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Dorothy Hamill, Sarah Hughes and Johnny Weir at the ITNY gala in Hamill's honor.
Dorothy Hamill, Sarah Hughes and Johnny Weir at the ITNY gala in Hamill's honor. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(10/27/2010) - Monday night's Ice Theatre of New York event at Chelsea Piers was the place to be if you wanted to be in the midst of the skating, fashion, dance and theater worlds colliding. I've been to many star-studded Ice Theatre galas, and I don't know if it's due to Dorothy [Hamill's] lifetime achievement honor or ITNY's 25th celebration, but I can't remember a turnout of this proportion.

The combination of these two ceremonious occasions made it, in Dick Button's words, "The best show Ice Theater has ever had." And that was said at the end of the on ice performance, as he walked to center ice during bows to take pictures with the performers, co-chairs, honorees and people who have made Ice Theatre a success.

I was introduced to ITNY as a young girl and often skated in their shows, along skaters such as Toller Cranston and Paul Wylie, skaters who understood two aspects of skating better than anyone else: the second mark and edges!

Being able to rehearse and skate with such skaters as often as I did at that early stage in my career helped me develop the creative side of my skating more than anything else could have. Skating with ITNY also prepared me well in another area that I would have to dig up years later on the exhaustive grand prix/pro-am circuit: expecting the unexpected. For example: performing in four shows for ITNY in a single evening, doing two solos each show like I did one holiday season in Annapolis, Md.

Well, fast-forward to February 2001's Grand Prix Final in Toyko. Suddenly, I had to do a short program, two DIFFERENT free skates and the exhibition gala all within the span of less than three days. I can thank my earlier experiences with ITNY for coming home with a bronze medal from that trip to Japan.

That evening in Annapolis over 15 years ago was so long that my older hockey-playing brothers, who had come along for the trip and had less than no interest in figure skating, were part of the ensemble by evening's end. They came out in their skates, under the spotlights, interpreting the music and doing tricks, opening the acrobatic number by the last show. Just goes to show how you never know what the final creative product will be, or who can be inspired to find and express their inner voice by ITNY. As evidenced early on, even by two hockey-playing preteens.

Now, whenever I get the chance, I go to Chelsea Piers, home of ITNY, put on some music and play around on the ice. After watching the Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver this past February, mesmerized by the piece with the boy flying across the stadium while Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" played in the background, I didn't have a choice. I had to go to Chelsea and see how it felt to skate to Joni. It went just as expected, seamless and beautiful. Moira North, founder of ITNY, is often there, overseeing a number, watching the session. As I was skating around, floating to this piece, she pulled me aside and told me this was the one. It was one of her and her husband's favorite songs, and I had to get a program to it.

At April's ITNY Spring gala, I got to spend some time with Douglas Webster and JoJo Starbuck. I was looking for someone to work on this specific piece with, and JoJo encouraged me to work with Doug, telling me he had a gift for seeing a skater's strength and helping them bring it out on the ice. Doug came to New York to work on this program with me for a few days and then I went to Sun Valley, Idaho, to see him a few weeks later to work on it again. When Moira asked me to skate in the show at the end of September, the timing could not have been better. Doug Webster came back to New York the first week of October and we put some final connecting steps, edges and flourishes throughout to finish the program and add polish.

The program was everything I always hope for in a program. To see the growth of the number from the spring to where it is now, how much better I can skate it, how much more comfortable I am on the ice, how I am able to express myself through the music more and more each time, is the reward of the journey.

To have the opportunity to skate it last night, alongside the people I grew up skating with; alongside Dorothy and JoJo, skaters I have long looked up to and have been mentored by; in front of my parents, who have not seen me skate in front of an audience in five years; and for Moira and Jirina Ribbens, who have kept skating performances a staple in New York when it seems everyone else has forgotten made it a memorable evening. We all have our reasons why some evenings are more meaningful than others and these are some of mine. And why I dedicated my number to Jay Colton, Moira's husband who recently passed away.

Of course, I was only a small sliver of the show. ITNY performed some of their classic pieces as well as their first collaboration with the Julliard School of Dance, choreographed by Juliard protégé Nathan Madden. Johnny Weir skated to a piece he created especially for ITNY. Ashley Clark impressed the crowd with her awe-inspiring backflip. Dorothy was timelessly elegant as usual, skating to Henry Mancini's "Moon River" alongside JoJo Starbuck, Tim Murphy, Elin Gardiner Schran and Nathan Birch. There was something for everyone.

The cocktail hour in the Lighthouse featured a red carpet adjacent to glittering views of the Hudson River where Dick Button, Ken Shelley, Tenley Albright, Doug Wilson (long-time figure skating director for ABC), Elaine Zayak, Taffy Holliday and Dorothy's family and friends socialized with designers Vera Wang, Nicole Miller and countless other skating friends before a sit-down dinner and awards presentation. Even the President and Executive Director of U.S. Figure Skating, Patricia St. Peter and David Raith, graced the New York skating scene this fall evening with their presence.

Peter Carruthers also came from the other coast, taking the red-eye from California to MC the evening, where he introduced an entertaining array of personalities, starting with Johnny Weir who presented ITNY's Arts & Business Partnership Award to MAC Cosmetics. A montage of Dorothy's career was highlighted with competition performances, interviews with Dick Button in the 70s, shows, endorsements and clips of her speaking about her infamous wedge hair cut throughout the ages. Video messages of congratulations came from Brian Boitano, who spoke of his love for Dorothy, and Donald Trump, who spoke of the requisite crush he had on her!

Our mutual love of Dorothy is why we were all there. Vera Wang, co-chair of the evening, spoke of how they grew up skating together and shared many things in life, but much to Vera's regret, not an Olympic gold medal as she presented her with the lifetime-achievement award. Dorothy, ever so gracious, thanked everyone in the room, most of them individually, and shared another passion in her life besides skating: her love for Alexandra, her daughter who was there to share the evening with her.

Everyone in the room was touched in one way or another by Dorothy and ITNY. Growing up in N.Y., I have seen firsthand ITNY's community outreach and dedication to spreading the arts throughout the city. It's contribution and commitment to skating in New York was unmatched over 15 years ago when I began skating in their it's performances and is still unmatched today. Dorothy has it right and maybe had the reason why Dick was right on point when he marked the show as their best ever. We were there to celebrate the fusion of our two passions: skating and family, which ITNY blessed each and every one of us on this memorable evening.

P.S. As always, I have attached pictures. Check out the gallery.