This blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences from ten years as a skate dad. For those of you sitting with your jackets in the bleachers, first I salute you, but second I want to give you an honest sense of what you are in for and what to expect. Ice skating is both a trying and a glorious sport, but it doesn't happen without the special group of folks who cheer, support, and console the participants. This is dedicated to you.

Monday, January 23, 2017

- overthought


In a blog post from 2013 World Figure Skating warned about the dangers of overthinking; he maintains that overthinking makes you "choke." On that I would agree, but its scope and timing needs to be clarified.

Thinking interacts with training and performing across a complex dynamic. When you are learning something new you need to think about it constantly. Once you get fully practiced however the learnt behaviors become more deeply internalized into a partially subconscious state. Do you think about the shape of individual letters as you sign your name? You used to when you were little, but now you don't any longer. Portions of skating elements are like your handwriting: you internalize the angle of your foot, how hard you toe pick, how quickly you tuck your arms.

Although I agree that overthought jumps during a competition cause recurrent issues of inconsistent takeoffs, I don't have any particular qualms about your deep cogitations during practice. In fact I actually like to see you thinking deeply the entire time that you're in a freestyle. Try things and think about them -- that's how you learn!

And even at a competitive event I'm perfectly fine with your mental ramblings during your stroking, footwork, or spins. This shows that you're minding the music or planning your ice coverage or capturing your audience.

You will skate better however if you can find a way to approach your competitive jumps with your neurons silenced.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

- the artist


Those inside the sport know this but it's not always apparent outside; I'll post these remarks to the general audience and you skaters can comment your concordances. Figure skating is both a sport and an art, and as such skaters are both athletes and artists. Hence skaters share many of the same characteristics and fight most of the same battles as any other artist (although due to the athletic rigors demanded of them they tend to be "clean" artists, eschewing the mental chemical stimulants of other creatives). Yet the demands of creativity are still the same.

As the medium of a skater's expressiveness is constantly fighting back (and she learns as she goes along) staying focused as an artist requires an extraordinary amount of exertion of will under trying circumstances. There's falls, there's equipment issues, there's meddling competitors. To succeed she must take her art absolutely seriously. A skater must become fully dedicated to her craft as anything less may devolve to become only recreational skating.

Like all artists, a skater thinks a lot about her art even when she is not on the ice; many skaters think about it 24 hours a day, albeit at different levels of consciousness. They live, eat and breathe figure skating. And all of this attention and focus to a single subject tends to isolate a skater from a wide variety of outside activities and also limits her social circle.

A skater tends to put herself into "voluntary solitude;" the intensity of the concentration of her sport demands it. Does a skater's isolation border on self punishment? The ones who keep competing may have a greater capacity for this solitude. Still though as a parent I often had my concerns for my daughter's following an artist lifestyle: the consequence of skating as a serious endeavor invokes a social cost -- by necessity the skater sacrifices common scholastic social entertainment. Does a skater have to overcome this parental bias irregardless?

Since she mostly works alone on her craft the skater is responsible for imposing her own high standards. For the most part she is in charge of her own critiques; a skater is often the only one who really knows what's going on with her own work. Certainly her coach and parents can witness the end results, but the skater faces hundreds of small unseen private battles. Many skaters are filled with self doubt and go through long periods questioning their skills. An artistic vision is therefore necessary to carry a skater through her rough patches.

To a certain extent then rinks are like art colonies (well, after the hockey players have packed their bags). And like any art studio, success comes from making your rink a place where you and your fellow artists want to be creative.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

- sensitive choreo

I had some equivocal thoughts after interviewing Kate about choreo I'd like to share and explore. First, the importance of a choreograhper. I suppose you could plan your program's choreo by watching other skaters and their videos, and even by reading books on the topic. There's nothing though like having a choreographer skate alongside to help you at the rink. Your self-impressions of how you look when skating are likely inaccurate; the choreographer can make real-time demonstrations and corrections. An experienced choreographer will also know what is best for you as a skater: she knows the limits of your capabilities and where you might variously run into trouble. Your choreographer likely knows all the ins and outs of IJS scoring. If you are competitive she can impel you to the limits of your skills (adapted to your body type) to maximize your scores.

I asked Kate how she felt about "ethnic" programs; she said they were fine if the skater has the correct style to match what the program requires for handling the music. She did mention an ethnic program obligates the choreographer to show cultural sensitivity: you have to be thoughtful and avoid being disrespectful by falling into stereotypical portrayals.

I also inquired about the pros and cons of IJS scoring compared to 6.0. She felt IJS presents a two-edged sword: on one hand (due to its tight requirements) you need a choreographer to hep you cover everything while still remaining stylish. In other words, the strictures of IJS make it much more difficult to arrive at beautiful choreography just by yourself. The back edge of the sword however is IJS ensnares many skaters and their coaches where the pressures of its scoring inflicts moves upon a skater that are legitimately beyond her capabilities.

