Tom Dickson, world class coach and choreographer took the time out of his busy schedule to interview with Everything Figure Skating columnist, Dorian Valles!
Tom Dickson is considered one of the top figure skating choreographers in the world. He has won U.S. Figure Skating’s Paul McGrath Choreographer of the Year Award multiple times. He started doing skating choreography when his former coach, Carlo Fassi, asked him to work with Lu Chen in 1991. Dickson currently coaches at the Broadmoor Skating Club, and has choreographed for many skaters, including:
Jeremy Abbott, Vaughn Chipeur, Rachel Flatt, Ryan Jahnke, Kim Chae-Hwa, Yu-Na Kim, Ann Patrice McDonough, Brandon Mroz, Yukina Ota, Parker Pennington, Matt Savoie, Aki Sawada, Nana Takeda, Michael Villarreal, Megan Williams-Stewart, Agnes Zawadzki, and Caroline Zhang
He also choreographed the “Princess Classics” show for Disney on Ice.
During his eligible career, Dickson won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at junior level in 1980; at the senior level, he placed 5th at the 1984 Championships. He also won Nebelhorn Trophy in 1980. After his competitive career, Dickson skated with Ice Capades.
EFS: Can you please share with our readers your skating background, your coaches and what your day-to-day training (including any off-ice) consisted of?
TD: I began skating in California with a coach named Jim Short. The year was 1970 and this meant that I had to learn the compulsory figures. Before I had barely been given a private lesson, I was assigned a patch of ice and was going around simple figure eights. Little did I know how valuablae these figure eights would turn out to be in my education as a coach and choreographer. I very casually learned some of the ice dances on Saturday mornings although I hadn’t yet taken any off-ice dance classes. I also began working with Ricky Harris, who was my first choreographer.
My coach, Jim Short, was very interested in art, architecture, interior design and dance. Jim would take me to performances such as the Prokofiev ballet Cinderella at the outdoor Greek Theatre in Hollywood. The outings had an impact at an early age, on my artistic viewpoint of skating. I am very grateful to Jim, my first coach, for having an outlook as a coach that was very broad and unusual.
When I was 17, I moved to Colorado Springs to train with Barbara Roles. It was there that I began jazz, modern and ballet classes. The classes, along with compulsory figures became an integral part of my training. At one point I even performed on stage with my jazz teacher Darlene Garlutzo in a performance of Gershwin’s An American In Paris.
By 1980, I won the National Junior title and went on to win a gold medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany. It was after this that I began working with coach Carlo Fassi and choreographer Sarah Kawahara. Both of these people had a very strong influence on me. Carlo, being John Curry’s coach, naturally had a great influence as John was my role model. Carlo Fassi, along with Christine Krall, taught me to hone my compulsory figures to a new level of perfection. Sarah Kawahara infused my skating with a newly discovered texture and sensuality that had, before that, been untapped. The combination of all these people marked the point where I started to grow as an artist. The artistic and technical started to become one for me.
EFS: Who were some of the skaters or other athletes (in any sport) that you looked up to growing up? Who inspired you?
TD: As I said earlier, John Curry was my role model. I was and still am fascinated by his absolute mastery of control and purification of body line…which still is the “gold standard” today. I’m afraid that if John could see today what is passing for world class skating….he would be horrified!
Janet Lynn is my other role model. I first saw her skate when I was starting skating at the Long Beach Nationals in 1972. Ironically, that very performance is what I show many of my skaters as an example of pure unencumbered movement through perfected technique. Without knowing it, Janet was the best example of modern dance in figure skating. Her sense of freedom in space seemed to make her float surrealistically over the ice. To me this separates her from classicists such as John Curry and Peggy Fleming, who mastered yet, obeyed their space. Janet ventured out of the real and entered a dream world that, for me, makes her the goddess of contemporary skating. Unfortunately, no woman has yet to take her crown!
EFS: Was there a point in your career where you had an “aha” moment where you thought or realized that you had a passion for choreography? How did you get started choreographing for other skaters?
