BRATTLEBORO—Every winter for just about 40 years, scores of skaters have hit the ice at the town’s Nelson Withington Skating Facility. Some of them are there to play hockey, speed-skate, or simply glide around the rink for fun and exercise.
But, for many children and adults in the area, the rink is where they learned to figure skate, a setting for them to wear funny costumes and put on shows as part of the Brattleboro Figure Skating Club.
According to State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, who taught figure skating for the club for 30 years, the club began shortly after the rink was built in the mid-1970s.
Burke moved to Vermont with many years’ experience on the ice. She said she began taking group skating lessons in her hometown of Buffalo when she was 5 years old.
The coach quickly picked her out as a natural and, Burke recalls, he told her parents, “She needs private lessons.”
She skated competitively for most of her childhood and teenage years, but by the time she moved to Vermont, in 1970, she had left competitive skating.
But a few years later, after rink was built, she learned the town recreation department was looking for figure-skating teachers. Burke thought it would be a good way to earn some money and provide a “wonderful thing” for her children to do.
Carol Lolatte, director of Brattleboro’s Recreation & Parks Department, said the Nelson Withington Skating Facility was built using a combination of local, state, and federal funding. The rink has always been open for public use and is supported through municipal taxes, fundraising, and user fees.
It even has its own Zamboni — of course. Lolatte confirms the Zamboni used to groom the rink’s ice is a town vehicle, “but it doesn’t go outside,” she said.
Classes, shows, and ‘a lot of energy’
In a recent conversation with The Commons, Burke reminisced about the early days of the rink, when it was open to the elements. There were no walls — a chain-link fence surrounded the facility.
Since then, the town has performed some upgrades to the facility, said Lolatte. In 1998, walls were added, and in 2004, the building got bleachers and radiant heat.
But, back then, “I remember teaching and having skating shows, and it was 6 degrees below 0,” Burke said.
The cold did not seem to scare too many people from participating. “There was not much else for kids in town to do” back then, Burke said.
She remembered the culture at the skating rink as being more about community than skills-building, noting the “big groups of people out on the ice,” especially adults.
“There was a lot of energy” in the club, Burke said, noting that as time progressed, the club evolved into a more organized unit, with a variety of classes teaching to different skill levels and an annual figure skating show, complete with costumes and sets.
The classes and shows continue to this day.
On Feb. 14, the club had its annual ice show — this year’s theme was “Fantasy on Ice,” featuring child and teenage skaters dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter series, Super Mario Brothers, and Alice in Wonderland.
Sets and costumes
When Burke was involved in the figure skating club, many of the sets and costumes were made by her friends Jude and Bob Rondeau.
Jude Rondeau told The Commons how she and her husband ended up there.
“We were skiers,” she said, but there was a snowless winter in 1979–80, and the couple decided to go ice skating on a local pond.
While there, Rondeau said, “I saw people skating backwards, and I said, ‘I need to learn to do this!’"
The couple began taking Burke’s skating class with the Brattleboro Recreation & Parks Department, and “Mollie pulled us in” to the Brattleboro Figure Skating Club.
“We felt welcome there,” Rondeau said. “The club was for beginners, too."
From her start in the lowest-level adult group, Rondeau went on to the big city, taking lessons and performing ice dancing in Boston.
About 10 years after her introduction to figure skating, Rondeau began teaching when one of the regular instructors became injured. From there, she taught for about 20 years, ending two seasons ago.
“We were up to our ears in [figure skating] for a long time,” Rondeau said, noting that from the late-80s until about two years ago, she and her husband participated in the club in a number of ways.
At various times, they sat on the club’s board of directors, she was artistic director, and they both designed and helped make the costumes and sets.
Rondeau said her artistic background — she is a painter — helped greatly in designing and building the costumes and sets. But she attributed much of the costumes’ success to Mary Dearborn, an accomplished seamstress.
Bob Rondeau performed in the skating shows as a lobster and Elvis Presley. Because “he’s so easy-going,” she said, they could convince him to put on pretty much anything.
The crustacean costume was part of the show called “Café Zamboni,” Rondeau said. In it, skaters dressed as lobsters were chased around the ice by another skater dressed as a chef and wielding a giant lobster pot.
Other skaters were dressed as cream puffs.
“The shows told stories,” Rondeau said. She showed The Commons a giant spreadsheet, explaining its role as the flow chart they used to manage “these elaborate shows”: who was skating, what they were wearing, which props and music were needed.
Although Rondeau left the figure skating club two years ago, she said she is a fan, and she still skates three times per week with the recreation department’s adult skate program.
For her and her husband, skating “is still a big part of our lives — our social lives, too,” Rondeau said.
Although Burke called it quits, too, in about 2005 to focus on her graduate work, she said she “absolutely” still skates, and she expressed interest in joining the women’s hockey team.
“I have a lot of fond memories” of the Brattleboro Figure Skating Club, Burke said, noting she used to teach “about seven days a week.”
“A Country Fair” was one of Burke’s favorite shows, she said, describing a live band — the Stockwell Brothers — playing on a riser.
Burke also remembered when “a group of top-quality Russian skaters” who had moved to Connecticut came up to Brattleboro to skate in the show.
Transcending cultural differences
When pressed for other memorable moments in her club career, Burke said, “Then there was the time I broke my leg a week before the show....”
But she said that what truly sticks out in her memory is “the community aspect of the skating club.”
“Skating really transcends cultural differences,” she said, noting that “there were a lot of people there I might not have gotten to know” off the ice.
“It was a very supportive atmosphere,” Burke said, adding that the club members “were not super competitive with each other.”
“They were very friendly,” she said, “and that’s a lot of what Brattleboro is about.”