by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Robin Ritoss
Whatever stylistic freedoms the discipline has developed in its decades of life, ice dance was born of a ballroom world.
Though only drawing tangential inspiration from their counterparts, the majority of compulsory patterns are named for Standard and Latin styles like the Foxtrot, Waltz, and Rumba. The original dances of old, and today’s short dance, were and are typically ballroom-oriented, and many teams and rinks have called upon outside instructors for guidance, sometimes forming ongoing relationships like that between Arctic Edge’s Maia & Alex Shibutani and famed ballroom professional Corky Ballas. For the elite dancers at Bloomfield Hills’ Detroit Skating Club, proximity to the community’s Fred Astaire Dance Studio—a mere 0.2 miles away—has proven useful on occasion, especially in preparations for this season’s Paso Doble rhythm.
Ilya Ifraimov, a multi-time Latin champion with partner Nadia Goulina, took three days of a late July visit to the dance studio to work rinkside with the club’s leading ice dance couples. Though Ifraimov, a co-owner and long-time instructor at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Princeton, New Jersey, had made a previous visit to the club, the unusual territory has required some adjustment.
“At first, honestly, I was so confused and out of my element because the mechanics of ballroom technique on skates and on the floor are not the same thing,” he said. “And a lot of things you can do on the floor, you will not be able to do it on the ice, particularly because there’s a lot of lateral movement—forward/back, side-to-side—and they’re constantly moving and moving at high speed.”
Ifraimov did his research, seeking out guidance online regarding the different mechanics.
“It’s still ballroom-based—there’s a lot of elements that are similar choreography-wise, but the execution is not always the same,” he continued. “But after a while, when you get the experience and know more about the style and the mechanics of movement, I think it’s easier to approach them and teach them to be more productive in a different kind of way. This time around was probably one of my most productive times with them because I know the couples and I know the choreography, for the most part. It was ‘What can we do to make it better in certain things?’”
While the ballroom Paso Doble and its folkish flamenco relative are characterized in part by more staccato or otherwise emphatically-stepped footwork, certain recognizable elements—“shaping, a lot of arm styles,” noted Ifraimov—translate more fluently to a radically different movement technique.
“Basically what you want when you’re working with dancers is you want them to look not like skaters,” he said. “They have to look according to the characteristics of that particular dance.”
For Canadians Alexandra Paul & Mitch Islam, who joined the Detroit Skating Club roster in 2012, the lessons marked their first time working with serious ballroom guidance, an education they deemed beneficial.
“He really brought out a character in our program,” said Paul. “He’s very aggressive when you work with him—he’s very hands-on, he positions you exactly how he wants to see you. We worked a lot with mirrors on the ice. He was just standing in the middle of the ice yelling at us to try to project more and get our bodies up, and so it was an amazing experience to get to work with him. I really loved it.”
“We try to infuse them by explaining what is the culture of the dance, the flavor of the dance, the story of the music and dance,” said Ifraimov, who characterized his sessions with the couples as “very, very productive.” “What does help me is they are professional dancers so they understand the dance language. It’s not difficult as long as you can create a connection with the couple and understand where they’re coming from and deliver it in the right way.”
“With the Paso Doble, it’s a very extreme kind of performance and so as figure skaters, we like to bring in people that are kind of masters at that kind of stuff,” said Islam. “He’s obviously incredible—working with him was, like Alex said, special, and it definitely kind of takes our performance to the next level. It gives us something to think about when we’re performing that program every day.”
For the club’s younger teams, ballroom instruction has come from a source closer to home. Donald Westphal, instructor and manager at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills, trained as an ice dancer at the Detroit Skating Club under Igor Shpilband and Liz Coates. After retiring from the sport in 1999, he pursued competitive roller skating before shifting primary focus to the ballroom, drawn in initially by a job ad from another dance studio. Westphal’s students have included 2014 World Junior Champions Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, now competing in their first season as seniors.
“We worked a lot on their programs and different styling,” he said. “It’s really cool to work with the skaters because I speak that language, so to be able to apply the ballroom influence and understanding, that’s where I kind of feel like my career went backwards. I almost wish that I had started in ballroom to understand the dancing, because what I do now is not just the dancing side, but the historical side of where the dancing comes from, why your body moves in a particular way.”
Westphal’s work is broader, developing a stronger base in partnered movement and ballroom styles for his couples.
“When I work with them for the first time, unless they have something specific in mind, I give them a little bit of ballroom figures so I can see how they move on the floor and they can start to understand the dance language,” he said. “Then I can start to talk to them in skating terms, so that they can understand what my goal is to apply the dancing side of it.”
While Hawayek & Baker also worked with Ifraimov in preparing this season’s Paso efforts, Westphal was especially central in honing their quickstep and foxtrot for the 2013-14 season, occasionally working at the rink as well as in the studio.
“Working with him was awesome,” said Baker. “It’s great because he has quite a bit of background knowledge of skating since he used to skate himself, which makes translation onto the ice significantly easier for the three of us.”
The team highlighted the overall value of ballroom work beyond its specific uses in a given genre.
“We have found a different kind of knowledge and approach we can take while skating our programs,” Baker continued. “It gives us a different insight of not just ‘big extensions’ or ‘sharp arms’ but articulation of the fingers and facial expressions as well, which we think gives much more of an audience appeal and an authentic feeling to our performances.”
Westphal points to the goal-oriented nature of his sessions, directed towards improving on a given program section or problem as assigned by coach Angelika Krylova.
