When Toe Picks Meet Tutoring: Harlem Figure Skaters are the Cutting Edge

Figure Skating in Harlem Syncro Team
Figure Skating in Harlem Syncro Team practices at the City Ice Pavilion every Sunday at 6 in the morning. (Photo by Kaitlyn Wells)

It’s glacially cold on the rooftop of the City Ice Pavilion – you can almost see your breath when you exhale. The rink, in Long Island City, is insulated with giant white balloons that float overhead to trap the chill.

But the frosty arena doesn’t bother the group of girls that gathers there every Sunday – traveling by subway or carpool – at 6 a.m. Skating effortlessly across the glasslike surface, they seem at peace.

As synchronized figure skaters, they aim for uniformity: slicked-back ballerina buns; beige tights or black leggings; black Spandex leotards; and ocean blue or black windbreakers with Figure Skating in Harlem across the back.

A non-profit program, Figure Skating in Harlem provides local girls with lessons and the opportunity to skate competitively, along with strong tutoring services. It wants to show the largely white skating community that this is a sport in which anyone can participate – and succeed –  on and off the ice.

Ryan Rivera, standing just over 5 feet tall with olive skin and plump cheeks, looks at home on the ice. While some of the girls still seem sleepy-eyed, Rivera, 15, is confident but loose in her movements, not afraid to be herself on the ice. Her mahogany hair cascades down her back; her eyes show intensity and focus as she glides and spins.

“It’s something I feel like I’m good at,” she said.

With just one hour of indoor ice time a week, and two more at Riverbank State Park, Rivera is often the first to arrive at City Ice and the last to leave. Last year, she earned two skating awards, she said.

Although the juvenile syncro team has only  competed for two years, last year it placed fourth in both the Terry Connors Synchro Open and the Cape Cod Classic, came in sixth in its qualifying round at the Eastern Sectional Synchronized Skating Championships, and won gold at the Lee Ann Miele Synchro Open.

Rivera’s mother, Julia, 42, recalled attending a competition where the group  was the only nonwhite team. “When you’re there, you can hear a pin drop,” she said.

Yet figure skating has quietly grown in popularity in Harlem. Sharon Cohen, a U.S. Figure Skating gold medalist, founded Figure Skating in Harlem in 1997 with 35 students; today 176 girls, ages six to 18, are enrolled. It’s the first program in the country to pair figure skating with academics.

Since American figure skating developed as a country club sport, Cohen said, participation for nonwhites was and often remains limited.  Like golf, tennis, dressage and polo, figure skating traditionally has attracted few blacks and Hispanics because of its cost and lack of accessible facilities and equipment. But over the years, star athletes have emerged, just as they have in tennis and golf.

Debi Thomas, an Olympic bronze medalist, was the first African American figure skater to win a Winter Olympics medal and the only one to hold both U.S. and world champion titles in ladies’ singles. She’s also a supporter of Figure Skating in Harlem.

Other top African American figure skaters include pairs skater Tai Babilonia; singles skaters Bobby Beauchamp, Surya Bonaly and Atoy Wilson; and ice dance partners Franklyn Singley and Tiffani Tucker.

“The fact that we exist, I think, is a testament to what can be done when you don’t see the barriers,” Cohen said.

Figure Skating in Harlem administrators say the program’s most noteworthy aspect is what happens off the ice, however.

“This is not a figure skating program,” said Cohen, who wanted to tackle the problems of obesity and low academic achievement. “The central focus is to foster our kids academically. It’s really about how these qualities will help them the rest of their lives.”

The girls commit nine to 12 hours a week to the program, for an average of five consecutive years. They also sign a skater’s contract to maintain at least a B-average.

They attend classes to build their academic skills, promote positive self-concept and teach skating history and theory. They take field trips to museums and dance, theater and music performances; they explore careers and non-traditional roles for women. Last year, the girls visited U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Cohen said.

“You think it’s just skating, but it’s not,” Julia Rivera said.

But skating isn’t taken lightly. It requires dedication, skill and discipline, both physical and mental. Figure Skating in Harlem measures the girls’ success with a standardized ice skating test. Last year, 95 percent of its students passed at least one U.S. Figure Skating Association basic skills skating level by demonstrating a mastery of five to seven new skating elements.

Girls in Figure Skating in Harlem practice on the locker room floor of the City Ice Pavilion.
Girls in Figure Skating in Harlem practice on the locker room floor of the City Ice Pavilion.

Rivera, an eight-year veteran, has improved, but says some drills still give her trouble.

“Learning the combination jumps is harder than singles,” she said. “It takes a few months to learn it because you have to learn how to rotate your body.” The waltz loop jump combination, for example, involves 1.5 rotations while the skater simultaneously does a skip-jump before landing smoothly on the ice.

While getting their “ice legs,” students compete for spots on the program’s synchronized skating team and for summer scholarships at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid and the Chelsea Piers Figure Skating Camp in Manhattan.

Students also perform in at least one annual fundraising event. Last year, Diana Ross and Vera Wang were among the 600 guests at Skating With the Stars, raising $675,000 for the program.

Through academic tutoring, skating lessons, costumes, equipment and field trips, the program spends $4,000 to $5,000 on each student, Cohen said. Training an elite skater costs easily 10 times as much. Skates alone range from $60 a pair to more than $300.

“It’s not inexpensive; it all adds up,” Cohen said. Each student pays $375 a year in tuition.

For the five-month ice skating season, ice time costs $50,000. Figure Skating in Harlem pays $350 a session for 1.5 hours at the City Ice Pavilion, which generally charges $400 for morning sessions and $600 in the afternoon, it said.  The program opts for the 6 a.m. Sunday slot to save money.

“They’re doing remarkably well given the limited ice time they receive,” Cohen said.

She wants the program to have its own facility, complete with an ice rink, classrooms, a technology center, a library and a dance studio. Administrators are looking at an upper Manhattan location, Cohen said.

Until they can find a place to call their own, the students believe their early practice time is worth it.

“We get used to it,” said Sharendalle Murga, 17. “It’s a goal to try to win our first competition, so we look past the 6 o’clock time.” Murga, a participant for 10 years, tutors younger students once a week and taught a drama course during summer camp.

“The program has opened a lot of opportunities for me,” said Murga, who wants to study musical theater in college and earn a master’s degree in education.

The focus, Cohen said, has always been the students. “We’re not trying to create strong skaters,” she said. “We’re trying to create individuals.”

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