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Roots to grow, skates to glide

Sharon Cohen teaches a girl how to skate, holding her hand and stabilising her leg, which the girl is stretching upwards.
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Sharon Cohen is dedicated to empowering girls and fostering strength through figure skating.

Every year, more than 200 girls between the ages of six and 18 take part in the various development programmes offered by Figure Skating in Harlem. The organisation is unique in the way it pairs education with this special sport: one such programme involves weekly after-school tutoring sessions in subjects like maths and rhetoric, followed by a round of figure skating. The organisation also offers roughly eight-week summer camps where participants hone their skills both in the classroom and on the ice.

No other organisation is so committed to supporting African-American girls in becoming figure skaters. At competitions, the Figure Skating in Harlem and associated Figure Skating in Detroit synchronised skating teams are often the only teams to comprise mostly athletes of colour.

Girls who participate in Figure Skating in Harlem have gone on to become lawyers, social workers, teachers, designers, financial experts and real-estate specialists. This fills former figure skater Sharon Cohen with pride. She founded the organisation back in 1997. Laureus Sport for Good, a charity co-founded by Mercedes-Benz that helps children and young people overcome violence, discrimination and disadvantage in their lives, has also been supporting Cohen and her organisation for years. In this interview, she talks about what it takes to help girls become confident, independent women.

Several girls sitting at a table and writing. One girl is raising her hand.

Figure Skating in Harlem takes a holistic approach to youth development. Can you describe this approach?

It’s about using the unique artistic discipline of figure skating as a hook to help girls become strong, confident, self-possessed, young leaders both on and off the ice. Our students engage with us using their mind, body and spirit.

How did this approach come to be?

I was a competitive skater with a demanding schedule, but thanks to my parents and my own curiosity, I was also committed to my education. I learned that nothing prepares you for life better than a solid intellectual foundation: it allows you to make sound personal choices and follow your passion. But I also realised that I not only benefited in general from being physically active in a structured environment, but specifically from the invaluable skills I learned from skating. So, when I was invited to meet a group of girls in Harlem who wanted to figure skate almost 30 years ago, it was a no-brainer. These girls transformed before my eyes, becoming more confident after just a few weeks on the ice. When the organisation was formalised in 1997, the focus was on giving equal weight to academic support. Social and emotional growth and skating – this is a powerful trifecta when it comes to fostering strength in girls and young women.

Twelve girls in pink and white dresses performing a synchronised skating routine.

Speaking of academic support: on your website, you say 90% of your students demonstrated improvement in STEM fields, which are still dominated by men. How are you piquing girls’ interest in these subjects?

Our students spend as much time with us in the classroom as they do practising on the ice. We have a class that introduces them to STEM topics using figure skating as an example. Our goal is to ignite our girls’ interest in science. They learn, for example, about the physics of skating, biology, nutrition, how the ice is made, and even subjects like coding and environmental science.

Why is figure skating in particular so suited to empowering girls?

Ice skating is hard, and especially hard to do well. It’s as simple as that. You can’t just jump on the ice and do a double axel right out of the gate. You must learn the steps to achieve this incrementally. You fall a lot, it hurts, and you learn to get up a lot. That requires perseverance, teaches you to never give up, and instils resilience, the most valuable quality you can have. It’s also artistic and allows for personal expression, musicality and grace. There can be tremendous strength in being graceful. But of course, this doesn’t only relate to girls. I wouldn’t put a gender spin on it. It’s almost 2020 and every individual has the right to be physically strong and to express themselves.

You mentioned the experience of falling. How important is failure when teaching girls to become strong?

It’s crucial. We usually learn the most from our mistakes. It’s important to know that we can recover from them. That makes us strong. It also teaches us to take risks. Whenever one of my students falls, I tell her: you have a choice to sit there on the ice, but it gets cold rather fast. Eventually you have to get up. So, the sooner you do that, the closer you are to reaching success.

Sharon Cohen is standing on the ice, surrounded by figure skaters who are smiling towards the camera.

When it comes to sports, young people especially tend to be ambitious in their performance. This can sometimes lead to perfectionism, which can be harmful. How do you teach the girls at Figure Skating in Harlem to find the right balance with regards to ambition?

We believe in setting high expectations for our students, who are primarily girls of colour and who don’t usually have access to a sport like figure skating. These girls are often not given the encouragement necessary to succeed. When students become too perfectionistic on or off the ice – and skating does require a degree of precision – I encourage them to think about the quote: “Don’t let the good get in the way of the perfect.” We are all about progress!

Has your organisation impacted figure skating in general? Has this sport maybe even become more diverse at the professional level?

I think so. Our goal isn’t to create competitive skaters, but to promote the holistic development of girls, so they can succeed in any field and pursue their dreams. Certainly because of Figure Skating in Harlem and our affiliate Figure Skating in Detroit, more girls of colour have access to this beautiful sport. I am most proud of that. The elite world of figure skating has taken notice and is supportive. Stars like Michelle Kwan, Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and more appreciate what we do and lend their support so that one day participation in figure skating itself may more accurately reflect the richness of all communities.