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.

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.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

- working the choreo

In a previous post I mentioned how to get your skater started with a choreographer.  Now here's what to expect so you can chat about it with your kid. Again my caveat here: this is not from my personal encounters, but rather what Kate McSwain ( told me. If you've had different experiences, disagree, or have something to add or reinforce, please feel free to chirp up in the comments.

Your kid's relationship to her choreographer is completely different than that with her coach. During your skater's daily coaching sessions she picks up what she has been working on, runs through a program or two a couple of times, and maybe tries a new element. She practices those elements giving her difficulties. Your skater has a long-term relationship with her coach like another parent or like a grown-up big sister. They've already established a communications style and comfort level and what they expect from each other.

The choreographer (to continue the analogy) is more like your kid having a relationship with a middle-school teacher or with her fun aunt. The relationship is "testing:" it is give and take with some misunderstandings and flexible interpretations. Your choreographer will push your kid quite a bit more than her coach: your skater will explore the limits of her skills, refocus her awareness, and push the envelope beyond her comfort level. The choreographer may physically touch your child much more to work on different positions, expressions, and postures. The teachings are meant to be disruptive in a mind-expanding way.

Choreographers generally carry around a book of diagrams that map out a pattern of ice coverage incorporating the necessary elements for each level. In addition your choreographer works to blend the theme of your kid's music with her costume, her elements, and her transitions. Although not a dress designer, she may help your skater sketch out some rough ideas for an appropriate costume.

Introducing a third party to your child's programs may complicate musical choices. What the coach likes may not be what the choreographer likes. Kate mentioned this great idea -- the choreographer can select two or three songs for a particular program and then have your kid skate a rough runthrough of each to see how her body reacts to the patterns of the music, and then select what works best. Usually your skater's coach not only has input but likely has the final say on this.

Also be aware that when your choreographer designs your child's program, in her mind she foresees how your kid will skate this a few months from now, after she's become more practiced and run through it a couple dozen times. A good choreographer can project your skater's skills into what she can eventually accomplish this season. This also means you shouldn't prematurely be judgmental if the initial choreography looks clunky and unfinished; your choreographer knows what she is doing and your kid should be able to grow into it.