PSA 2001 Movement Through the Ages

Jill Shipstad Thomas, the archetypally radiant career show skater, did a floor session on "Movement Through the Years." With the help of eight intrepid quick-study volunteers from the audience (at least two of whom had skated in shows that Shipstad Thomas had choreographed), she went through dances from each decade of the 20th century, giving a bit of history, showing how to dance them, and explaining how they transfer onto the ice. I believe she did a similar presentation the following day on a rink surface, but I wasn't able to make that one.

First, the attendees had to help her clear a space by moving chairs. Anyone who attended this PSA conference is going to remember those chairs for a long time -- they had some sort of magnetic lock device connecting each to its neighbor. Pain in the butt to separate!

For the first part of the century, she showed how ballet-based movement became freer. The positions were easier, the movements sustained and stretched but relaxed, spontaneous, emotional. She instructed her volunteers to start with the left knee popped, roll the shoulders, put the left arm forward, do a body roll, kick with the right leg. "If you're playing with arms," she said, "sometimes it's fun to see where the arms end up. Make circles and lines. Extemporize." The accompanying music was tranquil and melodic.

For the 1920s, she said the mood was bright, and up, and snappy. Anyone trying to do a 20s dance must, must convey the giddy exhilaration of ladies taking off their Victorian corsets, lifting their skirts, kicking up their heels.

The 30s was a decade not only for Astaire and Rogers, but also tap, strutting, and trucking -- I didn't know trucking was the name of an actual dance style! But there she was, demonstrating that loping, cartoonish, cool-guy gait. The 30s, she said, brought on a need for escapism with the depression. For the girls, the look involved a bent elbow, a flexed wrist. She asked the volunteers to strut, explaining that on the ice it would be a skid stop, right three turn, left inside edges, sway, sway. Then showed a Fred and Ginger move for ice: waltz jump, cross feet in back, toe to flat, cross (all done quickly). She said all of this could be done with a jazzy style, too, not just 30s style: if you pull your right shoulder back, push your hips forward, and roll out of each step as you walk.

Every demonstration Jill Shipstad Thomas did was accompanied by her light, joyous touch. She did something I haven't seen before: after doing a dance sequence, she would be so delighted, so in love with movement and the dance itself, that she would finish by laughing aloud. It lightened my body just to look at her. It made me want to dance.

The 30s brought us syncopation, she said, which is dance that pushes a little ahead of the beat. "If you have syncopation in your music and you're choreographing, use it," she encouraged. "It's a great look." Both 30s and 40s dance styles used a combination of getting into the floor, with the gravity of modern dance, and up off of it, for lift -- as opposed to ballet, which is always lifted and then tries to become airborne. The 30s and 40s had more flexing and releasing.

Shipstad Thomas talked about the man she called "the unsung choreographer," Jack Cole, who was a precursor to Fosse (and indeed, one of his dancers became Fosse's wife). Cole started out as a modern dancer with the Denishawn company, then got his own cabaret act, incorporating influences such as East Indian or Afro-Cuban moves, or jazz. He choreographed "almost everything Marilyn Monroe ever did." He pioneered isolations. Agnes B. DeMille said he was the definitive Broadway jazz choreographer. And "just about all" of his moves can be done on the ice.

She talked about "movement with meaning," in which you choreograph based on moves that have some other purpose than movement for its own sake. An example was choreography based on the tennis serve. Use the muscle, she said, and then angle it for choreography. Don't break at the hip for this move -- that looks "cute, but weak." She showed her volunteers the steps, adding "exotic moves" with sweeping arms in honor of Jack Cole.

The 1940s, she said, were a bit more stretched out than the 30s, with the beginnings of a feel for modern jazz and cool jazz. Then she got to the Lindy and had some fun. To the slow, slow, quick quick slow rhythm, she had her volunters put a left foot behind, walk two steps slowly, skip skip, step ball change, back, step ball change, back, then shake arms up for the finale. Very showgirl, very pretty to look at, with instant unison among all eight! The volunteers looked so good. Shipstad Thomas was about to go on, then took a breath and looked at her backup dancers. Something in their faces made her say, "Do you want to do it again?" Fervent nods all around. So the music came back on, the dancers did their steps again, and they beamed with delight. There was no conference benefit to this -- it was just for fun.

There was more joyous laughter when Shipstad Thomas danced "Steam Heat" to show 50s movement. She said that even if you can't teach dance on the ice, the skaters will have the movement if they feel it in their upper bodies while learning on the floor. She stressed that for jazz dance ("this is so important"), you have jutting hips gyrating from a contracted core -- but you keep your wrists straight. You don't bend them, which makes a weak look. You keep the line going down your arm through the hand, strong, as if doing the breaststroke. You move your arm forward and down in a direct trajectory, in a move called "cat hands."

The 60s brought us the swim, the frug, and especially the watusi, which still has an impact on jazz dance today. The watusi is characterized by the back bump, moving your pelvis from center to back rather than forward, from a straight knee to a bent knee. Fosse used this move frequently. You sway your hips as you step, arms natural -- "It's hard," said Shipstad Thomas. Like jazz, you use cat hands, but they're a little softer here. To get into a proper jazz dance position, pop your right knee forward, put your weight on your heel, tuck your hip, and be sure to make a full line down your body through your left foot.

She discussed Latin dances briefly, which she said influenced almost everything throughout the 20th century. Using flamenco as her example, she showed how to incorporate cross rolls into some choreography. For anything Spanish, she said, there is a trick to ensure that you have a separation between your ribs and your hipbone, to get that characteristic look: the feeling of a profile, a twist, a silhouette. You pull up your torso and make it grow, and put your thumbs on the bottoms of your ribcage and your pinkies on your hipbones, to keep the separation steady.

For Spanish-influenced jazz, she showed how to step onto a foot and lift the hip to the opposite direction. When you step, dig your toe into the ground/ice. Feel into the ground, not up away from it.

She finished us off with the mobilized hips and bent knees of disco, which she personally loves, for all its fun, uptempo, "you should be dancing" vibe. She calls that her philosophy.

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