When my parents divorced, my dad got the TV. I lived with my mother, TV-less, for several years. (And half of my American readers thought I was kidding about being a poor and hungry child. Nothing like the lack of a TV to really bring poverty home, right?) But don’t pity me. Sure, I totally suck at pop culture references in Trivia games, but I discovered books. I lived on the prairie with Laura Ingalls and on the Island with Anne Shirley. Life was good.
But then the Olympics rolled around. My mother was an Olympic Junkie. She couldn’t bear the thought of missing the games. So she got a TV. With an antenna, in case you were wondering. We watched figure skating, and I was immediately hooked. There were costumes! Music! Dancing! And DRAMA. Judging partisanship, vote swapping, rival country-panning, even physical attacks on rival skaters from your own country! Figure skating had it all.
Future Genius Judgmental Doctor Sister and I argued over the best skaters as only a gymnast and dancer can. When Tara Lipinski beat out Michelle Kwan for the gold, I was incensed. “Tara’s choreography sucked! She has the grace of pig and never finishes her arms!”
Future Doc Sis was smug in victory. “But Tara did the harder jumps. Michelle bailed. Tara deserves the gold.”
And it was ON. While Team Michelle didn’t win Olympic gold, we sure as hell won the Battle on the Ashbough Sofa. (Got your back, Michelle!)
The same physique that enabled me to crush my smaller sister soon ended my ballerina dreams. My teacher told my parents to steer me into track and field. She was very encouraging: “They have the hammer throw for women these days.”
But the joke is on my old teacher, because I earned my sequins in competitive partner dancing years later. Probably I would have been more successful in the hammer throw, but I enjoyed the hell out of spinning around the floor to music.
In dance, the ultimate performance is one that combines music, choreography, athleticism, technique, and connection. The finished product is an art form that makes the audience cheer and weep simultaneously.
Finding that perfect combination of elements is rare on the dance floor, and even rarer on the ice.
My beef with 3 out of 4 figure skating routines is that music, choreography, and connection come last. With single skaters especially, the breaks and accents in the music are rarely emphasized. This makes sense, because if a skater lands on their ass on a jump, it’s very, very hard to catch up with the music. Most skaters won’t take this risk. The triple lutzes have priority over merging music and moves. Skating choreographers generally pick lyrical, classical music or soundtracks that don’t require complete synchronization with the skater’s routine.
The best skaters can still draw the audience into the performance, but it’s rare. The best example was once Michelle Kwan’s bittersweet exhibition after the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Michelle had missed the gold again, settling for a bronze medal. She skated to the oh-so ironically titled “Fields of Gold,” sung by Eva Cassidy. Everyone knew it was likely her last Olympics, and yet Michelle smiled like a champion throughout, but your could feel her sorrow. There was a tear on her cheek at the end.
If you watch, just ignore the commentators. This video had the best quality.
I had a tear on my cheek, too. Hell, everyone did.
Michelle aside, watching singles skaters is generally like watching horses on a steeplechase course:
“She’s approaching a jump!”
“Argh! I can’t bear to watch!”
“She landed it! Well, there was a little stumble, but she hung onto it!”
“Oh, thank God, the jumps are over and the finish is ahead!”
I feel the audience often claps out of sheer relief that a skater didn’t fall and break something.
But ice dancing is different. There are no jumps, and the lifts aren’t as showy as the ones in pairs skating. Hard as fuck, mind you, with a million position changes, though. (Unlike those pairs lifts where the male skater hoists his partner over his head and merely skates the length of the ice. Yay for you, brute strength.)
The ice dancers’ routine is also choreographed to the music’s every nuance.
Which is why ice dancing has become my favorite type of figure skating. Luckily for me, while Americans currently trail the Japanese in men’s skating, the Russians in women’s skating and everyone else in pairs, our ice dancers teams are on the rise. NBC is actually airing ice dancing, making sure its viewers can watch Team USA winners and revel in the myth of American exceptionalism.
Probably everyone knows about Olympic Ice Dancing Champs Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But right behind them at the 2011 World Championships were siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani. Straight up from the Junior level, the Shibutanis took third place at their first World’s. They were talented and adorable. I couldn’t wait to see them grow and dominate. It’s what the figure skating world expected.
But that’s not what happened. The Shibutanis improved, of course. They won smaller events, and placed at multiple events.
But they didn’t win Nationals. They didn’t make the podium at World’s again. Instead, the Shibutanis were eclipsed by a new American team. Half of the couple was Madison Chock. Ms. Madison is Andy’s favorite ice dancer because:
a) She’s from Redondo Beach, Andy’s old stomping ground,
b) She’s of Hawaiian AND Chinese descent,
c) Her original partner was Greg Zuerlein. Andy the carnivore laughed like a lunatic every time their names were announced: “Look, honey! It’s Chuck and Sirloin! BAHAHAHAHAA.” He also probably likes her because she’s model gorgeous, but the steak thing sent him over the top. You have no idea how upset he was when Zuerlein retired.
Andy was the only one upset. Chock quickly teamed up with Evan Bates. They won Nationals and beat the Shibutanis repeatedly. Maybe Chock and Not-Sirloin had better choreography, or deeper edges, or less illness and injury.
Or perhaps it was because the Shibutanis skate at a disadvantage, being brother and sister. One of the quickest ways to connect with your partner and your audience is to tell a love story in your routine. Preferably a tragic one. Romantic music, sensual moves – the audience recognizes the story immediately. (Especially if you pair it with a heartbreaking ballad. I’ve grown very tired of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.)
But if you’re brother and sister, well, that sexy shortcut comes with a serious ick factor. Forget it. No one wants to see incestuous romance.
Last weekend, the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships were held in Minneapolis. Andy insisted that the Shibutanis would never beat his girl Madison Chock and her Not-Sirloin partner. Maia and Alex would have to split up, he said. The ick factor was holding them back. At first, it seemed like Andy was right.
Chock and Bates put out excellent programs. They were in the lead, looking unbeatable.
The Shibutanis took the ice. Their opening position had Maia’s head resting sadly on Alex’s shoulder. Coldplay’s “Fix You,” began to play:
When you try your best/ but you don’t succeed…
With that, Maia and Alex hooked the audience. Everyone knew their story. Everyone felt their anguish. And even if you didn’t know their story, well, we all can sympathize with working our ass off and still not winning. (Donald Trump excepted.) As Maia and Alex swooped and flowed through Peter Tchernyshev’s perfectly choreographed routine, they told a glorious story of sorrow, perseverance, love, and triumph.
It was the ultimate ice skating performance. The one I always hope for when I watch figure skating.
A perfect 6, at least on the Ashbough scale. Yes, yes, I know, figure skating doesn’t use “6” anymore, but the new system is a bitch to explain and the mark for perfection on it constantly changes. In short, Maia and Alex were brilliant. I haven’t been so moved by a performance since…well, ever.
Andy agreed with me. The judges even agreed with me. For once.
And the Shibutanis won their first National title.
Can’t wait to see them at World’s.