Thursday, 27 November 2014

'Tis The Cezanne For Art History: Gilbert Stuart's 'The Skater'

In 1775, American artist Gilbert Stuart left the United States bound for London, England and became an apprentice of fellow Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. His success was prodigal and as the student caught up to the teacher, West desired to sit for a portrait by his star pupil. This painting was so well received at the 1781 Royal Academy exhibition that Stuart was approached by a well to do Scotsman named William Grant who wished to commission a portrait as well.

When Stuart and Grant met to commence work on the portrait, Grant remarked that "on account of the excessive coldness of the weather... the day was better suited for skating than sitting for one's portrait." Rather than sit in the frigid cold, both men headed for the Serpentine River in London's Hyde Park and took to the ice to get their skate on. The artist turned out to be an artist on the ice as well, by accounts attracting an admiring crowd with his skating. However, the ice began to crack and Grant pulled Stuart to the shore by his coattails. When they returned to the studio, Stuart began to paint Grant's head but suggested instead a painting inspired by their icy adventure at Hyde Park. Grant consented and 'The Skater' was born from Stuart's memory of their experience. 

'The Skater' appeared at the following year's Royal Academy exhibition and was an instant hit... a first. Skating simply hadn't been greatly portrayed in classical art much previously. Notable exceptions were pieces by Pieter Bruegel de Elder, Hendrick Avercamp's "Winter Landscape With Skaters" (circa 1608), Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne's 1625 painting "The Four Seasons: Winter" and the nude man on the oversized skate on the right wing of the Triptych of the Garden Of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1500). Although previous pieces of art had depicted ice skating, none I was able to find focused so centrally on one single figure on skates. Art critic of the time John Collum wrote of Stuart's painting, "one would have thought that almost every attitude of a single figure had long been exhausted in this land of portrait painting, but one is now exhibited which I do not recollect before - it is that of skating." 'The Skater' kickstarted Stuart's career and he described his sudden success as being "suddenly lifted into fame by a single picture". Today, you can see Stuart's painting at the National Gallery Of Art in Washington, D.C. It is part of the American Collection, alongside works by Thomas Cole and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

The painting likely inspired artists to use skating as a medium for years to come, including Scottish artist Henry Raeburn's masterpiece 'The Skating Minister' which was created in the 1790's and not fully attributed to Raeburn until 2005. Skating would continue to inspire artists - visual, literary, musical and performance - for years to come. From skating's own Toller Cranston to poetry by William Wordsworth to music by composer Émile Waldteufel's Les Patineurs Waltz (Die Schlittschuhläufer-Walzer), skating has played muse to all walks of art and continues to do so to this day. Two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button has one of the largest private collections of skating art going, including R. Tait McKenzie's 1925 bronze ice statue of Button's coach Gus Lussi 'The Ice Bird', an 1875 oil painting of a man skating in a kilt by John Gadsby Chapman and 1875 W.H. Willcox painting "Skating On The Schuyhill". The connection between art and skating has inspired a lovely book by two time World Champion Frances Dafoe called Figure Skating And The Arts that delves into this topic deeply... but trust me, art history and figure skating may well be making a reappearance or two in the blogs to come. 

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Interview With Bernard Ford

When I called Bernard Ford and said it was a pleasure to speak with him, his response was "you don't know that yet". I already knew I was in for a treat. With that wonderful wit that I grew up with in a British family, I instantly felt at ease speaking with a living legend. With four British titles, four European titles and four World titles to his credit, Bernard Ford and his partner Diane Towler-Green dominated the world of ice dancing in the second half of the sixties. They pioneered the sport by adding lifts, twizzles and dance spins to a discipline that had always been skated firmly with two feet on the ground. Towler and Ford won the demonstration event of ice dancing at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France and handily, the World Professional title after winning their last World title as well. Ford's true contributions to skating after ending his competitive career are simply staggering as you will learn more in this interview. He's coached Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, invented a well known compulsory dance and continues to coach in Edmonton, Alberta. I think it's only fitting that you pour yourself a cup of tea and prepare yourself for an interview that is simply MUST READ in every sense:

Q: Not only did you win four British, European and World titles and a World Professional title, but you and your partner Diane Towler-Green were also the first 'unofficial' Olympic Gold Medallists when you won the ice dance competition at the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, which was a test (or demonstration) event. Looking back on all of these amazing accomplishments decades later, what moments stand out as your proudest ones... the most special memories?

A: I never know how to talk about the Olympics. It wasn't an Olympic event but we did have the top ten teams in the world so I guess it's 'unofficial'. To be honest with you, coming from my background in Birmingham - very industrial, low end - meeting The Queen was to me almost like Britain landing a man on Mars. Some of the skating achievements were hard work but meeting The Queen was a direct result of skating and it was quite incredible. We were invited to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. We were there with sixteen to twenty people in groups. She entered and went around and met everyone. I was around nineteen or twenty maybe and I didn't know so I just moved around from group to group and she was moving around the room in a circle as well. She never got to the group we were in. She eventually said, "Can I meet these people?" so a man came over and said "The Queen would like to meet you now". It was quite something. We went to Buckingham Palace and met her a second time at an Investiture and the third time I met her was the 100th anniversary of the National Skating Association. It was a dream and each time, I was never prepared. As for skating memories, I think the time we came fourth in Europeans in Moscow in 1965 was quite a big thing for me - to actually appear in front of so many people and to be approached in the street. It was like being a pop star. Winning first world medal as well as at the 1968 World Championships in Geneva - to get a bunch of 6.0's under the old system was quite something. You can never take things for granted but things were really quite different then. If you won the European Championships, it was a foregone conclusion you were to win the Worlds as well... but you still had to work very hard for it.

Q: You are a pioneer when it comes to ice dancing. You and Diane introduced elements like lifts, twizzles and dance spins to a discipline that had never seen anything like that previously. At the time, was there a lot of resistance to what you were doing to change ice dance or did people genuinely just appreciate the direction you were taking in revolutionizing the sport?

A: I'm a totally honest person and I have to say we had friends from Canada who had come to England who were competing professionally who were doing lifts. We were not the first to do lifts but we were first to introduce them to amateur skating. I would never take credit for inventing them. There was support but also a lot of resistance - "rules are meant to be meant not broken"... that sort of thing. You just remove yourself from that and let other people debate it. That's what judges are for. If they're talking about it, it means something.

