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.

Monday, July 15, 2019

- rationalizing the expense

I spent eight hundred dollars on skates today for my daughter. It wasn't a big deal, but at the same time that shows how far I've become acclimated to the whole socialization and industry of skating. I don't question the value, for considering the effort that goes into making the boots and the blades, and given a reasonable markup for everyone involved in the process, I suppose that the price is fair enough. And yet a little voice lingers at the back of my head that says "hey, I only pay one hundred dollars a year for my own health club membership." Sigh. Well, I suppose it's the privilege of having a daughter.

The issue with raising daughters of course is that, as a father, you are responsible for setting the tone of their demeanor; you create an aura of approval or disapproval about how they present themselves to men. So to an extent supporting ice skating is a statement: a stamp of approval to a concept and an approach. You are saying Go for the grace, Go for the art, A positive work ethic is admirable. $800? A bargain at even twice the price.

(repost and ed. note: this was fifteen years ago. . . what do new skates cost today?)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

- otherwise

Skating fills a unique niche, a blend of artistic expression and athletics: somewhere between dance, poetry, and theater. When figure skating projects art, the negative-space perspective of the sport is exactly concordant with the positive-space; skating is as abstract as possible while simultaneously as concrete as physically attainable.

Deep inside the bowels of the sport however, the grounds are brewing bitter. Behind the scenes at your local rink the spirals gloss past a quietly seething dismay. Attendance at the local competitive events verges on nonexistent -- when I last attended a local event I sat with only the six parents from the present flight of skaters and a handful of loyal club members. Skating must be a particularly lonely sport.

Although figure skating is still popular (membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association is near its all-time high) life at the local rink veers far from glamorous. Local ice time mostly is incessant practice of elements and programs, sometimes with the coach, more often alone with a handful of other skaters at a freestyle session, and almost invariably amongst ladies, with maybe one or two gentlemen skating around.

Young skaters tend to get drawn to the sport by the glitz of high-end televised IJS competitions. At elite levels however the travel, costume, boots, blades, and coaching fees make the cost prohibitive except for a lucky few. Similar to gymnastics, the sport of figure skating imposes tightly constraining physical limits upon the body types that might be athletically successful. Performance is married to managing one's center of gravity, angular momentum, and balance, and wide variance from the optimal body kinematics renders many advanced moves impossible.

When skaters encounter the difficulty of IJS competitions, the mismatch of their body ideal, and the realities of rink life, while the parents recognize the expense, the deeper understanding of the underlying physics of the sport disenlightens them. Experienced skating students thus find somewhat of a "credibility gap" between what they have seen on televised competitions versus what they might achieve locally.

Figure skating is mostly a ladies sport; of the U.S. skaters aged 13 to 18 (the serious competitive ages) ladies outnumber men seven to one, and many of those men are in pairs or dance. Hence overwhelmingly a local competition is ladies skating solo. In IJS events they are mostly skating jumps trying to accumulate points. Yeah there's a sit spin quickly up to a Biellmann and a camel spin to a donut in there somewhere, yet the constraints of scoring prevent any programs from being particularly inventive. Watching a local event is mostly skate-jump-skate-jump-skate-jump followed by a couple minutes of wrestling out the score. Repeat sixty times. Yawn. This is why nobody attends local IJS competitions any more.

There are, however, other artistic things to do on ice; as IJS has squeezed the ladies solo side of the sport into local irrelevance these alternative activities have grown in popularity. "Showcase" events scored on 6.0 present duets, small ensembles, theatre on ice, interpretive (extemporaneous), dramatic and comedic skates. The Professional Skaters Association is an entryway to shows such as Disney on Ice or similar private touring ice companies, and sponsors an annual Open event exhibiting skaters that is free to attend. American Ice Theatre is creating innovative contemporary ice dance ensembles, and private sponsors such as Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton present annual artistic or fundraising events.

Although glimpses of these are on YouTube and Instagram, aside from the British television show Dancing on Ice the other alternatives lack media exposure (it seems there is probably an opportunity here for some enterprising sponsors).

Since these artistic alternatives don't receive much promotional coverage, a better, although longshot possibility, is that the sport of figure skating could change the way they run local competitions to allow for greater variety and creativity within the solo ladies competitive events.

Modifying the skating protocol does however present somewhat of a Catch-22 situation. By tradition or culture, local competitive IJS events tend to mimic the international procedures with high precision. Flight assignments are similar, event staggering, warm ups, rink announcements, down to the details of scoring and judging all follow very structured timings and procedures. What makes sense in terms of a televised worldwide elite event may however be counterproductive for attracting audiences at a local level.

Local events could become much more interesting and achieve broader appeal if we could rework this standard top-to-bottom protocol. Clubs could vary the procedures at local IJS events to allow for relaxed judging and faster turnaround between skaters. Rinks could use automated motion-capture scoring to reduce the burden of hosting teams of judges. The scoring metrics at local events could be changed to de-emphasize the jumps. One could argue that it shouldn't make that much of a difference what methodology you choose to measure athleticism. The point is to promote safe and challenging physical goals, raising the bar for people that are athletically competitive.