Our conversations also got me thinking about the appropriateness of seductive skating across various age groups. No matter what I say many readers will find it a controversial, sensitive, and high-anxiety issue. Nevertheless it merits exploration to clear the air, and as usual YMMV.

I'm neither categorically for nor against seductive skating. It all depends, and I can never tell ahead of time whether this is the right thing for you as a skater. When I am watching a routine I know about halfway through however whether or not your seductiveness strikes the right tone or if it assaults my sensibilities.

To start with what's easy, let's chat about the dress. I don't mind something slightly revealing (if you are twelve or older) but it shouldn't provoke me to be staring at your body more than I am watching your skating. In other words /suggested/ sexiness is better than "turning me on." I am here to watch you skate, not to gawk at your beauty. Specific design details beyond that are difficult, as it varies for each person: something that's too revealing for one skater may be fine for another.

Next, your attitude. Overtly "coming on" to me is never appropriate. Being flirty is fine in moderation: you can wink and wave and blow me a kiss, no problem. How I judge your wiggling about depends a lot upon your age: older skaters can get away with all sorts of shenanigans as long as it's "tongue in cheek" and not overdone. Younger skaters look wrong when they try to move sexily: I prefer the younger skaters strive for cuteness in a Shirley Temple sort of fashion. Where's the age dividing line? I haven't a clue: some skaters mature faster than others. Hint, it's somewhere between 11 and 16.

Trying to look sexy comes across as false when you're in that awkward teen age danger-zone where you've outgrown being cutesy. Again this isn't a specific age but rather when you're old enough to be thinking about it but not old enough to actually know what it's about (enough said). If this is you then please don't try to be seductive on the ice. You can still wink and wave and blow me a kiss though, no problem.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

- becoming a choreographer

In earlier posts I chatted with Kate about what it's like to work with a choreographer, and some of the finer points of that field. Folks choose to be choreographers (rather than say skating coaches) based upon where their heart leads. If you are more interested in nurturing along a skater's development over the years and like to teach jumps and spins, then you tend toward coaching. On the other hand if you don't mind being lesson-to-lesson and gig oriented (and subservient to the coach), and are more interested in movement, dance, and artistic expression in general then you will lean more toward choreography.

You don't have to have a history of figure skating in order to be a good skating choreographer. Phillip Mills, Benji Schwimmer, and several other well-known choreographers started in the dance world and then moved into skating. Say you've become enamored with that idea and would like to turn your dance or skating background into a skating choreography career -- how does one go about such a thing? Herewith Kate gives good starting points for young choreographers regardless of your background.

⦁    Educate yourself! American Ice Theatre offers an online semester-long skating course called Master Choreography Techniques (MCT) that is absolutely wonderful. You'll have the chance to regularly create work, learn choreo vocabulary and be able to speak knowledgeably about movement and how to create a program. (www.americanicetheatre.org)
⦁    The Professional Skaters Association also offers a choreography track through its ratings program – the four ratings for choreographers require you to learn IJS rules alongside music, dance, and skating skills. (www.skatepsa.com)
⦁    For great background, enroll in dance or theatre classes at a college.
⦁    Attend workshops – both American Ice Theatre and Ice Dance International offer these. Various annual choreography and movement festivals occur all over the world. There’s an American Ice Theatre Contemporary Skating Festival coming to Boston in June 2017! Keep your eyes open for opportunities such as these.
⦁    Get involved in your local rink teaching Learn-to-Skate, and shadow coaches or choreographers while they teach private lessons. Build relationships with your local coaches.
⦁    Offer to assist with your Club’s exhibition or Holiday show – choreograph group numbers and volunteer to help the show run smoothly.
⦁    Skate regularly to explore your own sense of movement, style, transitions, turns and steps.
⦁    To demonstrate your style and choreography, perform your own choreo  as much as possible: perform at your Club’s shows and exhibitions, and compete in Showcase events .
⦁    Participate in online choreography contests such as: Young Artists Showcase (www.youngartistsshowcase.net), Quest for Creativity (more info at www.grassrootstochampions.com), or the ProSkaters online competition (www.proskaters.org) .
⦁    Get in touch with someone in the field to mentor you. Skating choreography is a small circle, and everyone from all generations is an available resource.
⦁    Support artistic groups such as American Ice Theatre, Ice Theatre of New York, Ice Dance International, The Next Ice Age, Ice Cold Combos, and more! Attend their shows and contribute in any way you can to the community!
⦁    Post your work online and use social media to get your name out. Ask for feedback of your work from your mentor or other established choreographers.
⦁    For self-promotion, comp a higher level skater’s choreography.
⦁    Create a professional website to organize and promote the work you’re doing with the style you wish to establish.
⦁    Attend dance classes and artistically inspiring events as much as possible.  Critically watch videos from other well-known choreographers.