Q: You were coached by the great Gladys Hogg - who also coached legends like John Nicks, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy and Courtney Jones and his two partners June Markham and Doreen Denny. What made Gladys Hogg such a legendary and successful coach and are there aspects of her teaching style that you find yourself using in your own coaching?

A: I was just a kid at the time and I started off traveling from Birmingham to London. I grew up skating in club competitions with John Curry. I would beat him in the free skate and he would always beat me in dance which is the irony of the whole thing. My parents would drive me down to London every Friday night. It was a whole day trip back then, not like it is now. It was about six or seven hours of driving. I'd go to have lessons w Miss Hogg. My mother asked Miss Hogg to watched my dancing. She just picked Diane off the session, tried us out and spotted that this was going to work. She said to my parents - "you better make this work". I honestly don't ever remember any lessons because she was such a great coach. She bred into you a way learning without ever making you feel like you were taking a lesson. She obviously taught a great technique too. It was just bred into you.

Q: Let's talk a bit more about your singles career before you went to go skate with Miss Hogg and were teamed up with Diane. Was singles skating something you wish you could have pursued more?

A: I was a terrible competitor but really a good free skater. I was just sort of a disaster in high level competitions but in local club competitions I would do well. Birmingham in the 1960's really produced so many important skaters. There was John Curry. There was Janet Sawbridge, who went on to partner Torvill and Dean together. I used to skate with Pamela Davis, who went on to become the coach of Robin Cousins. It was a booming center of developing talents at the time. I don't regret what I did but I didn't enjoy being alone on the ice in competition. The singles skating was part of the secret about my dance success. I was a man and I could skate.

Q: When you were competing obviously there was a huge emphasis on the compulsory dances. Do you agree with their elimination from competition and what do you think about the way ice dancing is being judged today?

A: When we started coaching, I knew a lot of judges. When I first came to Canada, there were a few people who kind of saw me as a guiding light so I was in a position where I could speak to judges frankly and say "I don't understand something - what is the difference between a 5.5 or a 5.8?" Why judge one team who does sixty five lifts against another who does like three? If you're a judge that likes lifts maybe, but it all seemed sort of off balanced to me. Eventually when I was living in Seattle, I came back to Toronto to do a level four coaching seminar. I was working with a coach there and we had a long discussion about programs. I thought they should all have set elements - this many lifts, this many footwork sequences, those sorts of things. With this discussion, I initiated a conversation about this new judging system! The fact we brought coaches in with callers... I didn't invent the new judging system but I did initiate the thought process that got the ball rolling. As for the compulsory dances, they are like doing scales on the piano. Although juniors and seniors now do the short dance they still have to do compulsory dances as they are coming up and the compulsory dance is part of the short dance. As long as they're involved somewhere, that's great because they are the very basic elements we use for guidance.

Q: Over the years, you have had your fair share of experience not only coaching but also in judging professional competitions. What was the judging experience like for you and being a former World Professional Champion yourself, do you feel that competitions for professional skaters without ISU rules are something that should make more of a comeback in the future?

A: I always regret because my partner was not interested in doing shows. I enjoyed touring, skating shows and exhibitions so for years and years I could never go and watch shows and professional competitions. I always ended up crying because I was never allowed to perform like that. I just got backroaded in coaching. As much as I enjoyed judging those professional competitions, it was also painful. All we have now is ISU competitions but at the end of the day, I don't know where those kids go who have a talent beyond that other than skate on ships. There are so many skaters with so much talent with nothing to do when their time competing comes to an end. On one side of the scale, we have all these coaches but the other side of the scale is becoming so light. There are no venues for these people to work. I find it very frustrating. I see it as just a matter of time until it comes back again. It's very difficult. Ice shows are not what they used to be. It's not the best situation.

Q: Since you emigrated here to Canada in the early 1970's, you've done so many remarkable things - coaching Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, co-founding the York Region Skating Academy in Richmond Hill and inventing the Cha Cha Congelado compulsory dance among them. How hard was the transition from your own skating career to being on the other side of the boards?

A: When I first came to Canada, I was working at the Cricket and Granite Clubs as a club coach. I had sort of removed myself from the competitive side altogether. I was just glad to earn money and send it back to my parents. We were not a wealthy family by any stretch of the imagination. I always felt like I owed them. I was earning a good living and taking care of them. There were certain people in the Association who always tried to keep one of my legs in competitive skating. I always wanted to be involved but one side of my head said that's over and the other side was saying I could make difference and do some good. 

Q: How did you come to work with Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall?

A: Rob McCall and Marie McNeil would come down with three other teams from Halifax in the summers and I would help them as much as I could. Barbara Graham got in touch with me and said Tracy Wilson and her partner Mark Stokes were left without a coach, free dance... nothing, could I help? They moved up and won  the Junior Championships that year and then Mark quit. Tracy, of her own volition, phoned Rob McCall and asked him if he would skate with her. They came back to Toronto and I started teaching both of them together.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: I guess there are four. John Curry would be one. He did so much for the sport along with Robin Cousins. They were both British male skaters coming through from England, but they revamped the very thought of what figure skating was. Torvill and Dean of course. They were a breath of fresh air, a guiding force and gave ice dance a level of credibility where other disciplines would respect and watch what we did. I would have to say John Nicks as well because he's from Brighton and Miss Hogg taught him and his sister. He went to South Africa and then went to the States. It's rare a World Champion produces that many champions. He just really led and developed pairs skating.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: The size of my feet? I have no idea! Anyone that's creative loves to create. My life has been so much creativity and misery at the same time. If I'm not creating, I'm in the depths of depression. I am always looking for the next creative challenge. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a missionary in Africa. I could have left England and gone to the U.S. and made a lot of money... but I came to Canada and wanted to do some good and help people. I'd like to think I do good work, but it's just the challenge of using your brain, using music and trying to pull something out of nothing that keeps me going.

If you enjoyed my interview with Bernard, be sure to always check back for more skater interviews and writing about everything under the sun in the skating world. There is also a Facebook page connected to the blog where all blog articles and interviews are shared - as well as current skating news, photos and videos of amazing skating. Give it a "like" at You can also follow me on the Twitter at I love talking figure skating and would love to talk about the sport with you!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Skating Blogs Without Music Only Lead To Treble

It seems like as long as skaters have been skating to music, they've been making it off the ice as well. It doesn't really come as any great surprise to me that so many skaters have found such great success in the world of music considering what a great ear for music skaters really have to have in order to interpret it. I wanted to take a look at just a small sampling of some of the skaters who have, in the sport's history, ventured into the music world.