To increase variety, IJS flights could be interleaved with "showcase" skating of female-pair duets, small groups, and light-entertainment events with props. In other words, showcase, ISI, and IJS don't have to be held as separate events.

Parents need the supportive recognition that even at local events with lesser cost, their daughters can gain appropriate value from solo skating. It's time to support a skating system that encourages more dance, poetry, and theater. And for the sake of the sport (and the audience) fewer jumps would be better.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

- lull

Unless you are skating to Flight of the Bumblebee or something equivalently vigorous, most likely your program has a couple dips or pauses in the music, a couple of spots where you can catch your breath and strike a pose. Hey dear, don't just stand there! This is the place for captivating subtle hand expressions and audience mental capture. Smile, make your point, complete the flourish of the music or hint where you are heading next.

At a pause in your music, your artistic expressiveness shouldn't lull.

Monday, April 15, 2019

- arm calculus

My daughter once pointed out to me that if the athleticism of skating is in the legs, then certainly the grace of skating is in the arms. Indeed regardless of their program, you can pretty much identify who is skating just by watching her arm style.

If you were to break it down into micro-analytic pieces you'd have to say that a skater's arm style (her armamentation?) consists of camber, clock angle, motion control, rhythmics, and dynamics. Getting all of these "right" is quite a challenge.

Start with camber: how straight, uplifted and parallel your arms are with the ice. You develop this from your shoulder strength. Droopy arms? I like the weight machines where you sit facing the pad, grab the handles and then pivot up the cylindrical pads with your elbows (straight shoulder presses seem to me to be too hard on your spine). Train for strong shoulders to keep those arms elevated.

Once your arms are up there it still takes lots of practice to anchor your awareness so that your body movement doesn't destabilize the arm positions.

Clock angle is how the arms extend from your trunk when viewed from above. Naturally the expectation is that they point at 3 and 9 o'clock (straight out sideways). I have occasionally seen a slightly closed arm, say at 2 o'clock instead. Far more common though seems to be arms that are correctly "opposed" and yet twisted to the body, at 4 and 10, for example. Unless you saw yourself on video though I don't know how you'd even become aware of such a thing. It seems common enough that I figure most coaches don't bother to correct it.

Now that you're 3 and 9 and elevated parallel to the ice, we can think about movement. Go watch some ballet and pay attention: arm movements are both meticulously deliberate and tightly controlled. Except for specific reasons of expressive pose they aren't frozen in place: they always have either slow rhythm or directive intent. Except on your spiral I don't want to see you glide with your arms outstretched and fixed like airplane wings. Nor do I want to witness you windmilling or flapping your arms like a bird the entire time either. Your arms should strive for ballet aesthetics.

Finally your arm movements should vary in speed: they should have dynamics. Sometimes your arms move slowly, sometimes they move more quickly. But it's also nice when the change in dynamics is smooth: the transition from slow arms to fast arms should be gradual. For you calculus fans out there, the second derivative of arm movement speed is best when very small.

Monday, March 11, 2019

- skate personality stew

Many of the young teen ladies at the rink get torn between their art and their desires to achieve certain technical aspects of their performance. This conflict seems to span four dimensions. On one axis you have the battle toward artistic expression, on another vector you get the strivings for technical accomplishments, on the third axis you have the whole issue of body shape, and finally you encounter the issue of fitting in with society's expectations for a young lady (at their age mostly their parents' expectations, but there can also be peer "drama" here as well). It is a rather complicated formula of flavors, and the most successful skaters have a lot on their plate.

How does the mixing and matching of forces create the personality of the skater? The big popular shows with hundreds and thousands of viewers -- the finals that you see on TV -- really don't do anything for the skaters. It is art of course, and it is a performance with all of the inherent issues of performance-art. But it is too big and noisy for the skaters to gain much critical value out of the process for themselves.

The small practice sessions though (the club events in front of the parents) are really where learning and social processes transpire. For one thing, the club events are small enough that the skaters can pay attention to the thoughts of the audience. They get immediate feedback about the impact of their performance. But more important is the peculiar characteristic of the audience itself: these observers see hours upon hours upon hours of skating. They know every move and they pay attention to the flexing of every muscle and the impact of every jump on each joint and bone. They are not easily impressed and they aren't distracted much by costuming flash... they comprehend the amount of effort and practice that goes into each and every move. And they all have the skaters' best interests at heart.

How the skater interacts with this smaller audience then influences her choices, which then determines her path. Each skater faces a choice of focus between art and technical merit. It isn't exactly a trade-off one-for-one; it is possible to advance both (and in fact the best skaters do advance both). At the middling stage though -- that point where a skater has reasonable control of her body, a fair number of moves and skills, and some experience performing on the ice -- you quickly see that a skater tends to drift toward one seasoning or another.

