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Synchronicity: Teams work to maintain unison

Skaters discuss techniques they employ to stay together during tricky maneuvers

Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker are incorporating more ice dancing movements into their skating to improve their step sequences.
Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker are incorporating more ice dancing movements into their skating to improve their step sequences. (Tom Briglia)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(06/15/2012) - Two ice dancers skim down the ice side by side, turning at blinding speed in perfectly unified twizzles.

Two pairs skaters spin in unison, matching each other rotation for rotation.

How do they do it?

It's tricky, as evidenced by the relative rarity of perfect side-by-side unison. Keeping together in twizzles, spins and step sequences takes lots of practice and a surprising variety of techniques.

"A lot of the training is just repetition," former British ice dancer John Kerr said. "If you look at the best twizzlers, look at how long they've been skating together. If you do it the right way enough times, your brain is sending the right signals to your body."

"It's not easy," two-time U.S. pairs champion Rockne Brubaker agreed. "It takes a lot of practice. Usually there's one person spotting. In my team, I'm in charge of keeping the spin on."

Keeping side-by-side pairs spins together takes a special set of skills; if spins get out of sync, the skaters need to know who is ahead or behind, whose job it is to slow down or speed up, and how to do it.

"Mary Beth [Marley]'s job is maintaining a constant speed," Brubaker said. "We go between medium and fast. If there needs to be an adjustment, the spin still maintains a good speed. If you go top speed in every position, there's no way to adjust because I can't go any faster. There are times where, instead of calling the change, I'll say little cues, like 'Snap,' which means she needs to pick up her speed a little on the change.

"Mary Beth has a hard job, because she has to maintain the good speed and be aware of how hard she's pushing into the variations."

Britney Simpson and Matthew Blackmer have a slightly different method of keeping side-by-side spins together.

"I spot Matt while he's spotting me," Simpson said. "Every time we complete one rotation, we check to see if we match our partner. Once we see that, we know whether to speed up or slow down. If we're off, then usually only one of us makes the correction. I'm usually the one to make the correction, but because we can both see each other, we both make slight changes to get back on.

"It just takes practice."

Pairs skater Timothy LeDuc uses his ears instead of his eyes to check his position relative to his partner.

"In side-by-side spins, usually when my partner and I were off, I would try to slow my rotation down and then speed up again," he said. "In my partnerships, I've always been the one to adjust my speed to the girl. If the spin gets off, I will adjust my speed to try and sync up.

"You can't always see your partner, but you can listen to the sound of their blade when they're rotating."

There are several ways for a skater to slow down or speed up in a spin to match his or her partner. As the laws of physics dictate, if you open up your body position in a spin, you slow down; when you pull in, you speed up. However, it's easier to adjust a more closed position, like a sit spin. In a fully stretched-out position like a camel spin, the skater can alter his or her blade position to slow a spin. Rather than spinning on the spot right under the ball of the foot, the skater can rock slightly back to the wider part of the blade, which will slow the spin.

"In a camel, if I need to slow down, I'll turn my blade little bit to catch an edge and make a little friction," Brubaker said.

"It depends on the position," Simpson said. "If we're in a sit position, we just squeeze our whole body together, we squeeze our leg closer and pull our arms to speed up. If we're too fast, we open up and relax the tension to slow down.

"It's easier [to speed up] in a sit spin because you have more things to pull in," LeDuc said. "In a camel spin, if I'm trying to speed up a little bit, I will pull my arms in; or in a donut, if you pull your body in tighter, you will speed up. Or if I need to slow down, I will open up.

"Whatever position you're in, you try to make yourself more compact."

Steps and twizzles

Keeping step sequences and twizzles together requires some different techniques. Canadian ice dancer Paul Poirier notes that ice dancers skate holding onto each other most of the time, which makes syncing up in side-by-side work easier.

"The one thing people might overlook is the rest of the time you're skating in hold. Through skating in hold all the time, you get the same timing, the same rhythm. You develop the same," Poirier said. "It does take some effort. For the footwork, it comes with a step-by-step process, going through every part, making sure everything matches."

LeDuc agrees that extensive practice is the key to synchronization, and as in the spins, he listens to know where his partner is. Skaters are often turning too quickly during step sequences and twizzles to be able to watch each other.

"I always found that there's no substitute for mileage when you're learning to sync up with your partner," LeDuc said. "For me, it's the sounds. You're not always able to look at your partner, so you have to be able to hear them. Over time, you learn how their blades sound."

Sinead Kerr says that she was able to watch her partner (and brother) John during step sequences but not during twizzles, which the highest-level skaters perform at blinding speed.

"For twizzles, we never spotted each other," she said. "Step sequences, we made it a rule that you're always keeping an eye out for your partner. With our partnership, the guy is the leader, so we had the rule where I would try to match him.

"Usually you can spot; you have to keep some kind of awareness of what your partner is doing. If they've gone a little bit wrong, you try and slow down or speed up."

Music, of course, is the key for syncing up footwork, as Brubaker noted.

"If there's a part of the music where you're not looking at each other, you may need to use cues in the music," Brubaker said.

"A lot of it's muscle memory, but you have each other in your peripheral vision, so if someone makes a slight mistake, you can see," John Kerr said. "Although if someone falls flat on their face, you don't match them! You start doing it really slow, and then speed it up and add musical nuances.

"It's like anything: If there's something interesting in the music, you want the audience to be aware of it."

Marley and Brubaker have been taking tips from ice dancing to improve their step sequences.

"Incorporating knee bend into all your movements is a big part of ice dancing," Brubaker said. "We're working with Renée Roca this year, and that's something she's been focusing on. If you bend before you push, your partner will realize you're bending and you'll be together. Bend, bend, bend every time, and that really helps."

Poirier's description of how he stays in sync with partner Piper Gilles on twizzle sequences sounds similar to what pairs do in side-by-side spins.

"With the twizzles, the best thing we can do is spot our partner," he said. "You can tell if your partner is getting a little ahead or behind. You learn how to speed up or slow down your twizzle to stay in sync. It's momentum; you can pull in tighter, and that will speed up your twizzle."

Every morning, Gilles and Poirier have to perform 10 sets of twizzles, one after the other, and they cannot move on to the next part of their training until they've completed all 10 perfectly.

"It's all about timing and being aware of your partner," Gilles said. "If you push a little harder and you can snap a little faster, you can align with them.

"So it's all about watching your partner. It's all about the repetitions."