Figure skating in Harlem set for annual gala

Star studded event to be held March 31 at Wollman Rink

Tai Babilonia and Atoy Wilson at a past Figure Skating of Harlem gala.
Tai Babilonia and Atoy Wilson at a past Figure Skating of Harlem gala. (Lois Elfman)


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By Lois Elfman, special to
(03/13/2008) - When asked what he'll be doing after the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, three-time U.S. men's champion Johnny Weir quickly noted that on March 31 he'll be coming to New York City to participate in his fourth Skating with the Stars, Under the Stars, a gala benefit for Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH). Founded in 1997, FSH combines on-ice lessons with off-ice programs such as tutoring, career guidance and public speaking for girls ages 6-17.

"If I can put my face out there to help underprivileged skaters or to spread the word of figure skating, it's definitely worth my time," Weir said.

FSH is the brainchild of Sharon Cohen, a former competitive skater who had been teaching skating a couple of days a week on a volunteer basis at a youth program, when the program decided to discontinue skating. Refusing to abandon the girls, she officially organized FSH and with a boost from her old friend Scott Hamilton, who gave a skating clinic and brought members of the press with him, the program took off.

Today there are 115 girls in the program, which each year experiences growth. "We've increased the number of students. We're operating six days a week. We're even expanding to the outer boroughs. Our girls are thriving-both educationally and on the ice. We continually are looking for ways to improve," said Cohen.

Skating with the Stars, Under the Stars enables skating fans and FSH supporters to meet and mingle with famous skaters such as Sasha Cohen, Todd Eldredge, Jennifer Robinson, Kimberly Meissner, Evan Lysacek and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. This year's gala is honoring Dorothy Hamill. Show biz luminaries like Kelly Ripa, Tim Gunn, BD Wong, Carson Kressley, Rev. Run, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tamara Tunie (a FSH board member), Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni have been known to not only come and enjoy, but even don skates and take to the ice at Wollman Rink. Heatherette designer Richie Rich is always on hand to prove his skating roots.

The star performances belong to the FSH girls. For Antaeus Turns-Ashcraft, the oldest girl in the program at days shy of her 18th birthday, the star-studded galas are a far cry from FSH's beginnings.

"There's someone on the board now who does the costumes (Brenda Lovie of Lovie Couture, who provides all the labor for free)," said Turns-Ashcraft, who actually participated in Cohen's volunteer lessons in the mid-90s. "Before Sharon could afford to have them done, we would buy really cheap leotards, like $5. My mom is a costume designer, and Sharon would come over to my house and we would put the glitter on with Elmer's Glue. I still have glitter on my table from the dresses we used to make in my house. We'd dye them in the washing machine down the corner. Figure Skating in Harlem has come a long way."

Money raised at the March 31 gala helps to pay for the staff (a mix of full-time and part-time), which now includes 13 skating instructors, eight counselors and tutors, a public speaking instructor, a dance instructor, skating director, social worker, education director, Cohen (who is the executive director), director of development, program director and a development associate.

One of the subjects the girls study is theory class, where they learn about figure skating-history and rules of the sport. Part of that history is often present at the galas, such as Atoy Wilson, the first black skater to win a U.S. National title (1966 Novice Men's Champion), Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia. Cohen expects Wilson to be at this year's gala.

"I'm kind of nervous, but I'm excited," said Scarlett Jimenez, 14, who's been participating in FSH for four years. "The atmosphere and the enthusiasm of all the girls-to be out there presenting ourselves is a great experience."

Florence Ngala, 12, who's been with FSH for seven years, said being in the program has developed her leadership skills. "Figure Skating in Harlem is definitely one of a kind," she said. "I get to build up my confidence with the many shows I've done. It helps me get out and see the world and let the world see me."

Tickets are still available for the gala. Go to Figure Skating in Harlem for more information.