Figure Skating in Harlem a huge success

From left, Zjana Ray, Meiling Jabbaar and Jiordan Ali each exemplify success of Figure Skating in Harlem program.
Photos by Donna Lamb
Photo by Donna Lamb

For the 14th consecutive year, more than 1,200 enthusiastic family, friends and community members flocked to Riverbank State Park’s skating ring at 145th St. to watch their girls perform in Figure Skating in Harlem’s annual ice show last month.

This year’s show, which was emceed by actress Tamara Tunie from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and sponsored by the Walt Disney Co., was titled “So You Think You Can Skate.”

As always, the young performers were fresh, vibrant and full of joy. Everyone, from the adorable team of six-year-olds performing for the first time, to the silver and bronze medal winning Senior Synchronized Team, gave it their all as they skated to an amazing variety of musical and dance genres, including ballet, jazz, African, Broadway, swing, hip-hop, country and Bollywood.

And the responsive audiences that filled the bleachers didn’t hold back on showing their appreciation, for they knew how much the girls and young women had put into perfecting their sit spins, loops and all their other newly acquired skills. Even if a beginning skater suddenly found herself hitting the ice, the audience cheered her on when she rose, seeing it as a tangible demonstration of the life lesson that “it isn’t about not falling down; it’s about getting back up.”

And life’s lessons are what Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) is all about. As its founder, former competitive ice skater Sharon Cohen, explains, “We take a holistic approach and focus on helping girls grow physically, academically, and emotionally. Our mission is to transform young lives and help girls grow in confidence, leadership and academic achievement. The girls learn to set goals, and then work toward them and eventually accomplish them.”

FSH is the first and only education and ice skating program of its kind in the country. It has served more than 1,000 African American and Latina girls in upper Manhattan – approximately 130 girls each year, ages 6 – 18.

Participants sign a skater’s contract and must maintain at least a B-average in school. FSH’s education program includes academic workshops in partnership with Columbia University, public speaking, career workshops and several cultural field trips throughout the city to dance, theater and music concerts as well as skating shows.

It is no wonder that slots in the program are highly desired, and participants feel fortunate to get in. Fourteen-year-old Zjana Ray, whose grandmother is from Trinidad and Tobago, said FSH has given her confidence and a sense of fitting in at a place she can come to and do something she loves.

Sixteen-year-old Jiordan Ali, who has family roots in Trinidad, added that FSH teaches them not to give up, to stay committed – like when they’re learning new skating moves. “At first we don’t get it so we have to keep trying until we do,” she said.

High school senior Meiling Jabbaar, who co-captains the Senior Synchronized Team with Jiordan, has been in the program since she was nine. She said that not only has FSH taught her figure skating; it has enhanced her educational and leadership skills. What she gained was instrumental in her being accepted at the prestigious Swarthmore, Haverford, and Wellesley Colleges, one of which she will attend next year.

Parents are equally happy with the outcome of their daughters’ participation. Jesse Clark has two daughters, in the program: 17-year-old Bria and six-year-old Autumn, who is in her first year. “As parents, we teach our children great values, but they’re not with us 24/7,” he stated. “Just having that continuance in FSH helps us out a lot. It keeps our girls on the right path. Bria is now a leader; she knows what it is to volunteer. Figure Skating in Harlem has made her a better person.”

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