Most of the technological knowhow required for quality choreography entails learning about music editing software. Most choreographers edit their music with Garage Band, Sound Forge, or a variety of other music editing systems. You can also hire professional editing companies online to edit the music for you. Choreographers will also often video toward the end of lessons, especially for visiting lessons.

New choreographers need to know IJS, especially for footwork and spins. They also need to build relationships with coaches, while assuring them you aren't going to steal their students. As obtaining students is all coach based, building relationships with parents, skaters, and fellow coaches is really the most important thing a choreographer and secondary coach can do.

Since choreographers are a part of the “team” offer to help edit music or assist in a show. Shadow a private lesson in order to demonstrate your interest, capability, and professionalism. Respond to emails in a timely fashion, dress professionally at the rink, and always be prepared with the music. Map out the plan for the skater’s program (or counts for an ensemble piece). Maintaining your professionalism encourages the coaches to recommend you as their choreographer! Never forget that your own personal passion for movement and skating is often a wonderful way to market your capability as a choreographer.

Ideally you will be creating the space for a skater to discover her own muse. A choreographer's job is to reveal the skater's unique expressiveness of her own proficiencies, expanding the skater’s movement, style, and performance to her potential! It’s a really wonderful process! Don’t just project your movements upon them – open up their world and bring awareness to what their body’s innate movement already is; help them refine that movement as they develop and perform.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

- choreo on the job


For this post I ask choreographer Kate McSwain the questions every parent or aspiring skating star wants to know about how choreo actually works. Do check out though my entire category of choreo.

LA SkateDad: Do men choreographers do their work differently than women?

Kate McSwain: Choreographers are all unique -- there's more of a difference between individual choreographers than between men or women as a group. Each choreographer has their own process. The only thing I've noticed is some male choreographers are more careful and thoughtful when working with female skaters on suggestive positions or seductive movements.

LASD: Is it better for a male skater to use a male choreographer? Should female skaters stick with female choreographers?

KM: I think a skater should work with both male and female choreographers to get a breadth of variety and experience. The flip side is that choreographers have to be sensitive to the gender, feminine or masculine characteristics of the skater they're working with and that skaters’ intentions for their own program.

LASD: What's the difference between doing the choreo for a mens program versus a ladies?

KM: I think there are only subtle differences primarily in arm movements -- for example I avoid using extremely effeminate arm positions on male skaters or masculine arms on females. The patterns, skating tricks, and transitions are all the same regardless of the skater’s gender.

LASD: I've always said women should strive for expressing "grace" but men should strive for "class."

KM: Well I generally agree, but I think men can show polish, cleanliness, style, and character just as much as the ladies. Male skaters are like male dancers -- they need posture, clean lines, pointed toes and graceful transitions just as much as the females. Similarly, females can demonstrate power and strength as much as males. For a good example of character, style, and polish on a male skater take a look at Adam Rippon's skate I posted here.

LASD: Ah, I don't know, I didn't like his hands there: they seemed too effeminate. The arms were quite amazing though. Anyhow, what do you personally use for creative inspiration?

KM: I enjoy all kinds of artistic things: dance, ballet, yoga, museums, sculptures, live performances, and even nature are all inspirational! I think skaters should do all this and also spend time watching youtube videos of other current top-end skaters, ice dancers, and dance companies.

LASD: What about dance classes?

KM: Ballet is the number one class all skaters should begin with, and then they can move onto jazz, hip hop, and contemporary class. All skaters need exposure to dance in order to be more proficient “dancing” on the ice. Local dance studios provide classes everywhere -- skaters should also attend live performances!

LASD: Does choreo only happen within the transitions or is there room for it within the elements as well?

KM: Well yes, you can add expressiveness with arms in the spins and there is room for musicality in spins for sure! Jumps are a bit more difficult to add movement to,  however the arm-over-the-head position is widely used now for additional GOE.

LASD: How do you choreo a sit spin, for example?

KM: You can do leg position variants such as a broken leg, cannonball, tuck position, pancake, side layback, catch positions, and other creative spins. There are also some spine and arm options, arms over the head, etc. that satisfy IJS and can increase the skater’s GOE.

LASD: Arms, attitude, pattern, flow, what else? In other words if you were going to unravel the choreo practice into little constituent boxes, what would they be?

