This week will be my last chance to get in a peaceful skate before the madness begins. Next Sunday night, the first episode of this year’s Dancing on Ice will be screened – and with it, inspired by the antics of Westlife singer Brian McFadden and Coronation Street’s Jane Danson, a flurry of new skaters will take to the ice: hordes of them, all clinging to barriers at rinks from Dundee to Ayr, Edinburgh to Inverness.
Of course, apart from taking up my ice space, this burst of enthusiasm is only a good thing, attracting new blood to the sport – which, it actually turns out, Scotland is quite good at. Prestwick-born Lewis Gibson – Scotland’s premier ice dancer – actually took up skating after watching the first series of the hit ITV show back in 2006.
With his partner, Lilah Fear, he is next month to represent Britain in the European Figure Skating Championships in Minsk after a successful international Grand Prix series earlier this season. Meanwhile, in Dundee, female solo skater Natasha McKay is also set to compete at the European championships, having scooped the British title in November. Scottish figure skating is back in a big way for the first time since Livingston siblings Sinead and John Kerr made it to an international podium over a decade ago. And I’m excited.
In the small town where I grew up – imagine a northern English version of Grangemouth, only with an ice rink – everyone could skate. Not being able to do so, to me, is like not being able to ride a bike, or swim. It is an essential life skill for residents of my town, forged partly out of the fact that, back in the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot else to do there. I can’t recall the first time I ever got on the ice; nor can I remember ever not being able to skate at least forwards fairly competently.
In my teens, inspired by the romance – and the heartbreak – of Torvill and Dean’s Olympic comeback of 1994, I took it up a bit more seriously. A friend already had private lessons at the rink and, quite possibly spurred on by the fact that the young, male teacher looked like a taller and more handsome version of Tom Cruise, I followed suit. As I grew up, real life took over and I hung up my white boots, only to take them out again (yes, the very same pair, they’ve survived 25 years of neglect remarkably well) a year ago. It was a combination of factors which inspired this Jayne Torvill-esque return.
One was that I ended up being dispatched to Edinburgh’s Murrayfield rink to try out curling for a feature for this paper. While this was an unforgettable experience in itself, I still somehow found myself itching to whip off those funny slidey shoes and take a spin around the pad on a pair of blades. But apparently that’s not acceptable on a curling rink.
Shortly afterwards, I took my daughter skating for the first time, which was a mixture of pain and pleasure (for anyone who hasn’t had a small child grab you round the waist and pull you down, hard, onto the ice, believe me, it hurts). While recovering with a Tunnock’s teacake in Murrayfield’s gloriously 1980s-esque cafe, I spotted a sign on the wall: adult skating lessons. On my day off. It seemed like fate, so I signed up on the spot. Now, I’m hooked: it’s the highlight of my week.
When I tell people I skate, I get a mixed response. Some seem to expect that to pursue such an unusual sport (for a grown adult, at least) I must be at a highly advanced level, completing triple axels and quad salchows with ease: I assure you, I’m not. When they find out that it is just for fun and that the figure skating techniques I’m struggling to master are quite seriously unimpressive to the untrained eye, they look bemused. Most laugh, possibly because they are picturing me sliding around the rink on my bum – or worse still, dressed like Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory.
Other sports are, for some reason, not regarded as quite so funny. When our health correspondent spends his weekends patrolling the golf course, no-one giggles, despite the fact he’s probably doing it in a comical outfit. Five-a-side football teams are part of every middle-aged man’s social calendar, while running and cycling are, for quite mysterious reasons, just taken very seriously indeed, despite the plethora of Lycra and pricey, pointless gadgets – and woe betide anyone who dares to mock them.
Skating, on the other hand, is regarded with a certain amount of scepticism. It has taken ten years of working with a close colleague for her to admit to me – just this week, in fact – that as a child, she was a competitive ice dancer. There is undoubtedly an element of embarrassment, of secrecy. Is it a real sport? Or merely an art form? It has an uneasy combination of high octane elegance at the end of the scale which sees fairy-like competitors in sparkly dresses spinning around the ice – and a distinct lack of glamour at the other, where local rinks provide beginners with clunky navy blue boots and a cavernous environment of peeling paintwork accompanied by an aroma of sausage rolls. There is no doubt that ice rinks are funny places and the world within is just plain barmy at times.
Ice skating’s popularity has taken a battering in recent years as a leisure activity as other, more modern alternatives, such as trampoline parks, tempt youngsters away.
However, a boost from last year’s resurrection of Dancing on Ice, combined with a renewed interest in the lives of Torvill and Dean – as demonstrated by Christmas Day’s feature length biopic – suggests it is set for a resurgence.
Once you are bitten by the bug, there is nothing else like it. You might never skate like Lewis and Lilah, but the freedom of whizzing across the ice at speed; the satisfaction of finally getting that blade on the edge it is meant to be on – that can’t be beaten. Just forgive me if I hibernate for the duration of the series until you’ve all got the hang of it.