Jennifer Wester: Why I Skate

Hoyt-2008-1101-0398 450by Jennifer Wester

Jennifer Wester is a former competitive ice dancer who competed at international events representing the United States.  She is a student at Yale University and the Skating Class Director at Newington Arena in Newington, CT. 

One of my strongest memories of being a skater is from the very first rink in which I trained in Dallas, Texas — The Ice Gardens at the Plaze of the Americas. There was a food court, hotel, and two 25 story glass faced office buildings that surrounded, and were linked by, the 12 story glass atrium in which the ice rink sat. Rainbows cast down onto the ice surface at various points of the day from large hanging prisms in the windows that filtered in sunlight. A tropical landscape with tall palm trees surrounded the plexiglass panels that simultaneously held the ice in and acted as handrails for unsteady skaters. Pedestrian bridges stretched diagonally above this lower level, connecting the second floor elevator platform with building entrances. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people could see the ice surface. And there I stood, on display skating, performing, in the middle of it all.

That entire space held my audience, in my mind. I was only 11 and didn’t have a huge bag of tricks, but I would put music on and dance across the ice in my blue plastic rental skates, making up my own routines and trying out new skills for hours at a time. It was a super-sized stage for an entirely amateur skater with big dreams. I could get lost skating — playing pretend. I was a pop star, a country singer, a circus act, a comedian.

When I eventually had to leave that rink to begin training in more serious environments, it didn’t feel the same. Other ice rinks, the typical ice rink, are housed in warehouse like buildings with only a few bleachers surrounding the ice surfaces, which are entirely confined by thick, opaque plastic boards and high plexiglass panels scuffed from flying hockey pucks. Everything in that environment had to be regimented, focused on the competitive routine or next test session. Improv no longer had its place. I found myself training hard, improving, but frustrated. I was incredibly disappointed with how much less satisfying entertaining four corrugated metal and cinder block walls felt.

Perhaps unsurprising, a few months later, I quit.

My mom must have known that it wasn’t the activity that had exhausted me. After two weeks of rest, she took me back to the rink under the guise that she’d already paid for the lesson (so I had to attend). Unbeknownst to me, she’d asked my coach to let me do whatever I wanted during that lesson, to whatever music I wanted. My coach for that lesson wasn’t my instructor, he was my audience. My wondrous, free little world where the laws of motion feel optional and the air acts as a dance partner came flooding back to me. As it turned out, I really missed skating. I missed the freedom of movement skating allows.
I never quit again.

IMG 2417 t300*** Think for a moment about riding in a car and sticking your hand out the window. Air currents will lift it and push it back, suspend it by what seems like an invisible structure. These currents are created by a combination of your hand’s size and the speed at which the car’s motion is forcing it to displace air in order to continue traveling with you. While this example is aided by the speed generated by a car engine, our bodies’ movements create invisible wind currents in the air around us all the time. Air can perpetuate a motion or counter it. It makes it self present at some times and undetectable at others. Generally, we just know that the faster we travel, the more we feel the air pushing against us, slowing us down.

Sliding on a wood floor in socks; rolling down the sidewalk on a skateboard; driving in a convertible — ‘the wind in our hair’ — are all everyday activities that ignite our sense of the air around us and our bodies in it. I wave my arm in the air and feel the wind I create as I do so.

As kids, we learn all sorts of things about wind and air. We analyze how the motion of air affects our world on a large scale by studying the formation of a storm or temperature changes. We look at tornados and the damage to buildings done by straight line winds. We learn about the composition of earthly air and why its important to our bodies. Similarly, in physics lessons we learn about friction, motion, momentum, velocity, and gravity. We learn that complex forces work on us to limit our muscular abilities. But we rarely take the time to notice how air is manipulated by each movement me make, how we play with air.
Skating around an ice rink, the wind I create is in my hair. I don’t just breath the air or displace it. I dance with it. Creative movements abound as I speed along. My body will traverse most surfaces much like yours, by lifting and planting its way along — an intricate series of muscular contractions working against forces to lift and move me in my desired direction. The faster I want to travel, the more I streamline my movements, minimize my air resistance, and strengthen my muscular force. If I increase the creativity of my movement, by dancing for instance, its at the cost of continuing my speed of travel. I must prioritize: speed or creativity. Remain almost stationary and dance, or constrain and focus my movements to travel. The ratio of speed to creative movement on the ice however, is completely altered from that confining me on other surfaces.
As I speed across the ice on one foot, sweeping my arms in a circular motion, the air brushes my cheeks and lifts my hair. I turn to feel my arms pushed in the direction from which I came as the air rushes past my torso. I extend a leg, change feet, make another motion, and then let my limbs hang completely still and just feel the air rushing past me.

One of my favorite sensations is traveling along the ice surface while standing completely still. My blades carry me along a world ruled by different standards. Speed and wind are ingredients to my expressive movements on the ice, rather than opponents to it, as they would be off the ice. To go exceedingly fast, the above discussed laws of motion still apply; yes. But generally, I can enjoy an immense amount of my self generated speed without confining myself to repetitive pushes or streamlined positions. And this is what makes the effort worth it.

In running and other sports, as soon as you stop generating speed, you stop experiencing it. On the ice however, that is not the case. I can generate speed, relax and enjoy it, and then add on to it with additional effort as I see fit. It’s incredibly rewarding in this way. The air acts as my dance partner, helping to shape my every movement as it rushes around me and I, in turn, shape it. It feels like freedom from the laws of physics, but its really just exploitation of them.

*** This is the sound of a skate: Ssssssssssssssssss. Shhhhhhhhh. Khhhhhh. Chook.

On the ice, when its just me, my skates, and the air, I make music with my feet, play out my emotional journeys through my body – releasing the stresses, tensions, and conflicts of life through movement. I push through air and the ice. I cut it, shave it, throw it. Sometimes I’m delicate, caressing the surface with the lightest pressure of my blade and observing all of its small flaws and nuances. At other times I smash, scratch, and gouge it, listening to the satisfying sounds these movements create.
In acknowledgement of how helpful this process has been to me over the years, I once thought about hosting a meditative thought class — on ice. Similar to cultural rituals in which heat is used to aide body awareness and meditation, I thought people could stand on the ice in their skates and connect to the leather and steel strapped to their feet by centering their focus. They could concentrate on feeling through the materials down to the ice and the nuances appearing under them. They could image all the weight of their body being lifted from the ground, floating upon a fraction of a millimeter of water — that occurring between the frozen ice and the warmer steel blade, making skating possible. I’ve thought a lot about the feel of steel blades beneath my feet.

*** Sometimes I imagine the ice as a canvas and treat my blades as painters’ spatulas carving into freshly laid oil paint. Other times I think of my blades as fine pencils. On dark ice this metaphor is especially effective since there, skated lines are highly visible and a few skating moves can create artistic line compositions entirely aside from the skater’s movements. Most ice rinks however, are painted white and covered with hockey marks, making surface drawings much more difficult to see (and impossible to photograph). A fact that has lead to the abolishment of the beautiful figure skating, the drawing of intricate lines and shapes on the ice, competitions for which the present day jumping and spinning sport was named. *** Skating reminds me to enjoy my efforts rather than just pushing through them. To perform for myself, regardless of who is watching. I think about the way the air hits my body and how my feet maneuver on my chosen tools, the boots and blades. There is harmony in space, movement, and the man-made. Whether I’m playing with air, listening to my own music, drawing a delicate picture, or performing for an audience, skating reminds me that small phenomenon are worth enjoying and to treasure the way in which I interact with my environment.

This is why I skate.