A great place to start is with 1964 Olympic Gold Medallist and World Champion Manfred Schnelldorfer. After turning professional following his Olympic and World title wins, Schnelldorfer became immensely popular in West Germany not only as an actor with roles in films such as Holiday in St. Tropez and Spukschloß im Salzkammergut but as a pop singer as well. From 1964 to 1966, Schnelldorfer released hit singles including "Wenn Du Mal Allein Bist", "Traurigsein Bringt Nichts Ein" and "Dich Hab' Ich Gesucht". Schnelldorfer wasn't the only World Champion from West Germany to take a stab at singing. Two time Olympic Silver Medallists Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler also BOTH found success as actors and singers in the sixties. Here's Bäumler singing up a storm:

Eight time Italian Champion Matilde Ciccia may have made history with partner Lamberto Ceserani as one of the three Italian teams who participated in the first official Olympic ice dance event in 1976, but like Kilius, Bäumler and Schnelldorfer, she also found herself pursuing both musical and acting careers after her competitive career winded down. In addition to acting in the films "Sbirro, la tua legge è lenta... la mia no!" and "Zappatore", Ciccia was out on vinyl in 1981 with her two track record "Roller Go", where she was pictured in roller skates. It featured the title track and the B-side "L'Estate Che Verrà". It's kitschy as anything but it's charmingly steppy at the same time!

Now it's time for one of my personal favourites! Who could forget when Katarina Witt teamed up with Loop (which included a former La Bouche singer and one of the 'real Milli Vanilli singers') to present her deliciously Eurodance hit "Skate With Me" in 1995? While the lip sync in this clip would definitely not cut the mustard on RuPaul's Drag Race, this song is deliciously toe tapping and I think someone totally needs to skate to it. I'm looking at you, Ashley Wagner!

A three time Canadian Champion and So You Think You Can Dance? Canada finalist, Emanuel Sandhu also made a foray into the music world when he released the song "Burn Up The Floor" and took to the ice to skate to it in 2007. Very much in the vein of someone like Shawn Desman, Sandhu showed that he is by no means a 'one trick pony'. Anyone that can skate, dance and sing on a high level deserves major props.

Bringing things full circle much like Sandhu, Eric Radford composed a beautiful piece of music called "Tribute" as a dedication to his late coach Paul Wirtz and used it to deliver not one but TWO tear jerking performances at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia with partner Meagan Duhamel. Creating music is one thing, but the experience of bringing the music and the skating together is another entirely. The music and the program that was skated to it was simply put... just beautiful.

There are so many other skaters whose musical journeys I'd love to talk about - Robin Cousins' career on Broadway, Denis Ten's compositions and Elvis Stojko's single "Let Me Be The One" among them -  but I think my interview with skater and composer Tim Dolensky reminded that much like in the case of Eric Radford or Emanuel Sandhu, the marriage of one's own music and movement is simply put something very special. I'm really awestruck by it all. Strike up the band!

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

ISU GRAND PRIX: Skate Guard Trophée Éric Bompard Coverage

"Four down, two to go!" That's what I said when I sat down to put fingers to keyboard to start putting together this recap of the fifth stop on this year's ISU Grand Prix. This year's Trophée Éric Bompard competition was held at the Meriadeck Ice Rink in Bordeaux, France and much like the four Grand Prix events that preceded it, featured a dazzling cast of the world's very best skaters. As always... a little disclaimer. Please keep in mind with all the coverage of any competition on Skate Guard as always I'll post videos of some of the most standout performances. Many of them might be geoblocked in your country, and for that I apologize. Around the time of major competitions, videos go up every minute and come down and get geoblocked just as fast. If you're unable to watch videos in your country, I've got some great advice for you. Go to YouTube, and under your search settings you can select 'Upload Date'. If you type in keywords for the competition or skater you want to see, you can narrow it down to 'Today' or 'This Week' and usually find just what you're looking for in minutes! And now, on to the event at hand...

Russia's Maxim Kovtun won the Cup Of China event ahead of an injured Yuzuru Hanyu, but I can't say that his performance in the free skate there reached out and grabbed me in any way, shape or form. When he lands his jumps, they're certainly beautiful but the musical interpretation kind of always seems to leave a little bit to be desired when he skates I find. The problem in China was that he didn't land all of the jumps and got propped up with that second mark. His short program in Bordeaux started out well with a quad/triple combination but falls on his second quad attempt AND the triple axel really left a flat impression at the program's end but nonetheless Kovtun was still up there in sixth place after the short... naturally ahead of Adam Rippon who delivered a lovely performance because, you know, that just makes sense... In the free skate, there's no questioning that he delivered the goods technically. Two quads, two triple axels and three other triples to boot certainly make for an exciting program and a deservedly high TES score. The third highest PCS score of the night though? Again, I don't think so. As great a skater as this guy is, I can't agree with that kind of judging. He won his second Grand Prix event and a ticket to the Grand Prix Final with a final score of 243.35.

Japan's Tatsuki Machida won Skate America with two outstanding performances and three quads. You gotta hand it to Machida... he's a very consistent skater who doesn't seem to have any trouble delivering when it counts and after winning both his Grand Prix assignments last year, I certainly had every expectation he'd fare well at this event. In the short program, he had errors on two of his three jumping passes but his PCS score was enough to keep him ahead of Konstantin Menshov, who delivered a spectacular short program with two different quads. In the free skate, he again unravelled and although he did land five triple jumps and has quite a fine program, I personally don't feel that his PCS score of 84.00 (the highest of the men) should have been higher than Denis Ten's, speed not withstanding. It's an apples or oranges type thing, though. I do think with all of the mistakes this silver medal and score of 237.74 was a little bit of a gift here. Machida's just so much better than the performances we saw here.

