After months of being joined at the hip, ice dancers Caroline Green and Michael Parsons found themselves cut off from each other from March until June of this year, living with their families 15 minutes apart in Rockville, Maryland, during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The spring and early summer are normally crucial building-block times for ice dance and pairs teams constructing new programs as they choose new music and work on choreography. Green and Parsons didn't want to lose momentum in just their second season as a duo at the senior level, so they were diligent about doing fitness workouts led by their coaches via Zoom. Parsons built a contraption to do pullups and inverted situps in his backyard, and used a downed tree limb for shoulder presses.
Staying in shape artistically was a different matter. Parsons and Green had decided they wanted to change up the music for their short program, or rhythm dance. So Green applied an old adage: She danced with the one who brought her, persuading her older brother and former partner Gordon to serve as a stand-in until she could train with Parsons again.
It wasn't as simple as it sounds. Sure, the siblings had skated together for 10 years and won the 2019 junior national championship, but Gordon had since left the sport and was looking ahead to his freshman year of college. And the required pattern for the rhythm dance this season isn't the easiest romp around the rink. It's the Finnstep, a showy ballroom quickstep that, as stated on ice-dance.com, calls for "very crisp and tidy timing as well as footwork."
"I do not know all of the boys' steps, so it was kind of just a lot of trial and error," Caroline Green said, laughing. "There was no video, thank goodness. I'm sure it was a little rough. Some of the things I tried -- oooh, they didn't quite work."
In some ways, elite U.S. ice dancers and pairs skaters were no different from millions of people worldwide who adapted to taking movement classes via Zoom or other video applications. But there was one important difference. The skaters eventually had to transfer those remotely taught dance moves, intricate step sequences and lifts -- the athletic maneuvers that are often the highlight of programs -- to their far more slippery workplace.
The steps that worked as they slid around hardwood floors in their socks, or the flips they practiced in the backyard, didn't necessarily fly once they got back on the ice. Imagine water polo players training on grass. It's just not quite the same.
The programs that U.S. dance and pairs teams will debut for a national television audience at Skate America (Friday and Saturday, NBCSN) at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas -- the first major event in a truncated international figure skating season -- are the product of innovation born of necessity and aided by technology.
Dallas-area pairs skaters Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc assembled new short and long programs despite not having seen their choreographer, Michigan-based Pasquale Camerlengo, in person since last season. Normally, the 2019 national champions would work together on the ice for at least two weeks, with periodic checkups and fine-tunings throughout the season.
"Having to look at what they're doing on a small screen or a computer, sometimes with bad wi-fi, and then they have to see how you're interpreting that over a small screen, and doing all of this on the floor, so you're not even on the same medium ... oof, it was challenging," LeDuc said. "It was definitely very outside our comfort zone. When we started, I would have been like, 'You're crazy, that's never gonna happen, how on earth would we do that?' And here we are."
Now that they have journeyed this far, actual competition will test the athletes in a different way. Performing in an empty arena will deprive the skaters of the crowd energy they normally feed off. But the show is going on, and they are troupers, as recent months demonstrate.
For many top skaters, this season began abruptly with the end of the previous one, as the 2020 world championships in Montreal were canceled a week out.
Veteran ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates had been looking forward to competing in the city that has been their training base since mid-2018.
"The pandemic took us off the ice for the longest time since we started skating," Chock said. Both began competing as young children and have since been selected for two Olympic teams together. (Bates made a third with an earlier partner.) "Not having that build and release and letdown after the competition -- we were so ready and primed to compete, and to have to go into lockdown right after that was very strange. Our bodies were a bit confused."
During the three months she and Bates were unable to access ice and unsure of when they might compete again, they found themselves relying on their longtime choreographer and dance coach at the Ice Academy of Montreal, Sam Chouinard, for technique and inspiration.
"Sam is the most energetic person I've ever met," Bates said. "He's like, "HEY GUYS OK WE'RE GONNA DO THIS." The couple laughed.
Chouinard, who said he learned an enormous amount from teaching remotely, has since treated himself to what he calls a "Britney mic" -- the same type of cordless headset favored by Britney Spears in concert -- so his exhortations can be heard above music on a video call. His attitude helped Chock and Bates through some tedium as they danced in the entryway near their kitchen, or practiced lifts in a space thankfully high-ceilinged enough not to endanger her head.
"Prior to COVID we would have said that's kind of silly, but we just got used to it," Bates said. "Our norms have changed so much."
While Chock and Bates elected to stay put in Canada, fellow ice dancers and Montreal academymates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker moved in with her family in Buffalo. They began working on new programs almost immediately in Zoom sessions with Chouinard and their main coach, Marie-France Dubreuil.
Two-time U.S. bronze medalists Hawayek and Baker caught a break with ice time when a Buffalo rink was allowed to reopen early in order to convert one ice sheet into a daycare center for children of essential workers. The team was able to rent ice while staying sufficiently distanced from others in the building. Still, they faced the issue of being physically separated from their coach and choreographer and communicating exclusively via Zoom.
"Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we're always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven't dealt with that, so everything we've put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing." Michael Parsons, ice dancer with partner Caroline Green
Working on their own and consulting frequently with their coaches, Hawayek and Baker gradually built confidence. It was the first time they'd ever had that much input in a competitive program, although they had choreographed their own exhibition numbers.
They had a useful tool provided by the federation -- an auto-follow camera system called Move N See, which can be used with smartphones or tablets that sync with a watch worn on the ice. The system tracks from multiple spots around the rink and enabled Dubreuil to give the skaters feedback in real time from the big screen in her living room.
