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Interview With Tom Dickson

Few coaches and choreographers have helped shape so many skaters careers as Tom Dickson. After winning a U.S. junior title and placing 5th at the 1984 U.S. National Championships on the senior level, Tom went on to turn professional and tour with Ice Capades and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. He also competed professionally. He has choreographed for elite skaters such as Yuna Kim, Jeremy Abbott, Matt Savoie, Agnes Zawadzki, Rachael Flatt, Brandon Mroz, Caroline Zhang, Vaughn Chipeur, Parker Pennington and countless others and won the USFSA's Paul McGrath Choreographer Of The Year Award in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2013. Tom took the time to give an in depth interview and talked not only about his own skating career but his favourite skaters, his thoughts on the current judging system, his students and the state of skating. A definite must read!:

Q: You won the U.S. junior title and after competing on the senior level, you turned professional and toured with shows like Ice Capades and the Torvill and Dean Face The Music tour. Of your own skating career, what are your most proud moments?

A: My skating career was very much a gradual progression - one that fluxed between choreographer and performer for this all happened once I turned professional. My personal greatest moments as a skater would be looking back at wonderfully choreographed pieces that were by Sarah Kawahara or myself... or a collaboration of the two of us. It is very difficult thing to explain that the dichotomy of working as a performer and at the same time honing myself as a choreographer is what together produced for me a sort of conglomerate proudest moment. Of course I would love to be able to say that I was World Champion and that would be my greatest achievement... but what I learned from great experiences and great teachers and performers over the years far outweighs a big title like that. So in retrospect my proudest moment still happens as a product of my experiences as manifested in a rare skater that I am able to reach and help flourish!

Q: During your skating career, you were coached by the brilliant Carlo Fassi and had choreography done by Sarah Kawahara. What can you share about Carlo as a coach and a person?

A: Carlo Fassi and Sarah Kawahara were the antithesis of one another. They were also strangely alike. Although Carlo was not a creative teacher...his genius lied in what he was able to bring out of skaters. Carlo was also a master of perfection, Sarah on the other hand at times loved to shun proper skating for pure feeling...but secretly demanding out of you movement that required no less than absolute mastery of the skating language. Sarah also demanded perfection simultaneously coupled with choreography that seemed impossible to perfect. Her genius lies in her process to help one bridge that paradox! So... Carlo and Sarah really help me, albeit with different approaches, to combine a honing of mastered skill with a drive for new and seemingly impossible movement . They were both task masters of perfection in their own unique ways. My personal style and vocabulary as a coach and choreographer have been greatly influenced by these two contrasting, yet strangely similar personalities.

Q: What was the transition from amateur to professional skating like for you?

A: My transition to professional skating from amateur was like a dream for me. I really didn't enjoy being judged and rated as an amateur. I loved having the opportunity to perform and venture into unencumbered movement, void of rules. I see my performing years as the vehicle for forming my real skating style and personality. As I look back years learning school figures and demanding technique were essential for being able to accomplish and improve as a professional and a choreographer.

Q: Of everywhere you have traveled as a coach, choreographer and skater, what is the most fascinating place in the world you have visited? If you weren't living the U.S., what would your second choice be?

A: I once performed in Kuwait only 2 weeks before the attack by Iraq. I will never forget exiting the plane and seeing everyone in the terminal kneeling on the floor. It was time to pray and one does this regardless of where one is...and one must direct one's praying towards Mecca. Traveling to the Middle East was very eye opening - experiencing a completely foreign religion as well as foreign temperatures. Catarina and I  were in a market searching for a Tabriz carpet and got caught in a dust storm...while it was 120 degrees out. Imagine walking in a desert of fiercely blowing sand in extreme heat! The sights and sounds of Kuwait will always stay vivid in impression. The Turkish coffee was amazing too!

Q: You have worked with some of the best skaters in the U.S. and World over the years, including Yuna Kim, Jeremy Abbott, Matthew Savoie, Racheal Flatt, Vaughn Chipeur, Parker Pennington and countless others. Who was the most naturally talented skater you ever worked with? The most improved? The funniest?

A: I would have to say that Matt Savoie has to be the most naturally gifted skater I have worked with. His sense of personal expression, aesthetic form and artistry took time to bloom but he was so incredibly gifted physically. He landed the first triple axel he ever tried! He had knees that could do amazing jump! Matt could use his knees like a grasshopper! Matt was also very limber and this enabled him to do many things physically that most men in skating simply cannot. He was and is innately intelligent and intellectual and these traits really helped him flourish in the latter years of his career, as he developed artistically.