Olympic Bronze Medallist and World Silver Medallist Denis Ten had a rough outing at Skate America and finished just off the podium there, in fourth with a score of 224.74. He told me in my interview with him that he's very much in it for the long haul and that "my goal is PyeongChang 2018". Ten's short program at this event was outstanding. A quad toe, triple axel and triple lutz/triple toe all punctuated the refined choreography set to the vocals Joseph Callejia in his program brilliantly. A score of 91.78 placed him at the top of the leaderboard entering the men's free skate. I have to honestly say that I LOVE Denis' free skate this season. The choreography is nuanced, musical and original and it's just such a cut above what we saw from the other men at this event. I was so excited when I saw him land that quad/triple at the start of his free skate but with all of the pops he really left so many points on the dinner table and ended up dropping to third with an overall score of 236.28. I can't wait to see that free skate at it's best when he peaks though. Imagine it with all of the jumps landed... that's world title material right there.

Richard Dornbush was one of the men affected by the horse and pony show of a men's free skate at the Cup Of China. He won the bronze medal there and delivered quite a strong performance in the free skate, despite losing to a clearly very injured Yuzuru Hanyu who fell times and looked seriously disoriented after his warm up collision. It was clear with one look at him he was under the weather at this event and to go out and skate a clean short program in a Grand Prix event when you're not feeling your best is no small accomplishment. In the free skate, he unravelled though and dropped behind his teammate Adam Rippon who fared SO much better at this event than he did at Skate Canada... which made me really happy to see! Unfortunately, Douglas Razzano had some technical difficulties at this event and wound up in tenth place. There's another one who's a joy to watch when he's on!

After a rough short program that was in my opinion grossly overscored and then a nasty collision with Yuzuru Hanyu at the Cup Of China, Han Yan was back to compete at this event and his participation really revived the discussion about what happened in China and the ISU's typical avoidance and silence on hot button issues. Sochi anyone? The fact that in China he missed all three jumping passes yet still finished in third place in the short program there with a PCS score of 39.78 (ahead of a clean Misha Ge) and now in France landed one of his three jumping passes this time and earned a lower PCS score is just amusing to me. I'm sorry. His free skate wasn't much better (a little bit, a little bit of cold) and he finished off the day with a score of 216.85... in eighth place. As for that whole Cup Of China Yan/Ge scoring business, expect to hear more of that in a bit. I've got a blog on the way that takes a look at that, among other PCS scoring related issues.

Elena Radionova, Elena Radionova... Let me have a sip of a coffee. OK, you know what? ll give credit where it's due. This girl can jump and she can spin too. There's no denying that. Unfortunately her basic skating skills, posture, body line and musical interpretation leave a lot to be desired. This is figure skating, not figure jumping... and I can't say I agree whatsoever with the kind of PCS scores in any of the categories that are being doled out here. Radionova won both segments of the competition with technically challenging performances and a score of 203.92. Her free skate included a triple lutz, triple lutz/triple toe and triple loop/half loop/triple salchow combination. That said, her PCS score in the short program was only deemed the third best of the twelve ladies competing but in the free skate the judges rewarded her with the highest PCS marks over Lipnitskaia and Wagner. The illusion of art and art itself are two quite different things and I can't say that Radionova's technical prowess and youthful exuberance quite match up with Wagner's verve... but that's me.

After unravelling on some of the jumps in the free skate at the Cup Of China and finishing second to Tuktamysheva (and getting fined for missing the award ceremony), Julia Lipnitskaia proved she was indeed human. Who knew?! I jest. As with Radionova, I've been critical of Lipnitskaia's generous PCS scores and I think justifiably so, so entering this event I looked at the list of ladies competing and just assumed the title would go to whichever Russian lady stood up on the most triple/triple jump combinations. As we saw with Radionova's win, I was right. Lipnitskaia looked very on point in her short program (finishing second with a score of 66.79) but in the free skate she threw some points away. A double axel/triple toe/double toe was followed by a double axel/triple toe. She went on to attempt two triple flips, neither in combination and tack a double toe on the end of her final jump, the triple lutz. It was actually quite a gutsy skate technically but again, in terms of a whole package I'm not sure I'm buying it yet. Lipinitskia held on to second place in France with a score of 185.18.

After winning the silver medal at Skate Canada, two time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner entered this event as the reigning Trophée Éric Bompard Champion but obviously faced some serious competition here. On her programs this season, she told me in our recent interview that "This year, my maturity was something that really came into play when trying to choose pieces of music. Some of these girls weren't even alive when I started skating, and they'll keep on getting younger and younger from now on, so it's up to me to find a way around that. I have a lot of experience in the sport and Raf and I decided it was time to showcase that. We chose pieces of music that were very strong and emotional, even passionate." In winning the bronze medal with a score of 177.74 at this event and even giving a valiant attempt at a triple lutz/triple toe in the free skate - at the END of her program - Wagner reaffirmed that the somewhat forced storyboards of U.S. ladies figure skating in 2014 don't always reflect reality. I really do feel that if she builds on these early season successes, Wagner could very well be again the frontrunner come U.S. Nationals. Time shall tell.

After a sixth place finish in the free skate, Courtney Hicks rallied back with a very gutsy free skate that included two triple flips and two triple lutzes to move up to fourth place overall in Bordeaux with a score of 172.58. After her disappointing sixth place finish in an Olympic year, I have to say that Hicks is looking to be in VERY good shape this season and her name is very much in the "medal conversation" heading towards the U.S. Championships.

France's Maé-Bérénice Méité finished ninth at Skate America in Chicago and competing on home soil hoped to put together two solid performances in this event. In my interview with her, she told me that the world needs "more tolerance... and optimism!" and it seems fittingly optimistic that she trained even harder after Skate America. The hard work paid off in a fifth place finish in her home country with a score of 169.46. A triple salchow/triple toe and double axel/triple toe highlighted her free skate and a step out on the landing of her triple lutz was her only noticeable error in that portion of the competition. The judges seem to be lowballing her a little on the second mark this season so I'm hoping that by the time of Europeans these programs will develop further and rack up some more marks. Although she's known as a powerhouse of a jumper, we have to consider that if some of the world's top men who barely acknowledge their music whatsoever consistently gain high PCS scores, there's a double standard going on here a little... when the Russian dynamos get those marks and other "technicians" like Méité don't.

