Perched on her skates, Justise Fleming watched intently as her instructor spun around on the ice with ease. Then the determined 7-year-old from Patterson Park dug her right toe pick into the ice, reached back and swiveled in place. As her spin slowed she wobbled a bit like a tightrope walker on the high wire. But a sly smile of accomplishment spread across her face.
A few feet away, 14 other girls tried the same two-foot spin. Most succeeded, but several plopped down hard. A few shrieks pierced the cold air of the Dominic Mimi DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park.
"You guys are better than I thought," instructor Natalie Estelle said, beaming as she glided from girl to girl, giving each a high five.
The pirouetting students were in just their second class Sunday of Estelle's program, Figure Skating in the City. For six weekends, Estelle works with city school students, teaching them basics of skating as well as self-esteem and some healthy habits she hopes they will carry into adulthood.
"If I get just one girl who I can take under my wing and train her to be a competitor, that would be awesome," said Estelle, 31, who skated competitively at the local and national level for 14 years.
The program, which is backed by the city's Recreation and Parks Department and the United States Figure Skating Association, gives the girls free ice time and skate rentals. There is a small fee - $15 - which pays for healthy snacks and membership in the figure skating association.
Estelle, who works as an adjunct professor at American Career Institute in Columbia and is a freelance graphic designer, wanted to offer the program to students of Baltimore City schools. She's a graduate of Western High herself, and of Towson University. For now, she's teaching skating primarily to Patterson Park Charter School students, but hopes eventually to make it available citywide. In addition to skating, she plans to teach the girls the importance of good nutrition, and to incorporate belly dancing and yoga in the class.
The charter school staff say Estelle's program meshes with their mission.
"She's encouraging them to explore their talents and to set goals for them," said Liz Obara, community coordinator at the 555-student K-8 school. "Increasing self-esteem is a huge thing for middle school girls. It will really benefit the girls to open their eyes to new things. Figure skating is something new and interesting and exotic for city kids."
Justise seems to be a natural. "I love it because it's fun," the charter school second-grader said. "I want to do the Olympics."
Justise's mother, Charissa Lashley, has already noticed a spark in her daughter.
"She loves it," said Lashley, who works for a credit union. "She couldn't wait to get back on the ice. She packed her skating bag Friday night. She was very excited."
Justise's parents are trying to arrange private lessons with Estelle once the program ends.
"I want her to train my daughter," said Justise's father, Jerry Fleming., a truck driver. "She's going the next step. This is going to be her teacher. Justise has the gift."
Estelle agreed, at least about her student's aptitude. "Justise picked it up like that. It seems like she's done it before. She just stood out."
Justise's sisters, 4-year-old Fallon and 6-year-old Felecia, are also in the program.
"I like it because I get to learn a lot of stuff," Felecia said. "I like to exercise because you get strong."
Estelle says she wants to do for skating in Baltimore what Venus and Serena Williams have done for tennis - expose a new generation of African-American girls to the sport Estelle has been a part of since age 8. Many of the girls in the program are too young to remember black figure skaters such as U.S. champion Debi Thomas or French champion Surya Bonaly.
"Growing up I noticed that there were a handful of other black skaters at competitions," Estelle said. "That always stuck in my head. I want to bring diversity in the sport."
Her short-term goal is to raise enough funds so that the students won't have to pay to participate in a year-round program. Eventually she wants to reopen Northwest Ice Rink, where she honed her skills.
"It's a very expensive sport," Estelle said. "That has definitely held us back."