Ice Network

Dance-infused pairs programs becoming the norm

Savchenko, Massot's quickstep short just one of many innovative routines
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Thanks to John Kerr's choreography, Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot's "That Man" short feels more like a show program than a competitive routine. -Getty Images

Wander into a practice here at Gangneung Ice Arena and there's a chance you'll hear the whimsical, slightly suggestive "That Man," Dutch singer Caro Emerald's 2010 song that's become a standard on quickstep ballroom playlists.

Ooh that man is like a flame

And ooh that man plays me like a game

My only sin is I can't win

Ooh I wanna love that man

Two skaters skip around in close hold, doing Charleston-style show moves, partying like its 1929. Then a throw triple flip punctures your reverie. Those aren't ice dancers -- they're Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, the German pair considered one of the favorites for gold here.

"It's not an easy program, but we love to skate like this," Savchenko said. "It's like dance, it's a party, and something like the show number, but we do it in the competition. It makes it more fun."

"We enjoy this program more than others," Massot said. "It looks like a show number, and that means the elements are a little bit easier to do, because we are having fun and a smile, even if it's difficult physically with a lot of tricks."

The Germans' quickstep short is the brainchild of John Kerr, the Scotsman who won two European ice dance bronze medals with his sister, Sinead. He designed it with them in the summer of 2016, bringing in a ballroom dancer friend for one day to observe and add input.

"I went with what I like to do, and they just went with it," Kerr said. "They have such amazing ability, they weren't putting any restrictions on it. That was the major thing. So often when you work with pairs, they can be very fussy -- 'Oh, well, we need this buildup to this element, we can't do this step' -- but they were very open to trying something that wasn't a run-of-the-mill pairs program."

It helps, of course, that Savchenko -- winner of five world titles with Robin Szolkowy -- is one of the greatest pairs ladies of all time, so good she quickly brought the talented Massot up to her level after teaming with him in 2014. In fact, according to Kerr, it is Massot who makes the program work.

"I wasn't surprised with Aliona, but I was surprised with him; for such a big guy, he is quite light on his feet," Kerr said. "When we started doing some things, he actually looked pretty good straight off the bat."

"That Man" is only the first dance-infused short program Kerr created for the Germans. He also worked up a fiery flamenco for the team, which they used earlier this season. At Skate America, though, the three decided "That Man" was too terrific not to have an Olympic moment.

"The flamenco this year was good but possibly not as good," Kerr said. "I watched the team pair short, and I think [returning to the quickstep] was the right decision. Bruno is selling it even more than last season. The comfort level is greater."

The Germans aren't the only top pair incorporating dance moves into their competitive programs. China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han pepper their programs, choreographed by Lori Nichol, with highlights often seen from ice dancers. Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov use jitterbug lifts as highlights in their free skate to Christina Aguilera's "Candyman."

"Maybe it will go back to the athletic style of pairs, but right now, there is a trend for top pairs to create a more dance or more of an artistic piece than maybe they have done in the past," said Kerr, who stresses the trend isn't suitable for every pair.

"A lot of the tricks come after the choreography or transitions, and some pairs will need that time to prepare," he said. "Sometimes pair teams, you give it to them and they take it out because it's just too tricky and they can't perform the element to the best of their ability."

When Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim -- who won an Olympic team bronze medal Monday -- perform their free skate to selections from Ghost the Musical, dance moves help them show their romantic spark.

"It keeps the team connected, and it's a place where we can be expressive and unique," said Dalilah Sappenfield, who trains the pair in Colorado Springs.

Jim Peterson, coach of U.S. silver medalists and Olympic alternates Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, uses ice dance moves to help add features (and points) to his pairs' elements.

"Dance has become hugely influential in pair skating, and you can see this in most of the top teams today," Peterson said. "Personally, I've found applying the creative entrances and exits dancers use in their lifting to actual pair lifts is a great way to dress up a lift and make it unique while also adding features to the element."

"Ice dancers' approach to footwork and spinning also provides a lot of inspiration for out-of-the-box positions that can really set a program apart," he added.

Kerr hopes more pairs push themselves to try new steps, highlight moves and musical styles instead of playing it safe with old warhorses like Carmen. Again, he gives credit to Savchenko for leading the way.

"I remember way back, when Aliona was still skating with Robin, I would see her and (former coach) Ingo Steuer at ice dance practices," Kerr said. "It was my assumption they were looking for inspiration, seeing what the latest style was.

"My thought is, you might as well try new styles. I'm lucky Aliona and Bruno were game for the challenge."