Sam Chouinard: From Dancer to Choreographer and Beyond

Article & photos by Francesca

Francesca met Sam Chouinard at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montréal during his lunch break.

IDC:  Introduce yourself to the skating fans – when did you start dancing? What styles of dances are you specialized in?

SC: Hi, my name is Samuel Chouinard. I’m from the south shore of Montréal and I’m 29 years old.  I started as a dancer when I was 13-14 as I was very energetic, so I needed to find something that was going to keep me focused. I tried a bunch of sports like gymnastics, swimming, fencing, karate, and then I tried dance. I loved it so much, and it’s the only thing that kept me interested. I started with funk, jazz, and hip-hop. When I was starting to be the best in my dance studio and I wanted to have more formation and other teachers, I went to Montréal and started to train there. I got onto a dance team. We started to win a lot of competitions around the world, and then I wanted to be more known as Samuel the dancer and not someone within a group, so I detached myself from the dance crew and started to do some auditions as a solo dancer.

I did this wish list that I do for everything I work on in my life: dance with an artist, dance in a major arena, dance in different countries, dance in a movie, dance in a music video, dance in a television show… and I accomplished all of them. So after I checked off all my wish list as a dancer, I wanted to have another challenge and thought I’d like to choreograph. I went into the choreography world, started to do some shows, and did this wish list again: choreograph for an artist, choreograph for something different than dance, choreograph for something major, go to the Olympics. We won gold and I was super happy.

IDC:  What projects outside skating are you involved in?

SC: One other things that was on my list was Cirque du Soleil and not long after, here I am, working on a show, and I’ve been proposed 2 new shows again. It’s really cool, I love it so much. The next thing I’d like to do is to have my own show, to have my own concept, and again in 4 years have 1, 2, 3 at the top of the podium at the Olympics.

I’m also working with some cheerleading and synchronized swimming teams. I also opened an escape room on the south shore and will soon open one in Québec. I teach hip-hop at the dance school where I started and I’m planning to buy it and make it so skaters can come and train in a dance studio.

IDC:  Coming from the dance floor world, how did you become involved with figure skating, and with the Gadbois center in particular? Tell us about how your collaboration started and about your first steps on the ice.

SC: I was introduced to the figure skating world 5 years ago, with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, who were looking for a dance teacher outside of the ice who could teach some hip-hop moves to their skaters so they would have a better feel of the music and get more dynamic with their moves. Daria, who is a ballet teacher at Gadbois, was my ballet teacher as well and she referred them to me.

After this, I started to work with some of the teams and Marie really liked the work that I was doing with the skaters, so she asked me if I could help her with Battle of the Blades. At that time, Marie France and Mathieu Dandenault were competing there and they had a hip-hop week. This was the first time I was working on a bigger show for ice dance. This number brought them back to the top two, and after that, I worked with them in the following weeks. It was really cool. From there, Joannie Rochette saw the work I had done and called me to see if I could work with her for an upcoming tour in Japan. After Joannie, Tessa (Virtue) and Scott (Moir) called and asked me whether I wanted to work with them. I didn’t know who they were, so I Googled them and I was like, “WHAT! Yes, I want to!” I started to work with them and do some workshops and hip-hop off-ice, and they asked me to choreograph for their Stars on Ice performances. The last 4 years, I’ve been working with them preparing for the Olympics. I did the Prince program [2016-2017 short dance] with Marie-France and Moulin Rouge [2017-2018 free dance] this year. Now I’m choreographing with all the teams at Gadbois, from 9-10 countries, and I’m also teaching and choreographing for Les Suprèmes senior and junior teams in synchronized skating.

IDC:  What’s the most challenging part about translating movements from the floor to the ice? How does what you plan off-ice change once you try to recreate the choreography on the ice?

SC: The biggest challenge I had was to understand inertia. In dance, we can just stop and turn and go to the other direction, so the first choreographies I was doing for skating had too many stops in them. I really figured out that the thing that looks best on ice is the glide and the flow and to go fast, so this was a challenge. Even though I wasn’t skater, I started to skate 5 years ago, so I was able to understand how I wanted them to move and I could show it with my fingers. The skaters were so professional that they could do it right away. I first choreograph the upper body and then we go on ice to play. I am on the ice following them and just trying to do what feels right. They know so much about their sport, so they were helping me a lot at the beginning as well. I learned so much. After I started to be at the higher level, I did my research. I knew I needed to learn about this world that wasn’t mine, so I watched the Olympics, all the other competitors and tried to know what was already done and who people were. I think now we are changing the game and making people understand that we can bring ice dance somewhere else and make it fresh and new. Dance and skating are two different worlds, but it’s the same thing at the same time, so that was the challenge for me.

