A ballet corps on ice skates

Teams: Local ensemble figure skaters will compete in Europe, where the group sport originated.

Howard At Play

March 24, 2002|By Carol Sorgen | Carol Sorgen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Winter Olympics may be over, but for two groups of largely Howard County youth figure skaters, their own Olympics is just beginning.

On April 13, the ensemble figure skating teams known as the Emeralds and the Diamonds - with about two-thirds of their skaters from Howard County - will compete in the 2002 Trophee Internationale d'Occitanie in Toulouse, France.

Twenty-one teams - four from the United States, two from Russia, one from Spain, and the rest from France - will showcase their talents in this annual competition, considered one of the top-level events in the sport.

Two years ago, the Diamonds won the international event and then repeated their victory at another competition, the Griffe d'Argent in Paris.

Ensemble figure skating, which originated in Europe, is just beginning to make its mark in the United States, says Robert McBrien, artistic director of Chesapeake Skating School in Towson, which is home to the two teams.

Also known as "ballet on ice" or "theatre on ice," ensemble figure skating is a team event that combines team unity with the technical proficiency and artistic expression found in all disciplines of figure skating.

"Theatre on ice is a team sport," says McBrien. "It requires unison, interaction with other skaters on the ice and awareness of the body movement of the other team members."

McBrien is a former figure skater with a college degree in theater from Northwestern University. For 25 years, he worked as a figure skating coach in New York City. He moved to Baltimore in 1995 to join Denise Cahill, another former figure skater and director of Chesapeake Skating School. McBrien was Cahill's choice to develop an ensemble figure skating program that would offer children an alternative to the traditional one-on-one teaching relationship.

"When children are trained in a group situation [the skating version of a ballet class]," says McBrien, "they learn that skating is about more than just jumps and spins but also about expression on ice. Group skating also levels out the competitive aspect of figure skating that pits one skater against another."

From the classes evolved the ensemble teams. The Diamonds, an elite-level team of 20 skaters - 13 from Howard County and most in high school - have been competing since 1999 and for the past three years have won the International Theatre on Ice competition sponsored by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

The second team, the Emeralds, is a senior-level team with 15 skaters, nine from Howard County and most in middle school.

For competitions, the teams skate a 6 1/2 -minute program. In France, the Diamonds will perform "Prism" to the music of Richard Wagner, and the Emeralds will skate to a compilation of music - from rap to 16th-century composer Palestrina - in a piece called "Restless Radio."

"In ensemble skating," says McBrien, "we focus on the gliding aspect of skating. We keep moving at all times."

Judges base their scores on the difficulty of the group movements, how well the piece is skated and how effectively the theme of the piece is carried out.

Most ensemble skaters also compete in individual freestyle events, and some in ice dancing, says McBrien.

Jason Weisberg, 12, and his sister Shana, 11, who live in Columbia, love the ensemble aspect of skating.

"When you're skating in an ensemble, you don't have to worry about being perfect," says Jason, who says he would love to compete in the Olympics some day as a singles skater.

Jason and Shana's mother, Rachelle, says the ensemble gives the Weisbergs the opportunity to enjoy the youngsters' activity as a family. "Since they're on the same team," she says, "we can always be with both of them at the same time."

Lisa Capp, who lives in Glenelg and whose daughter, Lauren, 13, is a member of the Emeralds, is enthusiastic about the ensembles, as well as about their coach.

"Out of all the skating that my daughter has participated in," says Capp, "she seems to get the most enjoyment and fulfillment out of ensemble skating, and Rob has much to do with this.

"His gifts of vision with ensemble choreography, as well as his technical coaching expertise, are truly appreciated by the skaters, parents and the audience," Capp adds. "We are fortunate to have a coach and director with his experience and talents work with our children. He brings out the best in them, and is giving them gifts that they may use in other parts of their lives, for years to come."

Howard skaters

Here are the Howard County skaters who are part of ensemble teams competing in Europe next month:

Diamonds

Clarksville: Melissa Anderson, Rachael Hogue, Colleen Menke. Columbia: Amanda Buckler, Ryan Pfefferstein. Ellicott City: Allison Barber, Sarah Franks, Stephanie Jarrett, Amy Jordan, Julie Tsai, Ashley Virtue. Laurel: Anna Campos, Savannah Laurel.

Emeralds

Clarksville: Sophia Chien, Kristen Tessmer. Columbia: Amy Buckler, Melissa Ivester, Lindsay Sperling, Shana and Jason Weisberg. Ellicott City: Erin Maskell. Glenelg: Lauren Capps.

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