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