PSA 2001 How to Choreograph a Quality Program

I saved "How to Choreograph a Quality Program" by Jill Shipstad Thomas to be my last PSA report for 2001, since she was my favorite presenter this year.

You want to choreograph for quality, structure, and continuity. She advocates choreographing from the moment the skater steps on the ice. The first position establishes the character. For a ballet program, the skater could point their toe on the ground, align their arms and head. Or for an opening that moves, start with their toe pointed, head down, then look up with an opening arm movement and then look beyond, before settling and waiting for the music. Or they could open their arm out first, then place their toe. All these things would be in character, "rather than just going 'plonk,'" as Thomas said.

She showed an opening pose for a Spanish program: right toe behind, head turned to the left, left arm up, right hand on hip. "You can start a program in any respect that you want!" she encouraged. But it's good to instruct the skater to sustain the motions, to stretch and use emotion. To illustrate this point, she showed an arm movement that went elbows first, arms and hands to finish the motion -- it showed thought and pacing. She discussed the concept of "feeling late" -- slowing down so you're always with the music or even drawing it out, not rushing ahead in your anxiety to perform the program. For rhythmic music, you want to be on top of the beat, but for a balletic program, you want to hold a position and (inhale) take a breath. So, now you've got sustained movement.

She went through the process. "Start with feet," she said. "Interpret with three-turns and brackets. The arms just happen." She did a three-turn, brought her feet together, stepped forward, crossed up with the arms, mohawk, sweep into attitude, step, crossed arms. "The head, you'll notice," she said. "The head goes slightly away with the mohawk. It's how you get from here to there, what's happening."

Feet first, then the arms. She called for six volunteers and they danced to the "Masquerade Waltz."

An important concept, one which excited me with its practicality and its craftsmanship: the inclination of the head can give the impression of emotion. She had the volunteers incline their heads to demonstrate. "Now, you're creating emotions that you perhaps don't feel." Yes! I thought. It is not necessary to demand, tyrannically, that the skaters feel the music every time they perform. It is only necessary to convey the emotion. You can feel the music all you want, but if you're not conveying it, so what? A master will know the mechanics of how to move their body so the audience will understand. It's not mysticism; it's craft, and it can be learned.

"Sustaining motion, feeling late, and inclining the head," Thomas recapped. "What looks bizarre is not inclining the head." She demonstrated. "Just turn it -- WEIRD."

She talked about 1940s movement, which was very relaxed, never really on top of the beat. She and the volunteers did a box step, about face, and again -- "the arms start swinging back and forth," she explained. She called this "cool arms" -- "well, for the forties it was cool," she laughed.

Skaters rarely hold their positions, she noted. "I kid them, because they reverberate," she said, demonstrating a skater striking a shaky pose. She said they must strengthen their core and hold their buttocks underneath them in posture. She showed a basic jazz position and said there must be a long, straight line from shoulder to toe; "if I break it, I look weak, and not very attractive." She said that skating is a combination of ballet's up-from-the-ground aesthetic, and jazz's into-the-ground relaxed gravity.

She went on to movement quality, something she loves to think about, which is "the way you interpret music." She showed how to move "soft and quick" (looking quite witty, darting about), and "strong and quick" (dynamic). A longer soft quality makes you feel a whole different set of muscles, she said. It was times like this that she made my whole body feel like dancing.

She made me laugh when she talked about getting skaters to stay with the music. Her sample music came to a pause -- "isn't it great? Don't you love those pauses?" -- and then she described skaters who are so far ahead of their music that "when their slow part is ending, they're doing their footwork!" [demonstrating a frantic straightline sequence in the music's silence, to laughter]. "If you don't coach that from the very beginning," she warned, "they'll always be ahead of the music. They just want to get their triples real bad."

"You want to choreograph for continuity, and variation," she said. If the steps face the same direction, see if you can turn them. Dance the steps in one spot, then skate out of that spot -- do something interesting out of it. Footwork, or turn out of it.

She showed that skaters setting up for jumps without affect, stroking in a plain circle, will "throw away everything" they just set up with their interesting steps. "Even if she were to stroke out of it with a smile, lifted up, perky," it would be better, she said. "But of course we know she's going for a jump right away, when she's stroking like that" [staring eyes, stiff shoulders].

If you're going to go to the ends of the rink, she recommended doing something big artistically, rather than just facing the wall. An opening pose should start no more than 2/3 down the rink, and if you're out at the end, "the first move had better be good, and face everybody."

A good exercise is to have the student skate the program turned 180 degrees away from the usual. She followed with a cascade of bits of advice:

"I don't say play to the judges, or ignore them either," she said. "A crossed position is usually more attractive than open. And switching, switching (sides, directions), all the time. If your foot is in the back, put weight on the front foot, or your back heel will start to collapse. For bows and curtsies, put your foot farther behind. Levels should be used according to the music, as many contrasts as you can make without doing it for its sake. Levels in the footwork help the footwork, to me. If you pass by the audience, acknowledge them."

Eye focus is important. "Choreograph it," she instructed. "Don't glaze over when you're stroking." She showed herself skating around with a blank expression, which was frighteningly dull and lifeless. Then she stroked again, but this time with a sparkle in her eyes. "Aren't I more interesting to look at?"

If you put your eyes up and your head up, held square, it looks spiritual. Eyes down, head down, can be the beginning of something. Eyes up, chin down: Fosse or Las Vegas effect. Or it can be masculine, threatening. Chin up, eyes down brings the focus to your hands. "I love that look!" she exclaimed. "Now you're looking at their hand, because they're looking at their hand." She showed how Richard Dwyer has a technique of looking up and down at the audience as he strokes by, making people feel seen.

Angles. Use them. Put the arms up, down; the shoulders. Sometimes, utilize just the shoulders. Sometimes, if your choreography isn't working, don't throw it away -- just put a shoulder forward.

Emotion should be able to be read from the front and the back, she stressed. I found this to be such a helpful comment -- it focused what I knew about body positions. If you're skating down, you don't look like a happy person, she said; I can see that from the back.

She advised choreographers to put a stamp of uniqueness on each program that utilizes the skater's best qualities and plays down their weaknesses...and then time was up. I could have listened to her for much longer.

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