TD: As a child I would play music in our house and make up movement. I didn’t know at the time that I was improvising! I now believe very strongly that the ability to improvise is a vital aspect of the creative process and is fundamental to becoming a choreographer. We had a very musical house. I play the oboe and have since I was 10. My brother David was a musician and played in a popular local band as drummer. He was always tapping out rhythms everywhere….on tables, chairs. He was friends with Tony Tennile’s family of The Captain and Tennile fame. My brother and her (Tony Tennile’s) sister Melissa would “jam” at our house on Balboa Island in California. My music career and the influence around had a profound effect on my linking music and movement together, as the two became inseparably intertwined for me.
My first venture into choreography was with my wife Catarina Lindgren. Catarina had moved from Sweden to train in Colorado in 1981. The minute I saw her skate I was transfixed by her fluid “cat-like” movement and unbelievably soft, organic knees. As we became better acquainted I suggested she skate to “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” by Swedish American sixties star Ann Margaret. I was right on the money as the pairing of singer and skater was perfect. I started to feel then as though there was something in my head that might perhaps make me a choreographer. Strangely enough, this is a feeling for me more than a career, as I never said I wanted to be a choreographer. It is more an innate sensation that takes over and I feel this is true for many talented choreographers on and off the ice.
EFS: How important do you feel off-ice dance training is to the skaters of today who are competing under the IJS?
TD: Dance training is absolutely essential more than ever! With the elimination of compulsory figures which I believe is skating’s equivalent of barre work in ballet, there has been a complete loss of kinesthetic body training. By this I mean training the body to become beautiful and technically correct at the same time. Any really good dance teacher…in any style,still understands the foundational importance of ballet. Many that teach skating since the compulsory figures demise have lost the connection to what figures trained into our bodies. Therefore, dance training is a way of supplementing this necessary and vital aspect. Without training the body to move kinesthetically…a skater will NEVER be able to survive technically or artistically in the IJS. The demands of the system will eat them alive…either through injury or confusion due to lack of understanding physically and intellectually of the language written into the IJS.
The idea and manner of training in a kinesthetic method also builds a sense of “correct feeling” in a skater’ s body. It is a learning style that simultaneously forms the body’s muscular patterns into movement that to me means beautiful and correct. I feel this method also builds a natural “intuition” into a skater’s mind and body. This is precisely what ballet barre work and compulsory figures do…they train from a physical-feeling viewpoint…or kinesthesia. In other words, barre work and compulsory figures make the body technically precise without cluttering the skater/dancer with technical overload…they learn it through physical feeling. We have forgotten how profoundly important this is to the training of an aesthetic sport/art like figure skating!!
EFS: What do you tell or do with your skaters who might be needing some motivation?
TD: When a skater is lacking motivation I try to get them to forget everything about skating that puts demands on them. One way I do this is by finding soul in our sport/art. We go to seek rejuvenation in the performing arts…which I believe are more closely related to skating than is sport. I feel this is why skaters get burnt out and unmotivated because skating is driven by art and soul searching…not by goals, points and touch downs. Therefore we need soul nurturing and creative inspiration…without this skating becomes dry and lifeless at a moment when we need artistic motivation to get the maximum score. This is the dichotomy of our sport that brings particular frustration to me as a choreographer and coach…how does one train an artist in a sport that doesn’t completely know it’s an art form! It is no accident that dancers have proven to be the best trained athletes! Dancers also tend to have a ceaseless source of inspiration because they are driven by pure dance/performance driven passion- not points and placements. This is what I try to instill in my skaters….it hopefully teaches skaters to actually love what they are doing first…rules and results second.
EFS: You are married to a wonderful skater (Catarina Lindgren from Sweden) and have boy/girl twins. Is it easy or difficult to leave your work behind when you come home or do you still talk skating? Are either of your children skaters?
TD: Our daughter Mikaela was a beautiful skater. She was the reincarnation of her mother on ice. Amazing knees, beautiful back, deep edges….double axel after two years of skating…she also danced…then she gave it all up for Volleyball…which ironically she succeeds in because of her movement and skating abilities. She does NOT like to hear this however!!
