Teaching Speed and Grace

"GO!" In a flash, 8-year-old Thomas begins pumping his arms and legs with grit and determination as he speeds across the ice. Approaching the wall at full speed, Thomas shifts sideways and digs in his skates, causing a wave of ice crystals to shoot out from his blades. He stops inches from the wall. "8.3 seconds," calls Kay Alsway, holding her stop watch. "Now let’s try it again. GO!" And off Thomas goes.

This is a typical scene at the South Mountain Ice Skating Arena in West Orange. Kay Alsway is one of the more than 20 professional ice skating teachers who coach hundreds of students at every point of the age and ability spectrum. Today, she is working with Thomas, who is not a figure skater, but a hockey player seeking to improve his speed and agility. Alsway takes him through a series of sprints and exercises, skating backwards and forwards, quick stops and starts. She is with him toe-to-toe on the ice encouraging him all the way. It is exhausting and exciting to watch.

Most mornings Alsway arrives at the arena at 5:45 to offer private lessons to children, before their school day begins. Later in the morning, she gives lessons to older students, housewives and retirees. Following a brief afternoon break, the after school and evening lessons take place, which can keep her at the rink until 8 p.m. rounding out a 14-hour day.

Alsway has been teaching at the arena for more than 25 years. She came to arena from her native Great Britain after completing a highly successful amateur career in ice dancing that included competing in four European Championships, four World Championships and the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria .

She recalls her skating career began almost by accident. One day while walking home with her father from a ballet class they passed a local ice skating rink. Her father asked if she would be interested in going in and giving skating a try. Alsway agreed, and they went inside. It was an instantaneous and life-long love affair the moment her feet hit the ice.

From her 25 years of teaching experience, Alsway has learned to identify traits in novice skaters that would make them good candidates for more advanced training and private instruction.

"They must be focused, be excellent listeners, have good balance and - critically - have time to practice," explains Alsway. Watching her teach, it is clear that she expects a lot from her students. "First and foremost, skating must be fun for the students; that’s really what it’s all about," she says. "But if the student isn’t going to take it seriously, isn’t going to give 100 percent, then it’s a waste of my time and their money."

Alsway strongly urges all new skaters to begin with group lessons as way of determining a student’s level of ability and interest. If there is interest in going forward, a student can start gradually with private lessons (as short as 15 minutes) and then move up from there. Currently Kay has 50 students taking private lessons. About a third of these are boys and girls looking to hone their hockey skills; the rest are figure skaters. For the determined figure skater, there are various levels of competition to which they can aspire, all the way to the Olympics. Alsway coached ice dancing pair Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert to a fourth-place finish in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

On a particular Tuesday afternoon there are about 10 skaters and their teachers on the ice, an ice dancing pair, a senior citizen receiving a private lesson, teenage girls doing jumps, petite doll-like girls wearing skating dresses that twirl when they spin, and still more boys being coached through hockey drills. Miraculously, there are no collisions as the skaters glide past one another at tremendous speeds. The arena is cold, yet there is a faint smell of perspiration from the rigorous training. Suddenly the children on the ice stop momentarily and watch, jaws agape, as the New Jersey Devils hockey team files past. The Devils train at the arena on an adjacent rink, which provides excitement and inspiration for young skaters. But as soon as the team passes, the youngsters shift their focus back to their own efforts. Under the watchful eye of Kay Alsway, and other coaches, it’s once again time to skate.

Karen Gonsor DiScala is a freelance writer who loves winter sports.

Printed with permission from Matters Magazine