The family that skates together
In a manner similar to that of many of Martha's Vineyard's special pursuits and interests, figure skating is an activity that involves not only the participants, but also the family. And the families combine to form a community centered around ice-skating - performing, competing, and learning.
"We signed up for 'Learn to Skate,' and my daughter just loved it. I knew nothing about skating, but I stayed and watched," says Jeanne Ogden, a board member of Martha's Vineyard Figure Skating Club (MVFSC). The board is made up completely of parents, and relies on their participation to keep it running. "Now the girls get up to go skate before school starts. It's a passion. It takes a lot of discipline and it's a commitment from both parents and kids, but it pays off."
Beth Blankenship-O'Connor has been involved with skating for 25 years, and skated at the arena since it was an outdoor skating facility. "I went to one of the annual ice shows when I was young and begged for lessons and finally I got them," she recalls. "I just wanted to skate more and more and more. When I was growing up it was a big focus in my life. There was school and skating. The kids all like skating, and some of them love it."
"It's my third year running the program and I think this will be a great year," says Ms. Blankenship-O'Connor. "These days there are so many activities on Martha's Vineyard that many are having trouble bringing kids in, and I think we're doing pretty well.
For more than 20 years the club has relied on the fundraising of volunteers to keep ice open to its members, but there is no question in the minds of the board members that their efforts are worth it.
About renting ice time at the Martha's Vineyard Arena for the MVFSC, Ms. Ogden says, "We do a lot to keep the costs down," and explains that the MVFSC is a nonprofit organization, and every year it raises $30,000 so that the young skaters who make up its ranks can have regular ice time.
The MVFSC is divided in levels, starting in the "Learn to Skate" program, which focuses on teaching basic forward and backward skating and the turns, stops and crossovers that make up the rudiments of skating. After the skaters master the basics, they move on to the bridge program, which has three girls per coach for a half-hour lesson followed by an hour of free skate.
The speed of advancement is individually based. "The degree to which figure skating is a full-time sport really depends on the skater. We have a wide range. Some just want to learn a bit, others want to compete. The girls set their goals themselves," says Ms. Blankenship-O'Connor.
Skaters who decide to stay with skating eventually move into the freestyle program where they have private lessons with their own coach. In the freestyle program the coach has the skater focus on constructing a program that has a routine set to music that he or she performs at competitions. "The freestyle level goes off to competitions all over Massachusetts," says board member and parent Lara Dario. "The girls really like competing, getting medals and dressing up. It's as competitive as they want to make it."
And more than competition, it is a passion. The discipline demonstrated is impressive, skaters sometimes going off-Island to use the Falmouth Ice Arena during the three months of the year when the Martha's Vineyard Arena is closed for maintenance.
"I think that a lot of times girls grow less committed as they grow older simply because they find other things they want to do, but especially for eight- to twelve-year-olds figure skating is their life," says Ms. Dario. "My daughter chooses to skate two mornings a week before school, two afternoons after school, and she started ballet because she wants to make her skating better."
Though there are currently no boys at the freestyle level, they are always welcome, and there are a fair number of boys in the "Learn to Skate" program. The program has also been free for preschoolers for the last two years, something made possible by parental participation.
"Parents certainly do have to participate, but skating probably takes a similar amount of a parent's time and energy as other activities that kids can be part of such as soccer or dance," says Ms. Ogden. "The more parents that get involved the better the club is."
"Those of us on the board are all really good friends," says Ms. Dario. "When you have kids that skate you spend a lot time at the rink, so as the girls become friends the parents meet and become friends as well. We all stay together when the girls go off to competitions together. It's a very close community."