They can drift toward the flavor of being technically competitive, where they battle each other to see who can spin the fastest or do the most complicated laybacks or be the first to land a triple Axel consistently. Or they can drift to the aroma of showmanship, where they provide graceful entertainment to the audience.

Sometimes a gal is "pre-selected" for the competitive bent, either by her body build or by the influence of her parents. The more robust girls -- the large-boned -- have natural impediments to achieving much of the technical expectations. And yet they often are adequately compensated by being blessed with a certain amount of grace and artistic expression. Some of the more lankly gals don't have a lot of grace, but their physics allow them superior technical ease.

So all in all it’s a big complicated stew.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

- smoothe

While watching some intermediate skaters in Pasadena, I was most impressed by a particular gentleman who stroked more smoothly than I had ever seen. I will see if I can describe it in enough detail to give you a sense of the effect of this approach. The technique seems to extend somewhat beyond what one would learn straight up in a stroking class. I saw an article about this type of skating once by a Russian ice dance team (it may have even been called Russian stroking), but I can no longer find its reference. In any case let me describe the impression I got and you can take it from there.

If you were to take a high-speed camera and some LED lights marking an outline of a skater's boot on a single solitary stroke, and then graph them onto a piece of paper, I expect (for the typical skater) you would see a slanting line extending downward at more or less constant velocity, of approximately a fixed angle of descent. It would look like a wedge, or the hypotenuse of a triangle, until the skate hit the ice. This is well and good and is rather what one would expect from managing the leg muscles at a constant rate of extension. I doubt it is mechanically optimal and it doesn't look particularly elegant.

Now picture a graph of a curve that starts more steeply and then gets shallower, approaching the floor axis more and more gradually. In math we say that the curve has an asymptote, like a graph of y = 1/x. Is it possible to have each stroke appear this way?  In my lifetime I have seen perhaps two people in person skate like this, and it is quite a striking visual effect. It makes it appear that they are achieving very high transfer-of-energy productivity to the ice, with little or no wasted impact friction. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

- a fix

Once in a while I get to thinking about the state of the "sport" and although I am now actually outside looking in, I do still get somewhat cheesed off at skating today compared to my recollections of its grace and class when l was younger. At the same time, aside from joining the cacophony of bloggers who feel the same and create electronic messages that flow into reader's brains, is there much else that I can do about the present morass? Well yes, unfortunately so. I could found an alternative to ISU.

As I am by profession however a software geek and nominally by free-choice a writer, let's consider this for now just a thought experiment. Would it be possible, what might it achieve, and where would we encounter the major challenges. After reading this if you, as a studious parliamentarian, feel so motivated as to actually carry out these tasks then you have my blessings (and more power to you).

So I hereby propose the Youth Performing Skaters Organization -- the YPSO if you will. Its targeted beneficiaries are youth aged 8 to 20 who regularly skate artistically in front of an audience. Its charter is to promote the long-term comfort, safety, and satisfaction of the participants (including their parents, coaches, and audience members) and to guide the harmonization of rules and services promulgated by the national level skating organizations that may overlap in scope.

Yeah I know, boring bureaucratic hogwash. Yet it's focused to specific ends that the present hierarchy isn't. So say that you're all on board with this. Now what? Well to actually establish such a thing you need to bootstrap a group of relevant and interested experts and participants and create some actual bylaws. I suppose you could do this with a Kickstarter project or some such tool; say you set a funding goal of having a hundred prospective members each providing $1000. Donors who agree to abide by the charter and who pass a certain amount of vetting become "charter members" and get to create the bylaws.

Of course you'd want to assure a fair mix of representative interests: singles skaters, pairs, dance, ice theater, and their respective coaches. Some trainers and sports medicine folks. A couple language and cultural boffins. Some marketing and media types. A few rink owners, a renewable energy representative. And some skate parents, naturally.

So there you go, now you have a group of folks to work with. You next need to mutually create and agree to the bylaws that specify how YPSO will run, keep and suspend members, organize standing committees, hold meetings, resolve problems, yada yada. A good six months of wrestling with best practices and attorneys, certainly.

Then comes the real work.

YPSO will need some initial regular fundraising, with all the politics that implies. It will need to deal with the rules and legalities for a disciplinary committee. It will need to develop a scorekeeping methodology and scoring software. It will need to handle contract negotiations with vendors and media. It will need to establish accounting for startup travel costs and justification for a future budget. It will need to handle auditing and credentialing, copyrights and IP legal matters, and create policies that promote comfort, health and safety. Finally it can think about curation and musing of the art form.

Heck I'm not saying it would be easy, and after the bylaws are established you've still probably got a solid two years of work before you produce anything influential, but it's a start. Of course it's easier to blog concerns and flay one another with comments, but when blades scritch ice the Doing will trump the Writing. Just saying.