Movement, alignment and more
I wrote the It Figures! blog from 2011-2015 and published it on my own site, IceArtistry.com. I was working as a figure skating coach and choreographer, as I had been for over 20 years. A skater who grew up during the figures era, I spent a decade learning and practicing figures. As a coach, I found figures to be an efficient way to help students learn a core set of skills and establish a good foundation for advanced figure skating. The students enjoyed the classes, too.
In the blog, I also explored other topics relevant to skaters and coaches, including dance, movement education, and physical therapy. Along my journey as a skater and coach, I studied ballet, modern dance and a variety of movement and somatic practices. I became a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CMA), GYROKINESIS® method instructor, and Registered Somatic Movement Educator (RSME). As I bring the blog to a new location, I’m making small changes and dividing the original posts into two categories: figures and movement. I no longer coach on the ice, but I still believe the figure 8 is great!
GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® are registered trademarks of the Gyrotonic Sales Corp and are used with its permission.
“Stand up straight! Get your hips under you! Stretch your free leg!”
How many skaters and coaches have heard - or said - these phrases? Probably most of us! Good posture and alignment are essential for balanced, graceful skating. Many skaters train off the ice in gyms, dance studios and gymnastic centers to develop strength, agility and flexibility. In this blog post, I interview physical therapist Kristen Spencer on Postural Restoration, an innovative approach to physical therapy and sport training that offers new ways to understand and improve strength, flexibility and alignment. (Lest we forget figures...Kristen discusses figures as a reciprocal activity that can help skaters maintain good body mechanics.)
Discovering Postural Restoration
I learned about Postural Restoration from physical therapist Sheila Farrell, who treated me for skating-related aches and pains. Traditional tests revealed no serious injury, but treatments that had previously helped me stay strong and in balance were no longer working for me. Sheila referred me to Kristen because she felt that Postural Restoration might be the thing I needed after years of landing jumps on one leg, spinning in one direction and falling. Kristen uses Postural Restoration to assess and rehabilitate skaters and many athletes. Her work helped me return to the ice without pain and has given me new tools to observe and understand the body in movement.
Internal Asymmetry + Asymmetrical Sports = Challenges to Optimal Athletic Performance
In our efforts to improve both form and function, we may overlook a key component of alignment: our internal anatomy, in particular the asymmetrical placement of our internal organs. How we’re built on the inside influences how our bodies function in life and sport. Most sport activities also involve asymmetrical movements. Postural Restoration takes into account both internal and external asymmetries that can cause poor performance, pain and injury.
Typical Imbalances Seen in Figure Skaters
In figure skaters, Kristen sees several alignment issues and muscle imbalances, including: poor alignment in the pelvis, hip impingement, weak and over-stretched hamstrings, weak gluteal muscles, too much extension (arch) in the lower back and limited access to full, three dimensional movement.
Understanding Strength and Flexibility
Kristen’s work with me led me to think differently about strength and flexibility. Poor positioning or alignment can lead to incorrect assessments of strength and flexibility and can result in overusing or over-stretching muscles.
Reciprocal Activities to Encourage Symmetry
Postural Restoration gives us ways to move toward symmetry and balance while acknowledging that asymmetry will always be present. Kristen talks about the value of reciprocal activities to encourage symmetry, proper joint position and muscle balance. Walking is a reciprocal activity. Skaters can use figures as a reciprocal activity.
Restoring Posture, Maintaining Good Mechanics
Once we achieve good joint position and muscle balance, we can safely take on greater challenges on the ice and in the gym, while acknowledging that perfect posture will remain an ideal rather than a reality. By becoming more aware of our structure, we may also recognize our limitations and decide not to force movements or positions that will likely lead to injury (even if a Level 4 Layback requires those positions; even if another skater can easily achieve those positions.)
Posture is a complex concept. Misconceptions about posture, strength and flexibility still exist. Postural Restoration is one of many valuable tools for skaters. Future posts will include information on other approaches to improve both form and function on the ice. In the meantime, keep practicing figures!
2011, 2016 © Jaya Kanal all rights reserved
“Always stay on the pulse. Take all of your bones in the same direction. And never drop your weight!”
Such were the words of one of my teachers at the Erick Hawkins School for Dance in New York City*. Although I discovered the school some years after Mr. Hawkins had passed away, I was drawn to his approach to dance because his dancers were very light on their feet. They moved with ease, flow and supple elegance. By then, over a decade had gone by since I practiced figures and freestyle for hours each day and studied Ballet twice weekly to enhance my skating experience.
