From the viewing stands watching the Downers Grove Dazzlers, the synchronized ice skating team performance is the definition of style and grace.
And as head coach Debbie Buirge, who manages the top tier novice team, pointed out, there’s an element of danger, too.
“It’s a beautiful and athletic discipline of figure skating that includes an aspect of danger with 16 sets of blades all clustered close to each other while performing difficult footwork and intricate formations at high speeds,” Buirge said.
The Dazzlers had two teams perform for top awards at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships March 1-4 in Peoria. The showcase was a chance to demonstrate in a roughly three-minute routine precision, athletic ability and creative interpretation of the music all while balancing on a small, thin blade of steel.
The Dazzlers have teams based on age and skills, starting with skaters as young as 5. The intermediate team includes students from sixth grade to senior year of high school. The highest tier novice team has skaters from ages 14 to 18.
Aubrey Hall remembers wanting to learn how to ice skate at the age of 7 after watching the Winter Olympics on TV. Three years later, she joined the Dazzlers.
“I was used to team sports like soccer, softball, and I really wanted that collaborative environment. I ended up falling in love with it,” Hall said.
The high school senior was with her Dazzlers team at the national championship last year but because of an ankle injury was unable to skate with the team. After rehab and returning to the ice, the team captain was excited to lead her fellow skaters on the ice when they competed at the championships.
“When you’re skating, it feels like you are skating with your best friends. It feels like we are all working toward something with a greater purpose,” Hall said.
The Dazzlers novice team took 8th place at the national competition and achieved their highest score all season. The Dazzlers intermediate group took 8th place also and looked fantastic, said Barb Foltz, Dazzler administrator at the Downers Grove Ice Arena.
“To be part of the select teams that qualified, only 12 teams in the intermediate division and 13 in the novice division in the United States, was amazing. Placing 8th was wonderful. They worked so hard and are really looking forward to next season . Auditions are right around the corner the week of April 9 . They really don’t have much down time, but they are eager for the next season.”
Reaching the advanced level requires years of skating lessons, both with the team as well as individual rehearsals. On average, a team member spends eight to 12 hours a week on the ice, said Alyssa Pressley, intermediate head coach for the Dazzlers. Additionally, there is off-ice strength and conditioning training, she said.
“It’s a big commitment, even more than your average high school sport,” Pressley said. “Many of our skaters wake up at 5 a.m. and skate in the morning before school and then they are back after school. And they are here every weekend.”
Dazzlers teams include skaters from throughout the western suburbs. Meg Plummer, assistant coach for the intermediate and novice teams and head coach of the youngest synchronized skaters (Aspire), said she and her daughter travel from Aurora each day to be on the ice.
Pressley, Plummer and Buirge all grew up skating as Dazzlers at the Downers Grove Ice Arena and can’t help but share their excitement at being able to train and lead their teams.
For Pressley, the opportunity to coach her team to a top spot brings back memories of her time with the Dazzlers. During her senior year of high school and her final year with the Dazzlers, the team won the gold medal at the national championship.
Team member Methuli Jayesinghe remembers that gold medal win as well. She was 10 and had joined the Dazzlers that year. The Hinsdale Central High School senior took her first strides and falls at the Downers Grove Ice Arena at the age of 6. The trip to Peoria will be the first time she competes at nationals and likely may mark her final team skate as she prepares for college in the fall.
“We all really love this program,” Jayesinghe said.
Judges will rate the team on technical and creative aspects of their performance. There’s also the element of fun. Judges want to see the team’s enthusiasm and joy, Jayesinghe said.
Right before the performance that helped them earn the opportunity to go to nationals, the coaches advised the team to “skate for the love of skating,” Jayesinghe said.
“It ended up being our best performance,” Jayesinghe said. “When we’re skating, we’re doing it for the love of the sport.”