Figure Skating In Harlem Is Creating Space for Skaters of Color On and Off The Ice (2024)

All products featured on Teen Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Mabel Fairbanks was the first African-American inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, even though she was never allowed to skate competitively or try out for the Olympic team. She taught herself to spin and glide in the 1930s because she couldn’t afford lessons and the rinks wouldn’t let her in because she was Black. Fairbanks eventually started earning money by performing in small ice shows at nightclubs, though she says she wasn’t allowed to show off the more difficult moves she was capable of. “None of the white skaters wanted to be outshone by someone Black,” she told the L.A. Times in 1998.

Racism took away Fairbanks’s chance to become a figure skating champion. Because of that, during her years as a coach she made it a point to provide her students with the support she never had. Without Fairbanks, there wouldn’t be a Debi Thomas, who became the first Black athlete to win a medal in the Winter Olympics, or a Richard Ewell, who became the first African American to win a national title in pair skating and single skating, and not just because they were both her students. Fairbanks helped break the color barrier in U.S. figure skating, allowing others the chance to follow in her footsteps (or more technically, her ice skates).

Figure skating has historically been dominated by white skaters and, in more recent years, Asian skaters. Despite Fairbanks’s pioneering, the sport has yet to see a surge of influence akin to what the Williams sisters had on tennis and Dominique Dawes had on gymnastics. But Figure Skating in Harlem, a nonprofit organization, is helping to make figure skating more accessible.

Sharon Cohen founded Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) through what she calls serendipity. She was a practicing competitive skater when she was invited by East Harlem community leaders to teach a group of young girls. “I knew from my background that there were very few people of color who skated at all because it was very expensive and had a barrage of discrimination,” Cohen says. “So it was amazing to see, over time, this group get bigger and bigger, [with] these ladies of color who just owned the ice.” For seven years she taught during her free time, but after finishing up a grad program, and with the encouragement of parents, Cohen decided to formalize the organization. In 1997, Figure Skating in Harlem was born.

Stylist's own turtleneck, Christian Wijnants dress.

Twenty-three years later, the program teaches hundreds of girls ages 6 to 18 the foundational elements and artistic discipline of figure skating, and encourages them in the classroom as well. “We wanted figure skating to be what brought our girls in and what helped them grow and taught them resilience and perseverance and grace — all of these wonderful things," Cohen says. "But ultimately showing up their educational skills was what we wanted to make our focus, so that our girls were going to the best schools, the best colleges, and [could] enter any field they wanted.”

The girls usually have two afternoons that revolve around skating and two around academics. In addition to basic math, reading, and writing skills, the program offers classes in financial literacy, communications, STEM, and leadership development. The schedule and offerings have changed some due to COVID-19, Cohen says, with all of the academics moving online. There’s virtual tutoring for girls who are below a B average, and a heavy emphasis on social and emotional support. One of the biggest changes is that a lot less time is spent on the ice.

AREA Crystal Bow MiniDress, $980, available at Nordstrom; Ganni Sheer Turtleneck, $135, available at Farfetch.

AREA Crystal Bow MiniDress, $980, available at Nordstrom; Ganni Sheer Turtleneck, $135, available at Farfetch.

The pandemic hit right before the program’s big annual performance, and the adjustment has been difficult for some of the girls, including 17-year-old Kayla Jones. “It was heartbreaking to not be able to go on the ice as much as I used to,” she says. Jones started figure skating when she was around seven and joined FSH after her mom discovered it almost eight years ago. The rink, Jones says, is where she feels most at peace. “It’s a place that keeps me calm, it keeps me sane,” she explains. “There could be a war going on outside, and as long as I'm on the ice, nothing can affect or change my mood.” Jones grew up watching figure skating competitions and had dreams of becoming an Olympian. As she got older, though, she realized that being a professional comes with more stress and drama than she wanted. Now she prefers to keep skating light and fun to maintain that peace.

Most Popular

  • Culture

    Amidst Hardship, Keke Palmer Is Focused on Her Son, Company, and Legacy

    By Kaitlyn McNab

  • Culture

    Well, Taylor Swift's New Album Might Refer to Joe Alwyn's Groupchat

    By Kara Nesvig

  • Politics

    Some of the World's Most Prestigious Ballet Dancers Are Ready to Strike

    By Rainesford Stauffer

Figure skating wasn’t on Jacqueline Ayala’s radar the same way it was on Jones’s. When she joined FSH in 2015 it was only the second time she’d ever been on the ice. “I didn't know anyone around me who knew how to figure skate, so I wasn't really tied to figure skating or [had] even watched it on TV,” Ayala says. After she entered the program, she discovered other girls and coaches who looked like her and practiced the sport. Ayala stopped skating for five months in March — the longest break she’s taken in the five years since she started. The part she’s missed the most is also her favorite aspect of the program: Being able to skate with friends who come from a similar background. “Figure skating is very white-washed and people don't see people of color on the ice," she says, "so it's nice to know that I'm able to break barriers alongside other girls.”

Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini dress at Intermix, Issey Miyake top, Maison Soksi Rinzen Tights, $207.25, available at Maison Soksi.

On a weekday the ice skating rink in East Harlem, filled with Black and brown bodies (safely wearing masks), looks a lot different than the figure skating landscape as a whole. Jones says when they go to competitions, they’re always the only team made up entirely of girls of color, which can come with added pressure to do well. “It feels like you have something to prove,” she says.

The Black Lives Matter movement this summer helped to shed light on the diversity issues within the sport, and professional skaters like Adam Rippon and Ashley Wagner put out a faint call to action to help speed up historically slow-moving progress. It’s hard to obtain data on the overall ethnic makeup of figure skaters, as Teen Vogue has highlighted before, but of the 271 medals awarded for figure skating since the first Winter Olympics in 1924, only two have gone to Black skaters.

Starr Andrews, who made headlines in 2010 when a video of her skating to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” went viral, is one of the few Black figure skaters on the international circuit. She addressed this in June, following the murder of George Floyd and during the protests for the BLM movement, writing on Instagram: “Every time a little Black girl comes up to me, it makes me emotional because I used to be that little girl. I always tell them you can do anything you set your mind to. I’m not only skating for myself, but for every little girl, boy, or any African American out there who thinks they can’t do it.” A month later, she posted a video of herself skating to, well, herself, singing a rendition of Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me.” Andrews hopes to qualify for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, where she’d join a shallow pool of Black Olympic skaters.

Left to Right. On Habibata: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini dress at Intermix; On Kayla: AREA Crystal Bow MiniDress, $980, available at Nordstrom; Ganni Sheer Turtleneck, $135, available at Farfetch; We Love Colors tights. On Jackie: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini dress at Intermix; Issey Miyake top, Maison Soksi Rinzen Tights, $207.25, available at Maison Soksi. On Amiri: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini Pleated Degradé Dress, $1,595, available at Luisaviaroma. On Nia: Azeeza dress, See by Chloé Pleated Sweater, $440, available at See by Chloé; We Love Colors tights.

Most Popular

  • Culture

    Amidst Hardship, Keke Palmer Is Focused on Her Son, Company, and Legacy

    By Kaitlyn McNab

  • Culture

    Well, Taylor Swift's New Album Might Refer to Joe Alwyn's Groupchat

    By Kara Nesvig

  • Politics

    Some of the World's Most Prestigious Ballet Dancers Are Ready to Strike

    By Rainesford Stauffer

It was Black French figure skater Surya Bonaly who first caught 17-year-old Nia Moore’s eye. “I learned that she did a backflip on the ice and I just thought you have to be, like, so confident or, like, really crazy to do something like that,” she says. Bonaly was a little bit of both, depending on who you ask. She’s remembered by many for protesting a second-place win during the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships because she thought she deserved gold, but more so, as Moore mentioned, for becoming the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on one blade during the 1998 games. The move was banned in 1976, which led to deductions in Bonaly’s score and a 10th-place spot, but it cemented her name in figure skating history. “I wanted to do something to please the crowd, not the judges,” Bonaly reportedly said that night. “The judges are not pleased no matter what I do, and I knew I couldn’t go forward anyway because everybody was skating so good.” Years later she told The Root she wanted to “leave a trademark”; the move has since been dubbed "the Bonaly.”

Moore doesn’t plan to pull a Bonaly on the ice anytime soon. She knows you’re not supposed to doubt yourself, and “never say never,” but she just knows in her heart of hearts that it’s not in the cards. If anything, Bonaly showed her what’s possible: Seeing a young Black girl soar through the air and defy gravity while gliding on ice tends to leave an impression. Moore hopes to do the same for other aspiring girls. “When people of color see us skating and performing in competitions or see us online or see us in Teen Vogue, it shows that they can do that too, and it's not limited to only what you see on TV,” she says, adding that she usually sees “beautiful, pale white figure skaters” on television. She points specifically to Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold, who she compares to the Frozen character Elsa. “We can be that, too,” Moore says. “We can be Black ice queens.”

JW Anderson top and pants.

