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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Roger gets on his skates to enjoy falling on ice

Millions of people do it. Until last week I was one of them. But not any more. My first attempt at ice dancing was a humbling experience.

Ice skating photo
Roger Lytollis with Louisa Nairn

So humbling that I no longer laugh at celebrities’ stumbles in Dancing On Ice. My reaction is now empathy rather than amusement.

Well... okay. The sight of Todd Carty disappearing off the rink, arms flapping, unable to stop himself sliding out of sight, still sparks a snigger.

But now I understand – this skating lark is far from easy.

Fortunately I can claim that my limited ability isn’t all my own fault. Cumbria’s lack of an ice rink provides the perfect excuse for my shortcomings, and perhaps those of another Dancing On Ice contestant, Roxanne Pallett.

Roxanne and I have a great deal in common. We’re both from Currock. Our names begin with the same letter. And neither of us is likely to be taking part in the next Winter Olympics.

To gauge the full extent of my shortcomings I needed to head for Lockerbie. At 25 miles from Carlisle the Scottish borders town has the nearest rink to north Cumbria.

My guide was Louisa Nairn, former British ladies junior champion and South Scotland Skate Academy coach.

Having watched plenty of skating on TV over the years I thought I’d better dress for the occasion with a frilly shirt and tight black leggings which did me no favours at all – especially in such a cold temperature.

“Very nice!” said Louisa, with no hint of irony that I could see.

My outfit may have fooled some of the other skaters into believing I must be an accomplished iceman. But the illusion lasted only as long as it took Louisa to take my hand and guide me slowly onto the slippery stuff.

It might sound obvious but you don’t really realise until you do it: stepping onto ice with a thin, high blade under each foot makes walking rather difficult. And there’s no point in running, or skating, before you can walk.

So Louisa clasped my left arm and we tottered onto the ice, me wobbling as if I’d just been for a quiet pint with Oliver Reed.

“There are no two people the same,” said Louisa. “Some people have a natural ability and balance. Some people take to it like ducks to water.”

And some people take to it like ducks to ice.

As I tentatively tip-toed, the sound of skates scraping and skidding came from a couple of dozen children further down the rink. Louisa coned off a section, for the other skaters’ protection as much as mine. It wouldn’t look good to have a Todd Carty-style runaway scattering kids across the ice.

“The older you get,” said Louisa, “the more you think about it and maybe become a bit tense. The young have less fear of falling.”

If there is such a thing as a good way to fall, Louisa demonstrated it: try to lean forward and use your hands for support; best to wear gloves.

She was an excellent coach, and she needed to be. I gradually moved from baby steps to very short skating movements: keep your feet no more than hips’ width apart, point your heels towards each other, put your weight over your front knee, look at the horizon, not the ground.

There was a lot to remember but it seemed to come down to “Don’t fall over” and – just as important – don’t be afraid to fall over.

When Louisa eventually let me go it felt like leaving mummy on your first day at school. I was on my own now.

At least I was still standing, just. Every short thrust forward was accompanied by the wobbling arms of someone standing on a cliff edge and glimpsing the rocks below.

This was a crash course – although I was relieved that Louisa didn’t use the expression – so we quickly tried a few other moves.

After building up a bit of momentum with shuffling steps, I leaned forward and glided on two feet, somehow resisting the urge to scream “Wheee!”

Louisa demonstrated a move called forward bubbles, in which her legs glided out and then back in an oval. I made a tentative attempt without fully committing myself. Fear of doing an involuntary splits was too strong, and my voice had gone up enough already in those trousers.

Then we tried a spin; making little steps around in a circle, arms wide then brought in as we turned. “Imagine you’re hugging a tree,” said Louisa, who had presumably been listening to her George Harrison albums again.

She also advised me to imagine I was a pencil, which was a novel way of encouraging upright posture.

After 45 minutes it was time for the grand finale, my Torvill and Dean Bolero moment which would hopefully live up to the promise shown by my outfit, if not the body inside it.

With my left knee forward I slid across the ice on my trailing right leg for a few glorious seconds. But poetry in motion became more like shopping list in motion as I toppled over and slid to a halt on my behind. Was that the sound of Todd Carty laughing?

Back on my feet, though, I realised that I was skating without really thinking about it, albeit in short, choppy strides.

I’m not the only one making my debut at this time of year, thanks to the power of Dancing On Ice. “Every year it’s like an alarm going off,” said Louisa. “The programme starts and everyone wants to have a go. Sometimes there’s double the usual amount of skaters.”

As our lesson ended Louisa picked up the cones, effortlessly gliding to and fro. “I enjoy the movement and the freedom,” she said.

There wasn’t a great deal of movement or freedom from me. I was like the Tin Man on ice; more Orville than Torvill.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was better than I’d expected to be. There were a few tumbles but no painful falls, although I hadn’t really cut loose enough to allow any spectacular stumbles.

The main thing I learned is that skating is a bit like life. You’re gliding along and all’s well with the world – then suddenly you’re on your bottom feeling a bit silly.

Louisa gave a generous assessment of my potential. “I thought you picked things up quickly. You had good balance for a beginner. You didn’t show any fear factor. And you were very tastefully dressed.”

How true, Louisa. How true. Her words stayed with me right until the moment when I stepped outside, and skidded on a patch of ice in the car park.

To contact Louisa Nairn email louisanairn@hotmail.com

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