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Fellowship of the rink, The National, 01.04.2009

A new show based on classic fairy tales is keeping the members of the Abu Dhabi Figure Skating Team on their toes, and inspiring a sense of community. Jo Wadham visits a rehearsal

If the idea of going to a figure skating show makes you think of Torvill and Dean, clad in Lycra and pirouetting, think again. Watching the rehearsals for Once Upon a Time by the Abu Dhabi Figure Skating Team, you realise things have progressed in the past 20 years. The strains of Eminem’s Without Me blast out as eight teenagers dance hip-hop moves and throw themselves across the ice, seemingly indifferent to the cold.

This Friday and Saturday night at Zayed Sports City Ice Rink, more than 50 skaters aged four to 41 will take to the ice in a fairy-tale extravaganza, featuring such favourite stories as Aladdin, Snow White, Cinderella, The Lion King and The Wizard of Oz, as well as a couple of surprising prince charmings. Leading us through the series of classics will be the hapless squirrel from Ice Age. The shows mark the culmination of 60 hours of rehearsals. It is time well spent, says Jacqueline Collins, 11, who will be dancing as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “It makes you feel so free,” she says. “I started skating when I was seven, and then took lessons because I didn’t want to fall anymore.” All the participants in the show train at the Zayed Sports City Ice Rink, with some hitting the ice as early as five in the morning to fit in a practice before school.

Jacqueline’s sentiments are echoed by Khalifa, who in his mid-twenties, is one of the older members in the team. “I’ve always had a passion for figure skating. I like to perform. You do it to music, skate gracefully, and escape from the world. You just skate.” Khalifa, who only started skating two years ago, trains four times a week and is already mastering double jumps which would normally take six years to achieve. “Skating is very, very hard,” he says. “But, if you like something, you will be the best at it. I’m very competitive.”

The dedication of the skaters is clear from the commitment they have made. Karan Ashraff, 15, lives in Dubai and gets up at four in the morning to attend rehearsals. Asked why he likes skating, he doesn’t hesitate to reply: “Because of our coach, Noemi. If you fall when you jump, she doesn’t shout, she makes you feel better so you do it right next time.” The shows are dedicated to the memory of Jayne Soliman, a former British ice skating champion and coach at Zayed Sports City Ice Rink. Jayne died in January this year of a brain haemorrhage resulting from an undiagnosed brain tumour. Her death made the headlines as she was pregnant with her first child at the time, and although clinically dead, was kept on life support so her daughter could be delivered.

The coach and co-choreographer of the show, Noemi Bedo, was good friends with Soliman. “She was an amazing person,” says Bedo. “We were very close.” Like Soliman, she is also a former figure skating champion, starting at the age of six in her native Romania and coming first in the Romanian Cup when she was 18. She visited the UAE eight years ago with a show, and “loved the energy of the place”. A few years later she came back and taught in Dubai, until Soliman suggested she move to Abu Dhabi. Skating is clearly a passion for her. “It’s not just teaching skating. You build their personalities; you push them to get over their fears,” Bedo says. “You get to know your body, too. You need so much co-ordination, strength and flexibility. It’s very complex, plus it’s beautiful.”

There is a community theatre feel to the production. The mothers of the skaters have organised the costumes and made the backdrop. Debbie Taleb, whose daughters Myriam and Farah are appearing in the show, designed three sets of costumes with Bedo: the Seven Dwarfs, the Arabian dancers and the genies. “It’s my passion – anything to do with fashion, clothes and jewellery,” says Taleb, who works full time teaching English at the Centre of Excellence, Research and Training in Abu Dhabi. Cecilia Joyce made the squirrel costume and helped create the backdrop. Her daughter Alexa plays Cinderella. “She’s quite a tomboy and it keeps her fit,” says Joyce. “She doesn’t like activities which are too disciplined, but this is very creative.”

As the music to The Lion King rings out across the rink, another group of 16 skaters takes to the ice, executing impressively co-ordinated moves. Pip Gray, watching her daughter Marena rehearse, explains why she encourages her and her younger sister Jasmine to skate. “It’s weatherproof and it’s eight minutes from home. It’s great and there is a lovely community here.” Gray, who came to the UAE with her family from Australia a year ago, thinks skating has offered benefits beyond exercise. “They make friends for their leisure time. They are not bringing their maths results, or whatever else might be on their minds from school. It’s refreshing for them.” Gray is grateful for the dedication that Bedo and her assistant coach, Stephen Paler, have put into the rehearsals. “The children will be able to do their moves in their sleep by the time they go on.”

Another benefit the mothers mention is the wide age and experience range of the group. “There’s a lot of mentoring,” says Gray. Taking part also enables the children to learn about other cultures. Karen Engle, whose daughter Joanna will be appearing as the Ice Age squirrel, says: “We are a United Nations on ice.” The team comprises Emiratis, Australians, Canadians, Britons, Iraqis, French, Italians, Russians, Americans, Iranians and Sri Lankans, together with the Romanian coach and her Filipino assistant.

There are skaters from seven schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and good friendships have been formed. Ayesha Riyami, 16, says of the group: “We’ve become friends and we learnt how to work together.” Ayesha will be performing as Snow White. She says continuing skating is high on her list of priorities as she considers which university to apply to. “I hope to go somewhere where I can skate. I am applying to some universities in Canada, where most have their own ice rinks.”

At 41, the Canadian Jackie Henrickson is the oldest skater in the show. The mother of three took to the ice a year ago. “I’d always wanted to take it up, and it’s best to do it with a champion coach.” Her three children are not interested in skating, but Henrickson wanted to try something new, just for herself. “It’s a challenge. I love the freedom of expression, the thrill of the sport.” One skater catches the eye as she moves gracefully across the ice. Zahra, an Emirati, aged 14, is the only dancer wearing a sheila. She will be performing as Sleeping Beauty and was also one of the skaters performing hip-hop-style to Eminem at the start of the rehearsal. Her mother, Roquiya Cochran, encourages the sport. “She’s covered because she is a Muslim. You can practise your religion and cover up, but that won’t hold you back from anything you want to do. She is free to accomplish anything, that’s why I support her with her skating.” Cochran, originally from North Carolina, has tried skating, but decided to leave it to her daughter. “Even holding the railing I can barely stand on the ice – I’m like an old lady with a walker.”

Once the two shows are over, the figure skating team will prepare for the UAE Open Championship at Al Nasr Leisureland in Dubai at the end of May. “Two years ago we took 12 skaters and came back with nine golds and two silvers. This year we are taking 30 skaters,” says Engle. Teams from Dubai, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar will be competing in the competition which is held over two days. This Friday and Saturday’s shows promise to be a fun family experience, showcasing the talents of a dedicated group of skaters. And where else can you hear Eminem’s music alongside Disney’s?

Doors open at 4.30pm and the show starts at 5.30pm. Tickets cost Dh50 per adult and Dh30 per child, available at Zayed Sports City Ice Rink (02 444 8458).

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