I walked into Doug Ladret's pair session, and who should be there as demonstrators but Jessica Miller and Jeffrey Weiss, in sleek black workout clothes. This was a participant workshop, in which we stacked the chairs against the wall and partnered up to practice the points that Ladret explained. I stayed on the sidelines to take notes, which was just as well, since I didn't have the basic level of experience assumed for this session (e.g., Ladret would say "Kilian hold," and people would assume it instantly, whereas I'd have to think about it and then wonder if I was doing it right).
He started by saying the first page of the ISU rulebook on pair skating mentions two skating as one -- something that North Americans tend to fall short on achieving, while focusing on getting those lifts and throws out there. But the pairs who are winning internationally are those who have mastered this concept, their feet always in unison.
He had Miller and Weiss simply walk together in parallel squares -- turn to the left, two steps; left, steps; left, steps; left, steps. Then the attendees did the same thing in pairs, trying to track each other. One common error is when the person on the outside of the turns, on the right, always tries to stay on the outside of his partner -- meaning that he ends up doing a way, way bigger square than she does. That's not the intent; the intent is for each partner to do the same size pattern side by side, one of them always staying closer to one end of the rink, the other closer to the opposite. As long as you pick a side and stay closer to it, you won't lose your place.
Then, Miller and Weiss demonstrated a parallel "stroking" exercise, stepping across the floor and back. This was to show that you can use the same exercise as the parallel squares, but with steps added, to work on getting every single step exactly in unison "to the nth degree."
They stood apart holding hands in a "split-finger hold" -- that is when the man holds his pinky out from the rest of his fingers, palm up, and the woman holds his hand with her thumb between his pinky and his ring finger. This provides a good but not overly binding interlocking grip.
This handhold, explained Ladret, is their connection. Through this hold alone, the pair can communicate which directions to go, how to move, even without any prior plan. First Weiss led Miller this way around the floor, then Miller led. A pair that's been together a long time can convey the subtlest messages this way -- even about movements so slight they are barely visible -- even with one or both partners with eyes closed. Taking quiet time to communicate movements silently through handholds is a good exercise for pairs at any skill level.
It's also a good skill to develop for competition practices. Ladret said that at moments when the judges are comparing different pairs in the warmup groups, if there's a commotion and they see one pair subtly moving out of the way, communicating wordlessly, it makes a good impression -- "for that third mark the judges look at...you know, the predetermi...I didn't say that! [Fist in palm.] Let's move on!" Hee.
Another good basic hold is wrist to wrist, overlapping hands. For pairs with a big height difference, though, it's important to maintain a good line. This hold can provide security for death spiral entries and exits.
The Kilian hold, with the elbow of the guy on the left making a nice line all the way through to the woman's extended right arm, centers on the "handshake grip" of the partners' two left hands -- the man's elbow bent, the woman's extended. It's important for the guy's wrist to stay in line and not break, which creates an unattractive line but also means the communication for movement is not as good. As for the guy's positioning, he should feel ready to do a "slapshot" -- holding his torso so it can turn with power from right to land, his right hand on the woman's waist. On crossovers, the guy should track slightly behind the girl and inside the circle. Ladret had the participants practice moving around communicating only through the "handshake" of the Kilian hold.
Then the open Kilian -- same handshake, but guy's right hand behind the woman's left waist/hip. This is not as common, and it puts a lot more space between the partners. There is a good push/pull between the hand on the waist, and the handshake grip. It's a useful position if you want an entrance into an element.
Finally, he showed the eagle or the flying V hold: both partners facing the same direction, the one in back palms up, the one in front palms down, palms together with arms extended to the sides. Or you can do this with both people's palms facing down, which is not as strong a grip, but gives a nice look.
When the coach spots on lifts, Ladret said you should stand wherever the girl is likely to be in the most danger. Miller and Weiss did a press lift, and Ladret stood behind Weiss' back, facing Miller. As they turned, he stayed in position slightly ahead of them, since that's the way they would fall if they fell. Ladret said wryly that he has, indeed, fallen while turning onto the left foot, and recalled a one-month span when he, Lloyd Eisler, and Sergei Grinkov all had falls doing that turn.
