WITH visions of the Winter Olympics still waltzing lightly in American heads, figure skating is hot - as it traditionally is after the Games.
In Boston, where hockey generally rules the ice roost, recreational skaters jam a Saturday-afternoon public session at the Skating Club of Boston. In suburban Stoneham the next day, the town turns out for a parade to salute "our Nancy," Olympic bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan.
Across the United States, learn-to-skate classes are experiencing enrollment overload, and not simply among the small fry. At the Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown, N.J., skating professional Cindy Geltz finds herself teaching a fuller-than-usual adult class. At the first session, she asked how many were there because of the Olympics. "No one would admit it," she says, "but it was obvious. The sign-up before the Olympics was normal, but now we're bursting at the seams."
The Ice Skating Institute of America, which keeps tabs on recreational activity in the sport, estimates that 30 million Americans skate one to five times a year. Their national team championship is expected to attract 4,000 skaters this August in Dallas.
Kristin Matta, director of communications for the US Figure Skating Association, the sport's national governing body, says that enrollment figures in the organization's basic skills program has continued to rise throughout the past five years. Solid reasons for optimism
Rosy growth reports are a cliche in many less-popular sports, but in this case there are solid reasons for optimism. Ms. Matta says the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, gave her sport a bigger-than-usual boost "because of [American] Kristi Yamaguchi's win, the great deal of exposure we got at the Games, and because we're only two years away from the next Games."
Ron McHargue, president of IcePro, a rink design and construction company in Syracuse, N.Y., says the changeover to a new Winter Olympics schedule may lead to a five-year growth spurt. "Just when the upsurge from [the Albertville] Olympics would normally die down, things will begin to gear up again."
Linda Kola, director of skating at Sertich Ice Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., says her public rink, which indirectly competes with the famous cross-town Broadmoor club, has rolled back prices and beefed up advertising and adult-oriented promotions.
"With people more conscious about fitness and doing things as a family, I feel recreational skating is coming alive," she says.
The lack of modern facilities has held back the sport at times, says Evy Scotvold, Ms. Kerrigan's coach. "Our rinks are an antiquated species. They haven't kept up with health clubs, racket clubs, and aerobic centers."
In recent decades, spiraling liability-insurance premiums and utility costs have forced many rinks to close and left little remodeling money for others.
But a corner has been turned in both areas, and now companies like IcePro are busy building bright, cheerful rinks. "We're trying to make places where parents would want to send a 10-year-old on a Sunday afternoon," says Mr. McHargue, "not like one of those dark and dingy things you see in the Northeast."
One of the brightest additions to the figure-skating landscape is the $2.5 million IcePro-built Tampa Bay (Fla.) Skating Academy, an example of the new facilities in warm, sunny climes.
McHargue says that the energy costs that can "eat you alive" are dropping significantly as newer buildings with modern insulation and refrigeration systems become far more energy efficient.
Some of the most attractive rinks are being built in shopping malls. The Chalets division of Ice Capades has been at the forefront of this movement.
David Kirby, who runs the Dallas Galleria and two other shopping center rinks in Texas, says: "The advantage we have over a free-standing rink, where you go into a cold building, is that our facility is very warm and comfortable." But it's also cool enough that one of its peak months is August, when Texans can escape the heat by taking to the ice.
In-mall rinks, in fact, have emerged as spawning grounds for some of the best spinners and jumpers on American ice.
This year's United States Olympic team included at least a half-dozen figure skaters with mall backgrounds, including the three men's singles entrants - Paul Wylie, Christopher Bowman, and Todd Eldredge.
Many of the serious skaters often practice in the morning before the Galleria mall opens and the general public arrives to skate, but Kirby strategically provides the skaters with ice time during the retail business hours, too. This gives the skaters a stage and the mall entertainment value. Kirby also notes that food courts located next to mall rinks do extremely well.
Skating's visibility, in fact, is at an all-time high, says 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins. In addition to Cousins's World Cup Champions on Ice, which primarily books engagements in mid-size communities, there is Ice Capades, Walt Disney on Ice, the Brian Boitano-Katarina Witt tour, and the Stars on Ice tour. "We're pretty much staying out of each others' way," Cousins says, "and all the shows are so different it's kind of fun to see one of the others to compare. That's the difference in skating rig ht now: It's not just one idea. There are variations on a theme, which people are finding out." How skaters grow
Those who prick the surface of the figure skating world discover a structured environment that encourages individual progress. Skaters earn badges, much the way Scouts do, as they climb a ladder of higher and higher skill levels.
Although some skaters enjoy competing against others of similar ability, many others are satisfied to be "test skaters," passing the various tests established by the two major figure skating organizations in the United States, the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and the Ice Skating Institute of America (ISIA).
The latter organization caters to recreational skaters and has 76 test levels for which it awards woven patches, including ones for hockey and speed skating.
Demonstrating technical proficiency is a bit like taking a driver's test.
In the USFSA system, skaters converge on established test days to perform before a panel of three experienced judges, certified by the association. Two of the three must issue passing grades for successful completion.
At the lower-level, ISIA tests can be handled by one person, and a professional skating teacher can even test his or her own student. At the higher levels, however, a panel of judges is often required or a videotape must be submitted for review.