Photo of Sasha Cohen by Kathy Goedeken Photo of Alicia Makarova by Dina Makarova
The Problem (The don’ts)
I think we have all either witnessed or experienced some of the “horror stories” of how to do a Layback Spin, and more importantly the skaters' introduction to how to get into the position. And, as those of you who may have experienced the wrong way to learn these beautiful spins - it can cause permanent and sometimes crippling damage. Sad to say that in almost every situation throughout my 30 + years of teaching ballet to figure skaters "worldwide" this problem has never successfully been remedied!
I asked some of my “Ballet for Figure Skaters Master Teachers" to weigh in on this subject and here are some of their observations - any of these very real scenarios sound familiar?
“I just overheard a coach talking about the layback to an incredibly young student and she told her “Yes, it just has to hurt”. Then required the student to stand at the wall and simultaneously pulled her attitude leg up and shoulders back towards her skate. All while the standing knee was bent! The skater almost fell over. The coach told her to go home and practice it. There were no instructions or teaching done on what to practice, no corrections made on the bent standing knee or what the hips and core should be doing.
And another: “The way coaches teach layback here is just all about flexibility and “trust on your blade”. Nothing about the strength it takes to hold that position. pushing that hip forward without the strength will really cause lower back pain”.
And lastly: “Last week I saw a coach (with the skater on the floor) pushing her back down while the girl held her attitude and we was trying to stretch her both while standing up and on the floor. I could think of a number of damaging things that could have happened and he just kept on pushing it back. I couldn’t even bear to watch.”
This is one of those prime examples of “teaching” by the way something LOOKS as opposed to teaching the body mechanics behind the look. Also, a prime example of why figure skating absolutely needs a TRUE off to on ice methodology.
Madeline Lydia Stammen says:
“I was lucky to have a ballet teacher teach me the spin on the ice from the beginning. The lifting in and up before you go back in the core and the standing leg as well as hip and shoulder alignment is imperative before you throw them into the spin. Common mistakes are always : micro bend in the standing leg, sinking too far to the right side of the body on the backbend, (if a righty skater), sinking too much in the hips so they have zero stability.
The Solution (the “dos”) :
As with all dance and skating elements, the Layback Spin comprises a combination of whole-body abilities – not all of which are at the same level of competency within any given student. Assessments as to the current capabilities of the student in front of you needs to be taken into account (and yes, coaches YOU are or can be qualified to make that assessment quickly with education). And always use the “mantra”: STRENGTH BEFORE STRETCH – so before you start yanking your skater around trying to produce the desired look…here is a reliable process (System/method) which will get your skater there just as fast and without pain or injury.
Assessment should begin off ice – Assess Current ROM and strength of the spine/torso, and legs to torso – front side and back at 45°
Standing at a ballet barre, chair or the wall WITHOUT pushing the hips or stomach forward and keeping “the body box” square – how far can the student lift a straight leg to the back? Next - without “sinking” into the lower back – how far can the student arch the upper and mid spine backward (this requires stabilizer strength in the torso which will also improve spin speed and position quality!). the ARCH begins with strength and stability in the lower back - and flexibility in the MID back.
If your skater cannot do the below, at least with the free leg at 45° Then work needs to be done. (See the lift in Sasha's lower back? This is strength!)
Floor exercises which use “eccentric contractions” of the torso will go a long way in helping the student achieve maximum results in a minimum of time. (please see my article on The Importance of the Stabilizer Muscles in Movement Training): . https://americanicetheatre.org/2021/04/17/the-importance-of-stabilizer-muscles-in-movement-training/
Working on the floor exercises for strength, then facing the barre – not forcing but a constant reminder to stay square in the hips and shoulders while lifting “in and up” (as in a Pilates exercise) will encourage good body mechanics as will as excellent mind-body connection skills.
Gradually increase capacity for BOTH strength and flexibility in equal measure at the barre and in the centre of the room:
Below is Madeline Stammen’s process for then taking all of this practice onto the ice.
"First I teach the correct attitude at the boards. Knee higher than foot, turned out but not opening up the hip, and the leg more extended than they think (they always bend it too much). They use to boards to help them feel the hips evenly on the wall. I also check here they aren’t bending their knees and are able to stand up properly on their blade without a back bend usually the kids have zero ballet background so this can take a second. After they have a good position there ill have them practice the port de bras at the boards from the thoracic spine only, lifting in and up and not letting the hips sink forward. (Even though in the spin this does happen when you spin really fast, this just helps them learn how to engage their core and not just sink right away into their lumbar spine) Then I’ll have them move on to an attitude spin without a backbend to check the leg position. This is sometimes awkward from them because they’re used to throwing themselves back. Once they get that I’ll put everything together and let them do everything with the port de bras and the attitude.
Madeline Lydia Stammen in a "Hair Cutter" position (c) 2023 Madeline L. Stammen Of course, this article cannot replace a proper teaching on the whole process, but I really do hope that what we have presented here helps the future teaching of the Layback Spin - and that before you as coaches, parents and skaters will think twice (maybe three times) before you allow anyone to just yank you into a position and tell you that it will inevitable hurt until you get it right. As the Mandaloiran might say; "this is NOT the way"!
All rights reserved (c) 2023 by Annette T. Thomas Ballet for Figure Skaters and Prime Radiant Press LLC. All photos used by permission. Pages photographed are from my Fundamentals of Alignment and Classical Movement for Figure Skaters" availably on Amazon and on my website: https://www.balletforfigureskaters.com/