“We’re looking at what they’re doing, and I help at getting in that ballroom influence of ‘This is what this particular dance should look like on the ballroom floor; how do we translate that into what you’re putting on the ice?’” he said.
Though responsible for multiple teams, both instructors have worked with couples on an individual rather than group basis.
“They all have different music, different choreography, different problems they’re going through, different things I want to develop for different dancers, because some people can relate to some things in a different way, and group lessons are not going to be as productive,” said Ifraimov. “Ballroom dancing is different, but for the skaters it’s too individual, and they’re all pretty much at a high level of dance and competing and representing a different country.”
And as a year-round instructor, Westphal must take into consideration the impact of the skating season’s schedule, with the restrictions of budget and a busy senior season further limiting Hawayek & Baker’s available hours this year.
“It’s usually beginning of the season, that’s when they start to come in a little bit more heavily because their choreography is new,” said Westphal, while the late summer, with dance camps and early competitions, sees a downturn. “But once they get back into the competition season, making sure that we’re looking at everything and that they get more feedback on these early competitions from the judges–I remember last year, come late November, December, January, I was seeing Jean-Luc and Kaitlin all the time. They come for that reinforcement.”
Feedback is fundamental, adding pressure to the off-ice advisor’s job. Ifraimov characterized the situation as one of the greater hurdles.
“Every time they have to adjust, learn something new, something they haven’t done before or haven’t done to a certain level because they’re still growing themselves,” said Ifraimov. “One of the couples here, Andrew [Poje] and Kaitlyn [Weaver], are currently number two in the world, so everything they do is under a magnifying glass, so we can’t make any errors there. We cannot make too many experiments there, because their schedule is very hectic, they have championship after championship and they’re feeling they’re pretty good to win the world title. But there is some kind of pressure on you as well as a teacher.”
Westphal deals in response not only from panels, but from the coaches themselves.
“I’m always looking for feedback,” he said. “You know, ‘what does your coach say, you went to see some judges this weekend, what do they think of what we’re doing?’ Because obviously this is for their skating, so I think that the challenge is in pleasing everybody.”
It’s an exercise he can readily relate to the ballroom world. “When I compete professionally, you’re not going to please all the judges,” he continued. “Every coach is going to tell you something a little bit different. But I want to make sure they’re getting the most out of it so that they’re getting a broad package and saying, ‘Is everybody happy with what we’re doing?’”
But before feedback can even shape direction of a program or performance to better-scoring ends, a style itself can foster difficulty for a couple, as Ifraimov acknowledged.
“You can look at a skater doing the Paso Doble and then in a waltz, and the Paso Doble could look much stronger because they feel the music much better,” he said. “The body feels the movement, the character of that program. So in that case you’re trying to educate them about the music, about the culture of the dance, [and] then you can build the story of the piece.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why in figure skating they’re constantly changing the genre, the style of dance, to see how well they can do this dance, how well they can do that dance,” he continued. “Certain dancers, it comes very quick and comes naturally to them, some not. Teachers obviously want to make sure when the dance doesn’t come as easy, you want to work on it.”
But it does, as ever, return to that most essential of impediments in grappling with a traditional dance style on the ice—the physics of dance floor versus ice.
“Being stationary on the floor is one thing; creating speed and constantly changing directions, different shapes of the body, is different. And it’s something that takes adjustment—understanding what the mechanics are,” said Ifraimov. “Not everything that can be done on the floor can be done on the ice, and vice versa, because of the speed, because of the momentum of the movement—ballroom dancers can stop and start; skaters, especially when two people skate in any direction, there’s a lot of momentum going one way, and for me that’s a big difference.”
Westphal has found his ambitions occasionally thwarted by the matter.
“There are times where I really will push them and say, ‘What if we did this shape with the choreography or what if you stretched it this much bigger?’ They’re not hesitant to say ‘Um, Donald, you’re a little crazy, I don’t know if we can do that,’” he said with a laugh. “’I can see you doing it on the floor right now, but we’re going 60 miles an hour with our skates on.’”
The skaters agree. “A lot of the transitional steps, which really require on the floor the stability of stopping and not sliding, are not easily translated onto the ice step-for-step,” said Baker. “However, we find interpreting the style of the dances and the nuances in interpreting the character from on the ballroom floor seamless between the two and very easy to translate back into our work on the ice.”
It’s from that harmony in the midst of handicap that Ifraimov believes magic can arise.
“I spoke to the high-ranked couples, saying ‘Can you imagine you can come as close as possible to ballroom-style of Paso Doble while being on skates to push the envelope a little bit, to come up with something very fresh that hasn’t been done before? I think that will set you apart as a couple,’” he said. “We’re trying to come as close as we could.”
And while that tribute to the discipline’s heritage can enhance dance character and style on the ice, the greater part of ballroom’s role goes to the heart of any partner dance.
“Looking back, I really wish that a lot of the ice dancers would do ballroom sooner,” said Westphal. “What I work on a lot, and what I know a lot of those skaters appreciate, is the physical connection. Not just the emotional-expressive connection, but how you move together and how your bodies should be connecting and how you feel each other when you’re moving, especially at that speed. She’s turning and we’re twizzling and we’re doing this, and we need to reconnect. I think that that’s something that you can’t learn on a ballet barre. As great as ballet is going to help you with poise and posture and flexibility and turnout, it doesn’t connect you with your partner, and looking back, I wish that ballroom was something that I had done more heavily for that purpose.”