People always seem to key in on the same piece of information on my resume. The notation mentioning that I earned a bronze-medal in ice dancing from the United Stated Figure Skating Association always seems to impress, even though I go out of my way to explain the lowliness of that specific award.
My parents first took me to South Mountain Arena in West Orange, New Jersey when I was five and I quickly developed a dream of becoming an Olympic skater.
Later, as an overweight adolescent, the aspiration remained, and even though I had never seen any pudgy athletes waiting for a medal to be placed around their necks, I could still picture the event quite clearly in my mind.
However, I realized my world was nothing like that of the kids who were real competitors. Though my parents would schlep me to a rink several times each week, they refused to let me take the sport too seriously. In retrospect, they did me a favor, but it would be years before I understood their logic.
I loved the graceful, elegant figure skaters, and especially admired the pairs and dance couples who flew to reverberating orchestral music in perfect unison, on good days. Though, I was also on hand to see them collapse in screaming heaps on the hard ice, blaming one another for the error that had deposited them on their butts, teaching pros and parents encouraging them to calm down and get on with it, since each and every one of them harbored the hope – almost as wildly absurd as winning the Powerball Lottery – that they would one day find themselves staring down from an Olympic podium, gold medals shinning as the crowd sang the national anthem.
Because I was a not at the rink on a daily basis, most of these children rarely spoke to me. The pecking order was strictly set. Anybody who was not part of this elite group of Olympic hopefuls was often snubbed, though not because the serious skaters weren’t interested in mingling with those of us who were mere hobbyists. I didn’t understand until later the often-wistful looks I caught from some of these kids when they’d pass those of us who were skating just for fun.
One special skater was Tommy, who my girlfriends and I would watch surreptitiously, transfixed by his skills on the ice and the abundance of sensuality he oozed. I was equally amazed by the way he fit into both skating worlds. On one hand, Tommy was an ice dancer who skated with his sisters when they needed a partner. But he wore no sparkling, billowy-sleeved costume. During practice sessions, Tommy often appeared in black jeans and a white T-shirt, sometimes with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in his sleeve. Then, he would swap out that attire for hockey gear. He’d take the ice as a defender, popping and checking opponents into the boards, tough and illusive, his figure-skating skills making him almost impossible to catch or knock down.
One day at the start of a dance session, I was standing by the boards when the announcement came over the intercom that the opening dance would be a Dutch Waltz. As skaters were lining up at either end of the ice to begin the simple pattern of cross-overs and swing rolls, Tommy streaked by and grabbed my hand. As there was always a dearth of male skaters – most of the girls had to perform the patterns alone – I was delighted at the prospect of having a partner.
Tommy stood slightly behind me and to the left, placing his right hand solidly on my waist. I placed my right hand on top of his. Then he held his left hand out for me to take, as courteously as a medieval knight. When I grasped his hand in mine, he pulled me tightly to him, close enough that I could smell the warm scent of nicotine on his breath. In proper Kilian dance position there would have been a demure space between us, but Tommy held me as close to his body as our skates would allow.
The introduction to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz with its deliberate 3/4 time echoed from the loudspeakers. All the skaters straightened up, preparing to launch themselves into the dance. Tommy and I pushed off. We turned and whirled and for the first time I paid no attention to my feet. Though the Dutch Waltz was the simplest of all the dances, I felt like I was flying.
I would get to know some of the other skaters, because Tommy introduced me to them. And I sensed that while I admired their world, they admired mine. I had something that none of them had: freedom. Skating was all they were allowed to do. They didn’t attend summer camp or participate in Scouts. They didn’t go to football games or act in plays or spend idle times just walking in the woods with the dog. Some of them didn’t even go to school: their educations handled by private tutors who worked around their skating and ballet lessons and hours of ice time. They had no holidays. Some would tell me they practiced 365 days a year. For them skating was a prison, where they were constantly observed by parents and coaches.
I sensed a kinship with a girl who, one day, while under her mother’s watchful eye, still managed to slip some coins into a vending machine. She pushed a button behind her back, gathered up a Snickers bar that had dropped into the tray, unwrapped it, and shoved the entire snack into her mouth without her mother noticing.
Perhaps it’s hard to blame what today we would call helicopter parents for their vigilance. The financial investment in creating a world-class skater is astronomical, equivalent to an Ivy League education. Still, I wonder how many of those kids chose that life. Or, if given the chance, would have preferred something else.
As I got older, I finally appreciated not being part of that world. I would have missed out on so many things had I been forced to focus on skating alone. Perhaps I should thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to branch out.
Still, I have never quit admiring the beauty and grace of ice skating.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
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