Ice Network

Emotion proves key to success of pairs teams

Coaches stress importance of a duo connecting on ice during competition
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Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov took advantage of their emotional connection in winning the European pairs title in Stockholm. -Getty Images

"Emotion comes as a combination of music and choreography," Robin Szolkowy explained. "It will depend on how the pairs team is able to show its own emotion, and what kind of style they skate.

"Sometimes, as a coach, I'll be willing to have them express more emotion. The way I work for that is by using the video. The goal is always to try different ways to get to the people, and have them come through their minds. Some skaters will be feeling kind of strange showing their emotions; some others won't know how to do it.

"I try to work with images. Like, just imagine this is a great car or a beautiful girl, or a cup coffee -- something you really like. That usually allows skaters to get the feel for a wider range of emotions.

"Russian skaters are just like other people," Szolkowy concluded. "Some will skate as clean and cold as icebergs. Some others will just be the opposite: warm and extraverted. Then it will depend on the coach. If their coach feels there should be more emotion, then it will be possible. If the coach only watches for throw jumps, then there will be no enhanced emotions. The pair skaters will then be disappointed when they see their second mark: They skated clean, yet their second mark will remain low. It belongs to the coach to decide what is enough, and what should be improved."

Fabian Bourzat has been helping France's Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès improve their transitions and style as a pair. He also recalled the way he and his partner, Nathalie Pechalat, managed to increase the emotion they wanted to generate on the ice.

"Emotion makes a whole difference in a program," Bourzat said. "Technique is one thing, but any pair program should also be performed. If you only have the jumps, if your program is not well-packaged to bring emotions, then it will look empty.

"Emotion will be brought, among others, via the relationship between the two partners. Everybody has emotions within oneself. The coach's job is to make each skater's emotions come to life and show. That's where the connection between the two partners is so important. You will create the emotion via the way one has to look at the other. Or by the way you exit from crossovers, or by the way one partner goes to grab the other partner's hand. That creates -- or doesn't create -- the right osmosis within the couple. It's up to the skaters to work on that aspect if their coach does not force them to do so," Bourzat concluded.

Gauthier agreed with that sentiment.

"Landing the technical elements is one major element. But what we really strive for is to create an emotion on the ice, and make sure that the pair looks like a real pair. To me, a great pairs program is the following: If you were to take all the technical elements away from it, it should still be pleasant to watch. That's actually what judges are looking for. I have participated in many seminars with them, and they keep explaining this: 'Please, show us a real couple, not two excellent skaters doing some elements together.'"

Gauthier also emphasized the music's role.

"Choosing the music is very important, as it should create emotion right away. Just by listening to it, it gives you goose bumps. It also needs to be a music that the pair is able to interpret.

"But in the end, you want to create that chemistry between the two partners, so that their spectators buy it," he added. "You need to create a performance. When you go to listen to a singer, you would be bored if he or she were standing still. Any performance needs to be a visual experience as well. I must say that having the lyrics now enhanced our possibilities. The song Meagan [Duhamel] and Eric [Radford] are skating to in their short program seems to have been made specifically for their skate."

"You have to work on small details. Just by the way he grabs her hand, or the way they look at one another. If they do it a certain way, you get a feel between the two of them. Of course, when the two partners really love each other off the ice, it's easier to find a story that will match them. Otherwise, there will have to be some acting. Still, it's much easier to express an emotion with a pair, than it is with individuals. In singles skating, it takes a champion like Javier Fernández to portray Charlie Chaplin in just 15 seconds. In pairs, just a look is enough to portray a couple.

"In Montreal, we have one lady who teaches theater to the skaters. I also asked Julie Marcotte, who comes to help the saketrs once a week, to introduce some dance lifts into the transitions. Things have changed this year, unfortunately, because the new rules have taken these lifts, which can be quite spectacular, away from pairs skating. We just are entitled to one in each program now. Then, Sylvie Fullum, who coached Patrice [Lauzon] until the 2002 Games, is coming three times a week for a specific work: She has to make sure that the skaters' tracks are close to one another throughout their program. Skating close to one another is really important, as it enhances two major components: choreography and skating skills, as it is difficult to jump when you are close. So her job is to make sure that the two skaters in a pair always have the same distance between them. The boy should not need to watch for the girl. She should be there, close to his hand, at any time.

"Once a pair has mastered the technical elements, then you can start working on these smaller details that will make for perfection. For instance, where to watch when you land a jump? Which transitions do you do? Some skaters, especially in the United States, have that drive for the show. They do that so naturally. They know how to communicate with the audience.

"When you don't have that natural talent, you need to build it. We also try to have a direct look with the judges, as well as with the audience. If/when I finish a movement, you find me watching you, it's like, 'Whoa, he/she is skating for me!' So, you need to learn to catch judges' attention, and then the audience's attention. When there are two levels in a rink, like it is the case here in Stockholm, then you need to also grab the attention of the audience in the upper section. You have to keep doing this at the end of the program, with the whole crowd. You get an incredible energy from them, and your performance component will reflect this. A simple connection between the male and the female partner on the ice, without these special connections with the audience, will never make the same impression.

"When you see Meagan's and Eric's programs, you'll notice that they have understood it all now. It's been four years that they are skating together, and they know what to do for really performing on the ice. When they take one another's hand, they are just making one person. You need at least three-to-four years to reach that level. Jamie Salé and David Pelletier (who skated to gold in the 2002 Olympics) came to me as excellent skaters already. But it also took three years for them to reach that level of perfection," Gauthier concluded.

The 2015 European champions, Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, displayed an incredible emotion on the Stockholm ice to win the title. They exemplified what those three coaches had just said.

"Everyone, even you, has all these emotion within oneself," Yuko Kavaguti said after the duo's winning performance. "That's why I like our music so much this year: I don't need to put any emotions out, because it is already there. They come out naturally. With other pieces of music, I tend to hide those kinds of emotions. Not with this one."

In Stockholm it did make a difference in the standings, and a difference as a whole on the success of pairs skating on the global stage.