Thursday, December 25, 2014

3-turns without scraping

I have been working on executing 3-turns better. My primary coach is Alysen Stryker. She is a student of Karen Courtland Kelley. A few times a year I travel to Lake Placid for a session with Karen; it is always a treat, and usually transformative.

On my most recent trip, I worked with Karen on 3-turns for over half and hour. She had me work on executing a 3-turn by sliding into and out of the turn without skidding. The tracing of the point of the 3 is a good blade length from the circumference of circle. It takes a fair amount of skill to do the turn without a skid. The skid can come from scraping the blade sideways, or from rocking to far onto the toe pick. If the latter, then the toe pick scrape is visible as a small half circle at the top of the tracing.

Working with Karen, I was able to sort of get the left outside 3-turn to make the correct motion, although it was rather inconsistent. The right side scraped the toe pick, as well as the blade. The insider were not good at all, though by the end, they were getting closer. Karen had me go to wall, and do the 3-turns against the boards. Here I traced a small 3 at slow speed, using the board to brace myself. Begin facing away from the board, and trace a 3 so the point of the 3 faces the board. Doing this slowly gives a feeling for the sliding action of the foot, both into and out of the turn. But doing it without the board to support is very different, and far more difficult. She had me do it very small at first, to get the foot feel.

I spent the next month working on improving these -- typically at least half an hour, 4-5 times a week. I have done exercise at the boards alternating outside 3's, right foot and left, and alternating insides similarly. But it also helps to alternate insides to outsides repeatedly on one foot; for me, the weak spots on the outside are strong parts on the inside, and the weak spots on the inside are stronger on the outside. Thus one can learn how to engage the muscles that are not used properly.

To execute the turn the posture must be good, balanced with hip directly over the foot, with shoulders aligned into the turn, also directly over the foot. The turning foot slides and twists into the center of the circle. As you turn in, the foot rocks slightly to the back of the rocker, under the back of the ball of the foot. The movement leads to a change of edge. The foot feels like it is sliding in, and then feels like it is sliding out. Momentum along the circumference of the circle is what limits the the range of the push in, and sets the timing for the pull out.

After a month of working on this, I had a session with Alysen. She corrected it so that free leg came out in an angle, right along the arc of the skating circle. It holds an interesting shape, with the hip lifted. She also emphasized that the foot should pull out the turn, which leads to an increase in speed.

The inside forward 3's are more difficult to get the feel of the push in, and even harder on the push out. I am beginning to get better at the turn itself, in terms of not scraping. That is a good start. But to get a clean push in and a pull out requires a bit of coordination that I have yet to master. So I will be working on this for a while until it improves.

Once these are mastered, of course, there is plenty more to do. The same technique can be applied to brackets, and then counters and rockers. I have played a bit with the forward inside brackets, and I can see them coming along in terms of not scraping. But I there is a whole lot of work to go; years. And in the process, I have to learn to link these together into sequences. But I feel like a whole new world of movement vocabulary that I barely perceived has opened up. Exploring it will be fun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Cunningham spine and 3-turns

There is only one spine per person, and thus the spine used in Cunningham is the same spine used in skating. This much is obvious, and indeed tautological. But applying the lessons of the use of the spine in Cunningham to use in skating can be done consciously or unconsciously. I have been skating for about nine years, and only recently have been thinking consciously about how to use the twist of Cunningham spine when I skate. I had contemplated the doing some of the Cunningham positions and movements on skates. In general, this was not particularly successful, and I attributed it in part to my fairly modest skating skill level.

I noted in an earlier post that Cunningham makes full use of the articulation of the spine. Cunningham was interested in what was possible; with the spine that mean exploring all manner of its possible articulations. Most Cunningham movements and positions create shapes of the body that are images to the audience. The positions in skating are different than is typical with Cunningham, but the skill in articulation translates from one to the other. What is really different with skating is that the twist of the spine prepares the skater for a turn, and is used to hold the skater on the new edge after the turn; during the turn it moves from one position to the other. Thus is has a specific and essential purpose that is distinct from Cunningham. The balance in Cunningham comes from having a solid base, and from balancing on that base. A twist of the spine alters the shoulders in relation to the hips. If the Cunningham dancer, standing on one or two legs, twists the spine from one extreme to the other, say from left to right, the leg need not move; instead, the shoulders and upper torso move. But a skater prepares a full twist prior to a one foot turn, untwists the spine during the turn, and twists to the opposite side at the the end of the turn. This ending is called a check of the turn, and this takes a lot of practice to develop. In this case, the foot moves from forward to backward, while the shoulders actually stay in approximately the same place in relation to the direction one is moving.

What I have learned in recent days is to think about my spine as a Cunningham spine while skating. And in doing so I have thought in terms of using the spine to initiate action (of course it is muscles initiating the movement, not bones, but the imagery of the spine moving is useful). In particular, I have been working on one foot 3-turns. Separately over the past month I have been working making my 3-turns smoother. This involves riding the edge until it turns in to the point, and pushing the foot forward to the ball of the foot, before exiting the turn. Ideally one makes virtually no noise, and the tracing of the turn is a full blade length in from the circumference of the circle it is tracing. I have made some progress on the front outside 3's, particularly on the left foot. But the inside 3's have been coming much more slowly.

