Tracing Figure Eights

A small gang of eager, young skaters hangs off the side of the players’ bench.

Outfitted in snowsuits, oversized mittens and colourful toques tucked under black hockey helmets, they thump their boot-bound feet on the inside of the boards and gaze out across the glistening ice surface.

I imagine they are visualizing the ice flowing under their blades as they pump their legs, glide and spin, as I did when I was their age.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and these kids are waiting to begin their weekly figure skating lesson at the Art and Margaret Fry Recreation Centre in Dawson City.

Angela – a past elite ice dancer from Detroit – and I lead the session. Finished with the older girls (10 to 13 years old), we invite the younger ones (six to 10) to join us on the ice.

“Let’s go!” we shout to the board-kickers.

They file out the door in the players’ bench and hop onto the ice. Arms flailing, giving shrieks of glee, they race down the length of the arena.

Once a week for an hour and a half isn’t a lot for these 12 skaters. The various clubs I belonged to in B.C. during my 18-year figure skating career had several learn-to-skate sessions a week and employed full-time coaches.

Dawson’s sessions fit into a robust hockey schedule in combination with instructor flexibility to carve out an afternoon from day jobs. Luckily, the skaters get weekly practice outside of lessons with school and public skates.

The program is based on Skate Canada’s national learn-to-skate program, CanSkate, which focuses on basic skill development (starting with snowplow stops, advancing to edges, spins and jumps), through a series of badges as groups of skills are mastered.

In sync with the CanSkate manual, over the past three months the skaters have advanced from stopping (shaving snow with one foot at a standstill, then adding a forward glide to the action) and proper falling (beginning at a standstill, like stopping, then adding speed), to spirals (gliding on one foot while extending the other foot behind) and waltz jumps (half a rotation, from forwards to backwards).

After 45 minutes of group instruction, the girls break away for free time. I pull two of the more advanced skaters, Jamie and Emma, aside.

“Wanna learn a toe loop today?” I ask them.

“A what?” they quip.

I demonstrate. Gliding forward on my left foot, I push onto a right inside edge, turn backwards, stick my left toe pick into the ice behind me and kick my right leg by the left, launching into a single rotation and landing backwards.

The figure skater in me feels a pang for the keeners in the group, the ones who tell me they want to be figure skaters.

At a real figure skating club, young skaters grow up listening to the crack of a toe pick meeting the ice, surrounded by dressing room chat about injuries, coaches and skills. It becomes their language.

Meanwhile, a lone figure skating class in Dawson has come and gone through the years, reborn by passionate individuals with the experience and motivation to take it on (as is the case with ballet, piano or any other specialized program in the community).

Although there may enough interest to establish a small club, the inconsistency of teaching and leadership has prevented such organization.

On the other hand, its delicate existence has a magic.

Angela and I use the outlet to give back to our sport, and the skaters get the chance to resume where they left off last year.

This season the girls wear new skates (purchased through the Dawson City Recreation Department and the bake sale funds from earlier this year.) Most do not own a pair of their own boots, so they’ve previously borrowed beaten up public-skate rentals that lack ankle support.

Since the first arena was built in 1902, there has been a vibrant ice sport presence in Dawson. (Which Molly MacDonald looked at in her Looking Back column, “Klondike’s Lost Gold” on December 22, 2011.)

While hockey took a significant presence, records of ice schedules indicate there was also a type of “skating club”. In addition, mention of “skating parties” and “ice carnivals” frequent pages of historical text on the Klondike.

A “carnival” may be excessive for our current resources. However, we are in the process of planning a spring “show” for the parents – a choreographed routine featuring skills to music.

The downside of a natural rink is that lasts only as long is the exterior temperature can keep it frozen. The upside, being north of 60, is that the season runs from late November to sometime in April – nearly half the year.

We’ll take another month, then curtsy.

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