This blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences from ten years as a skate dad. For those of you sitting with your jackets in the bleachers, first I salute you, but second I want to give you an honest sense of what you are in for and what to expect. Ice skating is both a trying and a glorious sport, but it doesn't happen without the special group of folks who cheer, support, and console the participants. This is dedicated to you.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

- fast and slow

In many sports speed and quickness are assets. In fact they are the entire defining elements of the competitive aspect of some sport. I'm sure you can think of several: running, auto racing, and swimming, just to name a few. In other sports speed plays an underlying dynamic role (in all of the major team sports the fastest players enjoy a competitive advantage).

As figure skating is a hybrid between sport and art, speed figures into the mix within the "sporting" components. Speed on the ice is helpful for establishing momentum for your jumps and angular momentum for your spins. And clean footwork requires quickness. On the other hand both grace and class (elements of the artistic dimension of skating) require demonstratively slower controlled movements.

Skaters who fail to appropriately match the fast and the slow look ridiculous however. It's very difficult to watch an accomplished "fast" skater ruin what might otherwise be a terrific program by the herky jerkiness of her small movements and transitions. It's equally saddening when a beautifully graceful skater can't otherwise keep enough velocity to maintain her spiral the length of the rink.

Be fast of feet and reactivity, but slow with expressive movements. The athletic part of skating is fast, the artistic part is slow. I think ballet (for slow graceful strength) and stroking lessons (for speed) are both helpful here, but it's also about holding the proper "split" mindset. The ideation here is graceful speed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

- sequins

Glittery sparkle compliments and enhances your competitive skate (even more so if you're skating in a Showcase with spotlights). As in most performance art however, only a narrow range of use achieves the desired effect without appearing overdone. You should strive for an objective of "highlighting" -- rather than always being apparent, your sparkles should accentuate about a third of your moves.

I've seen three sorts of reflective devices: two types are sequins; the last is rhinestones. Rhinestones are small hard cut-glass crystal reflectors, faceted like a diamond with a metal backing. These glue onto your costume and if your dress doesn't already have enough you can purchase them at many craft and bead stores (or online even, see here and here).

The other two types of sparklies are small flat round pieces of plastic sequins with a tiny hole in the middle (to facilitate sewing onto the costume). One type is metallic and the other is semi-transparent plastic. You can buy these at most fabric stores (and some craft stores too).

Unless they're sparingly used and interspersed with the other two types, the reflective metallic sequins look cheap. I am sorry, they just remind me of store-bought Halloween costumes. The semi-transparent tonal plastic sequins are fine to use on a skating dress though.

Although rhinestones and tonal plastic sequins are both fashionable, they provide quite different visual effects. Crystal glass sparkles intensely as pinpoints of light at multiple angles. Xan tells me that a high-end dress for an elite skater can have 1500 rhinestones, which seems a bit excessive to me but okay, if you're going to be on TV then I say go for it (smile).

Otherwise a third of this quantity in strategic visual swaths is sufficient. Again artistic placement is paramount: if you evenly cover your dress with random crystals you won't get the same effect as if you lay them out visualizing how the eye catches your dress as it spins and angles.

Relative to rhinestones the plastic sequins are very inexpensive, and are usually sewn on by the thousands across large areas. The tonal flat sequins give one uniform sublimely gentle flash when hit at their reflective angle, but are otherwise nice as a gradual contrast shifter. As they have a different reflectivity from fabric they tend to make the covered swatch appear to vary in hue at different angles.

Although I have seen a couple nice dresses that made judicious use of both (in moderation) please avoid combining glass rhinestones and plastic sequins unless you're already an accomplished dress designer.

It's not particularly appropriate to use glass rhinestones on a man's costume (okay, maybe just a handful). Plastic tonal sequins are okay in understated moderation. Just my opinion again.

Skaters will try other modes of flashiness: glitter blush or eyeliner, sparkly hair pieces and hair gel. These may be fine if you're hoping for a camera close-up, but when you're on the ice we don't notice these from out here in the audience dear.