Finishing fourth at Skate America less than five points shy of the bronze medal there, Samantha Cesario was definitely another skater to watch at this event. In my interview with her earlier this year, she told me "one of my main goals is to perfect a triple/triple and up my technical side to keep up with the talent we have here in the U.S. as well as internationally. Another main goal is to improve on my skating skills and speed while continuing to bring entertaining programs to the audience. I think the new program I am currently working on is something a little different for me and I hope it shows off my skating in a fresh and fun light." Easing up on the technical content in both programs didn't do her any favors in this event, but she stayed on her feet and looked confident and classy throughout this event. Cesario finished the event with a score of 161.70 in seventh place.

Canada's Veronik Mallet finished tenth at Skate Canada and after Alaine Chartrand's bronze medal win at the Rostelecom Cup, I was crossing my fingers and toes and hoping that she'd live up to her wonderful potential and lay down two solid skates in Bordeaux. She struggled a little in both programs here but did manage to move up from eleventh to tenth place after the free skates were all said and done. Although she backed off a little in the latter part of her free skate, she did go for the lutz, flip and loop and hey... nothing wrong with that! Her final score was 139.64.

The overwhelming favourites in the pairs event were Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who were fresh off a convincing win at the Rostelecom Cup in their home country. They did so by posting the highest score we'd seen from any of the pairs competing on the Grand Prix this season, and while their programs are in my opinion a huge improvement on their material last year, I never seem to be able to find that emotional connection in their skating or relationship to the music I see with Kavaguti and Smirnov or the excitement that we all see in Duhamel and Radford's skating. They went clean in winning the short program with triple toes and a throw triple lutz and attacked their free skate as well, completing a throw triple lutz and throw triple salchow as well as both of their side by side jump passes. Their final score of 209.81 decisively won them their second consecutive Grand Prix event.

China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han were on fire at this event. Their short program to "Stray Cat Strut" was effortless and clean as a whistle and in their free skate set to the music of Tchaikovsky was exceptional. Like the Russians, every single jumping pass in both phases of the competition was executed flawlessly so it's no wonder their overall score of 200.68 wasn't really that far back from the Russians. While their quad twist is definitely an "ooo! aaa!" fireworks type moment, that tano twist in their short program is just as much of a highlight in my eyes.

Americans Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim finished just off the podium at Skate America in Chicago so hoped to rebound and post a strong result as the only American pair here. Although they were didn't claim the bronze medal which was won by China's Xuehan and Lei Wang, their free skate was quite strong and boasted side by side triple salchows and a throw triple loop. They ALSO landed their throw triple flip in both programs, so easy does it now... I think Denney and Frazier have some competition brewing.

Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro made their Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada and finished sixth of the eight pairs competing with a score of 158.82. As far as a competitive debut, it wasn't perfect but there was certainly potential there and as someone watching, I wasn't expecting them to come to this event and kill it. New partnerships take time and there's a huge learning curve to learning to perfect each element with somewhat new. Considering that many of the newer partnerships we've seen this season in pairs haven't exactly been smooth sailing, I think these two are actually doing pretty damn good in comparison. They did improve slightly on their Skate Canada score although they finished seventh at this event. With two side by side triple toes landed as well as both throws in the free skate, I certainly don't feel this team is on the same uphill battle as many of these other new pair teams this season. Once they find their stride and gain more confidence as a pair, the little kinks will iron themselves out. Their score in France was 159.13.

After winning the Cup Of China ahead of the reigning world champions, France's Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron entered this event on their home soil as the odds on favourites despite being up against two Canadian teams who had outranked them at last year's World Championships, a very strong American team, the Spaniards and Italians. One of two teams coached by Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon competing at this event, the attention not only to correct technique but put to presentation from this team is very evident. Their short dance score of 64.06 gave them a precarious lead of the field but their free dance sealed the deal. Their twizzles were excellent as was the first lift and I have no argument with this team winning here. Their final score was 166.66 and they'll be in Barcelona for the Grand Prix Final.

Canada's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier finished a strong second at Skate Canada in Kelowna but were almost twenty points behind the French team with a score of 152.60 so certainly hoped to make up some ground at this event. They did. Their short dance earned them a score of 61.90 and second place but their very ballroomy free dance again didn't have the same magic that their "Hitchcock" free dance did for me. Piper looked a bit off of the twizzles in the free dance but I did find that they looked a little more confident here. Their free dance score of 95.68 was a new season's best and their total score of 157.58 was enough for second place here... meaning we'll be seeing them in Barcelona for the Grand Prix Final as well!

Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue finished third at Skate Canada and have a really unique and refreshing free dance this season which is a modern interpretation of "The Great Gatsby" depicting the relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. The reviews have been really mixed but I actually like it... because I get what they are trying to do. I see a lot of Navarro and Bommentre in this team in that they are taking risks and experimenting and seem to be creating a body of work and not just very clinical "West Side Story"/"Carmen" type free dances. I'm not saying the free dance was textbook technically - there is room for some growth - but a season's best free dance score of 91.92 is still nothing to sneeze at. Coupled with their short dance score, Hubbell and Donohue won the bronze medal.

I think Spain's Sara Hurtado and Adrian Diaz are just fantastic. When I interviewed them last year, they told me their biggest goal was to be Olympians and not only did they achieve that in Sochi but a thirteenth place finish of the twenty four teams competing was absolutely nothing to sneeze at. This season, their free dance to "Atonement", "Meditation" and an original composition by Karl Hugo is a wonderfully abstract and intense piece with some innovative lifts and good edges but at both the Skate Canada Autumn Classic and Skate Canada International, they lost some ground with fifth place and eighth place finishes. As usual, the lifts were a highlight with this pair and the judges finally decided to cut them a LITTLE slack on the rest of it and dish them up a new season's best score in the
free dance. Their final score of 146.10 may not have been enough to move them up on the podium but the programs themselves (both of them) were a pleasure to watch.

Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam were tenth at last year's World Championships and their fifth place finish at Cup Of China with a score of 140.46 wasn't truly indicative of their talent, in my opinion. The ice dance field at their first Grand Prix outing was particularly deep and I was excited to see how they'd fare here in a more even playing field with their "Nocturno" and "Farruca Y Rumba" short dance and Frank Sinatra free dance. Unfortunately, they really seem to be losing some ground with the judges... and fast. Their final score of 138.99 is ten points back of their personal best from last year's Worlds and with Piper and Paul having such a massive lead on this team at this event, this team is going to have to dig in their skates and pull out all stops at Nationals. They've certainly got the talent to do it.

