by Anne Calder | Photos courtesy Stefano Caruso
Stefano Caruso is a former competitive ice dancer who represented Italy and German internationally from 2000-2014. After retiring, he coached in Milan, Italy with Barbara Fusar-Poli for five years until his April 2019 appointment by the DEU as a German national coach. He now resides in Berlin, Germany.
Caruso recently shared a conversation with Ice-dance.com.
When you began skating as an eight-year old, you immediately trained in ice dance. What drew you to that discipline?
I started at the sport complex of Mezzaluna in Mentana close to Rome where I was born. [It had ice rinks, swimming pools, tennis courts and soccer fields.] I did swimming for 5 years there but I really didn’t like it. One Sunday some relatives came visiting us from Naples, and my parents took us skating on a Sunday. After that I asked to join the learn to skate [group]. I ended up with a partner. It wasn’t my choice, but I liked it right away!
As you developed as an ice dancer did you find any element to be more difficult than others? How did you overcome this challenge?
Yes indeed. If I could go back in time, I wish I could have been able to learn all the triple jumps and spins alone. I think that doing single gives you a stability, sureness and awareness off and on the ice that ice dance is capable of giving you only after you are quite good. I had to work a lot on my twizzles, spins and dexterity to overcome my weak spots, lots of exercises.
Your partnership with Tanja Kolbe began in 2010, but ended in 2012 over a training location difference. When you reunited, you split the time between Germany and Italy. The reward was the 2014 Olympics. Compromise is a good lesson to teach. Do you use it as a teaching tool?
It was a really hard time in 2012, and I thought that all the efforts we started in 2010 were in vain. Tanja and I talked through a lot from April till June that year in order to find a good compromise. I have to be honest, it wasn’t easy also because in Berlin at the time was missing a main coach, but it helped us growing up as a couple anyway as we had to manage ourselves better. A big help during that time came from the German Federation, Mr. Ketterer from Berlin, our coach and parents as well. Alone we wouldn’t have done it.
You trained and coached with Barbara Fusar-Poli. Tell us what you learned that has helped in your professional career?
Working with Barbara was just amazing. She was the coach who helped us [Kolbe & Caruso] out to reach our ultimate dream, the Olympic games. I have to say, I wasn’t an easy athlete, but she always found the right way and motivation to lead me into a better version of me. During the last five years, I learned the responsibility of having a school, the organization and the behind the scene parts that normally are hidden to the public, parents and skaters. She is doing her work with 100% passion as much as she was a passionate skater, and that is something to admire nowadays.
Barbara [Fusar-Poli] often stands by the boards with a stopwatch in her hand. What was your reaction as a skater? Did you get nervous, or were you more careful with your timing
Hahahahahaha, I always love seeing her with her stopwatch. Sometimes you don’t feel you are overtime with a lift it, but it is extremely important to be on time. The one-point deduction is right around the corner. During competition it is a great feedback. I also feel that she was more aware throughout the performance of what to expect in the score. I never felt nervous about it, but for sure I was more careful in some of the lifts I knew could have been too long!
You recently took a team to work with Mathew Gates in North Carolina, USA. As a competitor, you also visited other skating centers, including training in the USA. What are the benefits for ice dancers to have these different international experiences?
I honestly profited a lot from training with almost all the best coaches in the world. At the beginning, it wasn’t easy, also because my skills were very poor. It took me a while (and a lot of work) to be able to open up and take all the different information from those high level coaches. Mathew was the one that opened my eyes; through him I remember I understood the whole concept of ice dancing. It was a beautiful feeling.
That summer of 2006 I was training with him and Shae-Lynn Bourne. We were skating 6-7 hours a day and even though I was really tired, I wanted more and more. I always thought that training with different coaches could give you a better chance and a bigger spectrum to understand the complex world of figure skating. Nobody is complete, but if you are clever enough to understand the reason why or the philosophy behind an exercise, you will get more knowledge and more keys to open up more doors.
Saying that, this is the reason why I would like my athletes to try and experience different inputs! Unfortunately, figure skating is not very cheap, and I have to thank my parents to have given me the chance to train with the most amazing coaches in the world.
You developed the choreography for a Coldplay video of “Everglow”. It did not become the song’s official video, but was released as a single in 2017. In the video, you are invisible while Tanja (Kolbe) skates alone. Tell us about the project.
It was an amazing experience with lots of professionals and artists. When the manager of Coldplay wrote us about this project, we were simply honored. When I was a kid and just started skating, my favourite music video of all time was “She’s the One” from Robbie Williams, and I was already imagining how it could have been one with the Coldplay. Why it didn’t become the official video, unfortunately, I can’t say, but believe me, there is a very understandable and emotional reason.
Tanja and I met the video director, Joe Connor, one day, and he explained to us what was the idea behind the music. We received the music a week before the meeting, and we prepared already something to show him, and it was just chemistry.
“Everglow” is a love story and as much as we all wish a happy end, sometimes due to lots of reasons, love and relationships could lead into an [unhappy] end. That was the case. They decided to use Ice Dancing because it is such a fragile, precarious and sophisticated sport, done by two people that belong to two different worlds that have to look like one. They have to find compromises and have to cheer for their win and be strong in their loss in order to overcome the difficulties. Exactly like in life, it sometimes doesn’t work out. Also, ice dance has the big empathic power to drag the spectator in those areas of deep feelings that otherwise are hardly reached.