Tom skating with Catarina

Q: You are married to Catarina Lindgren, who is an accomplished coach and choreographer and a former Olympian in her own right. How did you meet and what do you love most about her?

A: Catarina Lindgren... well... the first time I saw her I went up to my coach at the time, Barbara Roles and said, "Who is that?" Barbara said, "Catarina Lindgren….from Sweden…doesn't she have the most amazing knees?" I agreed. Later I realized that Catarina not only had amazing soft, deep knees but also that unteachable innate gift for truth in movement that so very few have. Catarina had every handicap know to skating growing up in Sweden… lack of qualified coaches, poor training conditions… but in the end her talent and intuitive knowledge of movement combined with incredible physical aptitude and emotional intrigue proved to be one intoxicating recipe for fabulous skater. There are people that still come up to me and remember Catarina's unbelievable organic deep "knees" from her amateur skating. There are crew workers from Ice Capades who were known to have said of her performance of Peggy Lee's "Fever",-  that every man should see Catarina perform "Fever", before they die! What I love most about Catarina both as a person and as a performer is her incredible honesty. Every character she portrayed was shockingly real…regardless of Style or emotional complexity. As a performer she could make you think she was the most glamorous woman in all the World…as a person she is down to earth….Completely devoid of pretense. As a result, this paradox made her the most fascinating performer ever to grace the ice. Catarina was the perfect balance of technical prowess and emotional inevitability… What's not to love about that?

Q: What can you share about your current students and their biggest improvements over the off season?

A: In terms of progress from one season to another, Alex Johnson takes the cake. From 2012-2013 he made the most amazing transformation personally, technically and artistically. My belief has always been that in skating there is no hierarchy….artistry, personal discovery and technical improvement should come together and with synchronicity. There should be no separation between artistic and technical expression because the technical definition becomes the catalyst for personal expression. In one season, Alex Johnson decided that everything mattered and he discovered a sense of reciprocal unity. By this I mean the technical, artistic, musical and emotional components of his skating all improved in sync with one another. I have never seen such a profound leap into virtuosity as this. By the time Alex got to Nationals I knew something poignant would come from him. Even though his short program was less than he and I expected I somehow knew that he would find himself in the long program.

Q: A lot of interesting changes have happened over the last ten years - the end of professional competition as we know it, a rise in interest in synchro skating and theatre on ice competitions, a renewed focus on artistic skating through events like Young Artists Showcase and European ice shows... what do you think the sport needs most right now that's NOT happening?

A: What our sport needs now is foundational education. The sport has become more complicated and the rules more confounded… the stakes more dramatic. It is no secret that I am a huge believer in compulsory figures. It is so ironic that as the ISU eliminated compulsory figures as a means to making the sport easier to watch and understand that they took the most "objective" method of adjudication out of the sport. The ISU demands the ability to make the sport more objective and they take away the most easily objectify-able aspect of our sport — the compulsory figures. On top of this they continue to demand more technical difficulty and more use of musical and choreographically complex language. The problem with this is that none of it is possible without the foundational skills from which to expound on these lofty goals. It would be akin to learning to write a novel without knowing the alphabet or studying ballet without knowledge of the "5 Positions"! Isn't it just as ludicrous to attempt a level 4 step sequence and not be able to explain the difference between a three turn and a bracket! Theater on Ice and other creative avenues are fine…but creative depth is very limited without foundational skills from which to prosper from. Think art from Picasso with his knowledge of traditional painting. One can't create deconstruction without first knowing how to construct! So it goes with creative impulse…it gets quite lost without the ability to organize thought and actions through an educated and trained vernacular. Creativity without formal eduction is just hyperbole…the real substance is in training the body and its movements through a manner that takes command and gives credence to artistic intuition. I love all venues for figure skating whether it be amateur competition, professional shows, Theatre on Ice or Synchronized skating. They all desperately need a codified language in order to flourish from the source they express a desire to wander from! I suggest that compulsory figures…thanks to Jackson Haines,  are the most efficient and elegantly formatted source from which to venture into this excellent source of training.

Q: What is one thing about you most people don't know?

A: Sometimes I discover that some people aren't sure whether I am a skater or a dancer. Although this could be complimentary, I also find it frustrating that many newcomers to the sport cant tell by watching a choreographer skate whether they were first a dancer or skater. To the educated eye it should be easy to see a quality of skating that is unmistakable. I was trained primarily as a skater. However, I have been priviledged to work with many great people so that the dance training and the skating are one in the same. I love to tell my clients to dance like a skater and skate like a dancer!  Great skating cant sacrifice one for the other... They must become inseparable! Another thing people may not know about me is that I am a classically  trained musician and have studied the Oboe since I was 11. Music education has played a huge part in my teaching style as well as greatly influencing my sense of musicality as a choreographer. To know how to decipher and conceptualize an otherwise abstract art form like music through the visual imagery of musical notation is a form of literacy I cant imagine working without.

