There are very few sports that have the glitzy glamour of figure skating. Nothing quite captivates the imagination like the costumes, drama, and personalities of this rarified world–all of which are burned into the memory of the public during the skating programs of the Olympic Games.
Behind each of these four-minute-and-30-second programs (or just four minutes for the ladies’ event) are years of training and a routine that is refined throughout the year and ruthlessly designed to maximize a skater’s score and lead to a win. Because, sequins aside, ain’t nothing so shiny as an Olympic gold medal hanging around your neck.
For a sport that is relatively solitary in nature, there are a remarkable number of people involved at the elite level. For most skaters, a coach will function as choreographer, though this often changes as a skater rises through the ranks.
Many coaches act as choreographers, especially earlier in their careers. But there are a few choreographers, who often have a background in dance and music, that specialize in the discipline. Take Lori Nichol, who has designed programs for several notable champions such as Michelle Kwan, Nathan Chen, Evan Lysacek and others. However, she currently acts as coach for Canada’s Patrick Chan. But often, these roles are split, and both coach and choreographer work side by side.
So, how does a routine begin? For most Olympic athletes performing in the Games, a coach will start by outlining the most important elements of their routine, like jumps and spins. But jumps happen in a fraction of a second, and these foundational elements might really only account for a mere 10 seconds of the entire program. Spins, meanwhile, might be allotted an entire minute.
That leaves a good three minutes where a choreographer plays a pivotal role in keeping a routine from becoming, well, boring.
This is where interdisciplinary influences like ballet, dance, music, and costuming become paramount to the rest of the performance. Suggestions may come from the coach, choreographer, or skater; it may be a collaborative process with each aspect. For example, ice dancing’s gold-medal favorites, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, reportedly pushed for their Moulin Rouge music against the initial doubts of their coach (you can see their program, as performed at Canadian nationals, above).
Though the choreography can be a collaborative process, simply put, most skaters are too busy just trying to nail the moves. The important thing to keep in mind is that each program is tailored to each skater’s strength and weaknesses.
Out of the 184,200 registered figure skaters in the U.S. nationwide, only a select few make it the Olympics. In the current 2018 Olympic season, that number is exactly 14 skaters. That’s less than .01% of all competitors.
Because many skaters never make it to Worlds, the journey for each season generally begins in February after Nationals. After a brief break, it’s time to begin choreographing the new program over the next two or three months. By April, a program that might closely resemble the final one on the competitive circuit has emerged.
Summer, also known as the off-season, is often a crucial time for honing and refining the programs. Small, non-qualifying national and international events are used to gauge a program’s efficacy and problem spots–even an elite, senior-level skater might make a random appearance at small skating competitions and showcases.
Darlene Parent, who has coached for over 20 years at Chelsea Piers Sky Rink in New York, notes that this is the point in the season when changes may be made. “They get feedback from the judges, because the judges will also tell them whether the program is going on the right track or not,” she explains. “They [might] think, ‘oh we’ve got this, we’ve done this really well, we expressed ourselves, we understand it,’ and the judge’s feedback is, ‘well, we really didn’t get that,’ so then they have to fix it. Sometimes they even have to change the music.”
By the time the main competitive season between October and March arrives, skaters are ready to compete. They’ll stick to the script–unless something has gone really wrong in competition. Because, before you know it, the Olympics have arrived.
For a sport rooted in pageantry, figure skating has taken marked steps to become accountable in its judging over the last two decades. The current system was implemented back in 2004 in response to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics scandal, when judges were accused of manipulating the 6.0 system—which was often an arbitrary number without any criteria—to award Russia’s Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze over Canada’s Sale and Pelletier. (Eventually, both pairs were awarded the gold.)
Since then programs have been further divided into two components, with a technical score graded on how well a program is executed and artistry score, called the Program Component Scores (PCS). Most notably, the new system rewards stamina, allotting a 10% jump bonus for those completed past the half-program mark.
In the current crop of competitors, the figure skating community has its eyes on Alina Zagitova, who clinched first place in the team ladies’ event on Sunday night and is a favorite for the gold medal spot (she performs at the EU nationals, above). For those embedded, Zagitova is a wonder, performing all eleven of her jumps in the second half of the program, punctuating them all perfectly on the note in Don Quixote. (Fellow countryman Evgenia Medvedeva is also a contender, but has been less consistent this season.) It’s a feat of strength and remarkable artistry.
“[For] 99.9% of human beings…what she does is impossible,” Parent says. “The rest of them need to have a couple of jumps in the first half of program.”
As historic as Mirai Nagasu’s triple axel at the Games was, it simply can’t compete with Zagitova’s program design, assuming it’s skated flawlessly.
But ultimately, it was choreography that allowed Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, the sport’s new Olympic pair champions (seen above performing their routine in 2017), to soar to the top of the podium. On top of delivering excellent technique, Savchenko and Massot’s skate was amplified by difficult transitions, footwork, and positioning, which were all choreographed by 1984 Olympic gold medalist Christopher Dean, who along with previous ice dancing partner Jayne Torvill was known for legendary performances. The British champions won seven national titles, four world titles, and capped it off with a near-flawless gold-medal finish in the 1984 Sarajevo games.
But for the average spectator, the details of the choreography in Savchenko and Massot’s program wasn’t really the point. Marni Halasa, a choreographer based in New York’s Chelsea Piers rink, notes it may all boil down to an undefinable, intrinsic quality. “The public wants to see someone who loves to skate,” she says. “I mean, they’re going to do all their quads, they’re gonna be flipping around in the air, but at the end of the day, you have to show the judges and public that you love to skate.”