Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Manifesto on Opinion

I have in the past year become more comfortable at publicly venturing opinions of a skating nature while continuing my work as a journalist of the sport. Though I never hope to hurt feelings -- and I will generally avoid offering negative views explicitly aimed at a team or choreographer on the basis purely of personal taste, and avoid strong opinion in event coverage, analysis and features unless identified as opinion-based -- there are a few reasons why I will defend the overall practice.

1. In traditional sports journalism, from basketball to tennis, it's certainly the norm, if not actively encouraged, to challenge play strategies or starting line-ups and rotations. Music and choreography are among skating, and especially ice dance's, versions of that.

2. And because I also cover skating from an aesthetic angle, room for subjective criticism is equally permissible. I believe strongly in use of music to its maximum effect and demonstrations of close skating unless demanded otherwise by a style; choreography that overlooks musical nuance in favor of lyrics and merely overt highlights or uses openness for no justified reason is something of which I have and will take a much dimmer view.

3. I will never posit that because I may not like a song or piece of choreography, that by default means the team in question should be scored less for the program in question, as though my preferences are in any way arbiters of objective quality. Last season, one of my least favorite free dances came from one of the teams I most respect; my taste judgment (and feeling, perhaps, that the material failed to provide a proper showcase -- more on that below) did not in any way mitigate their skill set or my belief in the marks they should merit based on what was demonstrated of their ability.

Likewise, as I've touched on previously, a team should never be scored for "spellbinding" quality over and against all other PCS criteria that are rooted more in reasonably objective technical assessments -- let alone receive any significant TES bump in such a scenario.

But I would venture to argue that music and choreography can help or hurt a team -- if judges are convinced a team is one-note, if choreography fails to highlight a team's best attributes as technicians or performers, if music doesn't present enough opportunity to showcase a team's dance ability. Improper choices can sometimes mean anything from deductions for a mismatched rhythm to feedback that demands a program overhaul. Ultimately, that's why music and choreography are open for criticism: they are part and parcel of outcome in this sport of skating.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

17. Samba

Between next month's Rio Olympics and the recent announcement of the 2016-17 season's revisitation of the Latin short dance, it may finally be time to turn our eyes to that most complex of Latin dances: the samba.

A quick look at its overall history is useful and highlights certain of its historical complexities. Note that Brazilian samba has a somewhat march-like quality courtesy of its 2/4 tempo and includes both solo (like Samba no pé) and partnered (such as Samba de Gafieira) forms, quite distinct in both cases from its Latin ballroom namesake -- so tracing its connections to on-ice samba is an exercise, to say the least.

With their 2011-12 Latin short dance which includes a batucada percussion piece -- traditional for Brazilian samba -- Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat opted for a breezy vibe suggestive of a visit to Rio:

This samba no pé video presents the dance's basic steps, which we can note Pechalat and Bourzat representing in the separated samba sequence starting at 2:38 above. There's a very key signifier of ballroom samba also present at about 3:04 here -- and we'll talk about that next.

Ballroom samba tends to present the more frequent progenitor for the ice dance counterpart. As a particularly complex dance, there's no one-stop tutorial video for these figures, but this samba round from the WDSF PD World DanceSport Championship Latin gives a fair summary, provided one doesn't mind an endless loop of "Straight to Memphis," an experience in repetition that, though deliberate, is not unlike that of sitting through a Latin original or short dance at Worlds. Not particularly prominent in this round is the trademark samba roll, but as Pechalat and Bourzat demonstrated, it's a great way to shorthand the dance style given the limitations of footwork and certain multidirectional movement.

Ice dance offers one samba compulsory pattern, the Silver Samba, created in 1963 and last skated in international senior competition in 2000-01. More recently, it served as the base pattern for the 2014-15 junior short dance. Here it is performed by event winners Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov at the 1996 World Championships:

Despite best efforts in the choreographed intro and outro, it will come as no surprise to regular readers that outside of the 2/4 time, there is exceedingly little to define the pattern itself as Latin, let alone samba -- though perhaps the slip steps seen at 0:58 and 1:28 are the smallest tip of the chapéu to solo samba footwork. Its use for a short dance permitted greater incorporation of concepts from the ballroom world, as in this program from Junior World champions Anna Yanovskaya and Sergey Mozgov.

Samba also served as an Original Set Pattern in 1971-72 and 1989-90, with a number of examples from the second season's dance available on YouTube. For those in search of Latin ballroom authenticity on ice, the 1980s and early '90s may not be your optimal destination. It's taking nothing away from the skating itself to note that the World Championship-winning "La Cucaracha" OSP of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko is more Copa Cabana than Blackpool. But exceptions could emerge, and the team who ranked only third in this segment presented a dramatically truer -- and more tastefully subdued -- interpretation; check out Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin's samba rolls at 0:36 and subsequently repeated with the second pattern pass:

And as introduced at top with Pechalat and Bourzat's routine, samba was also an optional secondary component of 2011-12's rhumba-based short dance, after having appeared in Latin Combination original dances in 1999-2000 and 2005-06. Another offering, from Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, does some of its own line-straddling between ballroom and Brazilian styles, but leans a bit more heavily in the former direction:

The hip action, highlighted at moments like 3:20, is among the stronger you'll get in a skated samba. To identify just a few figures, the samba-opening sequence at 2:44 is essentially a shadow traveling volta; the change in hold from 3:23-3:25 is like a fragment of a promenade run while a similar series of turns starting at 2:54 feel a small bit like open rocks. The side-by-side footwork at 2:48, 3:20 and 3:34, in particular, are moments a bit more readily tied to samba no pé.

And despite the frequent recurrence of Latin in mandated original or compulsory programs, samba, of course, can also on occasion filter its way into a free dance, as it did for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who also presented the style in a modified version of this number for the 2011-12 short dance a season later:

Hip action should be duly noted from program's opening.

Perhaps the best-known use of "Hip Hip Chin Chin" in the ballroom world belongs to this exhibition from Max Kozhevnikov and Yulia Zagoruychenko, which combines samba, cha cha, and a bit of freestyling, and it might not be amiss to suggest it may have had a little impact on certain components of the samba sections in Virtue and Moir's program:

But what's especially interesting about this particular ice dance interpretation is its utilization of in-hold figures, like the stationary samba walks beginning at 1:00. There are echoes of the original "Hip Hip Chin Chin" with a moment like the separation at 2:25 in the ballroom number as compared with the entry to the circular twizzles at 1:06 in Virtue and Moir's program, and the illustration of the song's title in both cases. It's the ability to integrate less familiar figures and elements with a free dance's demand for hold and continuous ice coverage, however, that particularly impresses. The opening steps are reminiscent of cruzados walks; watch for something like a traveling set of samba locks at 1:27 and 4:40. The actual diagonal step sequence -- and all those ice dance elements, like lifts, anathema to a competitive ballroom number -- can only embody so much of the samba syllabus, but it's scattered throughout two non-rumba segments' worth of transitions.

One of the best things to be said for the evolution of Latin (and many other dance genres) in ice dance is an expanding commitment to accuracy towards off-ice counterpart. While a championship round of 2011-12 and 2014-15's senior and/or junior short dances could be wearying in terms of musical repetition, there's something refreshing about even attempts at faithfulness, and even moreso about successful ones. The next Olympic year's rhumba-centered short dance could mean a retread of the last go-round, but can also open more opportunity for experimentation -- of an ultimately rather conventional sort.