The ice woman cometh

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The ice woman cometh

I fear the ice at ice-skating rinks. I fear slipping, twisting an ankle, landing on my tailbone and biting my tongue in half. Normally, before taking to the ice, I'd want a helmet, ski gloves, mouthpiece and comprehensive body padding.

But that's how hockey players look. Figure skaters, such as the lithe Michelle Kwan, are graceful. And grace is what I, and my parents, were after.

My father has long tried to mold in me his ideals of feminine grace, from laughing without exposing my teeth to being able to glide in heels. As for my mother, when she found out years back that I had enrolled in kickboxing classes, she called me up at work to warn me about the broad shoulders and powerful arms I was sure to develop, never mind the bulky legs. After 30 minutes, she said in frustration: "What happened to ballet? Promise me you'll take ballet after you're through with kickboxing."

I never took ballet; I joined the community soccer team.

So years later, on a winter's day, I turned in my three-inch heels for figure skates. I discovered, sort of, ballet on ice. I also found another way to kick the bad-weather blues and become a Winter Warrior.

I learned there were several ice-skating venues in Seoul. But there was no way I was going to the biggest one, Lotte World Ice Rink, and fall over myself in front of hundreds of people, with hundreds more watching from the second floor. Nor would I take lessons next to a 5-year-old prima donna at Mok-dong Ice Rink. I was looking for reclusive and exclusive. So off to the Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel ice rink I went. I arranged a lesson time, and arrived the next weekday afternoon ?sans padding and mouthpiece.

I laced up a pair of rental skates then wobbled away from the rental counter until I stood by the hotel's outdoor swimming pool, which is annually iced over each winter.

I had visions of nymphs. In my mind, I saw supple creatures dancing with leaps and twirls. But in front of me, a dozen children flailed about, yelling and laughing.

I had ice-skated before. In elementary school, my friends and I used to skate on a frozen pond at the local nature center. The pond had no railing, of course, so when we lost control, we crashed into snowbanks. It was gleeful fun. But I hadn't ice-skated since high school and was no longer so eager to spend that much time falling down and eating ice.

Parents watched from the perimeter of the Hyatt's rink, sipping hot chocolate and speaking a Berlitz list of different languages. The view of Mount Namsan was glorious. As clouds passed by, sunlight and shadow played on the scenery.

My instructor, Song Soo-yeong, met me by the rink. She acknowledged that she was once an 8-year-old prima donna at Mok-dong. "I wanted to figure skate since I was a child - the jumps, the twirls, the beauty, the grace," she said. She skates at the Hyatt during the winter and at Mok-dong during the summer.

Song, 22, held my hand and helped me skate around the rink. Her form seemed impeccable: ankles together, shifting her weight from left leg to right, pushing off foot by foot with long strides. Yes! She had it - gracefulness. I didn't.

After a couple turns around the rink, and pointers on how to stop, we practice won, the Korean term for skating forward while your feet snake back and forth. That was a cinch. Next, Song showed me how to squat while skating. But I couldn't hunker down and keep my balance. We skated to a smaller area within the rink reserved for lessons and Song had me skate forward then jump. After a couple 1-millimeter hops, she said, "Kids love this part. They aren't scared to fall." No thank you, I wanted to reply. I need my ankles.

At the beginner's level, figure skating is not much of a workout. Toward the end of my lesson, my thighs felt slightly fatigued. The only part of my body that really hurt was my feet. They felt as if I had tried to break in a pair of two-sizes-too-small heels. But I ignored the pain and learned how to gently lift one foot, like a flamingo, and rest it alongside the opposite ankle. Ah, now only if I stopped wobbling.

The lesson lasted 30 minutes and I immediately booked another. During the second class, Song had me practice doing wons going backward. Then I learned how to lift a leg behind me as I skated forward on my other leg, a stunt known as a spiral. I still had problems balancing. Song taught me crossovers, which are skating's basic turning technique. She drew a circle in the ice, and had me practice tight crossovers, both clockwise and counter-clockwise. Finally, she taught me how to spin, which I liked to watch more than execute.

After two lessons, I didn't feel more graceful, which would likely disappoint my parents. But I did feel more youthful, and I sure like that.

Wanna give it a twirl? Here's how, how much

According to instructors, most adult figure skating students take only a few lessons, typically at night, to dust off old skills or to become good enough to show off a spin or two. Private lessons cost 44,000 won ($33) per half-hour. Group lessons cost 36,300 won per person. For more information on classes at the Hyatt rink, call 02-799-8394.

Warrior rating (1 to 5): 2

Other locations: Lotte World (02-411-4593), Mok-dong Ice Rink (02-2643-3057), Sanggye Ice Rink (02-932-9193~5) and Korea National University (02-410-5743).

by Joe Yong-hee

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