As my daughter stepped out onto the ice, I held my breath. Her steps were small. She moved slowly, with focus and balance and seeming assuredness. One — two — one — two.
Mirai was taking the children’s lessons offered by Meiji Jingu Skating Rink, a year-round skating facility and training center, which offers three consecutive mornings of classes during holiday breaks, and weekly group and private classes through the year.
Ten children had joined the class for 4-year-olds, and they were the youngest in a rink full of children, ranging in age from preschoolers to junior high schoolers. Straight rows of pink and orange traffic cones had been used to divide the rink into practice areas for classes, grouped by age and skill.
The youngest children were walking on the ice, one careful step after another, and struggling to keep their balance in their thick ski gloves and ski pants. Over and over, they fell, picking themselves up to try again.
Mirai seemed to be managing OK for those first few minutes. She didn’t hunt for me in the crowd of parents standing along the perimeter of the rink. Determination showed in her every move, but gravity challenged her again and again, until her resolve gave way to tears. She looked for the exit sign. She looked for me. And that’s when Keiko Tobari-sensei, the head teacher, whisked a small chair seemingly out of the air and placed it under my daughter’s bottom, letting her sit out the lesson until break time.
Ice skating is not for every child, but televised coverage of the sport at the Olympics and other national and international competitions has popularized skating, even among the young. For me, it brought back fond memories of the long winters of my New York childhood that I was eager to share with my daughter.
But at the back of my mind, I knew I was taking a risk. My 4-year-old does not warm up to group activities, especially if they involve new faces in the an unfamiliar environment. Would my well-intended attempt to expand her world backfire?
“There’s no precise age when children show an interest, but generally by the age of 6, they have the coordination skills and perhaps the confidence to try skating,” explained Tobari, confirming what I’d concluded myself: Ice skating lessons work out best when they’re initiated from the child’s side, stemming from his or her own motivation.
Tobari says that many of the child-skaters being groomed at this rink for competitive and professional figure-skating careers, started their training at elementary-school age. By then they are old enough, says Tobari, to realize the seriousness of the commitment.
There are various skills they’re expected to master if and when they decide to get serious on ice. They must learn balance and have the discipline to persist with often solitary and repetitive practice. A background in classical ballet is helpful, and for older skaters (12 years and above) jazz dance is useful, too. Dance and ice skating have plenty in common: Both require grace and rhythm and, in fact, even the repertoire of classical music is the same.
“What’s most important is practice on ice. From the start, kids and parents have to become serious about practice.” Tobari emphasized.
These budding figure-skaters arrive for daily tuition at 6 a.m. and then practice on their own after their private lesson. Then it’s off to school. Afterward, they often return to the ice for another two hours of practice.
Though Meiji Jingu is not the only major rink in Tokyo where kids can learn to skate, its impressive roster of teachers includes national champion skaters. For instance, both head coach Miwa Fukuhara and instructor Hiroshi Tanaka were Olympics competitors. Fukuhara took part in the Olympics twice, at Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960, and Innsbruck, Austria in ’64. Tanaka competed in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Mirai sat out much of her first class at the rim of the massive skating rink, standing and attempting a few steps occasionally when the mood suited her. This was fine by Tobari, who believes that children can still learn and feel part of the class even if they’re sitting, so long as they are in close proximity to teachers and classmates.
Mirai’s skating lessons, though for only three consecutive mornings in one week, gave her a chance to see how skating practice can produce some pretty astounding results. She could see the older elementary-school kids learning advanced jumps and twirls, and mastering plain forward-skating with varying degrees of grace.
This three-day program is a primer to get 4-year-olds to stand and gradually move on ice. For them, it’s like learning to walk all over again, and even a few steps without falling is progress for the child.
But the fun can begin a lot sooner, as I was happily about to discover. My husband — who doesn’t warm to sports and had been neutral on the subject of these skating lessons — suddenly announced that he would take Mirai skating the day after the course ended. Mirai was very pleased.
Skating in the Ikebukuro rink, I was to discover after 11 years of marriage, had been part of his happy memories of childhood as well. Now, our family time on the ice has raised Mirai’s enthusiasm for these early lessons, after all.