Ice dance is unique in figure skating for the very obvious reason that it doesn’t include jumps, but that also means it depends on connection and story even more than the other disciplines. As a result, the story of a program can be just as important as the technical elements and skating skills. However, there is one type of story that gets chosen more than any other: romantic. Romantic dances are expected to the point where it often feels like the judges are immediately more critical of any other type of program. Obviously, there might be other factors that play into this: if you’re not choosing to go romantic, you might be a more innovative or unusual team, and maybe not all of those innovations are working for the judges. But when you look at someone like Charlie White, who apparently kept his relationship with Tanith Belbin quiet while competing to avoid influencing the judges’ perception of his connection with his on-ice partner (a less common practice now), there does seem to be a real problem. One situation that often feels even more unfair is when siblings compete as an ice dance team. For obvious reasons, siblings are (probably) not going to skate a romantic program, and this problem has been highlighted more than usual this season.
Every season, there is a chosen style of music for the rhythm dance (formerly known as the short dance). For the 2018-19 season, the chosen rhythm is…tango. The most well-known sibling team in recent years, Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani (aka the Shib sibs), are actually sitting out this post-Olympic season, but we’ve got another American team, Rachel and Michael Parsons, to demonstrate for us how a sibling tango shakes out.
Now, considering the passion and sensuality a tango is meant to possess, skating it as a sibling duo is kind of a lose-lose situation. If you maintain a little distance, because that is in fact your brother whose face you’re grabbing, the judges will ding you on interpretation. And if you commit to acting tango-y…well the judges will probably ding you because they’re uncomfortable, and the audience will definitely be uncomfortable. Now, as much as I love them, the Parsons siblings haven’t yet reached the level of some of the top international teams, so I’m not saying that their scores are where they are because of their familial relationship; I’m just pointing out that they don’t really have a lot they can do here. This was actually a little bit of a problem last season as well, because the rhythm was Latin with a rhumba pattern, which automatically pushed most teams towards a romantic, sexy attitude. The Shib sibs worked around this problem by leaning into an over-the-top, borderline cheesy style that not only solved their problem, but was a big hit with audiences all over (especially at the Olympics, where they won bronze).
Of course, the Shibutanis also have great technique, musicality, and skating skills that earn their medals and big wins. We can’t overlook the fact, however, that their programs have also been a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of their competitors. Skating non-romantic programs should not be unusual; it should just be another possibility. Luckily, I think this season is providing some of the best cases for less romance, and people are taking notice.
British ice dancers Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, also referred to as “the disco Brits” for obvious reasons, have the most fun, joyous free dance I’ve seen in a while. From his opening pose, which makes me laugh, to their ending slide, which is Incredible (capital I needed), the entire program is pretty universally enjoyable. In a free dance landscape where most are leaning towards either soft romance or intense sensuality, they stand out because they’re having pure fun. Their technical content is great, too – their disco hand movements during their twizzles fit their program and add difficulty – which makes sense since they’re training with some of the best in the world. But where a lot of their training mates all seem to be skating similar romantic styles (and, if we’re being honest, some very similar content at times), these two stand out for having a different kind of connection. They definitely have strong chemistry, but it’s a fun chemistry rather than a romantic one. Connection with your partner and the audience is crucial, but Lilah and Lewis prove that the connection doesn’t have to read romantic to have a successful program or to get the audience on your side.
There's a lot to love about the Canadian team of Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier. They’ve been one of my favorite teams for a while because they stand out from everyone around them. They bring a lot to the table: speed and power seemingly generated from nothing, unique and innovative technical elements, and incredibly committed storytelling (see: their James Bond program at the 2018 Olympics, Paul’s commitment to growing a tango-stache for every competition this season). This season’s free dance is no exception, and their choice to build a program around Vincent van Gogh was a bold one. Piper is literally art, with her Starry Night dress and stars in her ethereal white-blond hair. Opposite her is Paul, the tortured artist in a paint-splattered shirt (and no mustache). With a lesser program or team, their music might be distracting, a risk that you always take when using a different version of a well-known song. Piper and Paul, however, manage to pull you in with their skating and connection, making the music work for them. There are a lot of familiar beats from romantic programs: longing, pain, joy, and love are conveyed throughout, but the relationship between Vincent and his art is ultimately not a romantic one. Every single moment of the program feels like it’s in service of their specific story, whether it's a technical element or an artistic choice. The mirroring of the opening and closing poses is beautiful, their slide fits seamlessly into the program, and that last lift is breathtaking. Every audience that has had the privilege of witnessing this free dance has been captivated.
I’m not saying I never want to see romance again in ice dance. I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, and I adore love stories of all forms. But I would really love to see less romance in ice dance, and more variety. Teams and their coaches should be working together choose a story specifically for each season, rather than deciding how to re-frame yet another romance. If you’re still not convinced, I’ll leave you with a team that maybe hasn’t gotten so much attention internationally, but is working to change the ice dance game. Americans Karina Manta and Joe Johnson are vocal about their desire to change what ice dance means, with Karina being openly bisexual and Joe being openly gay. Their program is another great non-romantic program that still delivers. They have exciting music, a fantastic slide, and arguably the best character step sequence this season, which you can see for yourself.
Sometimes, I am that Very Annoying Skating Fan who forces her friends (and mom) to watch figure skating programs. I’ve noticed that, more than the other disciplines, my friends get bored with ice dance. With no exciting jumps or throws, it’s understandable that normal people who don’t obsess over skating wouldn’t find it very interesting. When it comes to Fear/Gibson and Gilles/Poirier, though, everyone who has watched them has loved it. Of course, skating shouldn’t just be about appealing to people who don’t care about it, but the fact that skating fans and non-fans alike enjoy these performances demonstrates how effective they are, to the point that they can go beyond the sport. This pretty clearly indicates that ice dance as a discipline can actually benefit if skaters shift away from all romance all the time. More variety keeps audiences from getting bored and draws more viewers, something the ISU seems to be trying very hard to do these days. Moreover, it pushes people to explore more original ideas, and (hopefully) forces judges to re-examine their framework for what constitutes top teams and programs. Maybe young skaters who aren’t interested in spending their entire skating life pretending to be in love, for one of a myriad of reasons, will be able to see a future for themselves in the field. Obviously, I am no expert on ice dance or figure skating in general, but that alone seems like a good reason to reconsider ice dance’s devotion to romance.