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Why would a group of perfectly sane middle-aged women lace up a pair of figure skates -- no double runners -- to practice the Dutch Waltz or the Canasta Blues?

If you've never followed the sport of ice dancing, which is really ballroom dancing on ice, you might not know that the cha-cha and fox trot, along with many other dances, can be skated by adults, regardless of age.

Just ask Wilma Walker, a sixtysomething professional figure skating and ice dancing coach with the Amherst Skating Club, who has helped nurture the talents of a group of women who take to the ice a few times a week.

For the first time in her coaching career, which has spanned over 30 years, Mrs. Walker, a gold dance medalist and former national competitor, has found herself teaching dance to women who all began skating as adults.

"Each woman progressed through the Amherst Skating Club Badge program. Once they learned to control their edges (the basis of all ice dancing), we moved into specific turns and the prescribed movements in the dances," explains Mrs. Walker. "The steps are universal all over the world, so they are really learning a true art form.

"I view ice dancing as a lifetime sport," Mrs. Walker adds. "You can learn it at any age and keep going. In fact, I plan to skate well into my 90s!"

In teaching adults, Mrs. Walker acknowledges that progress may be slower than in teaching children, but the intrinsic rewards may be greater.

"Adults sometimes use skating as a stress reliever, but they also appreciate their progress in a different way. Even the smallest accomplishments are sources of inspiration for them. They ask a lot of questions; they want to analyze the movement before they try it. So there's more conversation on the ice, more give-and-take between coach and student."

There's no question that Wilma Walker's great passion for skating has proved to be an inspiration to the women she teaches. Jeanette McClennan, 64; Sheila Miller, a fortysomething mother of three; Barb Cain, 47; Sue Charles, 45; Susan Reedy, and Martha Buyer are all proof that it's never too late to learn to skate.

Watching this group of women at the Audubon Recreation Center, it's easy to see why they are so dedicated. The rink may be cold, the ice may be hard, but the music makes you want to dance.

"The women in the group enjoy the freedom of moving to music. If you like music and have rhythm, it isn't difficult," Mrs. Walker says.

There are no death-defying jumps or fancy spins, but there is a lovely flow of movement that comes from the intricate patterns and set rhythms of each dance.

Jeanette McClennan, the self-proclaimed "mother hen" of the group, didn't begin skating until the birth of her granddaughter 11 years ago. After registering for classes through Williamsville's Community Education program, she found that she could master even the basics of figure skating.

"I couldn't believe I was doing this at my age," she laughs. "It was such a good feeling, physically and emotionally, right from the beginning. Looking back, it was probably the perfect time in my life to learn this sport. I wouldn't have been able to make the time commitment when my children were young. I was too busy.

"I'm just thankful that my body can do this for enjoyment and exercise."

Skating three times a week, Mrs. McClennan has passed her first United States Figure Skating Association test in dance.

"I wasn't at all nervous," she says. "The worst part was having to wear a skating dress!

"After I passed my Dutch Waltz, a friend gave me a chocolate gold medal. Well, when my grandson saw it, he said, 'Grandma, you won the gold!' "

Mrs. McClennan and the other women are working on another preliminary dance called the Fiesta Tango, which Mrs. McClennan calls the "Fiasco Tango."

"We're having trouble with it, but we'll get it," she says.

Ice dancing is deceptively simple. Even the inexperienced eye can see the many turns performed on the inside and outside edges of the skate, but the technique of perfecting them to music takes a great deal of practice.

Barb Cain remembers learning 3-turns, those simple-looking little turns that allow skaters to change directions.

"Until you've tried them, you have no idea how difficult they can be. Ice dancing is a challenge, but it's wonderful to learn a new skill as an adult. It gives you self-confidence.

"I love the skating and how it feels to achieve something, but equally important is that I'm sharing a sport with a group of people who also love it," she adds. "I have to admit I go to the rink as much to see my friends as I do to skate. We are a support system for each other."

Sheila Miller agrees. "Before, during and after skating, we talk as friends. Sometimes we meet for coffee or lunch; we have a holiday get-together."

For Mrs. Miller, who started skating as an adult nine years ago, ice dancing was a natural progression after passing her Badge tests.

"I thought it was ludicrous at my age to be learning the 'bunny hop,' " she laughs. "I didn't want to learn any more jumps, so ice dancing just evolved, with Wilma's suggestion."

Just how much can adult skaters accomplish?

Just ask Susan Reedy and Martha Buyer, both of whom take private lessons with Russell Green, another Amherst coach who teaches ice dancing.

Susan Reedy skates four days a week year-round, yet six years ago she was a true beginner. Naturally graceful on the ice, she skates with deliberation and focus.

"I'm working on my pre-Bronze dances now, and I enjoy the challenge," she says. "I'm not too crazy over the tests, but they add a different kind of challenge to the sport. Last week I failed my Willow Waltz test, but I'll try again and keep going. I try to take it day to day, because as an adult, you never know what you'll be able to accomplish."

For Martha Buyer, who failed the Dutch Waltz test at age 15, when she had "more desire than ability," ice-dancing as an adult has made her a better student.

"It was something I was determined to do," says Ms. Buyer, an attorney and telecommunications consultant. "The greatest lesson skating has taught me is that when you fail a test, you can either quit or dust yourself off and start again. If you work at it, you can really get results and a feeling of accomplishment."

Now working on her gold medal (the highest level offered by the USFSA), Ms. Buyer says that ice dancing, for her, is "a selfish pursuit."

"I do it for myself. It's totally self-indulgent. I want to skate as long as it's fun and challenging. I hope to someday have a free dance choreographed for me. I just truly love the feeling of skating, the movement and the music."

Adults interested in learning ice dancing or figure skating can obtain information by calling the Amherst Skating Club office (634-3887). The program is open to adult non-residents as well as residents.

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