Over their lunch hours, Jim Kamin and Josephine Lee lace up their figure skates and glide into an alternate universe.
Precisely executing moves such as Choctaws, three-turns and twizzles in two-part harmony, they leave their work lives behind for a bit of fantasy on ice.
“This world is as far as you can get from writing appellate briefs,” said Kamin, who in his other life works as a public defender for Hennepin County.
“I love to exercise, but I hate to get all sweaty. I also love the creative side of it,” said Lee, who normally would be lecturing and grading papers as an English professor at the University of Minnesota.
Kamin and Lee are ice-dancing partners. For them, the sport is a pastime, but one they take seriously enough to compete in around the country. Over the past few years the two have ascended from pre-bronze to gold status, and in April will vie for a championship title in Hyannis, Mass.
Since Charlie White and Meryl Davis won the gold medal in ice dancing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the first Americans to do so since the sport was added to the games in 1976, there’s been a spike in interest from the general public. But Kamin, Lee and other members of the Starlight Ice Dance Club at Parade Ice Arena have long been passionate about what others see as a rarefied pursuit.
“Every four years a lot of people pay attention to ice dancing,” said Daphne Backman, editor of the website Ice-dance.com. “They like to watch it during the Olympics, and don’t realize it continues to go on in-between.”
The image of this half-sport/half-spectacle is full of dichotomies. It’s beloved, yet ridiculed. It’s flamboyantly elegant, yet perceived as geekier than pairs freestyle skating. Its rules regarding precision and timing rival those of ballet. It’s an official Olympic sport requiring a high degree of skill, but looks more like “Dancing With the Stars” on skates. It is figure skating’s counterpart to ballroom dance — many enthusiasts do both — but it’s more daunting, because your shoes have blades, and your dancing surface is slicker than a banana peel.
It keeps you young
The 30-some active members of the Starlight Ice Dance Club range in age from their late 20s to their 80s, and in their attitudes from casual to seriously competitive. Every Thursday night from February through April, the club reserves a rink at Parade for a 75-minute social skate.
At one recent social, a rowdy hockey crowd could be heard roaring next door, but the scene at the south rink was serene, the ice dancers exuding a fluid grace. As the music changed, they freely switched partners, with the more experienced skaters helping the novices to gain confidence.
Every member on the ice that night looked 10 to 20 years younger than they are, especially Genny Burdette, 76, and Caroline Gilbert, 80.
“I used to do jumps,” said Burdette, who showed up dressed as Beetlejuice for the club’s Halloween skate last October. “Not anymore. But I still spin.”
Both women learned how to ice dance from the late Vivi-Anne Hultén, an Olympic figure-skating bronze medalist for Sweden who later ran a skating school in St. Paul with her skating partner and husband, Gene Theslof (the ex-partner of her professional rival, Norwegian skater Sonja Henie).
“It was quite a while ago that Vivi-Anne won,” Gilbert said. “Hitler gave her one of her medals.”
Harder than hockey
Towering, silver-haired David Evans is clearly at ease on the ice, guiding his wife, Becky, around the rink with courtly deference. His moves are a lot more elegant than those he uses in the other ice sport he’s played for 40 years, hockey.
“This is way harder,” he said. “It’s also more romantic.”
Even recreational ice dancers chafe at the notion that their sport of choice is sometimes called “pairs skating lite,” chosen as a fallback by those who can’t cut it with the jumps and the freestyle. But ice dancing’s rules have become much more technical over the past decade.
“People think it’s is easier than freestyle because they don’t understand the absolute precision of this sport,” said Sarah France, who also coaches ice dancing. “You are being judged on every step, so every moment has to be perfect. Add to that being in harmony with another body, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
David and Becky Evans find that the social skate makes for “an unbeatable date night,” she said.
Becky, who already had some training as a figure skater, coaxed her hockey-playing husband into trying something they could enjoy together. Initially leery, David discovered he really liked it. At first, he hid his newfound interest from his hockey buddies, “but there’s a shortage of men around here, so Becky thinks I should recruit some,” he said.
“Wouldn’t they rather skate with a chick than a stick?” she said.
Burdette also lamented the club’s male-to-female ratio.
“We’re always on the lookout for a tall, dark stranger who can still stand up,” she said.
Club president Diane Geving and her husband, Glen, make a cute couple on the ice. But as is the case with Kamin and Lee, who are both married to other people, it’s more common for ice-dancing partners not to be romantically involved. Outsiders sometimes find this difficult to grasp, because ice dancing requires a certain kind of intimacy.
Make-ups and breakups have occurred over the years among Starlight members, some involving real-life romance, others skating-compatibility issues only.
Jon Koser used to dance with Sonia Srichai, but she’s moved on. Brad Daniels and Sarah France used to be dance partners, but no more.
“It’s just interpersonal dynamics,” France said. “He and I bicker like siblings.”
France said she tries to avoid dating within the ice-dance community because “it’s so small and close-knit, and the last thing you need out on the ice is a distraction.”
On this night, France and Daniels took a few turns around the rink. At the end of the session, he asked for her number, saying, “I’d like to skate with you again.” The club does forge close friendships, said Lisa Veith, 53, who didn’t take it up until she was 40. Despite her enthusiasm for recently having learned a new and comparatively ultra-modern dance, the disco slide, she says the best thing about the club is the relationships she’s made.
“We’ve lost several members over the last few years, and we all go to the funerals,” she said.
One, club co-founder Bernie Lindgren, skated on the day before he died last year at age 88.
Risk vs. reward
Kristine Galligan of Cottage Grove, 35, was into figure skating as a child, then took nearly a dozen years off before deciding to join the Starlight club. A few years ago, she got sliced — following a miscalculation, one of her partner’s skate blades went deep into her right calf.
“I got 75 stitches and permanent nerve damage,” she said. “But I still come back every year. I can’t stay away from that adrenaline rush, the fun of flying around the rink with someone else.”
For all their time together practicing, Kamin and Lee have escaped such an accident, but haven’t gone bump-free.
“We’ve had some pretty spectacular falls,” Kamin said. “but on this surface, you just slide.”