"We would record ourselves doing the same movement three different ways, from different angles, and be inspired by the work we did in Zoom on the floor and try to make it ours on the ice," Hawayek said.
She and Baker moved back to Montreal in June and, after an obligatory 14-day quarantine, reunited with Dubreuil on the ice in early July -- properly distanced, of course. The result? A modified version of their previous season's disco-themed rhythm dance (2 minutes, 40 seconds) and an entirely new four-minute free dance program skated to the music of Philip Glass and Blondie.
"What you can see on video sometimes is deceiving, sometimes it's great and sometimes it's not," Hawayek said. "Marie-France was very happy seeing only a two-dimensional view with this camera, that it worked out well in a three-dimensional way when we got here.
"We got to bring our own flair and creativity to the work. We kind of took the reins a little bit in our career in a way."
Green and Parsons echoed that sentiment.
"I think it's made these programs more ours, if that makes sense," Parsons said. "Usually the cycles of feedback we go through, we're always incorporating what other people want to see in our programs. We haven't dealt with that, so everything we've put into this is us. Which I think is a really cool thing. These programs feel very genuine."
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc livened up their at-home training with help from husband-and-wife skaters Robin Johnstone and Andy Buchanan, who have performed with Cirque du Soleil. With their instruction, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc incorporated walkovers -- where Cain exits a lift by putting her hands on the ice and flipping over into their new programs.
The pairs took advantage of sunny spring weather in Dallas to try some lifts and throws in a grassy yard, and posted one Instagram video of Cain-Gribble spinning airborne over LeDuc's outstretched arms on a concrete sidewalk outside their home.
Indoors, "we were on a hardwood floor in our socks so we could kind of shoosh around and do our best to fake ice-skate," LeDuc said. "Everything on ice relies on speed and how we're using the space that we have. On the floor, you can't predict how many pushes you need, how long it will take. When we finally got back on the ice, there were times it was like, 'We're gonna have to retool this.' Other parts we predicted perfectly."
As assiduous as they'd been about trying to simulate skating, cold reality awaited when their rink reopened. "You're super excited and you have all this adrenaline to skate, and you're doing your jumps and everything feels good," Cain-Gribble said. "Then a week went by. My body hurt, everything's hurting. We had no idea what was coming next. You train, and you don't know what you're training for."
Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic ice dance champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist with his partner Meryl Davis, has choreographed programs for all levels since he retired but stepped back from the sport in this strange year. "I would want to be able to be present," he said. "There's nuance that comes from the physical participation of the choreographers. I really feel for those who are pushing through this."
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The 2020-21 international figure skating season keeps shrinking as the pandemic continues its global spread.
The Grand Prix series, normally six events that winnow the field for a final, is down to four after the Canadian and French skating federations canceled events in those countries. Skaters will compete in just one event apiece on their home continents in North America, Europe and Asia. Chinese officials have indefinitely postponed the Grand Prix final originally scheduled for Beijing in December. The U.S. championships in San Jose, California, in mid-January and the world championships slated for Stockholm in March are still on.
Chock and Bates never stopped trying to make the best of their situation, but karma didn't always cooperate. An injury to Chock sidelined the duo for two weeks this past summer, and they had to retreat to their home for another two weeks of total quarantine after learning they had been exposed to COVID-19. (Neither tested positive or became ill.)
They had made good progress on their free dance for the 2020-21 season, but didn't feel it was competition-ready this month -- and traveling to Las Vegas for Skate America would have meant yet another 14 days of quarantine back in Montreal when they returned. Chock and Bates withdrew and will continue training with the goal of defending their national title in January. They also decided to table their new free dance and compete with the same two programs as last year.
"Being an athlete at this level means being adaptable and being comfortable with discomfort -- the difference here is managing not knowing," Bates said. "The unknown is greater than it ever has been. It takes a lot of commitment and faith to continue to put everything into the preparation with that unknown looming. But we still feel very motivated."
Top U.S. skaters had a dress rehearsal of sorts for the closed-door competition at Skate America, in the form of a virtual event held by U.S. Figure Skating last month. More than 100 junior- and senior-level athletes performed programs in their home rinks and sent videos to a judging panel. Prize money was awarded and the placements factored into slots at Skate America and the national championships. In videos posted on the federation's website, a single clap is sometimes the only reaction.
Skaters are used to doing run-throughs in near-vacant rinks, but it's the absence of facial feedback, even from their coaches, that affects them most.
"You don't see much when the face is covered," Baker said. "I understand it's for safety and that's great, but it was very different for us. You look at them and smile and try and perform, and you're not getting anything back. It's something we need to work with and learn from, and imagine a smile underneath."
Artistic and theatrical elements are a major part of figure skating. Part of the job description is to emote, tell a story through a program and project energy -- unlike football, baseball and basketball players who have the luxury of executing without having to worry about their expressions or staying in character.
"What I told them is even if we can't see them, know there's a lot of people watching," Chouinard said. "'Dig into your memories of previous competition. Look at YouTube. Picture that feeling before you go on the ice. You're backstage, you hear the crowd ... be led by that feeling.' But that's easy to say, and not easy to do."
Parsons said he always tries to perform in a way that will reach "the farthest audience member in the arena. Now, that will be anyone online."
His partner is also looking for the upside on their end of what has become a season of remote learning. "It almost encourages us to be twice as big and twice as bright on the ice, because if you aren't super expressive, some of that might not translate through the camera," Green said. "We'll have to step up our game."