A participant added that when he coaches young pairs where the boy is still developing, he spots with one hand on the boy's back. That way, he can tell if/when the boy is collapsing in a lift, which you can't notice if you are looking at the girl.
For a basic lutz lift takeoff, the guy places his right hand under the girl's armpit, his left hand holding the girl's right palm to palm, the girl's left hand on the guy's right shoulder. The girl taps up on the right side of the guy. For guys, Ladret stressed that it's important to keep the back as straight as possible, with the torso nice and still; if the guy can get down all the way into a squat, that's optimal. Heels coming up is "not a good thing on the ice"! So practice those Achilles tendon stretches. Center yourself with your back straight and butt over your heels, not too far back; and let a little bit of bicep into the initiation of the lift. The girl doesn't need to jump into the entry; a tap will do. To show boys the most important part of this lift, Ladret assists them into the entry and lets the boy lift the girl the rest of the way, while the girl doesn't jump up at all -- that way, the boy can feel that his leg muscles are doing the work, and that is essential more than the upper body.
Ladret said to avoid getting too extended on takeoffs, because that will spread your body weight around. You want to stay compact.
He had Miller and Weiss show a few more basic takeoffs, including, on request, the split lutz (also called the scissor lift). This is a quick, up and down dynamic lift, similar in that way to a cartwheel -- the woman is lifted with her left foot forward, and then kicks her right leg across while airborne. It doesn't get a lot of credit, so it's something to use as a highlight when your other elements are strong.
Ladret said something that isn't classified as difficult, but which is quite difficult, is the waist loop lift. Facing the same direction, the guy puts his hands on the girl's waist, the girl on his wrists, and up she goes from her loop edge. It's important for the girl to get her weight over the top of the guy; if she stays forward, the lift won't work. So she should get a bit of an arch in her back. This lift, said Ladret, is good training for the future, to help kids stay square for the split twist.
For the platter lift, the partners face each other, the guy's hands on the girl's waist and her hands on his wrists. She goes up, assumes a swan position. A participant asked the best way to position the guy's hands on her hips while lifted, and Ladret said it depends according to the width of the hips and the size of the guy's hands. You don't want them too far on the front of the body and away from the sides, because the wrists flipping back and forth aren't as secure. A participant from a ballet background said that in ballet, this is called an "angel" lift, and the men stagger their hands so they grip the woman higher on one side than the other. That provides stability and prevents wrist flipping. But it was noted that staggering the hand placements would interfere with rotation and speed in skating.
For a star/hip axel lift, the guy puts his right hand on the girl's left hip, her left hand on his right shoulder, his left hand gripping her right palms together. She taps up with her left foot in line with his right shoulder, and goes into an in-air spiral position.
Ladret finished with death spiral exercises you can do on the floor. For forward outside, the guy supports the girl's left armpit or upper arm with his left hand, she goes down into position and pushes her right hip up, feeling as though she's pushing toward an outside edge.
For back outside, the girl forms a bridge (facing toward the ceiling, feet on floor) and supports herself with her head while hands-free, and extends her left leg off the floor. She can do this independently or supported by her partner.
For guys, an independent exercise for getting into the pivot is to extend the left foot back and lower themselves, slowly pulling back in the abs, until their butts are near their heels. Keep the pulling ab sensation; don't lean back from the waist with your upper body.
Back inside: convert the edge by crossing feet. The girl bends down with support from her partner. Jessica Miller was asked to try this facing down, and gamely did so, despite what looked like a very stretchy position that taxed her muscles. A participant asked about a back inside with the leg tucked behind rather than in front, and both Ladret and Miller said that is difficult because it interferes with the angle of the hip.
Some of the participants were actually doing lifts during this workshop! I was impressed. I think these get-up-and-move off-ice sessions are useful; they're fun and appropriate for coaches, but more intimate than the on-ice sessions where the speakers have to yell.