure skating blades are curved, so there’s barely an inch in contact with the ice at any one time. If your posture is bad in ballet, if your shoulderblades are not pulled toward each other while your shoulders themselves are pressed firmly downward, if your hips are not just exactly beneath your shoulders, you will simply make a less pleasing impression. If your posture does not meet these same standards in skating, you’ll fall, and possibly hurt yourself. Your torso has to be a stabilizing element. It can’t go leaning this way and that with each thrust of your legs. It must remain in place, almost as if it were suspended from the ceiling by a string, as if you were a puppet whose legs could be moved independently of its torso because they were suspended by separate strings.

Yours are not, though. Your legs come right out of your torso and, despite that fact, you’’ve got to learn to make them move independently. The only way you can do that is by maintaining a firm downward pressure on the shoulders and making sure you keep them squared over your hips. That downward pressure, which must be maintained even as you are rising on the skating leg after a stroke, is what keeps your torso from equally and oppositely reacting to the thrust of your legs.

Skating violates physical laws. Good skating makes this miracle seem almost mundane. There’s perhaps a better way to put it. Skaters, or more specifically, coaches, learn physical law so that, like lawyers, they can bend and twist it to make it do what they want. Watch Natalia Dubova’’s explanation of basic skating exercises and you’ll see a first-rate legal mind in action. For the outside Mohawk (a turn), she explains, “you must have a very strong back, as if there were a wall behind you that you are leaning against.”

The Mohawk is a fairly intricate piece of footwork. It’’s a turn that starts on one foot going forward and ends on the other going backward. I always watch the feet. They fascinate me. Natalia says almost nothing about the feet, though; everything is in the back. And, of course, she’’s right. It doesn’t matter in the least that you know what to do with your feet, or that you know what your feet should do. If you go out and try this turn without concentrating almost exclusively on maintaining a strong back (and, of course, downward pressure on your shoulders), you will fall forward onto your face. You’ll get up thinking that somehow you’ve gotten your feet wrong. You’ll try it again, and you’ll fall again.

It’s all in the back. If you maintain that firm pressure on your back, explains Natalia gently to her puzzled students, —“you will do it.” She is always dropping little gems like this. It’s “the back” for the Mohawk, “the hips and shoulders” for crossovers. Figure skaters are the Jesuits of the sports world, using physical laws against themselves to achieve what, if you tried it yourself, you would swear was physically impossible.

That’s what a fellow skater, Mark, said the first summer my husband and I went to one of the adult weeks at Lake Placid’’s figure skating training camp. Mark had taken up skating in his early fifties after he’’d started his own business, and the work involved in that meant that he could no longer get away to ski mid week. As an avid and advanced skier he could not tolerate the thought of battling the crowds on the weekends.

Mark and his wife, Patti, live in Manhattan, so Patti had suggested they take up figure skating. She pointed out that they could skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park. They would be outside just like skiing. So they decided to do it. They got some good skates, a good coach and after about five years they’ acquired some impressive skills.

Mark and my husband were talking one day while they were waiting for the ice to be resurfaced.

“You know that stuff they do on TV,”” Mark said, ““that’s not really possible. It’’s all camera tricks and angles.””

Of course he knew it wasn’t. He knew they were really doing that stuff. He just couldn’’t understand how, not even after five years and, as Mark joked, “a “million dollars in lessons.””

If you actually take up skating and try to learn even some basic moves, your attitude toward the sport will change almost entirely. The movements of skaters, the really good ones anyway, will continue to look effortless. You’ll gain some appreciation, however, of the effort required to create this impression and this appreciation will make the movements take on an eerie beauty.

Nothing is so absorbing as to watch a young skater develop, to observe his early efforts and his gradual acquisition of skill. I know this because for a few years I followed the development of a young boy, Andrew Nagode. Andrew’’s coach, Slava Uchitel (a former Ukranian national champion) was also my teacher. Slava began working with Andrew when he was five.

I remember when Andrew was struggling with single jumps, or perhaps they were doubles. It was hard to tell because he fell so often. Those early efforts showed how difficult were the things Slava was asking him to do. You would see his body twisting and contorting in all the wrong ways. You would see him fall, again and again and again. You would see the look of anguish and defeat on his face and your heart would go out to him. Slava seemed almost cruel to me back then as he stood by silently, demanding, from a small boy, the seemingly impossible.

After a while though, there was less anguish on Andrew’’s face. He was gaining more control and sometimes his face would take on the same expression of concentration that always characterized his coach’’s face.

One day I showed up at the rink and there was Andrew, doing with inexplicable ease what had earlier appeared impossible and the expression of concentration on Slava’’s face was replaced by a smile of satisfaction. Suddenly I realized, what I was coming to understand from my own interactions with Slava, that he was not heartless, or cruel, but the purveyor of extremely esoteric knowledge, knowledge so exotic and mysterious he is like a sorcerer or a magician.

To watch, in this way, the development of a young skater is one of the most fascinating things imaginable. It’s like watching someone learn to fly, or to make himself invisible. You’ll see from his early struggles just how inhumanly difficult it is. But then one day you’ll see him doing it. You’ll marvel over this and wonder how it can have been possible. And there in the background will be the shadowy figure of the coach, who’ll seem to hold all the secrets of the universe, secrets he’s passing down, in a time honored ritual, to this new generation of fortunate apprentices.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in ASK, The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences of Drexel University, March 2005)