Finally although a sparkly dress is a nice highlight to your program, it shouldn't be the main draw. After all we really came here to watch how you skate.

Friday, July 4, 2014

- prop

So let's say that you're going  to skate something entertainment related, in a Showcase or some-such event, as a solo or a duet. You'll sport a novelty costume, perhaps a hand prop, and then comes the big question: are you going to slide a "stage" prop onto the ice?  I don't /think/ anything in the light entertainment rules requires a program to have a stage prop (readers please correct me otherwise). Still it seems like half the entertainment programs that I watch use a stage prop. I think that a lot of the impetus for this is seeing other kids use one, and so it's in your competitive spirit to do the same.

I have rather mixed feelings about this whole business: the tricky part is the assessment of whether or not a stage prop adds anything to the entertainment value of your skate. You do get the "ahhh how cute" factor when we first see you slide it out onto the ice. Maybe if it's a decorated bench or chair you can work some moves in to interact with it in your program. But otherwise once the visual originality wears off the prop isn't going to do any skating by itself: it just sits there in one place, yes?

I have seen some real cuties though. Most of my favorites are beach or toy related: large inflatables or big cuddly things.  The props that seem to work best show some aspect of exaggeration about them.

How much effort should you put into creating the prop (in terms of time and money)? How expressive should you make it? Clearly you must decorate it /somehow/ -- please don't just slide a bench you bought at Home Depot onto the ice! On the other hand if you get way too complicated and over the top then you'll run into a different complication.

The problem with props that are way over the top is that they actually detract from your skating. Instead of looking at you I'll keep glancing over at the computerized flashing lights (or whatever). I suppose since many coaches view the entertaining prop as a competition unto itself, they risk ever trickier contraptions.  I can't even begin to tell you though how many times I've seen way over the top props fall down during a skate, or how often I've watched the skater spend three minutes struggling to drag it out to the ice and set it up in the first place.

Unless you're with the ice theatre employing some professional prop guys, keep your stage prop simple and easy to drag out to its position on the ice. Parents: your kid's prop should either be light enough that your skater can easily lift it and carry it out to its place by herself, or if it is heavier it needs to be distinctly bottom heavy (so that it doesn't topple over). Your prop must easily slide so as to be rapidly pushed by one person. No bulky, boring, awkward props please. And please take your prop to a freestyle well before the event and test it out a couple of times to verify its maneuverability.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

- choreography

May I relate my opinions about choreography? Your coach shares her ideas, or if you've been competing a while then you employ a separate choreographer. Fine. Briefly suspend your preconceptions to contemplate these feelings from a long-time skate parent and audience member who has admired thousands of hours of figure skating. This is the eloquence us folks in the stands yearn for, the skating we desire expressively from your performance. This is the reason we watch you skate.

Absolutely, please express yourself! Choose music that moves and touches your soul, and then expound upon those feelings. Also though be the angel that fosters those feelings in the audience. Your performance should flow from your heart but also from our hearts.

Be flexible about the interpretation: let your personality shine through! We want your read on the music and your insight about these feelings. I don't like coyness or melodrama: just present your own honest personality. Still though we'd prefer some boundaries: don't mock the music, the lyrics, the audience, or the skating. Be a performance artist and stop being a show-off.

If you choose a piece with lyrics, primarily skate the meaning of the lyrics first and then skate the feeling of the music secondarily. Avoid a piece with a chorus of more than two occurrences (as this reduces your originality).

Speaking of that, show some ingenuity! Try a new leg or arm sweep, clap your hands, stomp a foot, wiggle your shoulders. Once is interesting. The second time you use the gesture for emphasis, but if you dare repeat it a third time then it is no longer cute but rather boring me to death.

Stay on the music... don't lag a half beat behind it and don't telegraph your move a half beat ahead either.

