PSA 2000 Technique vs. Artistry

Now this was a lively panel. All were limited to 5 minutes.

Isabelle Duchesnay said that choreographing for dance is harder than ever, because the precious allowed minutes are eaten up with required elements. The nature of dance is to use the body and to innovate, but what with required spins, step sequences and lifts, "all we need now are jumps and we will be pair skaters." She argued that requirements such as closed ballroom holds are fulfilled in the CDs, that modern dance choreographers would find today's freedances to be boring because of the restrictions, and that the freedance should be free of requirements because that is where the dancers showcase originality and crowd appeal. And finally, warming my heart, she said bluntly, "I don't see why we couldn't wear pants."

Tom Zakrajsek objected to the "versus" in the seminar title, saying that coaches must start working with both technique and artistry from the very beginning, instilling excitement and basic positions in the kids at the same time. Skaters sometimes have pendulum swings, being better at technique one year and expression the next, but the coach's challenge is to keep the two close to equal as the skater develops. He also recommends making fresh programs every year (repeated programs give judges plenty of opportunity to note weak spots), spending time finding the right music (for Ryan Bradley, he spent two months selecting music and edited it 10 times), and always identifying what things your athlete needs to work on to be successful.

Kurt Pulver, head of the Swiss federation, said a sense of artistry can be introduced from the very first lesson. Take learning how to fall and get up, for example: you can teach a child to get up, smile and take a pose before going on, since skating is not getting from here to there, but how you get from here to there. For coaching boys, he recommended teaching the boys together in classes so they are not surrounded by girls, and they can encourage each other with teamwork and feel less inhibited. And finally, he said the most important thing for any skater is learning to plan and keep complete schedules.

Jeffrey Nolt spoke about observations he made while working as an assistant director for ABC. At this year's Worlds, he was most impressed by the ferociousness of the dance event, not only for its complexity and quickness, but for the expressiveness of the face, arms, and legs. Between the dance aesthetic and the French crowd, both the male and female skaters were encouraged to be artistic, expressive. "I think so much of skating is just flat in the face," he said, noting wonderful exceptions such as Michelle Kwan in her FS and the emotion between Salé and Pelletier in theirs.

Then Nolt became an instant hero in my eyes. "I think men and boys can do spirals," he said point-blank. "I think it's misguided that they're not asked to do more in the FS and SP. They CAN do them. It's so cultural. In this culture there is such a stigma on the virility of movement."

[Excuse me while my heart sings with joy again at the memory.]

He finished by recommending that skaters be trained in groups -- ensemble work, ballet classes -- because they want to look good when working together. "I think people instinctively want to be creative," he said. "Our governing bodies could do a lot to encourage it."


Charlie Cyr spoke from his background in music. He thinks of singles and pair skaters as using the music to enhance their performance; in ice dance, the music is the performance, and the dancers highlight it. He recommended production music for tiny skaters; few skaters, only those with great command, can handle single instrument pieces. He'd like skaters to demonstrate basic skills done well, to jump by appearing all of a sudden in the air instead of using a long set-up, to innovate. He likes dance lifts that evolve to highlight the music. And he said if you're going to tell a story with your program, make sure it's loud and clear.

Then 2-minute wrap-ups or rebuttals:

Duchesnay said, "We will be artistic if we are allowed." She thrilled me again by saying it would be better if men in ice dance were not backdrops. I myself have long wondered why on earth it is encouraged for the man to "present" the woman and efface himself in both dance and pairs.... Duchesnay pointed out that on European soil, male ice dancers are encouraged to express themselves, and it's good to see. As for freestyle, she said she wants to be entertained, then surprised with a triple -- "That is skating to me."

Zakrajsek disagreed that spirals should be a required element for men in the SP. He referred to Christine Brennan's Wednesday speech, about how to advance the sport among public viewers and make it more popular, and argued, "Those men have a hard time already of recognizing figure skating as a sport. And our men are doing quads." He thought that adding spirals would worsen the sport's popular image. These comments spurred so many good-natured retorts of "real men can do spirals!" that Zakrajsek returned to point out, in his own defense, that he's certainly not against spirals, that Bradley had two in his recent FS, but Zakrajsek just doesn't want them being a required element in the SP because of "the implications of that for our sport."

[This attendee found it rather quaint to imagine that it could make any difference at all to your typical beer-drinking, football-watching couch potato whether Alexei Urmanov does a spiral sequence or a second step sequence in his frilly ruffled shirts.]

Pulver asked how judges react to horrible music.

Cyr advised coaches that if they choose music with a beat, it would be good to ensure that the skaters skate on the beat. He acknowledged that "it is terrible to sit there and listen to music that is screaming in your ears," but concluded firmly, "You have to do the job."

From the floor, someone asked about the importance of "the whole package," meaning makeup, costume, hair. Zakrajsek said succinctly that it is very important in our country, and internationally, not at all. Duchesnay said the costume must be the final touch; you cannot skate Romeo and Juliet in a Fred Astaire get-up. Cyr said, bless him, that he prefers simplicity in costume so you look at the skating and the performance instead, that those who look good in beads are very few, that skirts and cleavage have a part and that part is not skating. As for men's costumes, he finds huge shoulder pads distracting especially for the jumps, and objects to saggy pants with the crotch down to the knees.

Karl Kurtz said from the floor that he thought it very important to encourage spirals in boys, partly because not every boy is going to be doing quads -- some will become pair skaters, where men are required to do spirals.

Gender-neutral required elements! Pants for women! Simple costumes! No required dance spins! These people must have been reading my mind.

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