Behind the Music (and Other Stuff): Creating a Skating Program

During the 2014 Winter Olympics, a lot more people than usual will be interested in figure skating. As an adult skater, I appreciate any attention that my sport gets –  but I also realize that occasional watchers don’t always know how much has to happen off the ice for skaters to look so good on the ice. So I thought I’d give some insight, from my own experiences, into how a competitive skating program is created.

I don’t even begin to pretend that how adult skaters prepare a program is anywhere near as intense as elite-level international skaters’ preparation. But whether it’s the Olympics or a small local competition, a lot of the same things happen when any skater gets ready to compete.

Music

The music is behind everything else in a skating program, so the first step in preparing a program is choosing the music for it. There are a couple of considerations in choosing music for a skating program. One is whether the music suits the skater’s skating style. Some skaters look better skating to lyrical, graceful music, and others look better with more dramatic or hard-edged music. You can always try to push yourself by choosing music that’s different from your usual style, but even then you have to be careful not to use music that’s just too far beyond your capabilities. For example, I love this piece of music, and it would make a great competitive program – but I just can’t skate that fast, and I would look foolish trying to keep up with it.

Dmitri Dmitrenko,  a Ukrainian skater who competed internationally in the late 1990s, got around the problem of finding appropriate music by composing his own music for some of his programs.  (credit: figureskatingcostumes.tumblr.com)

Dmitri Dmitrenko, a Ukrainian skater who competed internationally in the late 1990s, got around the problem of finding appropriate music by composing his own music for some of his programs. (credit: figureskatingcostumes.
tumblr.com)

The length of the piece of music is also important, because the rules of every skating competition set a maximum program time. So a skater can try to find a piece of music that is already close to that maximum length – or find a longer piece of music, or a combination of different pieces, that can be edited to that length and still sound coherent. Because I’m really picky about music, I edit my program music myself, with the Mac program Cacophony. Other skaters may use a professional music editor or musician to do the cutting. Editing a piece of music to the required length can be a whole other job in itself – especially if the music has a continuous beat or motif that has to be maintained to make the edited piece sound consistent.

Another consideration is how much the skater likes the music. You will have to listen to it many, many, many times when you are practicing. If you don’t like the music initially, you may not ever learn to like it – and it’s very hard to perform a program convincingly if you are skating to music that you don’t “get”.  And some pieces of music, no matter how good they sound on an MP3 player or computer, sound horrible on a speaker in an ice rink. For example, violins playing high shrill notes can be almost unbearable to listen to in a rink. And sometimes music with heavy bass notes sounds like nothing but bass rumblings on a rink’s speaker system. So even a great piece of music might not be usable if it doesn’t sound good in the rink.

Skating fans like to complain about pieces of music that are horribly overused in skating, such as excerpts from Carmen, Concierto de Aranjuez, and selections from Les Miserables. While I too would be very happy never to hear any of these pieces in an ice rink ever again, there’s a reason that they’re used so much – they work. Developing a program is much easier and faster with familiar music that has already been used successfully.

Choreography

Choreography for skating programs has evolved dramatically in the last decade or so, even at my level of competition. This is mostly because the judging system changed after the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The current judging system specifies required elements in a program, like certain types of jumps and spins. Each element is awarded points based on how difficult it is and how well it’s performed. Points are also awarded based on criteria such as skating skill, transitions between elements, the quality of the choreography, and the skater’s ability to interpret the music.

This method of judging is fairer than previous systems, because the judging criteria are more explicit. From the perspective of choreographing a program, however, it causes a number of problems. For one, there are elements that have to be in your program, even if they don’t fit the music or the idea of the program. So you and your coach have to figure out how to include those elements in the program without them looking too out of place.

Skaters have different ways of learning the choreography of their programs. It helps me to draw the program as a diagram, with labels showing the directions and the moves. (credit: own photo)

Skaters have different ways of learning the choreography of their programs. It helps me to draw the program as a diagram, with labels showing the directions and the moves. (credit: own photo)

There’s also the decision on whether to put in elements that aren’t required and which will get you more points – but which you might not always perform successfully. So there’s strategy involved in determining the content of the program. And then you have to take into account the levels which will be assigned to the elements when they’re performed; higher levels award more points for more complicated moves. This is less of a concern at my level of competition, where pretty much everything in a program is rated at Level 1 – but for elite competition, it can be a lot of work to design a program with enough detail and difficulty to get Level 4 ratings for all the elements.