In the video, Tanja is the one left alone. From the beginning, she is dancing alone but at some point, in her mind, soul, body, she still feels me. And that is the moment we started dancing together. That’s why I am invisible. Honestly, it felt good for me to do that role because it was bigger than me. I was doing something else. I was a feeling. It was an experience. It wasn’t about Tanja and Stefano. It was about life. During the shooting was very emotional for us; we did laugh and cry together. We had goosebumps skating while Chris was on his piano singing the song. It was just magical. Reading some comments on the video is a reminder of what ice dance is capable of doing.
If you could be a partner in any former ice dance team, who would it be? What program would you like to skate?
That’s a great question. Actually one of my dreams was to feel what some of my favourite skaters felt during a performance. I was always a big fan of Charlie [White] and Maxim Staviski. It would have been nice to be them for one competition.
If you could create choreography for a former international dance team, who would it be?
About the music, I don’t know, but I would have loved to choreograph one program for Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White]
What are your favorite short and free programs?
I like the Beatles SD from Piper and Paul [2015-2016]. They are great artists capable to attract the audience with their performances. As I said before, I loved Charlie and Meryl, particularly the Phantom of the Opera [2009-2010]. From Maxim and Albena [Denkova], I love their 2007 FD; it has an inner power. Nowadays my favourite program from Gabriella and Guillaume is Build a Home [2015-2016].
On your Instagram bio, you list yourself as a “Lindy Hopper”. Tell us about your love for this dance. Why is it so special for you?
Lindy Hopper is for me a great escape from the figure skating world even if lots of things are in common. I found this secret world after I stopped my competitive career. I always loved dancing Swing, and then I decided to start with some courses in Milan, but I had no idea what to expect. You have to understand that Swing is a huge macro area, and Lindy is just a tiny part of it. You have Shag (that I also dance), Balboa, Charleston, Boogie and so on. It all depends on the BPM of the song.
First of all, you can dance it everywhere; you don’t need ice! And for that, is already a big plus. Then you don’t have a fixed partner, and that was really strange for me at the beginning – almost scary.
Sometimes ice dancers feel very safe within their field and already changing partner is a big deal. In Lindy, you are forced to work on your leadership as there aren’t fixed steps! Your lady, through your guidance, should understand what you are going to do next. That was really funny because after I understood it, it helped me out a lot also in the on-ice coaching!
Lindy is a social dance that means the people are social! They are friendly; it doesn’t matter which level you are. I met lots of incredible people in the last five years, and I am looking forward to meeting even more in the future! The community is hidden but spread all around the world. Any competition or trip I did till now, I always found a community, and I always go dancing with them.
I need contact with people in my life, I cant’ live otherwise. I need to feel, and Lindy opened another world to me. The musicality is also very important, as you haven’t got any fixed steps. You should just go as the music goes and enjoy the flow that it creates and dance like nobody’s watching.
You are an International Technical Specialist. What is the most challenging aspect of the job?
As the new rules came out after the 6.0 system, I was fascinated by the details of the rulebook. I know it sounds weird, but I always knew at some point I would have wanted to become a Technical Specialist. The challenging part is trying not to commit any mistakes. Lots of times I remembered how I wanted to be judged, and how I hoped my panel was conscious and aware of the rules. That is also why I wanted to become a TS, I would like to give those athletes who are working really hard, the best and more competent judging scores.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to the future of ice dance?
The biggest challenge of ice dance is trying to get the audience emotionally involved in our performance. I understand there are levels and so on, but Ice dance is art, and we should never forget that. Art should be a cure for nowadays life. Skaters have the great opportunity to communicate to people feelings and sometimes they forget. That’s the greatest goal of ice dance in my opinion.
This season the Rhythm Dance music will be from Musicals and/or Operettas. What music choices would you like to see skaters make that would be new and exciting?
I honestly think that the ISU is moving into the right direction with Ice Dance. This choice for me is like encouraging the athletes and their coaches to dance, to express, and to attract more the audience into our fantastic world. I wish to see fun acts, catchy music, cool and understandable stories and funny RD this year.
The DEU (German Ice Skating Union) recently announced that you would be supporting Martin Skotnicky with ice dance in Berlin. Tell us about this new project. Does it mean you will no longer be coaching in Italy?
Yes, that’s true. Since April, I became the national coach for the DEU for the novice, and I have the honour to work with Martin Skotnicky for the junior level as well. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Barbara [Fusar-Poli] and Milan, but I felt it was a great opportunity for me to develop as a coach.
I have a half time contract with the DEU, and at the same time I am a normal coach with my school here in Berlin. I am organizing seminars for the DEU for the novice and junior section, and my goal is to give the German skaters and coaches all the best material and skills in order to develop ice dance in Germany!
Lately, I am working a lot with Catherine Papadakis [mother of Gabriella]. Mathew [Gates] will come also for two weeks at the end of August to Berlin. Next year, I would like Massimo [Scali] to come here. I think we will be able to do awesome work. Shari Koch and Christian Nüchtern, German senior national champions, as well as Francesca Righi and Aleksei Dubrovin from Italy, junior national champions, followed me to Berlin, so I don’t feel totally alone. I also have another senior and junior ice dance team from Germany. It was a bit hard to form a team at the beginning, but after three months I am really happy. I found amazing people for athletic, choreography, ballet and on the ice. It is just the beginning, but I am looking forward into the future!!!
Ice-dance.com recently did an article about former ice dancer and current coach, Cathy Reed. View her interview with Stefano Caruso during the 2019 ISU World Championships in Japan.