By Cynthia Tavlin

Gliding to Glory: Ice Skating

  |  Theater & Performances  

On a recent Tuesday evening, the ice rink at Riverbank State Park is swarming with young figure skaters dressed in matching light blue warm-up suits. “OK ladies, let’s skate it full out. Let’s do a little cha-cha-cha,” Sharon Cohen, executive director and founder of Figure Skating in Harlem, urges a group of girls ready to rehearse a routine for their upcoming ice show, Glidin’ to the Islands. Skimming across the ice, nine girls line up in two rows and wait for their cue. To the opening strains of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”, the two rows merge into one and the skaters begin a choreographed routine of lunges, spins and shimmies. “Arms up, arms up like airplanes,” Cohen reminds the skaters. The moves aren’t entirely in sync, but the girls plow on. “Smile, you’re doing great… keep working here,” she encourages. When the girls finish, Cohen, who was a United States Figure Skating Association gold medalist in figures and freestyle, calls them over and commends the group on their performance. “Ladies, bring it in…not bad, not bad at all.” Founded in 1997, Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) is an after-school skating and education program created almost by accident. In 1990, Cohen was working at CBS when she heard that Princeton and Yale women’s ice hockey teams had conducted ice skating clinics in Harlem with the youth agency, Upward, Inc. Calling to congratulate the organization, Cohen was told that there were girls eager to learn figure skating. Scraping up a number of used figure skates and volunteers, Cohen began a part-time program that blossomed into a full-time organization, providing ice skating instruction and a whole lot more to 63 girls ages 6-16 during its 2002-03 season. “I began to go back to what figure skating meant in my life,” recalls Cohen, of the seven years she spent volunteering with Upward, Inc. “There were many things I gained in the sport that carried me beyond the ice.” Personal initiative, concentration, and learning what it’s like to make small, incremental improvements, are some of the off-the-ice life lessons Cohen cites. From the beginning, FSH stressed self-esteem, teamwork, and academic achievement as well as athletics. Geared to low and moderate income groups, the program runs from October to April and is open to girls residing in Harlem. “This is a recreational program, we’re not trying to develop the next Sarah Hughes,” explains Cohen. “Our mission is to use skating to teach girls skills in other areas that they’ll be able to use in their lives.” Sade Thompson is a 9-year-old finishing her second year with FSH. “It doesn’t only teach you figure skating,” she says. “It teaches you stuff you need to learn for jobs and interviews.” Sade, who landed a waltz jump this year, believes that learning how to skate has helped her at school. She pauses to collect her thoughts when asked to explain. “They teach you listening skills, they teach you self-control.” Rigorous is an apt description for the organization, which in addition to a staff of skating instructors, employs an Education Director, social worker, tutors and youth counselors to keep the girls focused and on track. Participants sign a contract stating that they’ll maintain a B average in school and commit to attending two practices a week. Before they hit the ice, girls are required to complete homework and attend movement and educational theory classes, which link skating to other academic subjects such as nutrition, music and finance. Students may learn about the physics of a particular jump or study the geography of a country where a skating competition is being held. Cultural and educational trips — such as attending a performance of Harlem Song, or the group of aspiring doctors who got a first hand look at surgery — are also scheduled throughout the season. Guest coaches over the years have included Robin Wagner and Sonya Dunfield. The FSH Honorary Board of Directors reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the skating world, with members such as Scott Hamilton, Debi Thomas, and Oksana Baiul. Sharon Stewart, mother of Ashante-Terry, who has been with FSH for six years, says the time and effort the girls put into the organization is worth it. “The program is excellent,” she notes. “Ashante knows the commitment and the time frame. She knows she has to make the commitment to do her best.” Sharon Cohen also credits much of FSH’s success to the parents. “This is very much a grass-roots effort and the parents play a big part in it,” she says, noting that the Parent Association raised $14,000 at an annual Winter Skating Party at Lasker Rink this past February. Parents are also asked to make a modest tuition payment, covering about 10 percent of the organization’s costs. Scholarships are available, and Cohen states, “Nobody is turned away because they can’t pay.” Cohen notes that even when girls move on to college and other pursuits, many remain involved with FSH, returning to work as interns and to mentor a new crop of skaters. “Skating to these girls is something special. Their relationship to the coaches and teachers make them very loyal to the organization.” The end-of-season ice show and reception, Glidin’ to the Islands, takes place, Friday, April 4 at 7:30pm. Donation at the door is $5. Riverbank State Park is located at 145th Street and Riverside Drive. For further information, call (646) 698-3440 or visit