IDC:  What are the steps of the creation process for each program (from the first steps on the floor to what we see in competition), and how is the creative dynamic between you, the coaches, and the skaters?

SC: The first step is to select the song. Usually, the skaters suggest two to three song choices and we sit with Marie and decide what would be the best and also with the other teams, so that it doesn’t look all the same. But the skaters have to be happy with their choice, because they are going to be the ones doing it the entire season. After that, we create in our head the pattern of where all the elements should be with the music.  Marie-France and Patrice imagine the music and say “this should be an element, this is where we should place this,” and then we know where the dance should fill between two elements. She creates the elements and I complete the elements to make it more dancey and to fit more with the music, and I work with the beginning and the ending. In the first steps after they select the song, we go in the dance studio and we throw a lot of moves, then we place them on ice, [but] they may not be all together. We may cut and place different parts, but it’s super easy with Marie-France. We have such a good dynamic. Like with Nathan Chen, he came for 3 days and after that, the program was done. Now it’s just fine-tuning it, but he has everything. When he’s going to come back, we’ll see how it has evolved and the speed and what can we take out and tighten up. The skaters trust us completely. They do what we ask them and if there is something uncomfortable, they manifest it, but we’re pretty good to see it, so if it doesn’t feel right, we change it.

IDC:  Your influence is clearly visible on many of the programs from the Gadbois teams, yet you manage to create something unique and different for everyone. How do you manage to come up with original ideas every time and to adapt to the style of each team?

SC: First of all, it’s the music. The music tells me what to do, so it’s always different because the music has its own language. Also, all couples move so differently and have different energy and dynamics, so I feed off this, so they look the best doing what I give them. It all starts with my choreography on me, but after this I fix it on their body so it looks custom made for them. I don’t want to have the same moves. Sometimes you see when choreographers or coaches do many programs, some of the elements are the same, the patterns are the same. One thing that helps me is that each day I have to choreograph something new, so I’m always in this creative mood and it’s easy for me to deliver something new very quickly. I also have no problem to look at something and take it out if it doesn’t feel right. Some people sometimes stick with their first idea and I think it’s pretty stupid. You have to be flexible.

IDC:  Which short dance pattern have you enjoyed working on so far, and what do you think of the tango for the next season?

SC: Of course the hip-hop was really my thing. It was so cool because I was taking the skaters out of their comfort zone and bringing them into my world a little bit more, but I think we did a pretty good job. I love tango, it’s one of my favourite dances to do off-ice. I took some classes and I think it’s going to be really cool. I love contemporary as well. I like that it’s different every year.

IDC:  What are your favorite programs that you have choreographed so far?

SC: It’s really hard to say. I give my all to all the programs and they all have a special place in my heart and a special energy. That’s what I like the most. When I go to Gadbois and work with the skaters and I see the couples back to back, they are such different worlds. It’s really refreshing and inspiring for me. I love to do different stuff.

IDC:  Virtue and Moir won the Olympics last season with the program you choreographed to music from Moulin Rouge. Did you imagine this happening and how did you feel?

SC: That’s just surreal. Watching the Olympics from Montréal and seeing your stuff on a worldwide television platform…it’s something very big. I was very proud, but so nervous at the same time, even though I wasn’t performing. I was sitting on the edge of my seat and I feel like I stopped breathing at some point. It was so close to Gabby and Guillaume, who are amazing as well, so we just didn’t know until the end. I love doing what I do and I enjoy it so much, we put so much love into it. This is just the perfect recipe to bring it to the best. Plus, they believe in us and we believe in them, and the energy at the rink is amazing. Perfect recipe, perfect family, perfect environment to work in to create. If people would have told me, “Would you think you one day would win the Olympics?” I would be like, “eh…,” but of course I like to think the best and aim high. I believe you can do anything when you focus and want it and put your energy into it.

