A dedicated instructor expresses herself through figure skating.
This piece first appeared in The Concord Journal.
It’s 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning inside an achingly cold skating arena in West Concord, Massachusetts. Fifteen pre-teen girls in spotless white boots fly around the perimeter of the rink, most with arms extended at shoulder height, blades pushing back, hard, on the ice. They all turn from forward to backward to forward again, as effortlessly as they blink. After five or six breathless laps, there are fifteen legs propped up on the shelf of the rink’s side boards, with fifteen torsos reaching and stretching over them.
Dawn DiMinico emerges from her tiny cube of an office near the front and coasts over to mid-ice. She laced up her skates at 5:45 for the 6:00 AM lesson, and the comfortably-worn boots won’t be unlaced until well after noon time. The blades add three inches to her already tall frame, notching her up to at least six feet, not counting three or four inches for the dark loosely coiled hair stacked on top of her head. Her navy sweat-suited form isn’t the spare figure television might leave one to expect of skaters, in Dawn’s own words she has “always been heavy”– but as she skims across the ice she looks as fluid and confident as any Sasha Cohen or Michele Kwan.
It’s Dawn’s voice that commands most anyone nearby to look up and take notice. Some would call it booming, but to be heard the length of the ice she needs every decibel. The girls have split up and retreated to the far “corners” of the rink with their lesson instructors. They idly spin and drift, with one eye yet on Dawn’s back as she lines up a stack of cassettes beside a tape player. “Emily you’re up first,” she bellows. “Meagan you’re on deck.” Emily and Meagan dart over and don the fluorescent orange vests that Dawn hands them.
The other skaters pay no mind to their classmate now posing at center ice, head bowed, arms draped gracefully at her sides, left foot crossed behind right. But when “My Heart Must Go On” blasts from rink’s sound system, Dawn attends fully to Emily, skating right beside her, up in her face almost, urging “Faster!” as Emily turns into her half flip, and “Higher! Higher!” as she stretches her leg back and up into an arabesque. For a full minute and a half, Dawn shadows her protégé up and down the ice, imploring her to push harder in this part, to hold her edges in that part, to look up, to feel the melody. When the music ends, Emily, now rosy cheeked and panting, flashes a satisfied grin. Dawn smiles too, and sends her off with a “Good job” and a pat on the head. Now it’s Meagan’s turn.
This is what Dawn does. From September to June, for 35 hours a week spread out over weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings, she teaches 80 some kids, and a handful of adults, to skate. To glide and turn and jump and spin, to love the ice just like she does. Figure skating has been an imperative for Dawn for 36 years, ever since her father first put her on the ice at age three. “I absolutely truly loved it,” she exclaims, “and I have never been off the ice since.”
The slings and arrows of life seem to ping and rebound off the shield that figure skating has formed around Dawn. As a youngster in school, she “belonged to the Chapter 766” (the Massachusetts special education law) and found it hard to study, memorize and get good grades. Her need for visual and tactile learning made skating a good fit. Dawn could see her instructors demonstrate skills; she could feel their touch on her arm or her hip; and this helped her break things down in her head. For her first ten years of skating, she advanced steadily to higher levels of difficulty. “I felt like I could just fly on the ice,” she says.
And too, there was the camaraderie of being on a team. Through high school, Dawn skated with a sixty or so member club, and she thrived on being with her team mates. She even relished riding the old, bumpy bus to and from competitions, and selling candy to raise the money she needed to be able to go. She loved the commiserating and the stretching out together and the giggling at all the little things that inevitably went wrong. Once, Dawn recalls, a competition program called for her to dance out of a refrigerator-sized box positioned at center ice. But the bow affixed to immobilize the cutout “door” knotted up and she could not untie it to get out. After a few seconds of panic, she “just busted out of the box,” to the applause and laughter of the audience.
But then came the operations. After leaving the ice at a competition at age 13, Dawn could not move her legs enough to climb the steps to the bleachers. An orthopedist diagnosed slipped capital femoral epiphysis, a disorder of the hip where the upper end of the thigh bone (the femur) slips backwards. It’s the result of weakness in the growth plates, and while rare, most often occurs in adolescents after a growth spurt. To prevent further movement of her femurs, surgeons inserted a pin in one of Dawn’s hips, then in the other a year later. At 16, she had surgery again to remove the pins.
Through it all, Dawn continued to skate. Though the surgeries and subsequent recoveries stemmed her progress, she took comfort knowing that her doctor’s original prognosis, that she might never skate again, had not come to pass. “I would always look at the best out of things,” she says.
“Happy skating” is the motto at The Sharper Edge, the club and school Dawn formed in 1996, but any skater, or parent of a skater, knows that the rink is not always a source of success or joy. Like almost every sport now for children, skating is organized, and structure equals competition, with judges measuring kids against other kids, who then inevitably count their medals– or their lack of them. To minimize the angst that wheedles its way into even genial-seeming match-ups, the Sharper Edge operates under the auspices of the International Skating Institute (ISI), whose rules permit any member skater to participate not just in local competitions, but in regional and even international ones as well. Dawn chose the lower-key ISI over the more intense United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), the organization that tracks athletes to world class status through successive elimination competitions. She wanted her club to be “all about fun.” “All of the cattiness between the girls” that Dawn saw after her childhood club switched to the USFSA was not what she wanted. “Nobody was talking,” she recalls.
Starting her own club, however, was neither happy nor easy. In the mid 1990’s, her relationship with her longtime employer and mentor soured when disgruntled parents urged her to strike out on her own. “I went to him and tried to explain that all these people want to quit,” Dawn reveals. She asked him, “why do I keep building up the club and then you knock the blocks over?” When the mother of one student offered to back her financially, Dawn made the break, but “it was a total nightmare for a whole year.” The man who had been like a father to her was complaining, calling her unfair, protesting when she had to judge his students. Now, 13 years later, Dawn shrugs it off. “I had been in the ISI district for 20 years…people knew what I was about, and if someone had a question, I gave them the answer.”
Despite its painful genesis, The Sharper Edge thrived, no doubt nourished by Dawn’s unwavering commitment. She strives to make skating as financially accessible to as many people as possible by offering group lessons, rather than the one-on-one private, and expensive, lessons that were de rigueur when she was a young skater. Skating is Dawn’s livelihood, but it is also her vehicle for expressing her love of people, particularly children. It’s important to her that people “know when they come here, their kids are going to be loved, and they are going to have a connection with skating.” Dawn’s joy comes from seeing all children progressing, from finding different methods to help all of them learn. She most wants every skater to know “that it doesn’t matter about getting medals…what matters is their work ethic.” If she accomplishes that, then, the many hours she puts into her business, the time to do the administrative and marketing work, the effort to build her talented and devoted staff, and the teaching, are all worth it. Now, she’s busy making plans for the Sharper Edge’s 13th year.