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Paso Primer: A Quick Field Guide To Sassy Short Dances

If you're anything like me, you love watching ice dancing but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, the technical side of ice dancing isn't exactly your area of expertise. When I skated, I didn't take a single dance test (not even a Dutch Waltz or Canasta) and during dance sessions would usually just make my way around the rink in the compulsory dance flow and skate edges or stroke or take a break or something. It just wasn't my thing. When I started judging skating, I obviously avoided the discipline altogether and focused on what I knew: singles skating. While I'm proud to say I know a thing or ten about pairs skating, I'm always trying to educate myself more about ice dance and in the last ten years I've learned a great deal... mostly thanks to reading, listening and most importantly... watching.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skate the Paso Doble

I was talking to Nevada ice dance coach Nancy Chacurian-Viveiros about the short dances during Skate America and thought... you know what? Let's do a really quick primer of sorts of what to look for in the short dances this season! There are important considerations when it comes to the Paso Doble. The beat is 2/4 and the flavour of the dance is a dramatic and powerful Spanish dance modelled after a French military march. The Paso centers around the male playing the role of a matador in a bullfight. The female typically portrays the part of a matador's cape but in some portrayals of the dance takes on the role of a flamenco dancer, the matador's shadow or even the bull itself. They may even be reverse roles going on in the dance depending on the choreography. A very upright upper body is something to always be looking for in this particular dance. Small steps (no more than shoulder width) when stepping to the side are something else to keep an eye out for. Skaters should maintain good speed and clean edges without skidding throughout the dance and the lifts should reflect the character and mood of the Paso Doble. As always, tidy feet and unison are the name of the game.

Maia and Alex Shibutani's short dance at Skate America

Nancy so kindly obliged in helping better explain what to look for: "Here it is in a nutshell and I mean NUTshell! Well, this year's rhythm is the Paso Doble and the dance team is required to skate to the strict timing indicated in the ISU rules. Also, you may hear more of a Flamenco style music as opposed to the strength of a Paso Doble. Both are acceptable, as long as the timing is correct. Within the choreography, what is required is a short lift that consists of a maximum six seconds, also a no touch step sequence, where the couple skates closely to one another without being in a hold position as they execute a series of turns and edges. Also required is a set of twizzles. In the midst of all this is the actual pattern dance, The Paso Doble, which already has set steps that should be performed in hold position. Only one sequence of the dance is required, however... after (and only after) the sequence is performed… a new addition to this years requirements in the short dance is performed: The Partial Step Sequence. There are chosen key points of the pattern dance itself: Key Point One for the lady which is steps eight to twelve and also Key Point Two which is the man's steps eight to twelve. Later, they must perform Key Point Three which is Step Twenty Eight for both man and lady. Here, they are looking for correct edges and turns and placement of the feet. Sound confusing?  I guess it is. Add in all the beautiful transitions, positions and drama and you've got a wonderful Paso Doble short dance for this season." How's that for a little primer? I think it's great!

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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

New Skate Guard Promo Video!


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Interview With Aleksander Liubchenko And Jean-Denis Sanchis

Gorgeous shirtless men lifting each other? Sign me up! Ukraine's Aleksander Liubchenko and France's Jean-Denis Sanchis have only been skating together as an acrobatic duo for a short time, but they are already earning a huge fan following in Europe and abroad and taking artistic and professional skating by storm. I was fortunate enough to speak with them leading up to the Xtreme Ice World Skating Championships in Russia, one of the few true live professional competitions out there offering an opportunity to acrobatic skaters worldwide to showcase their talents and compete in an ISU free zone of real creativity. We talked about their careers in competitive skating, what brought them together, how they learned some of the death-defying tricks they perform and much, much more! Get ready for an interview you are going to just love:

Alexandra Ilina photo
Q: Together you form one of the world's top acrobatic skating teams. What can you share about your skating background before you got into acrobatic or extreme skating and how you started in that vein of performing?

A from Aleksander: I began to skate when I was four years old because my father wanted me to become a hockey player. For this age, there was no difference in ages with the figure skaters and hockey players and I skated just to twelve years old in men's skating. I had all doubles and two triple jumps. After my federation decided to change my sport career, they gave me to the ice dancing. I can tell you that I was sure that ice dancing was not sport but after the first week of training, I understood that skating skills wise it is very, very difficult. I skated in Ukraine in the ice dancing pair and I made fix or six Junior Grand Prix and a lot of international competitions. I won a lot of them but after I decided to change my country because my Federation can't propose for me something great after my sport career. After two years of problems with Visa I came to France to skate with a French girl named Sarah Robert Sifaoui and so that's how I met JD. I made my first backflip on the ground at fourteen years old in the summer camp with my ex team so when I came to the new club in Bordeaux, I saw one crazy guy who made a lot of things on the ice and he is not so tall. I proposed just for a joke to make one lift from the pair skating but without technique or physical preparation and with our difference of weight of 15 kg (me 75 and he 60) it was not possible. We worked a lot and we learned some things I remembered from Besedin and Polishuk because when I was young I saw that they have already have been skating together and made a lot of things, so I proposed to make something like this. Our first presentation on public date of our acrobatic pair was on April 23, 2013.

A from Jean-Denis: I begin to skate ten years ago in Bordeaux Sport Ice just for fun at the beginning, I had my first partner at twelve years of ago and then when I was eighteen I was looking for a new partner and found Maria Stepanova from St. Petersburg but she did not have a Visa to change countries. In September 2012, I was at the Conservatoire de Bordeaux in contemporary dance C3 second year, to spend a DEC (Diplôme d'Educator Choreographer). In February 2013, Sarah Robert Sifaoui and Aleksander Liubchenko changed figure skating club from Paris and moved to the hometown of Sarah: Bordeaux. I sometimes helped Sarah and Aleksander in search of lifts, in the lobby. Sarah was extremely compact and agile but I saw HE easily did the work as a partner and he wasn't afraid of elements.

Q: How do you even create and perfect all of the crazy acrobatic tricks that you do? I imagine a lot of work happens off ice but have you worked with other male/male acrobatic pairs to perfect all of these risky elements as well?

A from Jean-Denis: One day Aleksander offered to me jokingly to do lifts. We learned a little technical ground is still hard PHYSICALLY to make up. Before, we could only do a backflip on the ground but we were excited about being acrobats on skates like Besedin and Polishuk.