KM: I usually develop the choreo along this path: first comes the musical choice, expression, and abstract theme. Next comes the blocking, which is the pattern and where (and in what order) the required elements occur. Next we develop the transitions, skating steps and turns, pushes, and tricks connecting the elements. Then I work on the upper body and core movements, and the six spinal positions. Finally I add the facial expressions and emotions, those things that project the performance connections to the audience.

LASD: What was that bit about spinal positions?

KM: In my own choreo philosophy I teach the “6 ways the spine moves” which are contractions, upper back extensions, twists, and side bends. These positions can really help a skater move more fluidly, three-dimensionally, and overall create a more artistic look.

LASD: Are there things you would choreo for little skaters that you wouldn't dare for the senior level, and vice versa?

KM: Most definitely. The age, maturity, and skill level of the skater all play into what I might choreograph. Things that look cutesy for a seven-year-old don't carry over well to an older skater. Older skaters can express more mature concepts such as love, loss, pain, loneliness, etc. Mature concepts involving body, sexuality, or love can often be tricky for those pre-teen age groups. The choreographer really needs to be considerate of all the factors in the skater's training, maturity level, body awareness, and skill level when deciding on her music and theme.

LASD: Do you prefer to work with specific age groups?

KM: Since mature skaters have more options available in theme and maturity as well as expressiveness they are the most exciting to work with. However, at most rinks there may be only one older skater to every five younger skaters.

LASD: Do you have certain guidelines with respect to the blocking? Big jumps in front of the judges, always start at the center, stuff like that?

KM: I always like to portray the program more to the judges than the audience because the judges are the ones who make all the decisions!  Starting in the middle is very cliche, but I still use it frequently. The rink space and shape, the program’s intention (if it’s for a test, competition, or a show) are all things a choreographer should consider when creating a starting pose. Other factors a choreographer should take into account are: is there a curtain, could the skater start off the ice or on the boards, do they need to be in the center or could they be off to the side, what is the first jump pass and how does that play a role?

LASD: What about the jump sequencing (I did a whole blog post about that here)?

KM: I find that I have to be flexible with the coach and the skater for jump locations and respect how they want their jumps sequenced based upon the skater’s stamina, preferences, and speed.

LASD: How restrictive is the media of figure skating; also the opposite: what can you do on ice but nowhere else?

KM: Well the "glide" is certainly what distinguishes figure skating, and holding a position and "floating". The sharp blades though preclude some dance choreography: you can't have a skater stand on another skater’s back, hands, or legs without careful consideration and high skill level. The choreographer has to be very careful where that sharp edge is traveling. Also as you can only get up from the ice in certain ways, no handstands, etc.

LASD: What about the performance space itself?

KM: The size of a rink and the large pattern required to get full coverage on the blocking presents somewhat of a challenge: I think a smaller space is often easier for dance choreography -- on the ice it’s much more of a challenge to fill out the whole space.

LASD: Do you encourage your skaters to do more shows and exhibitions?

KM: It depends entirely upon how competitive they are and how they want to develop their own skating. Skaters may really enjoy shows and exhibitions and want to use those to practice performing and how to contend with their nerves. Some skaters may only want to focus on testing and skill progression so they may not have any interest in shows. Some may want to pursue professional shows in the future so they should be performing as much as possible. Still it’s not my place to recommend the skater do more shows without first discussing it with the main coach. 

LASD: What are your feelings about extemporaneous?

KM: Improv is a fantastic tool for choreography and growth. It’s extremely important for skaters to improvise and be more comfortable with their movement and bodies. It’s often personal and introspective and gives the skater room to develop her own style. IJS competitions can be a limiting environment that pressures a skater into “inside-the-box” movement insufficiently innovative or challenging for them. For younger skaters this is fine and fun, but as skaters mature they aren’t growing as much without doing improvisation on their own. With no audience or pressure and under their own inspiration, they can use expression and body finesse to take risks and develop their movement vocabulary.

LASD: How is duet and pair choreo different?

KM: Choreographing duets is quite similar to singles -- I can use a few more choreo tools such as mirroring, call and response, or lifts and holds. Pair and dance choreography is a niche of its own requiring special considerations about the rules. Also their technical requirements have different patterns, setup steps, and timing than single skaters. Ice dance choreography has lots of intricacy; it is a bit easier to choreograph for a pair or dance team when you have already skated in that field.

LASD: What about theatre on ice or choreo ensembles?

KM: Ensemble events are more about the blocking and keeping everyone in unison, coordinating their patterns, steps, and placements so they look tight, clean, and unified. Synchro has very different aesthetics and different rules than Theatre on Ice, but both need unison. Counting is a helpful tool for ensemble choreography so everyone stays together and moves at the same time. When working with a group of people it’s very important to plan the choreography in advance to prepare for the blocking and movement of so many skaters.

LASD: Well that's enough questions for today Kate. Again thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions for our readers.