I skated and coached part-time during college. After graduation, I focused on my “real job” as a software trainer/network manager. My weekend warrior habits - working at a desk by day, and then hopping onto the ice in the evening to skate as if I were still training - began to catch up with me. I relied on “muscle memory,” although my muscles lacked the strength I once took for granted. When I saw the Hawkins dancers, I wanted to learn to move the way they moved. I ditched the desk job and became a beginner again: humbling, yes, but it was also a lot of fun!
I incorporate many of the principles from those classes into my skating and teaching, including the attention to “lift” - proper use of the legs, feet and core muscles, which helps achieve my teacher’s instruction to “never drop your weight.” Lift gives us access to good balance over our feet, so that we can shift our weight smoothly, with stability, whether into the air during a jump, around a curved edge, or while spinning in a challenging position. We can bend and extend without excess force. It also helps us create a look or style desired in figure skating: strong and into the ice, yet floating and soaring above it.
What is Lift?
Lift is a very un-scientific term that generally refers to the way we balance our torso on our legs and our head atop our spine; how light or heavy on our feet we appear to be; and, our relationship to the pull of gravity and the effects of centrifugal force. Do we collapse, create too much tension, or find that “just right” quality that makes skating look easy? Creating lift requires proper use of the core and leg muscles, but there’s more to it than that.
To get more information on what lift is and how to do it well, I contacted another teacher of mine, Carol Boggs, M.AmSAT. Carol works as a movement and massage therapist, as well as a teacher of Laban Movement Analysis and the Bartenieff Fundamentals and the Alexander Technique. A former dancer, she assists a wide range of clients - from skaters and dancers to singers, actors and office workers - who seek improved posture, relief from physical pain, and more efficient, effective movement.
Carol cautions me not to over-simplify my definition of lift. It’s a complex process. As teachers, if we reduce our explanations too much, such as with the terms “tuck under and pull up” or “press your belly button onto the front of your spine” we risk giving the student a misperception of lift and core stability that results in static positions and too much tension, rather than a dynamic alignment that can adapt as needed for a given skill. She encourages me to think of lift in terms of the relationship of the torso to the legs, rather than memorizing a correct position to hold or muscle action to do. She says,
“How can we effectively supply support to the trunk [torso] and get the right relationship (not position) between the trunk and the legs?”
Because of the complexity of this process, the concept of lift often gets simplified, but she feels that over-simplifying results in
“extra labor, excess tension, too much holding, too much movement restriction, not enough plasticity in your whole body to do things like absorb the landing out of a jump.”
She has worked with fitness professionals who mastered these over-simplified movement patterns and ended up injured.
Carol gives me an image to play with: she asks me to imagine myself in a one piece swimsuit. The swimsuit covers my torso. I imagine my torso - including my pelvis - balancing on my legs, so that I am, in her words:
“riding high on your femurs [thigh bones], creating spaciousness by moving the whole torso into full suspension, balancing the head on the spine and the torso on the legs.”
As I play with this image, I can feel my hip and lower abdominal muscles activating a bit, along with my inner thigh muscles and upper chest and back, too. I notice that I instinctively lengthened my legs without locking the knees. I feel as if I just got a little bit taller. Remembering an instruction from a Hawkins teacher who used to say during our plié exercises, “lift to lower!”, I bend my knees into a demi plié, while keeping the swimsuit image in my mind. A soft, elastic bend - no forcing or pushing down. On the ice, I explore this image and find that I have to apply more strength to bend and extend, especially when skating fast, but even so, the image gives me the essence or “gist” of what my body requires to lift and balance over my leg and my skate.
Lift to Create a “Whispering Edge”
In her book, Echoing Whispers on Ice, champion Janet Lynn asks,
“Do you hear the gentle whisper of a glide?” She describes “a delightful whispering sound when a figure skater performs an edge, change-of-edge, turn, basic stroking, crossover, jump, spin or change of feet with satisfying precision.”
She also discusses lift and the training needed for skaters to develop lift for correct skating technique, supple grace, as well as safety when jumping and landing. Although she did not enjoy studying compulsory figures in her youth, she explains that figures and edge work formed the foundation for her joyful, light-on-her-feet free skating.
The whispering edge serves as an effective image for students. Skaters prone to bearing down too hard on an edge jump takeoff, for example, can make subtle adjustments to the quality of their takeoff edge. I’ve borrowed this image to use with students and watched them make beneficial shifts in takeoffs of double and triple edge jumps.
Using Figures to Discover Lift
By practicing figures, we can use slow, gentle skating to discover and develop lift or suspension over the blade. Once developed, skaters can start to apply lift to fast skating and complex skills. Many skaters sit into the hip and collapse in their torso when they first attempt a FO or BO 8, and even for advanced skaters, loop figures and field moves present a real challenge!