A from Aleksander: Before we watched the tricks and elements in some videos, so for the beginning for us it was a joke and we worked together just when we wanted and in the garden or on the street but after invitation for the gala of the champions on the Grand Prix in Paris, we understood that it is interesting a lot of people and we began to have fans. We understood that we must work more and make more crazy things for impress public. So, in January 2014 we found one training place in our city and began to train and we had the progress but not so fast. In August 2014, we had found another place with a coach and real acrobats who won the French Championships and they were third in the World Championships in 2014. They are really great so we began to train with them and very, very fast we learn elements with high difficulty (like Besedin and Polishuk) but to transfer all of this on the ice we need more time, but you will see all this one day!

Q: You'll be joining skaters like Philippe Candeloro, Zabato Bebe, Marie-Pierre Leray, Annette Dytrt and Yannick Bonheur, Akop Manoukian and Aidas Reklys, Ievgen Lukashenko and Anton Kovalevski and American Open Champions Vladimir Besedin and Alexei Polishuk at this year's Xtreme Ice World Championships in Russia. What are your goals and secret weapons for this competition?

A from Aleksander: We are ice dancers, so no one from this competition can show more skating skills than we. This time we are changed and worked on our choreography a lot, so you will see something extraordinary. We have three new, new elements for example a backflip from my shoulders and two acrobatic lifts with the speed. Our goals are very simple. We want to WIN and now we are sure that we can!

Q: Aleksander, you hold the Guinness World Record for the longest ice skating backflip, which was done on the set of the CBBC show Officially Amazing in June of this year. Where did you get the idea to attempt to hold this record and how did you first learn the backflip?

A from Aleksander: I had learned my first backflip before our first presentation together. I could do it on the ground but on the ice it is different. You need to have good coordination. I did my first backflip perfectly for two days of training and for the next two days JD made exactly the same. I had sent one letter in June 2013 with one question to Guinness if anyone already had this record. I had an answer that Robin Cousins had the record in 5.48 meters which is really long. I wasn't sure I could beat it so I didn't answer Guinness. In May 2014, CBBC contacted me and proposed to me that I try to beat it and I said okay. I had a problem with my knee from the gym when I made the record. The exit was very bad the first two times. I tried to beat the record three times. The first time I made 5.28 meters. Here I realized all of the cameras from CBBC are on me and other French channels as well and I must win the record. The second time I had 5.50 and I won by .02 but understanding it was so close, I took the jump a third time with speed and got 6.09 meters, beating an Olympic Champion.

Q: How can "regular" skaters get more involved in acrobatic skating? There isn't exactly a how to book!

A from Aleksander: When I will put all of the gymnastic elements on the ice, I hope to open an ice acrobatic school but the message for now for everyone is try and don't be afraid.

A from Jean-Denis: There is a lack of skaters trying to repeat and improve acrobatics on ice. We aim at this, of course. but use common sense and self-preservation instincts to protect ourselves when doing acrobatic tricks like all of the world's best skaters like Philippe Candeloro, Surya Bonaly, Kurt Browning and others. We find working in the gym on new elements is important. We work on things in the gym to stop rotation of the body for fear of injury and proficiency. We use a special retainer for the neck. The MOST significant thing is stability. When we first transferred moves to the ice common sense and self-preservation instincts were not working and the first elements that were transferred to the ice FORMED the basis of fear. You have to spend the time in the gym practicing because when you perform adrenaline just rolls over you. If you stand on bare shoulders, the weight of the sharp blade and the risk of slipping and your carotid artery is very dangerous. You already know about the specifics of the lifts but speed with these tricks can cause injury. When you jump a somersault on the ground your feet and shoulder width are apart and you have to break up and wait when you turn. On the ice when you stick and you stick your toe pick and it is not parallel to the ice, there is an issue. To show acrobatics, you must test yourselves. Aim farther into the forest for the more wood!

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A from Aleksander: First, Kurt Browning. I think he is the best single skater ever. He made jumps but his performances and skating skills are great. I want to skate on the same ice with him! Secondly, ice dancing couple Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat. Then, pair skaters Volosozhar and Trankov. They are amazing. It is like Kurt Browning but in pairs. Of course, also my first coach who learned me basic skating in my home town in Kharkow, Tatiana Vasilievna Grusheva.


Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A from Aleksander: We first made backflips with the blades for the ice dancing (MK Dance). I have education of the artists of ballet (classic choreography). I have finished ballet school and college so I am choreographing ballet classic and I am coaching now with JD and studying choreography.

Q: What do you love most about figure skating?

A from Aleksander: It is the speed... and the possibilities on the ice.

A from Jean-Denis: I love to and want for the future to push my abilities to maximum on the ice with Aleksander, to go to the highest possible level by showing you that skating can be more than what one sees on TV to give you always more fun!

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Robert Wagenhoffer: Remembering A Great

One of the aspects I love most about writing a figure skating blog is having the chance to share the stories of skaters who may not have won an Olympic medal or a World title but who without question left an indelible footprint on the sport and left the ice better than they found it. Robert Wagenhoffer was without question one of those skaters.

Born in 1960, Robert's first efforts were actually in a pair of roller skates, not figure skates. He once stated that he opted for ice skating because roller skating "wasn't as smooth and lyrical as the ice." His amateur career could not have been any busier. Following in the footsteps of fellow Californian Ken Shelley, he balanced careers in elite level singles and pairs skating and found success in both arenas, pardon the pun.

As a junior, he was both the U.S. men's and pairs champion in the same year. Moving up to the senior ranks, he won the men's competition at both the 1977 Grand Prix St. Gervais competition in France and Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, which were held back to back at the time with many of the same skaters travelling via train from France to Oberstdorf to compete in both events. During this time, Wagenhoffer was also practicing quadruple toe-loops in competition... around a decade before the first ratified quad in competition would be landed by Kurt Browning.

At the 1978 U.S. Championships, Wagenhoffer turned his attention to pairs skating and finished just off the podium with his partner Vicki Heasley. The winners that year were Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner and the silver medallists were Gail Hamula and Frank Sweiding, who would go on to become a World Professional Champion with Anita Hartshorn. The following season, Wagenhoffer would again go on to skate singles during the fall season and medal in an invitational event in then Czechoslovakia before winning the silver medal at the 1979 U.S. Championships and going on to finish sixth in his only trip to the World Championships as a PAIRS skater. Despite devoting his full attention to pairs skating the following season and medalling at both Skate America and the NHK Trophy, Wagenhoffer and partner Heasley would finish off the podium at the 1980 U.S. Championships and narrowly miss a trip to the Lake Placid Olympics. Their partnership dissolved and Wagenhoffer focused his undivided attention to singles skating.

