by Claire Cloutier | Edited by Anne Calder | Photos by Robin Ritoss & Claire Cloutier
It’s been five years since Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first American ice dance team to win an individual Olympic gold medal. Their competitive career ended after Sochi, but Davis and White have continued to explore new challenges, including television commentating, choreography, and charitable ventures. It’s all about exploring and growing for the six-time U.S. ice dance champions, who are currently touring the country with Stars on Ice.
During a tour practice session, Davis & White took a few minutes to share their thoughts on several topics. The interviews were done separately due to scheduling constraints.
Meryl, you’re back with Stars on Ice after another busy year for you and your partner, Charlie White.
Davis: Yes, it always seems to be busy, with a lot of skating, a lot of shows, which we love. This is our seventh year with the U.S. Stars on Ice [tour]. It’s always a special show.
This year, you’re skating to “Lilac Wine” and a Queen medley. Can you tell us how you chose those programs, and who choreographed them?
Davis: We spent a long time trying to figure out what to skate to because we want to bring something that the audience will enjoy. The primary purpose of traveling and doing these shows is really touching people.
“Lilac Wine” is a piece we heard a couple of times, and we just fell in love with it. Daisuke Takahashi skated to it a number of years ago. We decided to use a different version of the song [for Stars on Ice].
Charlie actually choreographed the piece himself. It’s the first time he’s choreographed one of our pieces exclusively. It’s usually a little more collaborative, or we work with somebody else. This time, he seemed really inspired. And I was like: ‘It seems like you want to choreograph this, so I’m just going to let you totally take the reins on this.’ I think he did a great job; it’s a really beautiful piece.
We felt the Queen music would be such a fun piece, to lift everyone’s spirits. Randi Strong from So You Think You Can Dance helped us with the number.
In other news, away from the ice, you’re engaged to former skater Fedor Andreev, and you’re planning a wedding this summer. Do you have a destination?
Davis: That’s right. It’s coming up quickly. We’ve been engaged for a while, and it felt like we had forever to plan. I have my dress. I found it a couple months ago. It’s actually the first dress I tried on. I put it on, and I just fell in love with it.
We’re getting married in Europe. It’s something that we had always talked about. Adventure is a big part of our relationship, and we want to travel and just discover special, beautiful new places [and for it] to continue to be a big part of our lives. Also, we wanted to share something really unique with our families. We’re really excited!
Your fiancé is the CEO for Eve Hansen a skincare line out in Los Angeles. Are you now based there or in Detroit?
Davis: We’re going back and forth. We still have our house and most of our belongings in Detroit. We’ll have to wait and see where we set up our home. Charlie is still in Detroit. We’re doing a lot of shows, and when we are preparing to go on tour, or travel for skating, we always get ready in Detroit. So it’s nice to come back to our home base.
Will you be doing more shows this summer, after Stars on Ice?
Davis: Yes, we have some shows in Asia this summer. So we’re looking forward to that. We always love going to Japan. It feels like a second home to us; we’ve spent a lot of time there.
You were instrumental in bringing Figure Skating in Harlem to Detroit. Do you plan to stay involved with the group?
Davis: Of course, I’m not always on the ground in Detroit, so thankfully there’s just an amazing team there. Lori Ward is our executive site director in Detroit, so she works very closely with Sharon Cohen [founder and CEO of Figure Skating in Harlem]. Nina Herron-Robinson is our on-ice skating director in Detroit. They’re both so passionate and inspired to facilitate this incredible opportunity for the young ladies who are part of the program.
My primary role at the beginning was showing Sharon Cohen what a perfect opportunity it was for a program like Figure Skating in Harlem to expand to Detroit. There’s a very large, passionate, supportive figure skating community in Detroit. There’s high need as well. So those two things combined, really opened up the perfect opportunity to have the first branch of Figure Skating in Harlem, which is now Figure Skating in Detroit. It’s touching the lives of young women in Detroit, which is, of course, the goal.
You’re doing a lot of interviewing work for the Olympic Channel. How has that been? Were you nervous when you started?
Davis: I really struggled, moving away from competition. I was so excited to try new things, and yet, I didn’t have a clear next step in mind. There’s nothing that necessarily stood out to me as: ‘This is the one thing I really want to devote myself to, or try.’ I think it’s hard. When you find something you love when you’re five, and you do it your whole life, it’s difficult to fill those shoes. [Skating] has provided me with so much joy and so many challenges in a good way.
I actively tried a lot of different things and discovered that I’m really enjoying interviews, specifically. It’s so interesting to talk to people about who they are, and their lives on and off the ice, and what drives them, especially people I have known for many years. While of course being completely respectful of their private lives, I feel like I have insight into asking them things that people might not know, or even know to ask.
Are there any other projects for the upcoming year?
Davis: Well, I’m finishing school [at the University of Michigan]. I’ve been working on my undergraduate degree since 2006. With training and taking semesters off for both Olympic years, 2010 and 2014, it’s just been a very slow process of chipping away, one credit to the next, one class to the next. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I was quite sure [graduation] was happening in May, but we’ll be on tour, so I’ll probably finish officially in August. Then I’ll have to wait until the December commencement ceremony. We’ll be home for the holidays, so I’m excited to share that with my family in December. They’ve been so supportive, during my many, many years of college. Being a college graduate has been a goal of mine for a long time.
Meryl told us about your tour programs and mentioned that you choreographed “Lilac Wine.” How was it creating your own program?