* Many thanks to the wonderful teachers/former company members at the Erick Hawkins School for Dance, including: Cathy Ward, Katherine Duke, Gloria McLean, Cindy Reynolds, Douglas Andresen and others!
2012, 2016 © Jaya Kanal all rights reserved
“This chair is too hard. This one’s too soft...This one’s just right!”
I often use examples from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears when teaching children. Goldilocks’ discoveries can show us how to recognize a range of possibilities on the way to achieving that “just right” quality. I apply this idea to find the best possible use of strength and stretch for a given skill.
In spirals, spins, or jump landings, I want students to achieve a stable yet centered position or shape, retaining an elastic responsiveness in the body that allows the positions to be both functional and expressive. I draw upon my experiences in dance and movement off the ice for this aspect of my teaching and recently chatted with colleagues and teachers to get their input.
The Three Bears: Flopping, Locking, and Excentering
To help students understand the range between stiff and floppy, I use language I learned from dance and Laban Movement Analysis.
In modern dance classes I attended at the Erick Hawkins School for Dance, I learned about excentering. Excentering, a word coined by Mr. Hawkins, refers to movement that does not initiate from the center of gravity (imagine a beginner skater who has not yet learned to get over the skate or create smooth weight shifts, instead bracing with the arms or waving the arms and free leg wildly to generate momentum.)
Dance professor Michelle Nance, who taught at the Hawkins school, spoke with me about Erick’s “think-feel” philosophy that encourages dancers to be fully present and mindful so as to consciously
“find that balance between tension and release, which promotes efficiency.”
A term I learned through the Laban/Bartenieff system, passive weight, has helped me address floppiness with skaters. I guide the skaters to find an active relationship with gravity, one that promotes balance, ease, and agility - a cat like quality rather than that of a couch potato! The Laban/Bartenieff system also gives me a variety of ways to help skaters use spatial clarity in their movement to improve body line and stability.
For the skaters who have a stiff or rigid quality, I look at factors that influence the skater to stabilize in this way. Sometimes, they equate stability with bracing the muscles or locking into the end of their range of movement, such as in a spiral or camel spin. Can they achieve stability without becoming locked or rigid? Movement Therapist and Alexander Technique teacher Carol Boggs explains:
We think of stable as being not mobile, and stable as being no movement, quiet, frozen, rigid, stiff. They are in a certain way stable, but they are not very responsive. You lose the capacity to respond when you over-stabilize.
She also discusses the risks of locking a weight-bearing joint to achieve stability or extension:
If you have a canal that is designed to carry water, and you close and lock the canal, the water can’t get through. If you close and lock your [standing] knee, then the information from body to blade and blade to body is not well communicated - all of this needs to happen in a dynamic way...the dynamic balance of the leg through the knee means you’re in neutral balance in the knee, which gives the most communication possible from body to blade and blade to body.
Carol clarifies that locking the free leg does not pose a problem:
“It’s really not a problem if you are referring only to a non-weight bearing leg, in other words the leg that’s in the air - if you’re trying for a nice line.”
Relating Instead of Compensating
In many cases, the skater’s habit to flop or lock has to do with body type. Several students of mine have very hyperextended knees. When they straighten their legs completely, they achieve extra range but struggle to stay connected to center. Mine are a bit hyperextended, too, and as a child I used to push back as far as I could into my knees. It felt good, and not doing it felt bent. As Carol explains, when we hyperextend, we may end up compensating rather than finding an optimal relationship between the torso and legs:
What you’re really talking about is the relationship of the supporting leg to the torso. There is a through line that is identifiable, and we need to learn how to find that and how to use it, but if you depend on the range of the hyperextension that you have, if you depend on the end point for thinking that your leg is straight, what that does is cause compensation. If my knee hyperextends back...it’s not good for the joint...something has to counterbalance by going forward...a compensation pattern going on through the whole mechanism.
GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® method Master Trainer Hsiao-Fang Lee and dance professor Karen Studd, who also serves on the faculty of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS), talked with me about pushing or locking the knee back vs. lengthening and engaging the thigh muscles to straighten the leg (dancers sometimes refer to this as lifting the kneecap). Karen says, “Locking sends the knee back in space. Straightening the extended leg is more related to its length component not its depth...locking the knee...is a pattern of compression rather than of tensegrity.” Carol reminds me that in order for this action to be done effectively, torso support must accompany the knee extension:
“A dynamic balance in the knees is entirely dependent on...appropriate support within the torso and the relationship of the torso to the legs.”
