By: Beverley Smith
Paul MacIntosh tells people he’s just the lucky person who was standing by the boards when he saw Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir first skate together. “They could always move magically together,” he said, recalling the charismatic little twosome.
“From the beginning, it was small and it was tiny, and now, it’s big and huge,” he said. “They always were the best team in the world.”
He felt it all again when he went to the Canadian championships in Ottawa last month and watched them move. “It kind of starts from somewhere down in their ankles and knees and goes right through them,” he said. “It seems to have a reaction through the whole body, which interprets the music. They’ve done this since they were babies. They’ve always heard and interpreted music so well. I find every movement has a meaning.”
MacIntosh was watching Virtue and Moir, sitting with the father of Andrew Poje’s first partner, a New York City man, a skating dad who doesn’t know an inside edge from an outside one. When Virtue and Moir finished the first 45 seconds of their free skate – they hadn’t yet done a lift, a twizzle, a spin, nothing - the skating dad looked at MacIntosh and said simply: “Oh my god.”
MacIntosh said to the skating dad: “Look, they’ve just done more steps and more things in the first minute than the other teams will do in four. It’s just things they do, subtle little movements and turns and interactions with each other. They move like a unit.”
Sure, they were Olympic champions back in 2010, just barely turned 20 both of them, the youngest dancers to do so. There was a reason for that win. And now, with even more miles under their feet, more experiences, more experiments, more work, their timbre is even more finely tuned.
So what is it that they do so well that makes them the best ice dance team in the world, perhaps of all time (Robin Cousins once compared them to Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.) Well, the way their bodies move, for one thing. They stretch their bodies. One canny expert explains that they straighten their knees and point their toes, they extend their necks upward, they open their chests, using their entire bodies to interpret music. Virtue in particular has a very mobile torso and they both arch their backs to create shapes, and they involve their hips and shoulders like no one else to produce movement that the style and rhythm of dance commands. Their movement is beautifully coordinated. They complete their movements, with extended legs and arms. The tension in their bodies’ changes as the music dictates. The tension is never static.
The foxtrot of the short dance this season calls for a sway – and they have a gorgeous sway – and the rise and fall of a soft knee. Says Ann Shaw, guru of international ice dance: “You’re supposed to have an elegant look, and use your knees in the foxtrot and have a syncopation of approach. [In the quickstep] they have an elegant upright, light airy look, and they have the best interpretation of the rhythms required of anybody this year. They interpret the quickstep and foxtrot like nobody else does.”
Speed? It’s supposed to come from rhythmic knee action, since the rules specifically discourage excessive amounts of toe steps. This is no problem for Virtue and Moir, because, Shaw says, they are the most powerful skaters in the world. Speed is just the velocity across the ice, no matter how you get there. It is not the same as power. Some are fooled by speed, but how is it generated? Virtue and Moir have a hidden power, that comes from deep knee bends, and it allows them to float across the ice. Their stroking is so smooth and well-matched, that it appears effortless.
What’s more, Virtue and Moir can vary their speed and change direction seamlessly – important in the transitions category of the program component mark and also the choreography category to some extent. They can slow to a stop, and then regain top speed in three or four strokes. The variation of speed allows for the shades and light of interpretation. They change dance holds frequently, easily, eschewing the same-direction skating that is so much easier. “Their movement from one hold to another is just like little rose petals unfolding,” Shaw said. “It’s superb. They skate in close relation all the time. But you are never aware that they are changing hold. They sort of fold into each other – and I think that is superior to anybody.”
Footwork? Virtue and Moir have challenging footwork with big curves. The size of the curve that a skater’s edge creates is important, and never more so than in footwork sequences. Virtue and Moir trace huge arcs with their edges both into and out of their turns. They have dainty, precise feet.
Lifts? From a young age, when Virtue and Moir began to learn more difficult lifts, Virtue was taught to feel like she was doing the lift herself, rather than the male partner forcing the woman somewhere and the women reacts. “She moves herself from one position to another and she doesn’t wait for Scott to move her,” says Marijane Stong, known for her knowledge of dance, music, and costuming. “That was when she was quite young and she has maintained that. Ballet dancers don’t wait for the man to put them somewhere.”
In other words, Virtue has an ability to manage her own body in the lifts. Rather than Moir supporting Virtue, there are fewer points of contact between them during a lift, and Virtue extends her own free leg, without help from the partner. The positions in their lifts require a lot of strength in Virtue’s core and hips and back. Their style of stroking also is taxing on the legs, knees and thighs. This team is physically strong.
On the sidelines, MacIntosh is still watching. He’s seen Virtue and Moir’s peaceful, romantic skate to Mahler from the 2010 Olympics. Their free dance to “Seasons” by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov is also lyrical, pretty, but so different. He wasn’t sure when he first watched it, that it would do the trick. But by Paris, it had developed, as Virtue and Moir’s programs do. “I thought, oh my god, this is everything you said it would be,” MacIntosh said. “It’s magic. It’s totally different from Mahler. There is a totally different emotion at the end of it. Mahler is very peaceful. I find this very dynamic. It takes me on a journey. I love the music at the end.” (Choreographer Marina Zoueva used a proud piano concerto by Alexander Scriabin to finish on a strong note).
Their opening lift, says MacIntosh, sends shivers down his spine. “They strike a line that you know nobody else in the world can do,” he said. “Somebody might be able to do Tessa’s part. Somebody might be able to do Scott’s part. But not together. It’s just magic, and phrased beautifully with the music.”
And just to make things interesting, Virtue and Moir do a footwork sequence at the 3:30 minute mark of their free dance routine, a taxing idea. At Skate Canada, they got a level 2 for it. At Grand Prix Final, it earned a level 3. By the Canadian championships, they had nailed it: level 4. “It went whoosh,” MacIntosh said.
It’s a challenge they take. Indeed, they make everything challenging for themselves, creating new lifts every year, new twizzles, new rhythms, new styles. It’s just who they are, pushing their own boundaries, never content with the status quo.
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