The adult mind often links ice rinks with crowds and figure skating with the impossible. But it just isn't so.
Learning to spin and cut figure-eights is still possible after age 30, and in the early part of the day -- almost any day -- most rinks are oases of tranquility where people can glide without fear of colliding teen-agers or blaring rock music.
Up till three years ago, I stumbled around the edge of the ice, clinging to the boards and staring glumly down at my in-tuned ankles. Seeing one of the area's better skaters step into a confident and firmly centered scratch-spin brought a revelation.
And so, in a spirit of hopeless desire, I began taking group lessons -- and found myself the slow one in the class.
This was not because of the "weak ankles" people trot out at the mention of ice skating. Weak ankles, though excusing nonskaters since the sport was invented, are a myth. People don't have weak ankles, they have lousy, ill-fitting skates that give no support.
My problem was not ankles, but nerve. Call it fear of falling; it took a major effort to screw up the courage to try anything new.
Fear of falling, of course, makes learning to skate a lot harder for adults than for kids. Kids don't usually mind taking a tumble now and then, and will happily try just about anything: Often they're seen bellyflopping onto the ice deliberately. The prospect of winding up spread-eagled on the ice holds no joy for those who are 30-plus. But I persisted and eventually learned the basic edges and turns.
Maybe you're wondering why I stuck with it. It takes a lot of time, good equipment is expensive, and there is the occasional fall. But ice rinks in the early part of the day when the kids are in school are very special places -- empty. On a good day the music is gentle and melodic. The ice is clean, stretching out cold, glittering, smooth, even beckoning and mysteriously seductive.
Skating is a cerebral sport. Recreational skaters don't compete with others, but with an idea. The opponent is your body. For the over-30, it may be a formidable opponent that needs to be coerced and persuaded into achieveing what the mind sees. But eventually, like focusing on an image in a range-finder camera, it falls into line.
At every rink there's a band of youngsters working on the combination of figures and freestyle that may eventually take them to major annual competitions. Here in Washington those youngsters are often joined by adults working at their own kind of inward competition: They may not be headed for the Olympics, but the things they learn, even though later in life, are sometimes pretty spectacular. I know several people past 40 who are leaping and twirling right along with the kids.
Most adults, however, are content to work on dance or patch, both less strenuous branches of the sport.
Ice dancing is a lot of fun and also something couples can learn to do together. Most figure skating clubs encourage their older members to dance, and sponsor special ice dance parties.
Many adult skaters also enjoy patching, which is just cutting variations on the figure-eight. Though just about everyone has seen the jumps and spins that compose a freestyle skating program, few know much about the figures that give "figure" skating its name.
Adults who take up this branch of the sport do so for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it's rare to fall while working on figures. And there's something peculiarly satisfying about the precision and control needed to trace and retrace a line until it approaches perfection.
Indeed, many people claim to experience an almost trance-like detachment while working on figures. During patch sessions the rink is empty and cold and utterly silent except for the barely audible grinding noise of the skaters' tempered blades forgoing continuous curving paths. Leaving the rink after such a session, skaters often feel renewed and refreshed.