Our son Kai has been studying dance for 5 years now and his physical and artistic abilities could rival anyone in the skating world. I say this not as his father but as a trained eye looking at how proper dance training affects the human body. Kai got his abilities, yes, through inherited physical attributes….but only through training the body in a way that blends physical, intellectual and emotional dimensions can this lead to the producing of an artist.
Ironically, three weeks after the US Nationals in Omaha, I am back in Omaha for a national volleyball qualifying competition with Mikaela. I am in the convention center as I write this waiting for her to play her first game! It gives both Catarina and I great pleasure to see Kai grow as a dancer, knowing what we know…but also watching Mikaela grow as a volleyball player as we know nothing! Sometimes, ignorance is bliss!
EFS: What are some things you like to do with your family away from the rink?
TD: Actually our family life is so full of skating, volleyball and dance that what we enjoy most is completely getting away from all three of those things! Between all the traveling that Catarina and I do for choreography we have actually found time to plan a trip to Las Vegas in May. Our son Kai, besides dancing, is aspiring to become a movie director so we are taking him to see the University in Las Vegas which has good dance and film schools. We will also take them to see Cirque de Soleil”s “O”. During the summer we go to Northern Sweden where Catarina grew up. We have a cottage there on an island in an archipelago off the Gulf of Bothnia. Our children love to go there and it is a place where we can forget completely about skating and do nothing but enjoy the midnight sun and pick wild blueberries.
EFS: How do you see skating evolving in the next 10 years? Do you think the IJS scoring system will still be used or do you think another change will be implemented after the Sochi Olympic Games? What would you like to see as an “ideal” scoring system/platform?
TD: I feel the skeleton of the current system is not bad. The program components descriptions are excellent. The problem lies in the judges ability to understand these components eloquently enough to judge varying levels of artistic, musical and choreographical proficiency. Right now the education of the judges does not match the intellectualism of the the program components themselves. I would like to see judges earn specific diplomas for each program component. For example maybe there would be skating skill judges who are experts in skating. Choreography judging might best be left to dancers. I also feel there should be a musicality component. The best people to judge this would be musicians. Musicality to me is pretty cut and dry…either you’re with the music or you’re not….whom better to understand this than people who actually are educated in music theory, music history and performance?
EFS: Alex Johnson really made his mark at the recent U.S. Nationals in Omaha with his Eleanor Rigby program that you choreographed. Tell us how you decided on the music and the construction of the program.
TD: I like to approach music and choreography from a very experimental manner. For example with Alex Johnson’s Long Program, we started with many ideas and pieces of music. Sometimes an idea from one piece of music lends itself to another. We videoed many examples of choreography to music and sat back and looked at what “grabbed” us. Eleanor Rigby kept grabbing us! I had the idea of Alex being a 1960′s intellectual in a coffee house in London. He is philosophizing to listeners about his view of life, society and culture. We started playing with the idea of him creating a Soliloquy. The Soliloquy representing his utopian society…that was perhaps unattainable. Much of the staccato sections of Eleanor Rigby became representative of Alex the Intellectual’s frustration with society. The lyrics from the song are very abstract …almost surreal in their description of people going through everyday life and death. Alex is drawn toward darker, emotionally complex themes and the idea and style of movement that grew from these things started to really take shape and make an impact.
The ultra simple costume based on the ubiquitous black turtle neck made sartorially famous by the Beatles seemed to be the perfect compliment. Many people remarked that the costume was very effective. It was also quite reasonable in price…proving that expense and artistic expression don’t always go together. I feel the costume ended being part of the expression…Alex playing the Intellectual who’s ideas transcend material items. In this case, the simplicity accented the complexity and this ironically became priceless.
