Working to Highlight the Modern Dance in Ice Dance

by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photo by Robin Ritoss

13-moderndancearticle-thayerThe 2012-13 season in ice dance has already seen several teams making new strides to emphasize the pure dance roots of their on-ice work. Where ballroom and similar specialty instruction have always played a key support role for couples tackling genres like tango and flamenco, studio-based modern and contemporary choreography have emerged in a major way in programs from several top teams, while ballet consultants have offered input to those working in a more classical vernacular. With this special emphasis on studio technique come a few rewards and obstacles.  

When world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, along with coach Marina Zoueva, sought a novel spin on a deeply traditional selection of music, they turned to London, Ontario-based ballet and modern dance teacher – and Virtue’s childhood instructor – Jennifer Swan, who previously played a key role in the conception and choreography of the team’s 2008-09 Pink Floyd free dance. The group approached Swan last May, with work on the program beginning in late June and undergoing several revisions – even now – over the course of its development.

Complicating the program’s construction were the physical obstacles created when floor is supplanted by ice. “The use of knee bend and plié, the ability to drop, to lower the center, is challenging on ice,” says Swan. “Obviously the male partners do that consistently more often because of the lifting, but to get the girls to do that is a challenge.” Swan also cites issue with a fundamental of modern movement: “The other obstacle is that contemporary modern dance, or even contemporary ballet, is rooted in parallel alignment, and parallel alignment is challenging on the ice.”


Ice can, on the other hand, create new opportunities unthinkable for dancers on the stage or in the studio. “Speed is another element – the dance world simply doesn’t have access to the same speed,” she says. “So that’s an interesting challenge – how do you slow things down without killing the inertia? How do you speed things up without destroying the subtleties?”

While Swan has regularly joined Virtue and Moir’s coaching team at the boards in Canton to collaborate creatively, she also continues to work with the couple on certain key aspects of modern movement. “Part of that is the dropping of the weight, the getting lower and finding the center sitting lower in the body,” she notes. “Ice skating is very ‘up’ and the center of the weight is very high, as it is with classical ballet, and to make that switch is something that you kind of have to do tune-ups with, and keep a check-in on.”

For choreographer and American Ice Theatre founder Jodi Porter, it’s the very difficulties involved in integrating modern dance with the ice that inspires her efforts. A former skater in both the competitive and professional realms, Porter holds a BFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah and has choreographed for both the ice and the floor. Earlier this year, she established Master Choreography Techniques, an online course aimed at enabling coaches and choreographers to utilize dance vocabulary, particularly that of modern dance, in their work with skaters.

“People are really familiar with kind of a ballet/classical style, the port de bras and the storyline and all that,” says Porter. “So I think that’s something that’s been pretty well developed in our sport. What I’m trying to bring new to the picture are concepts that we haven’t seen before in skating. So, modern techniques, which would be three-dimensional movement, the use of weight, the idea of suspend and release, or contraction and release, and utilizing the body in different ways of moving the body through space. You might use qualities of movement, which would be like something light and flowy versus something hard and strong, and how you can create those contrasts to create more interest.”

The potential for modern dance’s development on the ice intrigues Porter. “After having a full experience of skating and dance, I think those concepts are possible on the ice, and I think right now, in 2012, people are just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg, to put those movements into the ice so you can see what a big difference it makes when they actually do utilize it.” One program that she singles out for its use of the modern vocabulary, coincidentally, is Virtue and Moir’s Carmen: “That’s the first piece that I’ve seen on the ice where you could see the use of momentum and body weight, and the way that stayed through their bodies and moved through the space, and then to have that release of movement using their whole body, from their arms and the way that they had a freeness about them. That’s the first time that I’ve seen those concepts really integrated and used.”

Porter considers the outside perspective of the choreographer vital to developing dance understanding in skaters. “I think you’re able to take the concepts and build upon each other, and get a direction that you’re aiming to,” she says. “Say they want to integrate different qualities of movement in their choreography. So I teach my class they can understand what qualities of movement are, what they mean, how they can be investigated, how they can be taught to their students. And then they have that tool that they can teach in an integrated way, so the student wouldn’t necessarily have to go and take outside dance classes to learn this.”

