How to Watch Ice Dancing, from an Olympic Medalist
“I don’t want to spend my life on an ice rink,” Ben Agosto used to say. Despite skating from a young age, he never planned to become a coach after he stopped competing. But when he did, a whole new side of the sport opened up to him—he suddenly saw skating from a different perspective and found it gave him a new challenge. “Now I understand why the great coaches, like Frank Carroll and John Nicks, have this Yoda-like quality. They are still learning.”
Many of us watch ice dancing for the acrobatics and the costumes, which Ben, who won the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, is equally eager to talk about. But I wanted tips for average spectators—tips that would help them up their game and talk about ice dancing like pros. And, of course, I couldn’t let Ben get away without talking about the time he skated in a full tuxedo.
Ice Dancing for Spectators
“It almost looks like flying, the way skaters move effortly across the ice,” Ben said. Because of this, most of us see the separate elements: the lifts, flourishes, and turns. But the first thing Ben focuses on is what happens between those elements—in other words, “how they get from point A to point B.” Here are some questions to help you gauge what’s happening between the jumps.
A hop or a glide? How are the skaters propelling themselves to the next point? Do they take little hops, almost skipping on the ice? Or do they push hard and glide there? Those long strokes are more difficult, as it's easy to gain drag and lose momentum.
Are they cutting deep? "Imagine the blade is like a motorcycle racing around the track," Ben said. On a turn, a good rider can take the bike almost to the ground. Now imagine that bike is a skate at the same angle—that sort of move, the "just to the point of a broken ankle" execution, delineates a great skater.
Do they use the space well? One of Ben's coaches once said to him, "Feet must be like hungry sharks, and they eat as much ice as possible." Skaters should traverse the entire rink, covering as much ice as it takes to make their skates full, so to speak.
How close are the skaters? Ice dancing, as opposed to pair skating, requires that couples stay within two arm lengths of each other at all times. When they're touching, those moves are called holds. Open holds are hand-to-hand and easier than closed holds, when the bodies touch. While open holds look more dynamic because the skaters can more easily make flourishes and gestures, closed holds make it much more difficult for the pair to stay balanced and in sync. "So it's just finding that balance," Ben said. "Are they changing holds, and are lots of them close? Can they skate with speed while in a close hold? Do they change up their holds?
Make fun of them as much as you want, but according to Ben, the flowy, glittery costumes highlight how fast the skaters are moving. “If the pirate factor is high,” he said, “a flapping shirt can have a performance all on its own.”
For his part, Ben generally preferred costumes that were more like real clothing. “I didn’t want to wear a spandex onesie that looks like a tuxedo. I wanted to wear a real tuxedo.” So he did: he skated in a real tuxedo, tails and all, at Skate America in 2009.
But even costumes that look more like street clothes have embellishments that make them more suitable for action on the ice. Ron Gunn, who crafts costumes for ballroom dancers, whipped up Ben’s tuxedo. The pants had elastic stirrups on the bottom to secure them around the skates, and the jacket had elastic loops that attached to the pants to keep it from flapping open. The armholes were also made to fit in such a way that they would be more comfortable when Ben’s hands were raised upward. And, of course, there’s this: “Any skating shirt has briefs sewn to it so it stays tucked. I like to call this the man diaper.”
Ben’s favorite costume was a suit he wore for a tango number he and partner Tanith Belbin did in 2007. Made by a ballroom tailor in Los Angeles, it was gangster cut and pinstriped, 1930s style. “How could you not feel cool?” he said. He still keeps that one in his closet.
First photo by Michelle Harvath; second photo courtesy Ben Agosto
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