The Good Old Homegrown Ice Show

Seeing the pros on ice is one thing.  Seeing a family member on the ice is quite another, much more spectacular, event.  The children may only be doing simple forward skating, but parents gushing over the sight of their shining star out on the ice will never be as excited about Michelle Kwan or Jeremy Abbott. The major figure skating club shows usually occur in the spring with an exhibition in the winter months to bring in the holiday season. Various levels of effort are expended to make these showcases occur.  Some rinks practice for months while others only for weeks, but at the end of the day the stands fill with parents and the show begins.

Growing up, I had the privilege to skate in a great ice show. At the time, I had no idea that I was part of something special.  I assumed all ice shows had former national champions as guest skaters and that having two acts full of diverse skating was the norm.  I could not have been more wrong. My show included at least ten group numbers pulled from the Basic Skills 1-6 and Freestyle 1-6 classes.  These numbers were choreographed by the rink coaches and taught to the skaters in the month before the show.  In addition to the group numbers, we also had about ten solos given to skaters with enough charisma and skill to hold the attention of the audience.  This meant the solo skaters were often drawn from the skating pool outside the rink.  Although this decision was met with some bitterness from the Learn to Skate program skaters, it meant the show was entertaining and the skating engaging.  While taking a more open approach can be good for building confidence, it is rarely good for creating a good show.  Solos of all levels are better left to the winter exhibition.

Not only were the solos restricted, but they always had something to do with the theme of the show.  Although I was never in a solo, owing to my terrible skating skills at the time, I did skate in several smaller group numbers to come pretty fantastic music.  In the Hollywood on Ice show, I skated to Mission Impossible, which is perhaps the most exciting piece of music ever created.  Spy hijinks on ice can never go wrong, right? Well, we had a pass through shoot the duck, one foot out in front with the bent down low, that ended in disaster on two show nights (we performed three shows).  Regardless, we had a blast.  Good themes make or break a show. A good theme allows a large variety without loosing focus of a central theme. I’ve seen some pretty good themes over the years: Broadway on Ice, Skating through the Times, A Night at the Movies, Fairy Tales on Ice, Ice School Musical and Circus Dreams on Ice.  Good music must also be selected to meet the demands of show skating and the theme.  I have skated to flapper music, Native American music, Cabaret, Mission Impossible, music from The Mask, and Elivis’ Three Bears. Each of these shows had a cohesive feel while providing numbers for skaters that did not all appear to be pulled from the same choreographic motif.

Circus Dreams on Ice at the Westminster Promenade was especially impressive for several reasons.  The first is that, by default, the Promenade has good skaters.  They know how to perform and their soloists are chosen from successful regional competitors.  While this is undoubtedly elitist of them, it also provides really good skating and at the end of the day I think the system is a good idea for a competitive rink like the Promenade.  For the Dreams show in particular the choreography was done to make the show run continuously.  This means that instead of black outs between numbers, the action simply began at another place on the ice or made an entrance that interacted with the skaters already on the ice.  Something was always going on and that something was usually interesting.  In addition, the costumes were fantastic.  As a case in point, the skaters in the Firefly number were wearing light-up Halloween wings on their back as they skated in near darkness.  The effect was stunning and what I would call a choreographic epiphany.  Many times ice shows use the same patterns and choreography from previous years and they always fall flat.  Unless choreography is directly informed by the music and the skaters CURRENTLY present, the piece can become banal.

So what makes a good club ice show? Lots of creativity on the part of the coaching staff.  Doing the same thing year after year will quickly drive down enthusiasm about the show.  Seeing children skate the same steps for years is quite frankly boring.  A good show shakes up the status quo and takes artistic risks while pushing the skaters to truly show off their skating talent.  This requires a coaching team willing to live outside the box.

What's in an Ice Show: The Pros

For most people the first experience watching figure skating live is the ice show.  This may be a small club exhibition or a large production of Disney on Ice complete with elaborate costumes.  From Disney to the club rink, the show is definitely the thing.  After all, a show is a skating experience that isn’t geared toward the competitive environment.  Instead, both the audience and the skaters are encouraged to have good old fashioned fun. No need to think about placements and rankings.  Who cares if you fall on a jump in a show? The point is the excitement of performing on ice, not the elements performed.  A myriad of different ice shows populate the United States and other countries, but I’m only going to delve into the traditional spring figure skating club ice show and the tours that showcase the current stars of figure skating.  Disney on Ice and Holiday on Ice are both important in their own regard, but I have little experience with them and thus cannot give commentary.

I’ll start with the tours that crisscross the country bringing figure skating’s stars of then and now to a wide variety of cities. When I was younger, in the nineties, I used to attend both Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice every couple years.  Stars on Ice was dedicated to the stars of yore while Champions included all the young hopefuls rising up in the sport.  Stars was filled with intricate choreography and little skating that would be recognized as competitive. Champions suffered from the opposite effect.  The skaters were top of the world, but the choreography was stale and the group numbers looked more like an aerobic dance class than entertaining skating.  In the end, I enjoyed neither. My mother tells me I was so disgusted with the overly romantic numbers in Stars on Ice that I refused to ever go again.  Champions on Ice reminded us all of the exhibition after the competition. The show was entirely hit or miss and depended too much on the caliber of the skaters’ individual choreography.

We stopped going to the shows for nearly a decade.  In 2004 we finally returned to the arena to see Champions on Ice, but only because I would have done anything to see Johnny Weir skate live.  The experience was amazing, but the only skater I recall seeing was Johnny.  No other number begins to register when I try and remember. After the 2006 Torino games, figure skating hit a real slump in television audience and show attendance.  The games had not been terrible; Sasha Cohen won a silver medal in ladies as did Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto in ice dance.  Nevertheless, fewer people were watching figure skating and even fewer were taking the trek to the rink to see the annual skating shows.  While not surprising to me since I had always felt the shows were lacking, this was unusual for the general populace.

By the 2010 Olympic season, Champions on Ice had died an unremarkable death. The ice show options were limited in the United States for fans.  YouTube became the best viewing arena since it showed numbers from the elaborate ice shows done in Japan and other foreign countries. Stars on Ice managed to survive, but decided it was time for a serious makeover.

I believe the changes precipitated by the death of Champions on Ice are perhaps the best things ever to happen to the ice show world.  Stars on Ice pulled in all the old Champions on Ice skaters.  This meant that instead of good skaters from previous generations, they were now showcasing current skaters in the international ranks.  The change created a vastly more agile cast.  Triple toe loop was no longer the hardest jump ever performed. In addition, skaters were familiar with IJS (International Judging System) style of footwork that manages to convey that most of the time footwork is harder than jumping. To top it off, Stars on Ice invested in good choreography.

Champions on Ice always included two performances from a skater, but the group numbers were merely a shadow of what could be.  Stars on Ice embraced its old methods and new skaters in an innovative fashion. Instead of just a solo, the skaters participated in multiple group numbers ranging from duets to full cast pieces.  Each of the numbers had insightful choreography tailored to the skaters’ strengths.  Sasha Cohen and Alissa Cizney had a gorgeous duet of mirrored spirals and laybacks that epitomized their grace and beauty.  In previous ice shows this would have been unheard of, but in 2010 it was a revelation.  Why not have skaters at their prime skating intricate choreography with each other?

The new Stars on Ice is better than ever.  It has picked up the pieces of the pervious shows and created something fresh and so much better. Its only failing at present is the decision not to invite Johnny Weir to tour with them during the spring of 2010.  Johnny is art on ice and they were missing an important piece of a complete show.