That grounding in studio dance is of particular significance in today's competitive ice dance, and at the Detroit Skating Club, it’s been a centerpiece of the school's off-ice training program, where a group instructional approach for top teams has been in place since 2006. A central emphasis on ballet, modern and contemporary has also included coursework in styles like blues and hip hop, whether targeted at building a base for a coming season’s short dance rhythms or intended to expand upon the dancers’ quality of movement and offer some variety to the schedule.

Christina Tasco works especially with the facility’s several elite ice dance couples, offering instruction in both ballet and a variety of contemporary and modern genres. She notes certain differences between teaching ice dancers and traditional dancers. “There’s slightly different placements for certain positions,” she says. “Like in arabesque, where your leg is to the back, skaters hold it a little bit more open and dancers should have it right behind their head. Skaters tend to hold their base leg in parallel, dancers should be rotated with both legs.”

Elite ice dancers also face somewhat different expectations than do other skaters. "The footwork’s harder, the combinations can get harder," she says. "I definitely emphasize more performance quality, more initiation of where the movement’s coming from. With the elite and the older ones, you’re working beyond placement to where does the initiation of the movement come from, and what are you telling your audience with each movement."  

For Anne Marine, who has taught dance and choreography at the DSC since 1994, ballet and modern instruction are fundamentally beneficial for teams. “For the ice dancers, the emphasis is definitely on increasing flexibility, increasing extensions and line, and developing expressiveness,” she says, with modern and contemporary being most useful for the last. “Contemporary dance lends itself towards more flexibility through the torso, more movement through the upper body, and that’s really the most expressive part of the body.” She also cites the versatility offered by a varied course of study. “I think ballet teaches them placement and carriage, and modern dance teaches that stylistic dynamic and expressiveness.”

Swan as a choreographer both on- and off-ice cites the extra emotional appeal of such expressiveness. "[Skaters and dancers] carry their instrument with them in every avenue of their life, and when you start to look at modern movement or contemporary classical work, you’re falling back into the ideas of contemporary modern dancers that you create the psychology of movement – that your movement no longer tells a real story, but rather speaks to an organic emotion or psychology. And that is incredibly alluring when you think that they are their instrument – that just gives tremendous layers to the work, and I find that part very appealing.”

The connection between ice dance and dance of the non-ballroom persuasion is forever in development, with short dances and compulsory patterns continuing to draw from a more traditional partnered vernacular even as the free dance has long seen the ebb and flow of trends towards ballroom influence, a more abstracted style, and the balletic and lyrical. Much influence these days, of course, comes from the ISU’s guidelines, which impose restrictions on hold and footwork.

“It’s discouraged that there are two feet very frequently on the ice,” notes Swan, “and that becomes a challenge, because a lot of dance moves through two-feet placement.” The transitions permissible in the ISU rulebook also have little connection with those in traditional dance. “Certain movements might naturally transition through the floor in dance,” she continues, “so you would take it from standing to the ground to rebound for a feeling of fall and recovery. We can’t go to the ice with the body; we can’t have the hands touching the ice. So things like that, things where we would have naturally moved through to the floor, we can’t do. We’re simply not allowed.”

Porter considers another, more fundamental challenge to be that of time. While today's teams must put in hours of studio work to grow that quality of modern movement, skaters of the future may have the advantage of early training that many at present lack. "If someone is learning that from an early age, that’s going to be natural," she says. "So what skating looks like today and what skating looks like in ten, fifteen years, I think you’ll see a huge development of artistic ability."   

And sometimes, as Tasco observes regarding modern dance translation, the obstacles once more lay simply in physics. “Your center of gravity is shifted because you’re in C-curve and flat backs and all these positions that are no longer upright,” she says. “I think it would hugely help skaters to be able to bend a little bit more from their torso and hold their balance, but they also have a very small base of support that they’re balancing on, so if they shift their center of gravity too much, they are going to fall off of it.”

But the challenge, to those involved, is worthwhile.

“The opportunity is to be part of something that reinvigorates an already stunning art form,” says Swan. “I think the other exciting thing is that it allows it to be defined again as an art form. I think ice dance struggles between whether or not it is a sport or whether it is an art, and quite frankly, it is a rather schizophrenic relationship for the two to coexist. So I think that is another opportunity, for the emphasis on the art to be highlighted, and perhaps more heavily weighted than the sport.”

And finding that delicate balance between artistry and athleticism, and floor dance and the ice, is, ultimately, the driving force behind all great ice dance - whether experimenting in modern and contemporary movement or the most traditional of ballroom.