Most Popular

  • Culture

    Amidst Hardship, Keke Palmer Is Focused on Her Son, Company, and Legacy

    By Kaitlyn McNab

  • Culture

    Well, Taylor Swift's New Album Might Refer to Joe Alwyn's Groupchat

    By Kara Nesvig

  • Politics

    Some of the World's Most Prestigious Ballet Dancers Are Ready to Strike

    By Rainesford Stauffer

The ice princess image — though flawed in a lot of ways — is upheld visually, in part, through costumes. Figure skating is one of the few sports that doesn’t require a uniform, which gives fashion a chance to shine. And shine it does, usually via glitter and sequins, and sometimes Swarovski crystals. The point is to stand out, but only so much. The International Skating Union has rules for professional skaters that state costumes must be “modest, dignified, and appropriate for athletic competition.” Skaters aren’t required to wear skirts, but they tend to be a popular choice given their feminine nature and the way they flow during spins and spirals (though Black French figure skater Maé-Bérénice Méité garnered attention for wearing a bedazzled black unitard during the 2018 Olympics). Their costumes are meant to be a reflection of their routine and an expression of who they are.

Figure Skating of Harlem costumes have run the gamut over the years: There was a Pink Panther one that included a little tail; the army-themed ones the young synchronized team wore while skating to Beyoncé’s “End of Time”; and the shirts and skirts that Jones recalls she and the other girls tie-dyed themselves for a performance to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (the back read “I am enough”).

Habibata Sigue, 17, doesn’t mind the “tight” leotards or loose skirts, but she says she much prefers more comfortable clothing. Her favorite costume that she’s worn is a simple, cute black leotard with some sparkles. If she had it her way and was able to wear whatever she wanted on the ice, it would be something that flowed. “Blue or purple would be the colors,” she specifies. “And when I do my spins, it would open up like a little flower blossoming.”

Most Popular

  • Culture

    Amidst Hardship, Keke Palmer Is Focused on Her Son, Company, and Legacy

    By Kaitlyn McNab

  • Culture

    Well, Taylor Swift's New Album Might Refer to Joe Alwyn's Groupchat

    By Kara Nesvig

  • Politics

    Some of the World's Most Prestigious Ballet Dancers Are Ready to Strike

    By Rainesford Stauffer

The image of a flower blooming is an easy metaphor for what the FSH program has accomplished for many young girls over the past two decades, which is to help them grow and come into their own. As Sigue and Sayala tell me, it’s helped them build confidence; as Jones says, it’s taught her the importance of falling fearlessly. “You're gonna fall on the ice, and you're always gonna have fallen moments in life,” Jones says. “But as long as you get back up and keep trying, nothing can stop you. You just have to keep on going.” Perhaps most importantly, FSH has provided a support system for the girls on and off the ice, which 18-year-old Amiri Lathen points out is her favorite part about the program. “No matter what you need, you will always have someone there to help you,” she says. “It's not even possible for someone to be left behind while you're in this program because there's so much help everywhere for anything you need. It doesn't have to include skating; it could be homework, it could be life.”

Left to Right. On Jackie:Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini dress at Intermix, Issey Miyake top, Maison Soksi Rinzen Tights, $207.25, available at Maison Soksi. On Kayla: AREA Crystal Bow MiniDress, $980, available at Nordstrom; Ganni Sheer Turtleneck, $135, available at Farfetch. On Amiri: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini Pleated Degradé Dress, $1,595, available at Luisaviaroma. On Nia: Azeeza dress, See by Chloé Pleated Sweater, $440, available at See by Chloé. On Habibata: Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini dress at Intermix.

Most Popular

  • Culture

    Amidst Hardship, Keke Palmer Is Focused on Her Son, Company, and Legacy

    By Kaitlyn McNab

  • Culture

    Well, Taylor Swift's New Album Might Refer to Joe Alwyn's Groupchat

    By Kara Nesvig

  • Politics

    Some of the World's Most Prestigious Ballet Dancers Are Ready to Strike

    By Rainesford Stauffer

For most, their dreams reach beyond the rink and, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what Cohen wants. FSH is an empowerment program at its core and skating is the entry point to help the girls soar in other areas, she emphasizes. “If we can help diversify the sport, that's wonderful," Cohen says. "But what we really want to do is create powerful young women who will go out and change the world.”

Still, the power of representation and visibility should never be underestimated, no matter the scale. “When I tell people I figure skate it's definitely a jaw-dropper because you don't hear about a lot of Black girls ice skating,” Jones says. “It lets a lot of young girls know that you can do anything you set your mind to, even if it is something as small as ice skating or as big as being the vice president of the United States.” It has to start somewhere, she notes. “Having Black girls on [the] ice is definitely a really big deal,” she adds. “It’s a beautiful, big deal.”

CREDITS:

Photographer: Katie Mccurdy

Video Director: Shibon Kennedy + Katie Mccurdy

Stylist: Michelle Li

Stylist Assistant: Karissa Mitchell

DP: Anthony Prince

1st AC: Josh Catubig

Gaffer: Carlos Collado

Sound Tech: Eamon Redpath

Talent: Nia Moore, Amiri Lathin, Habibata Sigue, Jacqueline Ayala, Kayla Jones

Figure Skating In Harlem Is Creating Space for Skaters of Color On and Off The Ice (2024)

FAQs

What do the colored squares mean in figure skating? ›

Green means the element was completed with a positive grade of execution, red means it was completed with a negative grade of execution, and yellow means it is under review by the technical panel. Once an element that is under review is reviewed it will either become green or red.