TD: When I begin choreography for a new client there is a period of time where a relationship is built. This depends on the age, level and tastes of the skater. Much also has to do with their relationship with their coach and that coach’s teaching style as this is invariably reflected onto the skater. I can tell a lot about a coach’s teaching style by the skater’s outlook on the creative process. I always like to hear what vision the skater may have for themselves. Sometimes they don’t have a vision….sometimes they have a vague idea or feeling but can’t put that idea into musical terms. I like to experiment with more than one idea and style as I almost always find that the more the skater explores and educates themselves that their scope widens as to what they perceive as creative possibilities. The skater almost always ends up loving something they previously never imagined skating to.
EFS: Is there a piece of music that you would never use for a skater? Do you have a favorite program that you’ve choreographed? What is a favorite program that someone else has done (in all of skating history)?
TD: I don’t put many do’s and don’ts on skating’s creativity, however, there are times when I would stay away from certain pieces that masters have left their mark on…Bolero for ice dancers would be at the top of my “no list”. I also would not touch Swan Lake unless there is a skater that can top some of the greatest ballerinas…otherwise why do it?
Torvill and Dean’s Bolero marks the pinnacle of creativity in ice dancing for me. Everything since then has declined in terms of creativity and originality. Ironically, Torvill and Dean’s creative language of ice dancing started to become so paraphrased and mimicked that it lead to some of the poorly constructed ice dance rules we have today.
Another skater that I must mention that very few know of is Belita Jepson Turner. She was a professional skater and movie actress in the early 1940′s from England. Everyone that skates should look at her perfect body line, balance and control on ice. She was also way ahead of her time….looking more modern that many contemporary skaters and making the skaters of her own era look almost archaic. Her use of asymmetry, drop and rebound, contraction and counter balance as well as quintessentially perfect arabesques, developės and fouettės make her the avant-gard skating goddess that she deserves to be . Combining crystal clear skating technique and clarity of edge with complete erudition when it comes to dance vocabulary, Belita is a must see artist that every aspiring skater, coach and choreographer must study.
From my own work…pieces that for me have stood the test of time are a Brazilian Long Program for Ryan Jahnke, Matt Savoie’s Mission long program, Jeremy Abbott’s Eight Seasons Long Program and now Alex Johnson’s Eleanor Rigby. Also Yukina Ota’s Japanese themed short program to Picasso’s Dance by Hiroshima is one of my favorite pieces for females that I have choreographed.
EFS: If you had an opportunity to spend a day with anyone, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
TD: Without a doubt…the people I would most like to sit down with over dinner and discuss movement, music and choreography would be dance producer Sergei Diaghilev and composer Igor Stravinsky. Their collaboration through the early 1900′s into the 1930′s represents some of the most significant progress in dance and movement to music, as in any period in history. Stravinsky’s and Diaghilev’s creative relationship was fascinating as it collided and disagreed but almost always culminated in brilliance.
Igor Stravinsky is a composer that continually fascinates me. His composition The Rite of Spring was so ahead of its time that the audience threw things at the stage when it was first performed in 1913 by the Ballet Russe in Paris, under Diaghilev’s guidance. Today it still shocks as a concert piece that even by today’s standards appears new and on the edge of creativity’s forefront. Diaghilev was truly adventurous as Stravinsky was an unknown composer. To hire a rookie to compose such a provocative work shows then incredible vision that Diaghilev possessed.
I took Angela Wang and Alexander Johnson to Denver to see a solo, one man show performance to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The original theme was one of ancient pagan Russia…a ritual of choosing a young girl to sacrifice. The girl dances herself to death. This general theme was re-envisioned by Meryl Tankard of Australia for dancer Mark White. The performance was amazing…some of the best movement to music that I have ever seen. It proves the brilliance of Stravinsky’s musical vision and Diaghilev’s passion for new and exciting ideas that this piece retains and pushes the boundaries of music, movement and ideas. The conglomeration of the minds of Diaghilev and Stravinsky, 100 years later prove to inspire creativity, daring and the provocative in dance.
Dinner for three please… Dickson, Diaghilev and Stravinsky!
EFS: Thank you Tom for your time and contribution to the world of figure skating!