I also went to Stars on Ice to see “You Rock My World” that I choreographed for Tessa and Scott. It’s a huge wave of love that they receive. They are very privileged and they know it. The first time they did the tour, they started to cry because they had a standing ovation at the beginning of Moulin Rouge. It’s crazy to see how much people love that piece. I receive a ton of messages on Instagram. People recreate the piece and send me the video of them doing it or people tell me that they stopped dancing before, but now they want to start dancing again because of that program, or they tell me that I gave them the passion for skating. It’s really special and inspiring. It makes me realize that I’m doing the right thing.

IDC:  What are your plans for next season? Who are you going to choreograph with, and are you going to work with any of the new teams joining the school?

SC: At the moment I’ve been here at the Cirque a lot, but Marie left me a couple of spaces in the programs to come and work and play and add some stuff. I’m very excited to see the skaters because I miss them, but I invited them to see the Cirque show and I’m excited for this. I’m going to work with the new couples and all the couples from last year—Madi and Zach, Caro and Shane, Marjorie and Zachary, etc.

My next on-ice project is that Marie-France and I are artistic directors and choreographers for the Thank You Canada tour. It’s not like Stars on Ice. It’s going to be very different and fun, involving live musicians, dancers on a platform, off-ice, etc.

IDC:  You also choreographed for pairs and men (Stephen Gogolev, Nathan Chen). Tell us about those experiences and what you found different from ice dance.

SC: This year, Nathan Chen wanted to work with us, which is amazing, because he’s really cool. He’s a hard worker and he is a good technician. He’s good artist too, but he’s missing some more dance stuff, so I think it’s a good combination with me and Marie-France. The program is done and it looks really cool. I’m excited. It’s something that people are going to talk about for a long time.

With Stephen Gogolev, I did his show program. Also, Shoma Uno came last year and I’m going to work with him again this year. It’s a completely different vibe with a singles skater. You need to be able to keep the attention on you and make it interesting and dance big. They are so good, so it’s easy to make them look good. That’s something I liked because it’s a different playground.

For the pairs, we need to work more. I don’t like that they have a long preparation for the elements, I hate to see 3-4 seconds. Can’t we cut it a little? The pairs are also very rigid, they have less flow in the upper body and are very square. That’s some work we need to do, but we can do anything when we train and when we want it. I love new challenges. I need to do different stuff and that’s why I’m invested in so many projects, so that there’s no day that it’s the same. I need to keep it fresh to keep it exciting. Everyday I’m super excited to start my day, because I couldn’t ask for a better job than this. It’s actually not a job, it’s just fun.

IDC:  If you were a skater, what discipline would you skate and what music/routines would you choreograph for yourself?

SC: Ice dance for sure! It would be something contemporary and emotional. I love a good story. Moulin Rouge would have been something I’d loved to do for myself. I’m very into storytelling, so it would be for sure a story, something sung by a guy. Right now I’m listening to Dermot Kennedy a lot. It’s a good mix between the big hip-hop hits and something more melodic. I’d like to suggest it even just for a show or just for fun.

IDC: Which female skater would you pick as your partner?

SC: As for the partner… Oh man…


IDC: Marie-France?

SC: Marie-France is fun. We dance together some times. I love her so much and I’ve learned so much from her. Ah! It’s so hard. I don’t want to say it because it’s going to be written. They all have something special. but I would say Tessa because… because. And then Madi dances so well, and Olivia… Caro is so good as well, but I think with Madi, Olivia, and Tessa, we communicate well and it would be easy to work with. Right now, we are planning some dance things on- and off-ice with Madi, Gabriella, and I. We are going to do a little dance video in the city, and I’m going to choreograph something for them. I like to show that the skaters can do other stuff too. They can dance off-ice too.

IDC:  Do you have anything else to add?

SC: I’m open and very excited to meet new dancers from other countries. I would encourage every skater if they want to bring me over there to give seminars. I would be interested because I want to share what I know for the next generation. I don’t like competition and I know it’s a very competitive world, but for me it would be so much better if everyone would be in the same community and share and be inspired by everybody. It’s better than it was before, the Nancy Kerrigan times. At Worlds, I felt like it was so cool to see all friendships coming from the same dance school. It was the first time you saw something like with Madi and Gabriella. I would encourage all the skaters to take dance classes. Sometimes I teach a seminar and ask if people took dance classes before and when I see people that don’t. It’s called “patinage artistique” for a reason: “patinage,” you do but “artistique,” it’s an even longer word and you don’t dance? Besides that, just Montréal rocks!