Extension Frustration - Hypoextension
Movement teacher, Craniosacral and connective tissue therapist, ballet instructor, and LIMS Senior Faculty member, Jackie Hand experienced the opposite of hyperextended knees:
“I have hypo extension, as opposed to hyper extension. The plumb line falls behind my legs when my legs are straight, the opposite of hyperextension. I really had to work hard on pointe. As a young dance student, I tried so hard to please! I used bound flow and muscular tension in working to acquire the desired appearance, setting me up for all sorts of body problems. My oblique popliteal ligament still aches at times from my tightening attempts at achieving a straight leg. Eventually, with intelligent training, my musculature developed to mask it with somewhat stronger, engaged quads and lengthened hamstrings. Variations on reminders to extend my energy through my legs (with spatial intent) and pulling up on my quads, helped. I remember how hard it was at first to feel energy flowing through the back of my knee, to even feel the back of my knee, whether standing or in extension, especially in arabesque.”
Escaping the Bears and Getting Home Safely
Just as Goldilocks escaped from the bears’ house, skaters can find a way out of inefficient, potentially harmful movement patterns and habits. By gaining awareness of the range from floppy to stiff and by learning more about their body’s structure, they can skate in harmony with their body, showcasing their talents and finessing their connection to the ice. “Just right” is different for everyone. It’s a relative term, not an absolute one. When we find “just right,” we also gain freedom to focus on expression and artistry because we have balance and connectedness that we can count on. This makes skating more fun to do and to watch!
Author’s Note: For more information on applications of Hawkins dance and guidance from Alexander Technique teacher Carol Boggs, please see my previous post, “It’s Hip to Lift.”
2013, 2016 © Jaya Kanal all rights reserved.
GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® are registered trademarks of the Gyrotonic Sales Corp and are used with its permission.
“She was able to skate the program the way I saw it in my head.”
Coach Gerard Renaud explained this to me about a former student during one of our many lessons on the Junior programs he created for me. An artist to the core, Mr. Renaud spent an entire lesson working on one arm movement in my long program. I was not doing the movement the way he saw it in his head...he sighed. We kept working on it. At some point, he shared the story of his former student and creative muse, Audrey Weisiger*. She was able to do movements exactly as he wanted them to be done. I believed his words completely, having watched Audrey skate many times. She was a beautiful skater! Her elegant double loops and double lutzes, arms in perfect fifth position over her head, inspired me to learn to do that in my double loops and lutzes - and to envision figure skating as dancing on ice.
Luckily for me, Audrey collaborated with Mr. Renaud on my Junior programs, and at a non-qualifying event in Wilmington, Delaware, I received a trophy for the long program. The award for artistry came as a complete surprise. My name was engraved onto the trophy, below dozens of previous winners.
Years later, while at a competition with a student of mine, I spoke with Audrey, and she shared news of her newest project, Young Artists Showcase/Quest for Creativity. I knew that YAS and Q4C would add a much-needed dimension to our sport and open doors for many skaters.
YAS was born out of Audrey’s creative relationship with choreographer Brian Wright. Before YAS, many of today’s skaters knew Audrey through her role as coach to elite skaters including Michael Weiss and for her technical work in her organization Grassroots to Champions. With YAS, Audrey honors Brian’s legacy and helps carry it forward by introducing new generations of skaters to the creative and choreographic process.
Skaters receive a variety of choreographic challenges, followed by feedback from the judges. The process gives the contestants (YASers as they are affectionately called) opportunities to expand their creative vision and hone their choreographic skills. Many YASers participate multiple years in a row. They perform with one another, and they choreograph for past and future YASers as well as competitive and show skaters. Play and passion form the heart of the YAS experience.
Aud Mama Leads the Way
Choreographer and YASer Amber Van Wyk nicknamed Audrey “Aud Mama.” The name stuck, and it aptly describes Audrey’s role as mentor and guide for the YAS generation. Audrey knows that new dance forms, music, and choreographic styles emerge, and she welcomes the evolution of skating. She encourages skaters to push creative limits while also introducing them to the work of past skating artists and perspectives of former champions. In a recent meeting with Zabato, Anna, and dance professor Dan Joyce, Audrey described showing figure loops to Zabato and Anna. Briefly, our conversation turned to figures and the importance of edge control. YASers often come to the contest with a background in dance, music, and acrobatics. As such, their movement vocabulary is quite rich, but few skaters today have had in-depth exposure to the classic figure skating vocabulary we learned through figures. In the gap lies potential for future YAS challenges - the playful synthesis of old and new, classic and maverick. The cycle of inspiration continues each season. Where will they go next? Stay tuned...
* Note: After Mr. Renaud passed away, Audrey wrote a lovely remembrance of him that was published in PS Magazine and read at his memorial service. In the letter she recounted her transformation from skeptical student to performing artist while working on a program he choreographed. She received a standing ovation for her performance at the U.S. Nationals.
2014, 2016 © Jaya Kanal all rights reserved.