Why did they eliminate figures in figure skating? ›

The elimination of compulsory figures from competition in 1991 gave an advantage to the more athletic freestyle skaters. Until the late 1980s, skaters who were good at figures could win competitions without having strong freestyle-skating techniques, since compulsory figures were the most important part of the sport.

Why do ice skaters not spot? ›

Skaters are trained to develop a high level of spatial awareness and balance, which helps them to mitigate the effects of dizziness or vertigo when performing spins on the ice.

What is black ice skating? ›

In Sweden, a group of skaters search for black ice: The freshly formed ice is only just thick enough to hold a skater's weight and is perfectly smooth. This is a very dangerous activity that should only be attempted by at least two expert skaters.

What is the skater look? ›

Black, white, and gray are staple colors in skater style, as they are versatile and easy to mix and match. Bold colors, such as red, yellow, and green, can add personality to the outfit. Prints are also a fun way to incorporate some skater style into your wardrobe. Stripes, plaids, and graphics are all popular choices.

What is an illusion in figure skating? ›

The Illusion spin has a basic position similar to the camel, but instead of remaining "flat" throughout the duration of the spin the skater's body tilts up and down while the skater is spinning.

Why are figure skaters so flat chested? ›

The more active you are, and the more muscle building activity you do; less of those nutrients will be converted into fat. That's why female athletes at higher levels tend to have smaller breast sizes.

Why do female figure skaters not wear pants? ›

Few female figure skaters wear trousers at Olympic competitions, though nearly all practice in them. No rule dictates the decision, but cultural expectations of femininity and tradition make skirts the de facto competition uniform.

What figure skater went to jail? ›

In January 1994, Harding became embroiled in controversy when her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, orchestrated an attack on her fellow U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. On March 16, 1994, Harding accepted a plea bargain in which she pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution.

Why do ice skaters kiss? ›

It is so named because the skaters and coaches often kiss to celebrate after a good performance, or cry after a poor one. The area is usually located in the corner or end of the rink and is furnished with a bench or chairs for the skaters and coaches and monitors to display the competition results.

Why do figure skaters not get dizzy? ›

Do figure skaters get dizzy? Not so much, because they've learned how to minimize it. Although they occasionally tumble upon landing, figure skaters mostly spin through the air without losing their balance. That's because they have conditioned their bodies and brains to quash that dizzying feeling, experts say.

Can girls wear black ice skates? ›

No. Some female skaters wear white and some wear tan colored skates. But the men all seem to wear black, and I've never seen a woman in black figure skates. It's just tradition.

Are there any African American figure skaters? ›

Figure skater Starr Andrews made history by becoming the second Black woman to earn a medal at the U.S. Nationals in 35 years, reports the Washington Post. The last Black woman to accomplish the feat was Olympic bronze medalist Debi Thomas who captured the gold medal at the nationals in 1988.

What does a red box mean in figure skating? ›

The score for an element is the base value plus (or minus) the Grade of Execution. As those scores are entered, the technical score for that element is added to a skater's total technical score on this graphic. A negative 'GOE' is indicated with a red box, and a 0.00 or positive GOE is indicated with a green box.

How do you read figure skating scores? ›

The sum of all elements with the grade of execution forms the technical score. x = Element performed in the second half of a skater's program. The base value is multiplied by 1.1. GOE = Each element is marked by the judges using a seven-mark “grade of execution” (GOE) scale: -5,-4,-3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3, +4, +5.

What is the 6.0 judging system? ›

The 6.0 Judging System

The basic principle of the 6.0 system is a “majority” system. Each event is judged by an odd number of judges, and the winner of the event is the skater placed highest by a majority of these judges.

What is PCS in figure skating? ›

Program Component Score (PCS)

Before the system change, the judges evaluated five components: Skating skills (SS), Transitions (TR), Performance (PE), Composition (CO) and Interpretation (IN). The total of all components is called the Program Component Score (PCS).

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Clemencia Bogisich Ret

Last Updated:

Views: 6465

Rating: 5 / 5 (60 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Clemencia Bogisich Ret

Birthday: 2001-07-17

Address: Suite 794 53887 Geri Spring, West Cristentown, KY 54855

Phone: +5934435460663

Job: Central Hospitality Director

Hobby: Yoga, Electronics, Rafting, Lockpicking, Inline skating, Puzzles, scrapbook

Introduction: My name is Clemencia Bogisich Ret, I am a super, outstanding, graceful, friendly, vast, comfortable, agreeable person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.