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The Off-Season Part 1: You're Skating To What?

  • The Off-Season Part 1: You're Skating To What?
Every off-season has its dramas. In football, players changing clubs can occupy the headlines for weeks. In motorsport, which driver will do what? Who is fastest in winter testing?

But in figure skating?

There are three main topics of discussion for figure skating fans during the long off-season, and these are quite simply: music, assignments, and jumps. Who is skating to what for the coming season? Who will be competing in which major competitions? And who will try a new jump?

Today, let's talk about music.

Though figure skating is a sport, and there can be no doubt that the skaters themselves are highly elite athletes, there is still a performance aspect, and the choice of music can be important. Now it is even more important than ever: the 2014-2015 season marked the first time that singles and pairs skaters could use music with lyrics.

So which way does a skater go? Do they take a risk on something more modern, something popular, something that might strike a chord with fans outside the sport? Or do they revert back to a tried-and-true piece of music that the judges have long been known to love (a "warhorse")?

We have seen both in the past season, with varying results. For some, the decision to go with lyrics and a more modern feel paid off: Joshua Farris (USA) and his short program to Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love" became an instant hit with both audiences and judges. It didn't work for everyone: Max Aaron (USA) had a short program to Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" that was plagued with problems from the start of the season to its end. 

The decision to choose a "warhorse" comes with the same risk. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) selected the over-used Ravel's "Bolero" for her short program with stunning results, culminating in her first World Championship; at the other end of the spectrum, there were so many programs set to "The Phantom of the Opera" that fans were developing nervous twitches at the first notes by season's end.

There is then, of course, also the thorny issue of the skater themselves. What sort of music is suited to the skater's style of skating? What songs does the skater like? These two factors can sometimes be at odds. The type of music a skater likes is not always the type of music they are suited to, and they do not always like the music that suits them! Many fans remarked on the difference in Gracie Gold's (USA) performance style between her classically-themed competitive programs and her exhibition number to Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off" - the former cold and clinical, the latter energetic and bubbly.

For ice dance, there are other factors to be considered. Each year the ISU prescribes a certain pattern that must be included in the short dance. Last year's pattern, for example, was the Paso Doble - the couples were required to include the compulsory pattern in their short dances, which had to keep to the overall theme. The downside of that pattern was a lot of dances set to Bizet's "Carmen"!

Why is the selection of music so important? Though figure skating is primarily a sport, it is also an art form, and the two marks given reflect this. The first mark is the Technical Elements Score (TES), made up of the marks given for the execution of spins, steps and jumps, while the second mark is the Program Components Score (PCS), which is further broken down into five components: Skating Skills, Transitions, Choreography, Interpretation, and Performance/Execution. Music can have a heavy influence on three of those five marks.

Those marks also contribute to the proliferation of "warhorses". Such music is so over-used primarily because of its skateability. The rhythm and beat are usually fairly simple and easy to choreograph, and the themes are obvious and accessible even for skaters who have trouble with interpretation.

What kind of music will we see on the international stage this season? Lyrics are certainly here to stay, and there is some suggestion that we will see more popular, modern music - Farris, for example, is retaining his Sheeran program, and the Beatles and Queen have already been chosen by multiple skaters. There will be the more classical styles that helped shape figure skating and will always be a part of it. We will see Black Swan from the most unexpected of the US men, Peer Gynt from the ladies' World Champion Tuktamysheva, and everything in between. And then there will be the more obscure programs, the ones that step outside the box, such as Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) and his new free skate to SEIMEI, which is music from the Japanese Middle Ages period movie Onmyouji.

US National Champion Jason Brown was once photographed wearing a t-shirt that read "Off-season? What off-season?" Figure skaters never really stop. When the season finishes in April, they may get two or three weeks off - unless they head straight out to professional tours that are a skater's bread and butter, earning them the money they need to support the next year's training. And then it's back into the swing, training new jumps, choreographing new programs, getting feedback from the judges, having new costumes made. Before they know it, it's September, and the international season is starting again.

But for the fans, a five month off-season feels like the longest off-season in the world. Roll on season 2015-2016!
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