13CdnNat-SrFD-5073-OW-MH 595by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Melanie Hoyt

Summer training at the Vancouver Ice Dance Academy provides Canadians Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams a welcome chance for exploration in their off-ice dance work, which during the season focuses intensively on ballet and, as necessary, ballroom.

“Our summer schedule’s a little bit different,” Orford said. “We have a dance class five times a week. It’s a different class every day, like in the past we’ve had ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, Broadway, and then another ballet or just a bunch of different types of dance. So it kind of shakes it up, because all through the year we’re only doing ballet, so it’s nice to have the Broadway or the hip-hop, something a little different.”

And a shake-up of sorts is also marking the team’s efforts towards their new competitive programs. For the first time, they’ve worked with a choreographer other than coaches Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe. Mark Pillay, best known for efforts with skaters like Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch and Richard Dornbush, is now making his first incursion into ice dance.

Orford notes that she and Williams have always played a key role in program creation.

“Usually it’s like a collaboration—everybody. Thomas and I are looking for music, Megan and Aaron are looking for music, and we all bring stuff to the table, and it’s whatever we all agree is best for us. Sometimes they have a very different idea than we do, but we always end up really loving whatever they suggest. Last year, for both our programs, we chose the music,” she said. “Other years, it’s been something they’ve brought to the table.”

“And they’ve given us a just a kind of guideline of what their idea looks like, what kind of music to look through,” Williams continued. “This year was different, though.”

This year Pillay proposed the music and concept—selections from 1997’s Titanic—to Wing & Lowe, who passed it along to an enthusiastic Orford & Williams.

“One thing we’re hoping is going to become a strength is our connection,” Orford said, “because I feel like with this music, it’s so important. Everybody knows the story of Titanic, and Jack and Rose, so we’re working on having those moments in the program where people can really feel the connection. I know something we’ve always had to work on is a realistic connection between the two of us, but we’re working on it. Hopefully it will become a strength.”

And the work with Pillay has also meant a new approach to a general process.

“Usually what ends up happening is we have our programs, and they’re just packed full of everything, and we always get comments like, ‘It just looks like you’re rushing through everything, it’s too busy,’” Orford said. “[This year] we’re focusing really on allowing ourselves the time—not choreographing too much, because that’s what we usually end up doing. It’s almost like we’re choreographing less and then if we have to add more later, we can, but it’ll give us time to breathe and time to hold extensions, hold edges…”

“Hold lines,” Williams continued. “All the details, right?”

Posing its own sort of challenge is the Paso Doble short dance. Based in a dance genre deeply rooted in musical convention, a fresh take can be difficult.

“I love the Paso and I think it’s fun,” Williams said. “But as far as trying to find music, to find something that doesn’t sound just the same as the typical, traditional Paso music…”

“It needs to be Spanish-y and Paso-y,” Orford continued. “We were looking on a bunch of ballroom websites, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is a Paso. Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’ is a Paso. But if we went out there and did a Paso to that, it just doesn’t seem like a Paso. So it’s been hard.”

But training the dance has also, Orford said, led to a surprising find.

“I found it very interesting and fun that when we first started practicing the paso for this season, we were going so fast, and then we put the music on and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so ahead of the music,’” she said. “I think it’s from the last two years, having to go so fast in the Finnstep and so fast in the polka. Now, though it’s a fast dance, it feels slow.”

In its own way, a more relaxed pace is also what the team anticipates after a 2013-14 season Orford describes as “mentally, physically, emotionally draining.” That period began with summer boot issues for Williams, resulting in injury to both ankles. “When we were on the ice, it was only for like 20 minutes at a time before we had to get off, and that was it,” Orford said. “That was just as much as he could handle.”

This meant limited training time going into their first competition, July’s Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, as Williams noted.

“We hadn’t done a lot of run-throughs and I was skating in my old boots at Lake Placid. I had my old boots with my new blades on them, so they were kind of duct-taped around them, just to give myself enough support to compete in the competition,” he said.

But from a slow start, the team built toward some positives, including bronze at September’s U.S. International Skating Classic and fifth-place finishes at both a competitive Canadian Championships and in their second appearance at the Four Continents Championships.

“We were really happy with how we performed, especially towards the end at Nationals and Four Continents. We felt like we skated some of our strongest skates of the year,” Orford said. “We were a little bit disappointed with our marks, because we felt like we made a lot of improvements, and our scores didn’t reflect that the way we hoped they would. But we’re really happy with how we skated.”

With a later start to choreography, Orford says that the team may for the first time bypass both Lake Placid and Minto Summer Skate, beginning their year instead at the home-based BC SummerSkate in mid-August. They would also love to compete at Skate Canada International in Kelowna, British Columbia, though they will have to wait to see where they are assigned on the Grand Prix circuit.

14CdnNat-SrSD-3341-OW-MH 595“It’s a four-hour drive from here, so my family could come watch, which would be really nice,” Orford said.

“It’s about a seven- or eight-hour drive from Calgary, which is where I’m from, so I have a lot of friends who would also make the drive,” Williams added. “We’d have a lot of supporters among friends and family that would be there. And we’ve never done Skate Canada before.”

Though the team has yet to compete a home Grand Prix, their first two full seasons on the senior circuit have meant the chance to cross paths with role models Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir and Meryl Davis & Charlie White—and sometimes make an even closer encounter.

“I know I really looked up to them, and it was surreal, almost, getting to compete against them at Grand Prix [events],” Williams said. “And the fact that we stood on the podium at Nationals with Tessa and Scott last year, and on the podium with Meryl and Charlie at Salt Lake this year, this past season, was kind of like a dream come true.”

“When it happened,” Orford said, “I knew that one day I would get here, standing on this podium, but I never thought it would be during Tessa and Scott and Meryl and Charlie’s days. I never, ever thought I would be standing on a podium next to either of those two teams. So that was pretty exciting for us.”

Alongside the thrills made possible by competition, the two also continue their individual pursuits away from the competitive arena.

“Right now I’m just taking one summer course,” Orford said. She is a health sciences major in her third year at Simon Fraser University. “Ever since I graduated high school, I have been going to university—I’m just going really slow. All my friends that I graduated high school with, they’re all graduating university now.”

Orford also does some coaching, while her partner is even more involved on the other side of the boards.

“I pay for all my own training,” Williams said, “so I work as a coach and dance partner around the lower mainland here. Sometimes I get called up north to partner on test days. I also own my own mobile auto detailing company, so on weekends, and sometimes during the week in summer, I go to people’s homes or their work, and I clean their cars for them.”

But with days at the rink typically stretching from 6 AM to early afternoon, the team’s concentration remains on the competitive effort.

As for past programs, Williams is partial to their Gone With the Wind free dance of the 2011-12 season, and Orford notes a special affection for the senior-level rhumba version of that same season’s short dance: “We only got to do it for five weeks, but that one was my favorite,” she said, and added that she also loved their country-western Yankee Polka from 2012-13.

The team’s thoughts on future programs reflect a surer sense that their palette is expanding further.

“I’ve never done a tango yet, so I would like to do that,” Orford said, her partner noting that the rhythm could arise in a future short dance, if not a free.

“I feel like even though we’ve been skating together for four years, when we first started, it was so rushed to get started that we were kind of limited in what we could do, just because we didn’t have a chance to develop as a team,” Orford said. “Now, I feel like the options that would suit us are maybe a little wider.”