Blades of inglory: 'There's nothing graceful about learning to skate'

If Strictly Come Dancing had high embarrassment potential, spare a thought for the contestants in Dancing on Ice. As Sophie Morris discovers, there's nothing graceful about learning to skate
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The Independent Online

Take 13 minor celebrities, add a crack squad of expert skaters led by Torvill and Dean, throw in a pile of tight shirts and sequinned dresses, and what do you get? Well, judging by the ratings in previous years, what you get are record-breaking TV ratings. Dancing on Ice, as those of you transfixed by the spectacular icy wonderland on ITV last night will already know, is basically Strictly on skates, with lesser-known (as if that were possible) contestants. The first series in 2006 was a surprise hit, and the third series was the most popular programme on British television in 2008, pulling in 13 million ice dancing fans for the final episode.

This time around, the contenders include Coleen Nolan, Melinda Messenger and Graeme Le Saux, who with 10 other hopefuls will be coached by Torvill and Dean. The final challenge is to performing the Bolero routine, which won the pair Olympic gold in Sarajevo in 1984.

I remember watching the couple when I was very small and have skated once or twice over the years – but is dancing on ice really as hard as it looks? Don't the celebs just make a meal of it to stretch out their "personal journey of discovery" over 11 weeks. In the belief that I would be a natural if only I had the coaching to perfect my skills, I decided to try out ice dancing myself. And I have to say that, at the first lesson, shortly before Christmas, my confidence was borne out. My instructor, Daniel Smith, who teaches wannabe Jayne Torvills at Queens ice rink in west London, showed me a few moves, and by the end of the session I could glide (with wobbles) on one leg for a few seconds, cutting an imperfect circle in the centre of the ice. When we were finished, Smith showed me a chart on the wall with gradings for novices. I was up to level six already!

Looking back, though, I realise that in the first sessions I was trying to dance before I could skate. Without solid balance, or the ability to repeat a correctly-executed step from one moment to the next, I was hoping to learn all those Olympian-standard twirls and twists and leg swings in just a few short weeks.

I soon learnt that you need to train for much, much longer than the few hours every other day in order to reach any sort of decent standard. I also discovered that the Dancing on Ice contestants train for several months before the series begins. If they didn't do this preparation, the first episodes would be unwatchable.

Strength is key in ice-skating. If your abdominal and back muscles are in good shape, and can hold the rest of you upright in a strong position while you're gliding on one leg, spinning around or making fancy ballet shapes with your arms, you'll be off to a good start. But don't be put off if you have trouble balancing on one leg on dry land: ice skating is great exercise and a clever way to tone up without endless boring sit-ups. You can burn about 500 calories per hour on the ice, helped along by the body's efforts to keep warm in the chilly conditions. Skaters also develop strong thigh muscles because their knees are slightly bent most of the time.

As with many sports, children tend to improve quicker because they aren't held back by the fear factor, but at Queens on a Sunday morning couples in their fifties and sixties are performing foxtrots and waltzes. Later in the afternoon the place is packed with teenagers, whose breakdancing on ice put me to shame.

Outdoor ice rinks pop up all over the country during the winter, and Queens has had to put up its prices to compete with the outdoor rinks, but you can still skate for as long as you want and hire boots for a tenner. Group lessons are a good budget option, but invest in your own skates if you fancy it as more than a passing fad. A pair of good beginners' boots from Risport or Jackson cost less than a decent pair of running shoes.

Every time I hit the ice I could do something I hadn't been able to the session before, be it "backwards lemons" (don't ask), a simple turn, or skating backwards, however tentatively. My instructor competed at international level and trained before and after school, most days, from the age of 14, so he had a little headstart on me, but if I keep it up, who knows...

Freezy-peasy? Master some ice-cool moves

Spiral: Balance on one leg and skate forward, holding your other leg out as high as you can behind you.

Skate backwards: Turn your toes in to get moving and step from one foot to the other as if you're marching.

Lemon: From a parallel gliding position turn your feet out into a V shape and bend your knees to carve the shape of a lemon in the ice.

Spin: Stand with your arms outstretched then draw your elbows into your sides very quickly, until you feel you are comfortable with the spinning motion. Then do the same with one foot in front of the other. Push off the back foot and spin round on your front foot.