It's Hip to Lift!

Gloria's Class

Hawkins Technique class, NYC (2001)

"Always stay on the pulse. Take all of your bones in the same direction. And never drop your weight!" Such were the words of one of my teachers at the Erick Hawkins School for Dance in New York City*. Although I discovered the school some years after Mr. Hawkins had passed away, I was drawn to his approach to dance because his dancers were very light on their feet. They moved with ease, flow and supple elegance. By then, over a decade had gone by since I practiced figures and freestyle for hours each day and studied Ballet twice weekly to enhance my skating experience. 

I skated and coached part-time during college, after which I focused on my "real job" as a software trainer/network manager. My weekend warrior habits -- working at a desk by day, and then hopping onto the ice in the evening to skate as if I were still training -- began to catch up with me. I relied on "muscle memory," although my muscles lacked the strength I once took for granted. When I saw the Hawkins dancers, I wanted to learn to move the way they moved. I ditched the desk job and became a beginner again: humbling, yes, but it was also a lot of fun!

I incorporate many of the principles from those classes into my skating and teaching, including the attention to "lift" -- proper use of the legs, feet and core muscles, which helps achieve my teacher's instruction to "never drop your weight." Lift gives us access to good balance over our feet, so that we can shift our weight smoothly, with stability, whether into the air during a jump, around a curved edge, or while spinning in a challenging position. We can bend and extend without excess force. It also helps us create a look or style desired in figure skating: strong and into the ice, yet floating and soaring above it.

What is Lift?

Good form & lift, in the air during an axel.

Lifting the core while in a deep knee bend

Good lift & torso support on LBO edge

Lift is a very un-scientific term (for a technical discussion, see the Learning to Lift sidebar for a link to the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Medical Website). Generally, lift refers to the way we balance our torso on our legs and our head atop our spine; how light or heavy on our feet we appear to be; and, our relationship to the pull of gravity and the effects of centrifugal force. Do we collapse, create too much tension, or find that "just right" quality that makes skating look easy? Creating lift requires proper use of the core and leg muscles, but there's more to it than that.

To get more information on what lift is and how to do it well, I contacted another teacher of mine, Carol Boggs, M.AmSAT. Carol works as a movement and massage therapist, as well as a teacher of Laban Movement Analysis and the Bartenieff Fundamentals and the Alexander Technique. A former dancer, she assists a wide range of clients -- from skaters and dancers to singers, actors and office workers -- who seek improved posture, relief from physical pain, and more efficient, effective movement.

Carol cautions me not to over-simplify my definition of lift. It's a complex process. As teachers, if we reduce our explanations too much, such as with the terms "tuck under and pull up" or "press your belly button onto the front of your spine" we risk giving the student a misperception of lift and core stability that results in static positions and too much tension, rather than a dynamic alignment that can adapt as needed for a given skill. She encourages me to think of lift in terms of the relationship of the torso to the legs, rather than memorizing a correct position to hold or muscle action to do. She says, "How can we effectively supply support to the trunk [torso] and get the right relationship (not position) between the trunk and the legs?" Because of the complexity of this process, the concept of lift often gets simplified, but she feels that over-simplifying results in "extra labor, excess tension, too much holding, too much movement restriction, not enough plasticity in your whole body to do things like absorb the landing out of a jump." She has worked with fitness professionals who mastered these over-simplified movement patterns and ended up injured.

Carol gives me an image to play with: she asks me to imagine myself in a one piece swimsuit. The swimsuit covers my torso. I imagine my torso -- including my pelvis -- balancing on my legs, so that I am, in her words "riding high on your femurs [thigh bones], creating spaciousness by moving the whole torso into full suspension, balancing the head on the spine and the torso on the legs." As I play with this image, I can feel my hip and lower abdominal muscles activating a bit, along with my inner thigh muscles and upper chest and back, too. I notice that I instinctively lengthened my legs without locking the knees. I feel as if I just got a little bit taller. Remembering an instruction from a Hawkins teacher who used to say during our plié exercises, "lift to lower!", I bend my knees into a demi plié, while keeping the swimsuit image in my mind. A soft, elastic bend - no forcing or pushing down. On the ice, I explore this image and find that I have to apply more strength to bend and extend, especially when skating fast, but even so, the image gives me the essence or "gist" of what my body requires to lift and balance over my leg and my skate.

Lift to Create a "Whispering Edge"

In her book, Echoing Whispers on Ice, champion Janet Lynn asks, "Do you hear the gentle whisper of a glide?" She describes "a delightful whispering sound when a figure skater performs an edge, change-of-edge, turn, basic stroking, crossover, jump, spin or change of feet with satisfying precision." She also discusses lift and the training needed for skaters to develop lift for correct skating technique, supple grace, as well as safety when jumping and landing. Although she did not enjoy studying compulsory figures in her youth, she explains that figures and edge work formed the foundation for her joyful, light-on-her-feet free skating.

The whispering edge serves as an effective image for students. Skaters prone to bearing down too hard on an edge jump takeoff, for example, can make subtle adjustments to the quality of their takeoff edge. I've borrowed this image to use with students and watched them make beneficial shifts in takeoffs of double and triple edge jumps.

Using Figures to Find Lift

By practicing figures, we can use slow, gentle skating to discover and develop lift or suspension over the blade. Once developed, skaters can start to apply lift to fast skating and complex skills. Many skaters sit into the hip and collapse in their torso when they first attempt a FO or BO 8, and even for advanced skaters, loop figures present a real challenge! In the video below from last summer's Figures and Fundamentals class, skaters demonstrate the FO 8 without lift and then again with lift, as the students notice changes in the sound, accuracy and quality of the gliding edge. In a future class, we'll try this experiment again using Carol's suggestions of suspension imagery and spatial intention, to find more and better ways to lift!

* Many thanks to the wonderful teachers/former company members at the Erick Hawkins School for Dance, including: Cathy Ward, Katherine Duke, Gloria McLean, Cindy Reynolds, Douglas Andresen and others!

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