Ice Network

Coaches awed by unstoppable ice dance evolution

Surgical precision required for skaters to keep up with advancements
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Igor Shpilband has been watching the sport change right before his eyes. -Getty Images

The ice dance category is quite open in Budapest. None of the contestants has ever won a major championship. The two top-ranked teams are just 0.04 points apart before Thursday night's free dance. Icenetwork asked a few of the ice dance master-coaches present in Budapest their views about the evolution of ice dance and the way to differentiate the best teams.

Igor Shpilband, Barbara Fusar-Poli, Evgeni Platov and Olivier Schoenfelder (who is now coaching in Lyon alongside Muriel Zazoui and Romain Haguenauer in Lyon) agreed to answer a few questions. Their answers show how ice dance is becoming a more and more analytical and high-tech sport, and how they prepare their teams within such an evolution.

Taking risks has to be rewarded

"Ice dance has kept gaining in speed these last years," said Schoenfelder, the 2008 world gold medalist with Isabelle Delobel. "It may have lost a bit in originality at the same time. Teams are different from one another, but the difference between the best teams and the others has been reduced, at least on the technical side. Technically, the sport has been leveled toward the top."

Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, the Russian team, are clearly one of Schoenfelder's favorites to win.

"They have speed, quality, interpretation," Schoenfelder said. "They have performed in shows, too, and that has taught them to think less of technique and more of being beautiful and spectacular on the ice. They have also caught back on their lifts, which were a bit behind. They have acquired a new strength, altogether."

"They may still miss some of the experience the North Americans have acquired," he added. "They remain fallible, and one can notice it here and there. They really throw themselves into their skate, and the slightest problem may create a catastrophe.

"On the other hand, the Italians do not show their technical difficulty," he continued. "To the contrary, they want everything in their skating to be smooth and fluid. They may take less risks, but if those two teams were to fall, the Italians' dance would not be as marred as the Russians'.

"As an ice dancer you do have to throw yourself out and commit physically to what you are doing. Such commitment needs to be visible so that your dance gains in amplitude."

"The best, of course, is to take those risks but hold on to your elements, something the North Americans have mastered," he concluded. "This may be why they are currently first in the world."

"We can take more risks than we used to," Fusar-Poli offered. "Even if we don't have the technical level. This is a good way to enhance your technical level, actually! Of course, taking risk is very important -- on skates, like in your life. You have to risk in order to create interesting teams that will make you noticed."

Shpilband did confirm that point.

"Risk-taking should be rewarded, at least in skating skills," he said. "The sharpness and speed of an element should reflect in the GOE (grade of execution), too."

Acrobats and helmets to create new lifts

"Ice dance has become much more of a sport than it used to be," Shpilband said. "It requires a great physical ability and has become a mix of acrobatic and artistic expression. That's where ice dance is going. You don't have just a simple lift to do but a really elaborate element."

Rather ironically, lifts used to be the exclusive monopoly of pairs skating, and many ice dancers were penalized in the past for trying a simple one. Things have changed tremendously since lifts became compulsory elements, and ice dancers are now presenting more and more original, intricate and demanding lifts.

The lifts created by Shpilband's pupils have reached universal fame. They have become a specific part of training.

"Ice dance is acrobatically demanding," Shpilband said. "Skaters need to have some knowledge about how to do a lift safely. That's where I had to ask a specialist to help them. Safety is my first and top priority.

"As you noticed, the difficulty of lifts is increasing year after year. Skaters, hence, need the technique and excellent skating basics, of course, in order to execute their lifts correctly and push their level upward."

"We work with acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil," Fusar-Poli explained. (Fusar-Poli has been working in Shpilband's team for the last two seasons.) "They are the best acrobats in the world, really. The first idea of a lift comes with them, and they teach the teams the entrance and landing. They work on it off ice first, then on the ice. They are so acrobatic sometimes that skaters need to wear a helmet, at least at the beginning, to protect their first trials."

Then the goal is to improve the way the team performs that lift.

"We have a lot of freedom in our lifts, nowadays, because we have all learned what the levels meant," Fusar-Poli said. "But, we need to stay within the rules, so the more complex a lift is, the more work it requires to make it fit in six seconds (or 12 for a combo). Teams need to work hard to go from 12.5 seconds to 12 seconds and less on an intricate lift!"

Platov confirmed that point.