I compete in freeskate and interpretive categories, so I have to prepare two different programs. One of my coaches does my choreography, and I’m extremely lucky that she’s very skilled at doing both kinds of programs. Freeskate programs have more technical requirements, but interpretive programs emphasize demonstrating a theme or idea through movement – so choreographing each kind of program is a different kind of challenge. And once the program is choreographed, then I have to learn it and memorize it. For me, memorizing comes from doing the program over and over again, which can be tedious – but I really enjoy doing the program once I have the steps and moves down, and then can focus on making everything more seamless and expressive. It’s fun to see how the programs evolve as you work on them.

Costumes

Yes, yes, some skating costumes are really ugly and/or outrageous. But beyond how it looks, a skating costume can take a lot of work to get right.  There are some restrictions on costumes in the rules – for example, the costumes have to be “appropriate for athletic competition”, and men can’t wear tights. But usually the first step in developing a costume is thinking about what would fit with the music and the theme of your program. This can take a huge amount of time to decide: what colour? Short or long sleeves? What kind of skirt? What kind of embellishments? There are a lot of options – and, to be blunt, you also have to take into consideration what does and doesn’t look good on you, and what you feel comfortable wearing. I’m tall and I have long arms, so I like long sleeves, but I also don’t want a dress style that makes me look gawky. There are also certain colours that I look ghastly in, so I wouldn’t choose them even if they would look good on the ice and complement the music.

Some of the rhinestones on one of my competition dresses. (credit: own photo)

Some of the rhinestones on one of my competition dresses. (credit: own photo)

Then you have to think about the specifics of the costume construction. The costume has to be well-made, and it has to stretch where it needs to stretch. Costumes can use soft delicate fabrics, which can look really pretty on the ice, but the body of the costume needs to be sturdy. Any embellishments, like rhinestones or beads, have to be attached firmly enough to not fall off and trip you. And the costume also has to cover everything. A costume that looks fine when you’re standing still can give you a wedgie or a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ when you’re moving. After witnessing more than a few, uh, unfortunate incidents at competitions, I always wear my costume to the rink to try it out before a competition. I skate my program, and tell my coach to watch closely and to tell me if, at any point in the program, the costume shows something that it shouldn’t. And if it does, I get it fixed.

Elite skaters always get their costumes custom-made. Skaters at my level can buy off-the-rack skating dresses, but the danger in using these, lovely as some of them are, is that another skater might show up in the same outfit. This is a particular worry for adult skaters, because there’s a relatively limited choice of manufactured skating outfits for grownups. Because of my height, very few off-the-rack skating dresses fit me, so I have nearly all of my dresses custom-made. This requires a lot of consultation with the dressmaker in determining what the dress is generally going to look like, and then deciding on the specific details. My newest dress was ordered over the Internet, so all the consultation was by email – and although the finished product is beautiful, it had to be shipped back and forth twice for adjustments before it fit comfortably. Then I got a local seamstress to add some other touches, and now I’m gluing more rhinestones on it. I think it will be finished after that, but since I haven’t taken it to the rink and skated in it yet….we’ll see.

I hope this information has given you some insight into how competitive skating programs come together, and helps you appreciate those programs even a little bit more. If there’s something else that you’d like to know, just post your question in the comments section below, and I’ll try to give you an answer. Enjoy the skating!

UPDATE: This article in the New York Times gives a very insightful description of the program development process for US men’s silver medalist Jason Brown. The long program that came out of this process became a viral sensation after the US national championships, with more than three million views on YouTube. I was thrilled to see in the article that Jason’s coach, Kori Ade, draws diagrams too!

One comment

  1. Great post! The best types of programs will usually highlight a skater’s strengths and hide/minimize the weaknesses. I am an adult skater at a level where we need to maximize IJS points yet still attempt to look effortless on the ice. Easier said than done!

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