He won a silver medal at the NHK Trophy in the fall of 1980 right behind Japan's Fumio Igarashi and skated very well at the 1981 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Diego, California to finish third right behind Scott Hamilton and David Santee. This result afforded Wagenhoffer another trip to the World Championships, where he finished in the top ten. The following season would prove to be his final as an amateur and his finest. He started the season off with a silver medal at Skate America, sandwiched right between two future Olympic Gold Medallists - Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano. From there, he went on to win the silver medal behind Hamilton at that year's U.S. Championships and again earn a spot on the World team. Wagenhoffer's third trip to the World Championships saw him duplicate the sixth place finish he'd earned in pairs in 1979, proving without question he was every bit as good a singles skater as a pairs skater (if not better). Following those World Championships in Copenhagen, Wagenhoffer turned professional and joined the Ice Capades. It was only once he turned professional the true measure of his genius on the ice would come to be duly appreciated.

Wagenhoffer was both a showy and entertaining skater and a sensitive, creative artist. Highlights of his programs included his backflip, side cartwheel and wonderfully centered and cleverly ingenuitive spins. His career as a professional saw him tour with not only Ice Capades but also Tom Collins' Tour Of Champions, Gershwin On Ice (which he also choreographed) and the World Cup Champions On Ice theatre tour. He performed at Sea World and won the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in Jaca, Spain both in 1982 and 1989, the 1989 U.S. Open title and competed professionally at the World Cup Of Skating competitions held in the late eighties and early nineties in Canada as well. He choreographed for the Nutcracker On Ice tour and Brian Boitano's Skate Against Hate show and performed in fundraisers for AIDS research including Rock The Ice and Ice Fantastic. Wagenhoffer had been touched very personally by HIV and AIDS, having lost his brother in 1992 and his partner Billy Lawe three years later. Tragically, the same disease that claimed the lives of two of the people closest to him would also take Wagenhoffer from the skating world way too soon. He passed away on December 13, 1999 at thirty nine years of age.

In the 1999 Chicago Tribune Phil Hersh article "Skater's Death Raises Questions", Scott Hamilton is quoted in saying of his former competitor "Robert was one of the most gifted jumpers and classiest competitors I have ever known. He made everything look effortless. He gave all of us competing against him something to think about."

I want to finish this off by sharing the words of American Open Champion Doug Mattis, who graciously and beautifully remembered his mentor and friend: "When I was a kid, I watched Robert compete with wide eyes. I didn't want to blink, lest I miss something that he did. His movement seemed to ooze with ease like hard sauce drizzling over pudding. And the jumps were... jaw-dropping. I remember hearing from the kids in the ultra-cool L.A. crowd that he probably could have trained a bit harder…that he was somewhat resistant of the competitive machine demanding that he be what they wanted, on and off the ice. There were many rumours that he was gay, hissed as asides by skating officials and coaches as both put-down and explanation of why he might not be an odd-on favorite to inherit the national title. Those rumours resonated with me - they made us comrades, even though we’d only met to say hello (I was kid in novice when he was in seniors). We faced the same hate for being who we were born to be. Even though I was closeted as a teenager, I felt like Robert and I were brothers (along with the other gay people in skating that weren't the subject of so much conversation). His ability made him, to me, like Merlin…how did he do triples and quads with such ease? Let alone his fluidity of movement, extension, and musicality? His story, as told to me by people as a tacit threat not to be like him…made him, to me, like someone I knew I'd befriend at some point. We were friendly over the years. We'd see each other at parties or at the club (after he'd turned pro, while I was still competing), and he'd always have an encouraging word to say and tell me some small thing that I’d done, skating-wise, that had impressed him. Robert Wagenhoffer being nice to me was such a very, very cool thing to me. I deeply appreciated it. We saw each other briefly after Rick Scarry (a skater and Robert's close friend) had died of AIDS…and I just remember bursting into tears - even though Rick and I were just casual pals. Robert hugged me and assured me everything would be okay… when it was his friendship with Rick that I was trying to reference in my words to him, 'I'm so sorry'.) I was young, completely afraid and Robert, whom I should have been consoling, gave me a hug and told me everything would be okay. We worked together for the first time in the early nineties. He choreographed some numbers for me in a show in Miami. Every day was a joy. Robert had an easy laugh and we both liked hard work, for hours and hours on the ice sometimes, to feel like play time. And it did. He was there with his partner, Billy Lawe. Seeing the deep connection they had... it was inspiring to me. I introduced he and Billy to the gorgeous guy I was dating over dinner one night and next day during a quiet moment between stints of choreography, he said, 'Don’t hate me. That guy? You can do better.' Later Billy showed up at the rehearsal and said to Robert, 'Did you tell him, yet?' and Robert nodded, laughed, and tucked his straggly blonde hair behind his ears (as he often did). Billy said, 'Doug, we think the world of you. You can do better.' I had new brothers. A new addition to my family. Robert made sure not to choreograph 'down' to me. He challenged me, made sure I could do all of his signature moves (as a means by which to make me see the work and abandon the notion that it was all 'magic'), and he made sure the numbers he did for me were tricky - deathly tricky - so I would go on stage… every night… nervous. 'That’s how you keep your self feeling alive on skates, brother!' he would tell me, laughing. A few years later, we both starred in the Santa Rosa Christmas show - he as the primary star, me as a featured skater. Billy's health wasn't great and Robert and I had talks about how he was handling it and getting through each day. Just a season later, I starred in that same headliner role… and did a number ("Can’t Cry Hard Enough") largely based on those conversations - a kind of tribute to both Robert and all of the men that we have loved in skating and lost to AIDS. The night I heard we lost Robert I cried and cried. Skating was everything to him - his primary demon and salvation. I could say one million times 'I wish' about the things I wish for Robert - that he'd survived though protease inhibitors… that the skating machine had been more kind to him while he competed... but I know Robert would just laugh at me, tuck his hair behind his ears, and tell me to get on with being happy in my life and spreading the love. So I will."

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