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Trading the Ice for New York City Pavement


A sheet of ice, a metal blade and speed. With each stroke of a blade, the surface melts away, leaving a canvas of etchings. At the same time, a skater experiences that treasured sensation: the ability to glide.

So what happens when there’s no ice and the rinks are closed? During the coronavirus pandemic, the figure skaters of Ice Theater of New York have found their flow by trading ice for concrete and blades for wheels. They’ve taken to the streets — and parks and playgrounds and basketball courts — with inline skates. As Moira North, Ice Theater’s founder and artistic director, cheerfully put it, “It’s making the most of another medium while you wait for the ice to freeze.”

And for rinks to fully reopen. It may not be a frozen lake, but Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park — where several Ice Theater skaters have worked over the past few months — has the feeling of one. In performing these group exercises, they seem to soar like a flock of birds, even though they’re on the pavement. On or off the ice, the movement of skating is transcendent.

The Ice Theater skaters have branched out to other sites, too, a favorite being the World’s Fair Playground in Queens. (The surface is extremely smooth.) Some have even rolled their way across the gleaming floors of Grand Central Station. “I got in trouble,” Jessica Huot, an Ice Theater member, said. “They were like, ‘You can have them on and do things in place but you can’t, like, skate.’ We were hiding in a hallway in the back.”

Sarah France, another skater, said: “That’s what I did, too! I would shoot up and do something and go back to the hallway before they saw.”

At the moment, Ice Theater can’t rehearse as usual at Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers. This fall, the company plans to continue its City Ice Concert series at the Rink at Rockefeller Center and also hopes to present pop-up performances at other outdoor rinks.

At Ice Theater’s studio space, skaters can train on a patch of synthetic ice. At around 16 by 24 feet, the surface is small but allows for jumps and spins. Outdoor skating lets a skater move through space, even if concrete — with the friction it creates — is nowhere as smooth as ice. “Everything moves a little slower and is more labored in a lot of ways,” Ms. France said. “But you still get the idea of glide, which was the thing I missed the most.”

When the pandemic started, skaters in the company started using the Pic Skate, which makes it possible for them to attach their own already broken-in boots to a frame, which has wheels fastened between two blade structures. Instead of a toe pick — the jagged tip of a blade necessary for jumps — there is a rubber ball.

Pic Skates are heavier and higher than a regular figure skate, but they allow you to jump and spin, and with that comes the ability to create an edge by leaning on the sides of the wheel. On a blade, only a small part of its surface makes contact with the ice; when leaning into curves, an edge of the blade is used. (Ice Theater’s edge exercises are inspired by the classes of the great British skater John Curry.) Edge work is the artistry of figure skating; the deeper skaters use their plié and lean into the edge, the more fluid and smooth they can be.

Sally Jeanne Watkins had always heard that Pic Skates were great, but she didn’t anticipate how well they would compare to ice skates. “They’re so so similar in the way they glide, and actually in some ways you’re faster because you can accelerate going downhill,” she said. “In ice skates you’re never actually on a surface that goes down. It’s very freeing.”

Ms. Watkins has been working on jumps — her axel jump with one-and-a-half rotations is a daring feat on concrete — while her split jump, bold and powerful, slices through the air.

Each skater has a specialty. Edison Lai, whom Ms. North discovered when he was working as a guard at Sky Rink, is a freestyle skater who combines elements of figure skating and hockey skating.

“I try to invent my own moves,” he said. “It’s all about experimenting. I’ve spent countless hours just trying to figure out different edges and different moves.”

During the pandemic, he has found his way to little parks when they’re most empty. “Maybe early morning or late at night,” he said. “I go wherever my wheels take me.”

Angela Kim’s focus is on spins, which are especially challenging on inline skates. A blade is delicate; a rubber ball and wheels are not. “When it comes to spinning, there’s this very specific sweet spot in front of the inside blade, so you kind of have to find that and stay on it,” she said. “Of course, friction’s a big part so you can’t spin as fast and as long. But you do find a centering and that kind of centrifugal force if you find the right point. It’s kind of magical. It’s really a 10th of a second but you definitely feel like you’re floating.”

But beautiful skating isn’t about tricks; just as with dance, it’s the moments in between that matter most — transitional steps, deep edges, flow and sweep. You can see it magnificently in Ms. France’s spread eagle, in which a skater glides on turned out feet. “It can be a position of grace and rest,” she said, “or one of power.”

But even for a skater as accomplished as Ms. France, becoming comfortable with inline skates took time. She already had a pair that she bought pre-pandemic; during the second week of the shutdown, she pulled them out and used her living room as her rink. “I have some really classy videos of me not knowing how to stand up,” she said. “Let’s just stand on our feet and not die.”

She focused on the basics of skating, like crossovers and swizzles, or carving the oval shape of a football into the ice. “It took me until the second time to work up the courage go backward.”

Eventually she made her way outside, where the backdrop of the sky and the city puts skating back in nature.

“There’s a big place for unexpected beauty — things that people don’t expect to see,” Ms. France said. “With skating, you’re usually in a rink and it’s very given like, oh, that’s a figure skater. That’s a hockey player. Now you can take your inline skates and skate anywhere where there’s a flat surface. It brings some of the joy of skating out into the sphere of the public.”

Skaters pictured: Sarah France, Jessica Huot, Angela Kim, Edison Lai and Sally Jeanne Watkins.




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