Does your program tell a story? It should have a lead in, build to a climax, and then finish gracefully or with a touch of class. Strive for a graceful overall presentation (or if you're a guy aim for a classy presentation).

And finally, keep us entranced. Keep me hypnotized throughout your program without distracting thoughts or fallouts. When you finish I should have that shocking feeling of rediscovering myself in an audience of hundreds of people, where moments before I was your virtual partner on the ice.

Personality, Expressiveness, Lyrics treatment, Appropriateness, Novelty, Ingenuity, Timing, a Full story, Grace (or class for a man), Hypnotism. Is all that too much to ask from your choreography? Exactly.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

- accessorized

It's not unusual to bring along an accessory to enhance a dramatic skating program. A hat (top or beret), a scarf (or two), a cane (or a baton), an umbrella (or a parasol), a twirly ribbon, an Asian silk folding hand fan, a fake microphone (or a megaphone), I've seen all of these. Sometimes it seems that the skater brought the prop along just to support the mood already established with the theme of the music, but I've seen a couple of devices that when used actually do add a bit of glamour or some other interesting flavor to a skater's elements.

I can't say though that skating with an umbrella or parasol adds that much to the panache of your performance. Unless you can manage to spin it in the opposite direction over your head as you execute a fast spin (and good luck with that) a parasol just doesn't have much graceful glamor to it.  Plus skating with an open umbrella seems like a particularly difficult task, as the air pressure provides such uneven resistance depending on your direction and the umbrella's tilt.

Skating with a cane or baton is easy enough, and a good little trick is to attach a leather band to the handle to make it easier to twirl. If you're going to carry a cane about the rink then really use it though!  Tap it here and there, twirl it some, use it as a pivot in a move. Please though don't throw it into the air to catch it. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've seen the timing on a program royally screwed up by a dropped baton. And even if you can toss and catch it 90 percent of the time during freestyle, your chances are only about 30 percent during the competition. And if you set it down for some other elements just be sure that you don't lose it in the process -- back gliding over a dropped cane can result in a fairly serious injury!

Many times I've seen somebody skate with one or two small collapsible accordion silk hand fans. You know, the kinds with drawings of Asian bamboo or flowers or dragons. Fans add quite a bit of expressiveness but it takes a bit of practice to control expanding and collapsing them effectively, especially when you're on the move. They are also easy enough to tuck into an elastic band to secure them in place when you want them hidden (stage trick: Velcro).

Skating with hand-held scarves or gauzy trailing things can create some nice visual effects (you know what I mean, those ribbons of lightweight floaty fabric that you hold in your hands or tie to your wrists).  I'm not talking about the ribbon that gymnasts are fond of using for their routine, a long narrow tape on a stick. Although you can use one of those too if you'd like. The real issue with skating with a gymnasts ribbon is that to be effective you really need to keep it moving the entire time, as (aside from dropping it on the ice) there's no convenient way to get the thing out of the way. So that means if you use one, your entire routine is pretty much about the ribbon.

Most popular though seems to be ribbons or swaths of gauzy fabric, but these though aren't without their own problems.  Solid props are much better behaved as they go where you place them; anything with fabric though tends to have a mind of its own.  This is especially a problem on any kind of spin. I was at one event where a skater managed to unintentionally wrap a rather wide chiffon around her head during a spin, and then had to grapple it away before moving onward.  If you're going to skate with something gossamer you need to plan ahead for every spin and jump and decide how you're going to secure the thing, either with some attention to wrapping it around a body part, temporarily scrunching it, releasing it for later, or holding it far enough away that it doesn't become an issue.

Finally, one of the nicer effects I've seen is to attach a somewhat wider swath of chiffon to the tines of a fan.  That way you get a more controlled and sustained width of fabric fluttering about. Again though this makes stowing it away a bit of an issue.

Whatever prop you use, plan the trajectory of its use carefully across the length of your program, and be sure to use it in a way that really adds value to what you're trying to present.