"Lifts require that skaters are much stronger than they used to be," Platov said. "All the guys have to exercise a lot, just like for the pairs. Lifts are crazy. We work with acrobats. We are using their ideas and we bring them ours in order to create something crazy with them. Lifts not only need to be Level 4, but they also need to bring something new.

"In the old days, no team would have stolen someone else's element," he continued. "Nowadays, when someone is coming up with something new, it is copied right away. We need extreme lifts to put them above, and yet stay within the rules. It's important to be above, so that people can say, 'Oh yeah, that's cool! We'll remember that!'"

"It's always better, but it's never enough": Basic skills will always provide the foundations

"If you want to succeed in ice dance, you need perfect ballet training to skate with clear lines to make people say: 'Ha! This is beautiful!'" Platov said. "And to be on the top, you need to have great basic skills. Many skaters are powerful but not as clean as they could be.

"Yesterday, after the short dance, I was so excited after my pupils' small medal (Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland ended third after the short dance) that I took a YouTube journey through some of the great performances of skating history," Platov continued. "It is amazing to see that not so many skaters look as clean as many of the older ones were some 10 to 15 years ago. People do crazy things now! We would never have thought of doing such crazy tricks as they do, but we would skate cleaner, with longer edges."

"To me, the basic level of skating is a real foundation to any dance program," Shpilband confirmed. "Each skater needs to feel the ice and have a good connection with it through his or her blades. Once you have that, you can do anything on the ice."

Shpilband holds his secret firmly, though. What makes his pupils fly on the ice remains a trademark of his school.

"Just like most coaches, I have my own concept to work on edges and skating," he said. "They are certainly different from others. Each time a new team comes to me, they will learn something on mastering their edges -- at least, teams who come to me for the long run. It's just like for a building: The taller you want it to be, the stronger the foundations will have to be.

"There is another thing," Shpilband added. "When I am working on a program, I try to emphasize the edges through the very structure of the program and its choreography. I am here to emphasize skaters' strength and reduce their weaknesses, not to change them.

"I have been a member of Tatiana Tarasova and Jayne Torvill-Christopher Dean's company, the Russian All Stars, many years ago. Also, I completed a three-year study in Moscow Theatre University. The place of a team on the ice and the position it has for each element will contribute to theatricality and artistry. This is important to me."

"The secret may be that Igor is never satisfied," Fusar-Poli suggested. "It's always better but never enough. You're never done in this sport. It can always be lighter, faster, skated with deeper edges, as in any performing art."

High-tech criteria to differentiate performances, even if styles can't be compared

"The Russians and the Italians' battle is very interesting," Schoenfelder emphasized, "As each one team remains in its own culture: Russians play drama, and Italians play comedy."

"Of course, ice dance remains a subjective sport," Fusar-Poli said. "Judges are human, and they will decide who they prefer. Still, each team has its own style and you should not try to change it. As a coach, you will try to push that style and make it stronger, lighter and with deeper edges, more musicality, more perfect."

"Judging different styles has always been the story of ice dancing," Shpilband added. "Rules are more objective nowadays, however, and the goal is to skate all elements clean the day of the performance."

"Ice dance used to be very subjective," Platov admitted. "Now, we have criteria, and they help us. It's a little easier to distinguish who is performing better, skating cleaner, etc., whatever style they have. Those criteria require technology to be measured.

"The pattern dance, for instance (this year the Finnstep, within the short dance), is worth 14 points! These points need to be assessed very carefully. Some teams are going off the ice with the feeling that they skated great, and I agree with them. Then when I see that they get a Level 1 for their pattern, we drop dead on the floor because we don't understand why. The thing is that you need to hit every edge! And you cannot see that with naked eye. You need the replay and slow motion.

"Actually, my pupils consider slow motion as a punishment!" Platov said, laughing. "But the naked eye is not enough anymore because ice dance has become so technical and challenging. Every day during practice, you need to work with replay and slow motion to check that you hit the right edge on each key point. Without replay, there is no point in doing run-throughs! Because the slightest change of edge can cost you a medal. You need to train more and more to be precise."

Are these changes for the better?

"Dance has changed dramatically in the last 20 years," Shpilband concluded, "But you can see the results: at U.S. nationals, ice dance was one of the most popular events, with more than 10,000 people coming to watch. Ice dance has an entertaining and athletic value and encourages lots of kids to gain more interest in the sport."