Ice dancing or speed skating?

Barbara Fusar Poli and Martin Skotnický timing the lifts of Tanja Kolbe and Stefano Caruso, at the 2014 Europeans in Budapest

Barbara Fusar Poli and Martin Skotnický timing the lifts of Tanja Kolbe and Stefano Caruso, at the 2014 Europeans in Budapest

Taking this picture, a month ago, at the Europeans in Budapest, I might have laughed a little. “Well, this is funny” – I said to myself while watching the focused faces of Barbara Fusar Poli and Martin Skotnický timing some of their students during a performance, each of them with a chronometer, moving and mumbling all along the routine. Looking at Fabian Bourzat’ face last night, all sad and disappointed, while studying the scores he and Nathalie Péchalat received for their Olympic free dance (including a one point deduction for an extended lift), I suddenly remembered the snapshot from the Europeans. It hit me – and I finally understood: I actually should have cried then, taking the picture of Barbara and Mr. Skotnický. Because this particular scene – two figure skating coaches with their timers – is illustrative of what ice dancing has become in recent years: speed, not artistry; constraints, not innovations.

by Florentina Tone

What’s wrong with the picture, you ask me? Pretty much everything. Here’s some help in figuring it out: you’re not watching two speed skating coaches, timing their students; you’re actually watching two top ice dance coaches, Barbara Fusar Poli and Martin Skotnický, timing the lifts of the ice dancers they train. Because in today’s ice dancing a short lift can’t last more than 6 seconds; and a combination lift, more than 12. And when the unexpected happens and your lift is longer than 6/12 seconds, bam!, you’re the lucky winner of a deduction. So was Fabian Bourzat last night, with his head buried in a towel, so were Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi, so were Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, so were many others during the season.

I’d like to be in Mr. Skotnický’s head for an hour or two; he surely misses the freedom he had as a coach, while creating the marvelous routines of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, in the 80ties and the 90ties, the innovative programs of Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko or those of Kati Winkler and René Lohse. And I’d like to know what Barbara Fusar Poli thinks about the technical constraints of the ice dancing today, 12 years after she won the Olympic bronze in Salt Lake City, exactly in the same event, alongside Maurizio Margaglio…

Twizzles, lifts, levels
I’m not saying to get rid of this or that element; there must be some indicators to rely on when awarding the scores in a figure skating event which has been a topic for controversy for years, given its subjectivity. No, I’m not saying to go back to the old 6.0 system either – but to me, at this point, ice dancing is almost a mathematical discipline, giving so little room for creativity. Now it’s all about twizzles (which must be executed, of course, in perfect unison), about speed and rotational lifts, about perfect timing and getting the levels (4, not 3, because 3 is a disaster for a top team).

The everyday practice session must resemble a math class – with a hypercritical coach (with a timer), adding this element to the program, dropping the other one, studying scoring sheets and looking for (mathematical) solutions – in order to get more points, as many as possible, for his skaters.

The timer needs to go
Well, call me old-fashioned, naive or whatever, but I have a different image in my mind when it comes to ice dancing. To me, this particular figure skating discipline must be, more than any other, about freedom and creativity, about fluidity and artistry. In my mind, ice dancing should touch your heart and resemble art; but I haven’t seen a ballerina being timed during a lift or getting a boo! from the audience (similar to a one point deduction) for staying in her partner’s arms more than 6 seconds.

So, in my view, the timer needs to go from the ice dancing event; after all, it should be the skater/coach/choreographer’s decision if she/he wants to show a longer innovative lift during the program. To me, the way it is, the scoring system in ice dancing is actually compelling and full of constraints: when you have so many compulsory elements to add in your program, how on earth can you be innovative? And if you actually try to do something else, something different, you might end up being awarded a one point deduction for exceeding the time limit for your (innovative) element; so why doing it in the first place?

“Being innovative is hard with the system”
Are the skaters and coaches aware of this paradoxical situation, with the system not really encouraging innovations in ice dancing? Well, actually some of them are – and, at the same time, they are constantly trying to fight the constraints, in order to create memorable performances. In an interview for Inside Skating, the Spanish ice dancer Sara Hurtado was brutally honest: “Being innovative is hard with the system, but, at the same time, if we don’t take the risk, nothing will change and everybody will do the same things. You have to be very careful with the rules, but it’s not impossible. We accept the challenges and we think that’s how we push our sport to evolve, to grow. From the beginning, Adri [a diminutive for Adrià Diaz, her partner] and I have been very curious and we didn’t want to do the same thing twice. We believe in bringing new stuff to this sport”.

But bringing new stuff to ice dancing is more like an impossible mission; and actually the hardest part for me to accept is that this kind of ice dancing – resembling acrobatic gymnastics nowadays – tries to push every couple, no matter how talented and innovative, under the same umbrella of constraints. With everyone doing pretty much the same things the skaters’ opportunities to shine and show their strengths are getting smaller and smaller; and lyrical, wonderful skaters like Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, or incredibly gifted skaters like Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat struggle with the mandatory elements instead of showing the true measure of their talent. I’ll put it bluntly: couples like that – constantly trying to push the boundaries of the discipline in spite of the restrictions – are actually the victims of the judging system; they should have been born in another era.

To me one thing is sure: even if other Duchesnay’s appeared in the ice dancing today, we wouldn’t even notice them; they’ll be too busy doing a 6-seconds lift and we would be equally busy praying for the unison of their twizzles…