My discovery yesterday was that I could set up a forward inside 3 with a full Cunningham twist, initiate the turn with the spine, to the opposite side, while directing my foot into the turn, pushing the foot forward to the ball of the foot (while not scraping). The turn instantly became much easier, and much cleaner. The tracing is still not as far towards the center of the circle as I would like, but it is clean, easy, and does not scrape. And it is nearly effortless. I then found I could also use this with the forward outside 3's. Again, spine initiation is the key. Go figure!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cunningham and the skater's spine

This is my initial post concerning the relationship of Cunningham dance technique and working with edges on circles. Merce Cunningham developed his technique over much of his life, particularly from the 1940's to his death in 2009. A brief explanation of some of his later work can be found here. This post concerns the spine.

Cunningham emphasized the use of the spine. In technique class there are exercises that seek to employ every possible articulation of the back. Class begins with bounces of the spine forward and to the side. Others combine twists of the spine and curves to the side, as well as arches to the back, or to the back with a twist to the side. I had long thought that the basic exercises covered every possible position of the back. But I have seen more extreme twists in the performance repertory. In addition, I have discovered uses of the spine in skating that is distinct from Cunningham technique. But Cunningham provides an excellent foundation for learning to use the spine with figure eights.

The basic position for a forward outside circle eight involves a twist of the spine. On the left outside edge, the left shoulder leads so that the spine is twists from upper left down to lower right. The shoulders are lined up front to back, with left shoulder forward, and the right hip trails the standing leg. The left hip is up directly over the proximal phlange of the small toe of the left foot, thus on the left edge. The upper spine can actually arch over the outside edge. This arch can be found in Cunningham technique, but I have not encountered it with the exact twist used in the forward circle eight. Thus there is something for Cunningham to teach skaters, and something for figure eights to introduce to Cunningham. For right outside edge, just reverse each description.

On the left front inside edge, the weight is over the proximal phlange of big toe. Now, the right shoulder leads, so that the spine twists up to the right and down to the left. The left shoulder thus trails. The right hip is up, and trails the left hip slightly. A slight arch of the upper spine combines with the twist to the right. 

On the left back outside edge, the weight is on the small toe, but slightly further back than when moving forward: it is on the back side, or leading edge, of the rocker.  The spine now is twisted up to the left. Weight is firmly on the left hip directly over the edge under the small toe, with the right hip up. This involves the left quadratus lumborum and the obliques.

On the back left inside edge, the weight is on the ball of the big toe, and again slightly further back than when moving forward, on the leading (back) edge of the rocker. The spine is twisted up to the right. Weight is on the left hip over the edge under the big toe, with again a slight arch of the spine. The free hip is up, barely leading in the direction of travel (back).

Cunningham technique helps here because the curvature and twists of the spine are extensions of exercises from basic technique. The twists are held longer than is typical in technique class, although a still position in repertoire could certainly be held for long periods. But an edge can be held for very long time periods, and then alternated with the opposite leg in basic forward circle eights. The muscles that hold these positions can thus be strengthened. This will become particularly important with turns, where the obliques really must fire as a check, both going into the turn and going out of it.

Cunningham is known for combining complicated movements. The combination of curvature of the spine in a twist, along with a lift of the free hip, and an arch in the upper spine, is such a combination. Thus it can be practices as a technique off the ice, and then translated to the ice. An off-ice edge platform could also be used to do this, though it is not essential.

The ability to find the right position is a necessary precedent to the transition of positions though the variety of turns and moves in skating. These include 3-turns, brackets, counters, rockers, changes of edges, and loops. Finally, this description connects to inward rotation and outward rotation of the free leg at the hip; these rotations connect to lifting the free hip up. I will deal with these transitions and rotations in separate posts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Skating on the hollow

My discovery this week concerns the hollow of the blade: I am concentrating on skating on the hollow. In one sense this description is not quite right, because the weight is distributed over various parts of the ice skate blade, but primarily on the rocker. But I find it useful to concentrate on how weight is placed to put consistent pressure on the hollow part of the edge, typically at the rocker.

Each figure skate has two edges: the inside edge and the outside edge. Basic skills includes learning how to do turns with each edge. But in truth each edge has two sides to it. There is the outside part, and the part in the middle of the two edges: this is known as the hollow. When the blade is sharpened, the depth, or radius of the hollow can be set. A shallow hollow is used for figure eights, while a deeper hollow is used for freestyle.

Some time ago, I had Dan Petrie, who sharpens my skates, begin to move me towards a shallower hollow. I think I started at 1/2 inch, and then moved gradually up to 3/4 inch. I probably moved too quickly, as I did not understand how to use the edge properly. My coaches wanted me to move in that direction, but not too fast.  The problem is that one will skid and slide sideways with a shallow hollow, until one learns how to use the edge better. I moved to a shallow hollow in 1/16 inch increments, over about a year. In time, I got more used to the shallow hollow, and began to use it better. After a while, when doing basic circle eights, at times I could feel the curve of the circle through my blade. What I did not understand was that it was the hollow I was feeling. I also did not realize how crucial that was. Now I have a much better idea.

The body of the skater should be bowed out from the center of the circle. This begins with the blade on the ice, and extends upwards to the hips through the torso and to the head. With weight on an edge, a skater moving forward on that edge will curve naturally, due to the curve of the blade. By being bowed out from the center of the circle, a steady pressure will be placed on the hollow side the the edge. Thus, on an outside edge, the medial, or hollow side, will be towards the outside of the circle. This is the part of the blade that one can feel curve below the foot. If the pressure is firm and steady, the curve will be consistent and true. Similarly, on an inside edge, the medial part of the edge, again the hollow, will be in contact with the ice, and will likewise guide the curve. To control skating, the torso bows up and out from the edge; control the posture to control the pressure on the hollow, and thus control the trueness and consistency of the clean edge. Posture is thus central to clean edges.

The challenge then is to keep this pressure steady on all edges, and then with changes of edges.