PSA 2000 Cindy Stuart, Coaching for Character

Cindy Stuart has so far been the gem of the presenters for me. I enjoyed both her on-ice and her lecture classes on choreography.

The on-ice seminar was Stuart actually working with an intermediate/novice skater in front of everybody. The girl was named Lonnie Llanez, and she was a true talent and very brave to be learning new steps and putting them to music in front of so many.

First, Stuart assessed her strengths and weaknesses, having Lonnie do forward and back strokes, 3turn series, and spirals. Lonnie did back and forward straightline spirals, and when asked to do them on a curve, did a beautiful inside to outside forward spiral, and then (ooh! said Stuart excitedly) a back inside. Then Lonnie ran through her swing program, including doubles up to the lutz.

Stuart turned to Ryan (or Brian?), the coach, and said she wouldn't change the program, that it suited Lonnie very well. "She's got something most kids don't have: a natural instinct to have fun and to smile," she said. (I couldn't see the coach, but he sounded pleased with the verdict.) Then Stuart started developing the choreography to further build upon Lonnie's strengths. This was fascinating.

She felt that Lonnie held up her arms bent at the elbow too much, and fixed that so her hands hung more naturally. The opening move featured perhaps six turns in one spot; she cut it to three, saying it was too static before, and then added new steps moving out to emphasize the music. Stuart had a phenomenal memory for tiny, important musical accents. She took a step sequence between the double lutz and the axel, and had isolated two choctaws at the end which she wanted to rechoreograph with more emphatic and natural arm movements. Arms up overhead -- then down -- then right and left, no flick of wrists, try snapping fingers instead, taking advantage of the musical moment. Brave Lonnie did the whole passage with the new choreography and it looked fantastic, no longer letting the music play on unnoted. Stuart said she was creating more shape for the skater's arms and legs.

She said she always starts by asking where the judges' side is, because if you're unaware, you might place a spiral so (demonstrating), and then guess what the judges are looking at. [laughter] She tried out a few moves for Lonnie's opening, including a kick turn, a backwards straightleg hop with feet together, back inside edges with checked arms. Lonnie would sometimes do a move that looked natural and Stuart would get very excited and incorporate that, using the skater's ideas and movement. She tried getting Lonnie to do a backward hop with a flip entrance, and said immediately that Lonnie _could_ do it, but it wouldn't work and went against the skater's natural look.

"Sometimes it takes a while to find the right move," Stuart said. "Don't settle for something that's just 'all right,' especially with talent like this."

[At this point my feet were frozen and pained, so I got off the ice and missed the next few minutes -- but Lonnie definitely left with a better program, and my respect.]

After this, I went to something promisingly called "Coaching for Character." In all honesty, it put me to sleep. The main point was valuable: sport is not business, not entertainment, but a purposeful and competitive form of play which by its very nature calls for sportsmanship and respect for the opponent, since it is the worthy opponent who enables a good performance and game. Of course "winning is everything" is a destructive attitude, but so is "winning is not important," which takes the endeavor out of the sporting arena and deflates it of its necessary seriousness and meaning.

The major problem with this presentation is that the speaker was not skating-savvy. He had impressive credentials, but they were in sport overall, and a couple of other sports in particular. He hoped the language would translate to skating, and to some extent it did, but skating is such a peculiarized sport that I learned long ago how difficult it is to speak of skating at all except on its own terms. I would recommend that skating conferences not have skating-ignorant speakers unless accompanied by a skating-informed colleague.

At any rate, it was good to remind coaches that all coaches are moral educators whether they want to be or not. It is not a choice; the only choice is whether you do it poorly or well.

Ahh, Cindy Stuart time again, this time a tutorial on the beginning of the choreographic process. She called it "the biggest challenge in skating today" to teach a triple-obsessed 14-year-old that they must dance, and with resonance, but warned that if you start with jumps and add presentation later, the skater will be playing catch-up for their whole career. She believes that a short program can be as entertaining as an exhibition. She said it is a training issue that skaters must be taught how to keep up the choreography, instead of the choreography being the first thing to go once they add in difficult jumps -- especially since a typical ladies' freeskate involves 35 seconds of jumping and 3 min. 35 sec. of "other."

She gave some examples of choreography she had done. She did Rosalynn Sumners' "Warm Air"! -- the best thing I've ever seen Sumners do, modern and original movement to go with the violin sounds. That was the concept -- and one usually starts with a concept, although it's always a delightful surprise when the music comes first. Finding the music can eat up your life. Stuart recommends doing it on your car stereo as you drive.

She also stressed the importance of professional partners in your work. Always have a tape professionally edited (she once wrongly assumed a skater's coach would do the job, and the skater went on tour with the rough edit); always hire a professional costumer and hair and makeup people. Don't ever bring a whole piece of music to a coach without doing a rough edit first; many people cannot imagine the music with its edit points, and you don't want to introduce doubt into the coach's mind.

Structure is important before beginning choreography. Ask the coach and skater to work with setting elements and order, according to the music's demands and the skater's stamina.

Choreograph in longer sessions (maybe 1 and 1/2 hours), not 20 minute lessons, or you'll always waste time going over what you did last.

Always use and pass on the proper skating terminology -- right forward outside rocker, not "a turn." Otherwise, the precious common skating language developed over a century will become obsolete.

She told a story of portraying Monet's "Water Lilies" for the Santa Rosa Christmas show under Karen Kresge. Paul and Pagano were the lilies, she was the water, to Debussy's "Reverie." Kresge asked her to think, what are the different forms in which water presents itself? "I stopped, mid-spiral," said Stuart, and the ideas came spilling out. Raindrops. Rivers. Ocean. Waterfall. This point of view, this purpose, made the piece so easy to choreograph.

From the floor, one coach asked what to do about the problem of the presentation mark; she wished for two separate panels for each mark, so presentation would be rewarded and not held back. Stuart had the opposite opinion: she wishes there would be one mark alone for both. "I don't understand why we're fighting ourselves; it's the complete package, it's the total skater," she said. She was against "dividing the performance" with two panels. I had not considered a single mark before, but I found the idea quite interesting and I'm sure it will cook around in my brain.

Cirque du Soleil's "La Nouba," which many conference-goers attended tonight at Downtown Disney, was a multi-media magnificence that mostly eludes description. The urban dwellers flying amidst the skyscrapers, the ball of flame, the power of the internet flexing its big slouchy muscles, the maid frog that turned into a princess, and most of all the four peas in the pod -- the 8-year-old green-clad Chinese girl acrobats with wooden spools, beautiful children looking for all the world like "bath time" on the Kaeru page -- who after their astonishing and precise act, were seen silently moving from stage left to stage right in an elevated cage for no particular reason -- my spirit soared along with the rococo-costumed sprites riding their four-story red ribbons. I smiled to witness the sudden awed hush from the coaches all around me for rows as Frank Carroll passed to take his first-row seat; the coach to my left described him as god-like, without irony. It was a rare privilege to watch the circus in this fraternity, this sorority, who spend their lives dedicated to the athleticism and the craft of performance, and who understood so well what they were seeing.

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