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Abbott gets into the swing of things

Two-time U.S. champion getting dance lessons

Jeremy Abbott will incorporate swing dancing into his short program this season.
Jeremy Abbott will incorporate swing dancing into his short program this season. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(07/06/2011) - Jeremy Abbott will be trying something new next season. The 2009 and 2010 U.S. champion recently spent ten days in Los Angeles working on a short program set to swing music with champion swing dancer Buddy Schwimmer and his son, So You Think You Can Dance winner Benji Schwimmer.

"Yuka [Sato, Abbott's coach] was asking what direction I wanted to take for next season, and I said I wanted to do swing," Abbott said by telephone. "I always try to think of things that I haven't done before, and I wanted to do something really upbeat that I could have fun with. Swing was the first thing that came to mind."

Last season, Abbott worked with flamenco dancer Antonio Najarro, who choreographed his short program. He told Sato he wanted to work with a dancer again, and Sato asked Kristi Yamaguchi, who won the sixth season of Dancing With the Stars, for advice. She suggested they talk to Lacey Schwimmer, whose father Buddy is known as the "King of Swing."

"I went out to California, and Buddy said, 'Benji has a ton of music.' That morning I realized that Benji was the So You Think You Can Dance champion. I'm not gonna lie, I was a little bit star-struck. I watched parts of that season. My mom got really into that season, and she loved Benji, she talked about him all the time. So he hopped on board with the choreography. It was a great collaboration, and I felt really comfortable with them. It was a great experience getting to work with people who are so well-liked and respected in their field."

Abbott will skate to a medley of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" and "Sing, Sing, Sing."

"I got taught the technique and the count and the rhythm," he said. "It was more a swing choreographer doing their interpretation of skating. It should have a very different look and effect."

Translating swing, which is a dance for couples, to a single skater on the ice was a challenge for both choreographers and skater.

"[Schwimmer] was like, 'I want to make it really showy and big.' So he used a lot of lindy hop and jitterbug. It has bigger movements so people in row X in the upper bowl could see what I was doing. He gave me a bunch of step sequences and then we went on the ice and figured out how it would work. I was having so much trouble! My brain was just exploding trying to get the timing and the steps and the character."

To try and understand what Abbott was going through, Benji Schwimmer put on skates and got on the ice for the first time in fifteen years.

"He hadn't skated since he was 12, but even so he was still doing my choreography better than I was. That movement is so ingrained in him," Abbott said.

"It was definitely a new experience -- I fell pretty hard a couple of times. I retired from skating three days later," said Schwimmer, laughing.

"With swing, it's very individual -- the guy is that bluesy, cartoonesque bluesman, who's almost too cool for school," he went on. "So our idea is capturing a man at a swing dance, hanging over a barstool, watching the vibe happening. If I were to compare Jeremy's skating to a dancer, it would be Nureyev. I wanted to take him out of that box, not to destroy what he has, just to play a completely different character than himself. It's one part swing, one part Jeremy, one part absolute fun."

Abbott spent considerable time finding the music he wanted for his new long program. After considering pieces by Debussy and Jeff Beck, he listened to some pieces by Muse.

"I remembered that a long time ago John Coughlin had given me 'Butterflies and Hurricanes,' and wanted me to skate to it," he said. "So I wondered if Muse had anything instrumental, and I listened to Exogenesis Symphony. The third piece [Part 3: Redemption], I was like, 'Oh, this is perfect.' The music is still a work in progress but the program is almost finished, it's almost what I want. It's going to change and evolve throughout the summer."

Abbott and Sato are choreographing the program together. They have arranged to have the vocal section of the piece replaced by an electric guitar version. "It's only about a minute," Abbott said.

"It's nice because both of us can make changes as we go," he said. "I wanted to do a program with Yuka because we work really well together. I told her I wanted a program where I could breathe, and get into the ice, something calm, that can move and that's just ice skating. There's no story or theme, we just choreographed to the music, we just did what the music says. It's very airy and calm, it builds beautifully in the beginning and then it comes back down in the end. When I listen to it, I get chills, kind of, and I can see the program and feel the music."

Although Abbott hasn't yet done a lot of choreography, he has extensive dance training. He says he loves to dance and that he's looking for dance classes in his training area of Detroit. He took a contemporary jazz class with Schwimmer in California.

"I don't know any technique, so I was just throwing myself around, but I had so much fun moving like that and expressing the music. It's so nice to be able to do this on the floor without rules and without limits. I've have moments on the ice that were transcending, where I was a little outside myself, but it was usually technical. Every time I let go, it just becomes a mess because I lose balance and focus and timing. I have to focus so much, and count everything. I've never had this amazing performance where I gave everything of my soul. The dancers put their heart and soul out there on the floor. To dance so well that it brings you to tears, that's incredible, I've never had a skate like that."

Abbott says he has solved the boot problems that plagued him last season, costing him valuable training time. He says he has had to rework his technique somewhat; his problems last season created some bad habits he has had to break, but that his skating is going well again.

"Jason [Dungjen] and I had a conference call with Reidell, and we told them what the issues had been," he said. "When I took these boots out of the box I could tell that they were better. I'm skating comfortably, and I'm happy with the pair that I'm in. I'll have to get another pair before the season starts. We're being much more proactive this time, and I already have the second pair."

Abbott is looking forward to competing at the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia in the fall.

"I'm excited to go to China because it was the first Grand Prix I won, and I'm looking forward to Shanghai because I've heard great things about the city. And the fans are great in Russia and I know the arena there. It's the same two competitions I did when I won the final [in 2008]. The men's field is so ridiculously deep right now, it doesn't matter where you compete, none of them are easy. I'm just happy that I'm going."