By Madoline Markham
Photos by Melanie Heaney Photography
It’s hard to watch the Winter Olympics and not be mesmerized by figure skating—and likely want to lace up some skates yourself. Lucky for us, we have an ice rink close to home in the Pelham Civic Center. What you might not know, though, is that it’s also home to the only theatre on ice program in the state that draws skaters locally and from Huntsville and Montgomery. To learn more about it and how anyone can try ice skating, we chatted with Anita Saxena, one of the directors of Magic City Theatre on Ice.
First of all, what exactly is theatre on ice?
It’s a growing division of US figure skating, and teams have eight to 24 skaters. It’s a mixture of the athleticism of figure skating with the grace and artistry of theatre and dance.
What do you like about this form of skating?
I grew up as a competitive skater. It’s an individual sport. You train on your own, work on your own, compete on your own. Theatre on ice adds this team dynamic. It’s great to be able to work on a team, set a goal together, have other people out there on the ice with you. It can give you a sense of a security to know you have teammates out there with you.
How did Magic City Theatre on Ice get started?
In 2016 the Pelham Civic Complex was awarded the opportunity to host the National Theatre on Ice Championships, but there was no theatre team at the time. A group of us skaters got together and called ourselves Magic City Theatre on Ice. We competed and had an amazing time. We ended up in the middle of the pack, and so we organized ourselves a little better. In 2017 we went to the national championships in Evansville, Indiana, and we got fifth that year. After that season Emily Sanders and I said to the facility that we thought we could lead this program, and we worked our booties off that year and took home our national title in 2018. We repeated that win in 2019 and 2021.
There are two types of routines you prepare for your competitions. Can you tell us more about those?
One is called a choreographic exercise, and in that US figure skating declares a theme for every year. You can pick any type of music that helps you express the theme, and every team has to show acceleration in something call flocking. If you are watching a group of birds in the sky and you see how they change formations as they fly across the crowds, similarly we have to show that in how we change leader and change shape. That’s our short program, and you wear simple black. For the long program you can skate to whatever you want and express whatever theme you want and tell whatever story that you want.
What have been some of your routines and themes from the past few years?
In 2018 we did a western theme free skate and skated to “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” and the “William Tell Overture,” and we told a comedic story of a little town and the people in the town who robbed the bank and a show-off. For our choreographic exercise that year, we took a series of poems about transforming yourself, and a friend recorded and narrated it for us. In 2019, the chorographic exercise was cultural dance. One team did an Irish drinking song, and the other team did a Hawaiian theme with drums and mixed in music from Lilo & Stich. For the free skates, we did one with Aladdin music, and for our other team we did a story where a mom and a daughter see a circus see a circus and the daughter joins. In the end everyone danced with the circus.
You took 2020 off due to COVID and won a national title again in 2021. What was the show for that year that we see in the photos for this article?
We skated to music from the Broadway musical and the movie Beetlejuice, and the man who plays Beetlejuice is the retired director of the Pelham Civic Complex Danny Tate. We had skaters on that team from ages 8 to 55, and it was col to see the different ages work together and mentor each other and help each other.
What about the costumes?
We start by coming up with a color palette, and then you find pieces that reflect what you are skating to. We don’t have to be matchy-matchy. Each skater can have a slightly different costume but still reflect the color palette and the theme. It takes a whole season for it to come together.
What are rehearsals for theatre on ice like?
It’s a lot like football. In between practices, I review footage. We have GoPros up around the arena. The judges see it from the bird’s eye view, and when we coach we are down at ice level. Earlier in the season, there is a good bit of trial and error. It’s great to go through that creative process and learn to try new things.
When can the public see Magic City Theatre on Ice live?
Usually, the Pelham Skate School has an annual holiday ice show, and we exhibited at that this past December. Last April we put on our own show called the Ice Gala and invited nine other teams from across the county who performed and had local skaters perform solos and duets. This year we will have a sendoff exhibition June 18, and it’s free to the public. We’ll be exhibit the programs we’ll be taking to nationals at the end of June in Wichita, Kansas.
Other than theatre on ice, can you share some about other ice skating opportunities at the Pelham Civic Center?
We have Learn to Skate classes for tots, children and adults a couple times a week. We have freestyle lessons where skaters at any level can work with a coach privately. We also have public sessions where you can drop by and rent skates, and they also offer birthday parties. We are also home to the Birmingham Bulls; you can find their schedules online. There is always something happening.
What would you tell someone who wants to try skating but is intimidated by it?
We have a great adult class program on Monday evenings. They will walk you through the process. You will lace up skates, walk around the lobby, learn how to sit down and get up in the lobby, and then when you feel comfortable, someone will help you on the ice. We offer something similar for children. It’s valid to have concerns because ice is slippery, but some guidance can go a long way.
Aside from coaching ice skating, you are also a writer. Tell us about your new book.
There are very few authentic fiction books out there about figure skating. I actually have a middle grade book that just came out through Gatekeeper Press called Double Axle or Nothing, and it talks about a 12-year-old girl who is trying to be a competitive ice skater and the personal hurdles she grows through and the growth and journey she has. I wanted it to come out around the Olympics.
What’s a moment that stands out from your time with Magic City Theatre on Ice?
We took a group of young girls to Evansville, Indiana, for their first theatre on ice nationals, and one of the girls said, “This was more fun than Disney World!” The kids love dressing up and getting to perform, and the adults too.
Magic City Theatre on Ice is a 503(c)(3) nonprofit. Learn more about how to support it at magiccitytheatreonice.com.