When Elizabeth Skora invited 14 of her friends to celebrate her 17th birthday recently at the Columbia Ice Rink, she said they were game to bundle up, brave the cold and try their skill at gliding on thin blades.
"I used to skate, but I haven't really thought of it for a while," said the Catonsville resident. "We decided to mix it up a little bit."
"They were so excited. I didn't think a bunch of teenagers would be excited," she added.
In fact, hundreds of Columbia-area middle and high school students eagerly strap on skates and take to the ice Fridays for the weekly 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. sessions that offer blaring pop music (usually provided by a disc jockey) and neon lights flashing in the darkened rink.
The Friday night session has been the most popular, said rink manager Rachelle Weisberg. She said it draws mostly young teenagers, with little kids and a few adults braving the mass of bodies swirling around the rink.
"It's a place for [kids] to go and have fun," Weisberg said. "It's someplace safe, and they can get some physical activity."
Skora's mother, Maureen Skora, said the announcer makes ice skating more appealing to teenagers. "It's more fun than a movie night at home," she said, "which is mostly what their budget allows."
Mike Rechen, 15, of Columbia said he is a regular at the Friday night sessions, where the skating and the socializing go hand in hand.
Compared to the movies, which many young people noted is the main alternative for Friday night entertainment, "it is a lot more fun to me. You are not just talking to the person next to you," he said.
"It's a good way to meet people," added Mike, who was mashed into a narrow corridor along the outside of the rink's protective Plexiglas wall with a few dozen other young skaters during the midsession ice-cleaning break. Patrons squirmed, shouted and pressed toward the narrow door to the ice while they waited for the Zamboni to lay down a shiny, smooth new layer of water.
Rechen said his friends taught him to skate when he first started going to the rink, and now he catches up with other skaters there every week. "People that come here are from all the schools around," he said.
Zohra Ibrahimi, 19, brought her younger cousins and two guests from Japan to the rink because, she said, "we wanted to show them what we do during the winter."
Ibrahimi said the young crowds, the music and the lights reminded her of a school dance, but Sanam Lodin, 9, and her sister, Layana Lodin, 12, both of Columbia, were more focused on the sport.
"I want to go very fast," Sanam said. "I want to learn."
"I'm trying to go fast, but I can't, so I have to hold on to somebody," Layana said.
Samah Patel, 21, of Catonsville and her sister, Sameen Patel, 23, of Silver Spring were also looking for something different to do on a Friday night, though Sameen suspected "we're the oldest people here."
"It is nice in the winter," Sameen said. "You want to be out. It's a fun place for everyone to be. There's a lot of energy."
Sameen even talked her husband, Osman Baig, 30, into giving it a try. His plan, he said, was to hold on to the wall. But after a few minutes, he was off the ice and on a bench recovering from four falls.
Annalise Deppmeier was philosophical about the likelihood of falling on the ice.
"The biggest part of skating is falling," she said. "You just have to learn to accept it."
Annalise knew how to skate when she invited 10 girls to the rink last Friday to celebrate her 12th birthday.
She said some in her crowd "started out kind of ugly, but then they got the hang of it.
"Skating really lets you feel free. After you get used to it, you fell like you were born to do it."
Elizabeth Skora's friends were a little more mischievous about their less accomplished friends, including one young man who made a show of crashing into the Plexiglas while the girls snapped photographs.
"We just let them go and watch them," Skora said. "It's more fun that way."
The Friday night public skating session is held from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekly at the ice rink, 5876 Thunder Hill Road. Regular admission is $6, with skate rental available for $2.50. Additional public sessions, including discounted family sessions Sunday evenings, are held daily. Information: www.columbiaicerink.net or 410-730-0322.