Meissner's music attuned to family

A fringed black shawl with embroidered pink rose is draped across Kimmie Meissner's lap. A lacy mantilla rests on her shoulders.

With the light of the fireplace dancing in her dark eyes, the world champion figure skater looks every bit the young Spanish lady she hopes to portray later this week at the U.S. championships.

For her four-minute free skate Saturday - the program where titles are won and lost - Meiss- ner is tapping into her ancestral roots. Like the shawl and scalloped scarf, the flamenco music she's chosen is from Galicia, the coastal home of her maternal great-grandfather.

"It's totally different from anything else I've done," said Meiss- ner of her program based on Galicia Flamenco. "It has a lot of attitude. It's fiery. It's spicy."

And it is, say experts, a sure sign that the 17-year-old from Bel Air is growing up.

"I applaud the program," said Dick Button, two-time Olympic gold medalist and TV analyst. "It shows maturity and growth. Done well, it's beautiful."

Kristi Yamaguchi, the two-time world champion, U.S. champion and 1992 Olympic gold medalist, said Meissner has made "huge strides" artistically since the Olympics nearly a year ago. Still, she says, her performance needs "fine tuning" to accentuate the emotional aspect.

That Meissner settled on Galicia Flamenco was quite by accident. She had listened to the piece a year earlier with choreographer Lori Nichol, but something didn't click. She chose instead Belkis, Queen of Sheba, or as Meissner playfully calls it, "that Egyptian thing."

Last summer, Nichol played it again and found a shorter second piece to bring the length to the four minutes needed for the free skate.

Leaving Nichol's Toronto office for the drive home to Maryland, Meissner and her mother, Judy, stopped in suburban Buffalo to visit relatives, who insisted on hearing the music.

"When Kimmie picked out the music, I didn't put it together," Judy Meissner said. "But when we played it, my Aunt Helen said, 'My God, that's where Grandpa was from.'"

Meissner's great-grandparents, Paulina and Emmanuel Novo, separately emigrated from Spain in the 1920s; Paulina, to tend to a sick aunt in upstate New York, and Emmanuel, a fisherman, to escape growing political unrest in Galicia. They met at a dance, married in Buffalo and had nine children, including Judy's mother, Amelita. Kimmie is one of 60 great-grandchildren.

The shawl belonged to Paulina. The mantilla is Amelita's.

Helen Murray, now in her 80s, was a dance instructor who taught flamenco and used to dance with her great-niece. After hearing Galicia Flamenco, she and Amelita mailed the garments to Maryland, hoping that they might be incorporated into her costume.

"I really wanted to do it, but they were too beautiful to cut," said Meissner, who instead will carry the two delicate pieces to the competition in her skating bag.

"She'll have a piece of her heritage with her when she skates," Judy Meissner said.

Nichol said Meissner's new maturity is more than a tune and a costume. Doing well at her first Olympics and then winning the world title last March has helped her grow.

"She's starting to open up more this year. A lot of it has been mental," said Nichol, who choreographed programs for Michelle Kwan and 2002 gold medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. "She has handled all the attention well. She deserved that moment. She stepped up and delivered."

And, Nichol said, the skater's charitable work on behalf of the Belanger-Federico-Pitterich Foundation is part of the maturation process.

Meissner's "Cool Kids Campaign" ensures pediatric oncology patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center have toys and games, and their families go on outings during treatment.

"With all the dangling carrots after [the world championships], she chose to reach out and help children," Nichol said. "Seeing those kind of obstacles faced by sick children has made her a deeper thinker, and that has translated to the ice. She has seen the high of winning a world championship and the lows faced by very sick children. I feel she is skating with more soul."

Foundation spokeswoman Sharon Perfetti said the skater always tells her how much she gets out of visiting the young patients, bringing them lunch and sitting bedside to chat.

"She's helped us so much," Perfetti said. "If there's any way we've helped her, that's gratifying."