White: It was great. I’m so familiar with our strengths and weaknesses. Just trying to find a balance between what we know we can make look good, and how to still push some boundaries, artistically, just for fun, just to challenge ourselves. I think that’s an important part of the creative process – still being comfortable challenging yourself.
The program itself is actually a little bit more open. We don’t skate together quite as much, which I think makes the moments when we are together more effective. It was a piece of music that I had wanted to skate to for a long time. There’s obviously an enthusiasm that comes with finally getting to work with music that you really, really love.
You’ve been doing quite a bit of choreography the last few years. This past season, you had a big hit with James/Cipres’ “Wicked Games” free skate. Can you talk about that program? How did you create it, and what was it like working with Vanessa and Morgan?
White: Well, first of all, James & Cipres and their coaches, John Zimmerman and Silvia Fontana, were super-prepared, and had great entrances to their elements, and ideas that they wanted to play with. It makes such a difference to come into an atmosphere like that, where a team knows what they need to accomplish. So, from a creative aspect, first and foremost, they’re just so beautiful. (Smiles) And that’s such an advantage. So I wanted that to be okay to be what was focused on.
I didn’t want to over-embellish anything, for two reasons. One, because they’re so beautiful, that just having them simply look at one another, it emotionally connects everyone in the audience to either their connection or their faces. On the other hand, because they have so much speed, and their elements are so powerful and amazing just by themselves, that I wanted them to feel most comfortable and energetic to complete those elements.
I think the main thing I wanted them to address in their skating, and we worked it into the program, was just making sure that everything was in sync. So, the cleanliness that I think the choreography brought to their power was just a great match. They worked super-hard and built off what we created and went with it. I don’t feel comfortable taking much of the credit. I think they really earned all of the compliments.
When you created the program, did you choose the music? Or had they found that themselves?
White: No. I don’t know if it was them, or John [Zimmerman], who had chosen the music. But they said, ‘This is the music that we like,’ and we listened to it, and it was great – powerful, emotional – especially for a pair team. You just can’t ask for much more than that.
It seems like you’ve done more of your choreography work with pairs, as opposed to ice dancers. What are the differences in working with a pair team, as opposed to a dance team?
White: There’s so much less time for creativity because all of the [pair] elements need so much lead-up. When you do have the moments in-between, it’s quick, and it has to be maximally effective, because you just can’t mess around.
Whereas ice dance, the intricacy, that’s the whole program. Pairs need speed; they need power, and they need to go from one end [of the ice] to the other. If they’re doing really crazy things [choreographically], they’re just not going to be able to accomplish that. So finding two seconds to focus in on the point of the program, that’s the biggest challenge in a pair program. It’s also exciting. It’s a good challenge.
You’re continuing with pairs’ choreography. You just did a program for U.S. pair Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea.
White: [They] were a joy to work with – a wonderfully talented team! Every time I’m doing a pair program, I’m making sure that everyone’s on the same page [and] about what I recognize to be the challenges of it, so that we can help each other. Especially for a team like [Kayne & O’Shea], that’s mature, that’s experienced, just finding their comfort zone, too. And not just trying to assert my own image or vision on them, but really trying to pull it out of them and make sure that they have an ownership of the program. That’s the main thing for me. I don’t have an ego saying: ‘I want people to recognize this as a Charlie White work.’ No, I want them to land their jumps and win. That’s the point of having the program.
Our friends at Figure Skaters Online were talking with Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier after Four Continents. Brandon said that because you competed recently, you sort of have a feeling for what needs to happen, [and] what needs to be done in a program.
White: I’m also a huge fan of theirs. They were wonderful to work with. Yeah … I do know. (Laughs) I know … It’s a pacing thing. It’s like when you’re telling a story, or reading a book. You can’t just constantly have things happening, or you totally tune it out. Also, if you wait too long, then by the time you get to something exciting, people are already checked out. So it’s a timing thing. And a lot of that comes from the most basic aspects of skating – the knee bend, the grade at which you’re pushing, the way you’re looking at one another, or choosing not to.
There are so many little details that come into play when you’re trying to figure out how to shape the judges, specifically, but everyone’s experience of what you’re doing, How do you combine the art and the competitive aspects to maximally give you chances at a high score?
I think that’s what I did best, in my days as a [competitive] skater, is figure out how to just be efficient. I wasn’t the most talented, but I wanted to win, and I was going to do whatever it took. I think if you watch my [competitive] programs, you see at the end, every time, I’m literally just dead. It was for that reason just knowing that I had to give everything, I try to take the same mindset into doing choreography.
Are you looking to continue with choreography in the lead-up to the next Olympics?
White: Yes, if people want me to help them, I’m more than happy to. I really enjoy it. And I especially just enjoy getting to talk, almost on the philosophical and artistic side, about the importance of what we’re doing, why it matters. Even though I gear everything toward competition, if you don’t understand why you’re doing something, you’re not going to be able to do a very good job of it.
Certainly, with the perspective that I have now, five years out [from competition], I had great coaches with Marina [Zoueva] and Igor [Shpilband], and [our] other coaches. They were really good at helping us focus in on the ‘why’ questions, and sort of the philosophy, and how it pertains to life. I couldn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but having stepped away, things are clicking. It’s given me a new appreciation for the sport, and everything that it’s brought into my life, apart from just success.
I am a talkative person, and I have a lot on my mind a lot of the time. So I sort of put my skaters through a lot, making them listen to what I think they should be focusing on. But I’m hopeful that they can appreciate it, and someday down the line, maybe they’ll be like: ‘Hey, I’m really glad that we had that sort of deep talk in the middle of choreographing our program.’ (Smiles)