Q: Who is one skater or choreographer's body of work that every skater could benefit from watching and exploring on YouTube?

A: If you can search one skater on YouTube, make it Belita Jepson Turner! Belita was a British skater performing in the 1940's. Whats makes Belita such required watching is this very amalgamation of dance and skating. She  mastered both to such an extent that she skated with a fluidity and movement sense that was decades ahead of her time. Her sense of edge control combined with spacial awareness and body line is shocking ....not only when compared to her peers but also compared to contemporary skaters! Every skater, coach and choreographer should watch her performance of "Suspense 1946 Part 2". It is easy to see where John Curry got his inspiration. Notice not just her unbelievable extension but how that extension obeys the laws of edge quality and definition.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time?

A: If I go solely by my immediate emotional reaction to watching them skate, my three favourite skaters of all time happen to be female. It's not only about what they do... but primarily about the unique stamp they have left on their art and what it means to be a feminine figure on the ice. Whenever I lack inspiration in my work these are the skaters I turn to for spiritual renewal! I study and learn from them every time I watch. In chronological order: 1) Belita Jepson Turner: Many of the reasons I love her skating so much have already been explained in previous questions. Her ability to exude feeling and embody her movement while taking total mastery of it just completely astounds me. Belita was like Terpsichore...the muse that enraptures you and makes you not be able to take your eyes away from her. She was the iPod of her the musical mp3 that changed the way we think about music...Belita was a skater that completely altered our perception of what the body can do on ice. 2) Janet Lynn: John Curry once described Janet's skating as magical and "elfin".  Elfin is a very curious adjective and one that I agree with completely. One can't describe Janet's beauty on the same terms as that of Belita's. Her elfin quality refers to a strange enigmatic quality both curious and slightly mischievous. Janet's always feels as though she's daring to look up into the sun like a young girl that has escaped her cottage and is simply just enjoying a summer day in the forest with complete abandon. She is like the rarest of fine wines that was a product of just the right time place and sunlight and location. Perhaps this is why Janet's greatest works were to Impressionistic pieces such as "Afternoon Of A Faun" by Debussy. Just the right feeling at a given moment as if she is living the moment for the time through the soul of her skating. This is indeed a very rare quality and I don't believe any skater has ever captured it since Janet. Its as if the greatest shafts of sunlight shone upon her faces in a way that will never happen again in another time. 3) Catarina Lindgren: Although she is my wife and I have known her for years, my impression of Catarina's skating would not change whether it were the first performance I'd seen - or the 101st. Catarina took off where Belita left off... with incredible range of movement and legs that could develop in the stratosphere and knees that could find the center of the Earth. Catarina had the rarest of abilities to skate with complete command but give the feeling she is completely vulnerable to her movement and performance. Regardless of character it was as if she gave up her soul into the persona... so that when she was the evil Black Queen of Spades in a chess production,  one really believed she was from Hades and the depths of evil. When she skated a Billie Holiday ballad you felt the movement was absolutely inevitable . You just couldn't imagine the movement and the performance to be any other way. She became the essence of Billie Holiday's voice. Catarina's honed technique and organic movement gave her the ability to sublimate her movement into a variety of completely diverse and nuanced roles... unlike any other skating performer on the planet. Anyone that has ever had the pleasure of seeing Catarina perform will now exactly what I mean.

Q: What do you think is the biggest improvement about the CoP/IJS judging system over the 6.0 system? What about the biggest problem?

A: When it comes to the IJS the biggest improvement is also the biggest problem! There is some irony in the fact that we have attempted to make our sport more judgeable... more objective and this has partially been accomplished. We have given numerical values to everything we possibly can... even to levels of quality as seen in the G.O.E (grade of execution). This is all good when creating more objectivity in our sport. In addition we have explained the subjective part of our sport with great efficacy and eloquence as seen in the description of Program Components. Herein lies the irony - our efforts to judge the sport better are unbalanced because at the same time we make the objective more objective we make the subjective more nuanced, intellectual and slightly obtuse. Don't get me wrong - I completely agree with and love the descriptions of the Program Components - they are absolutely true and articulate. But at the same time doesn't it seemingly contradict the very scaleable values of the other side of our sport...that other 50%? It's like saying with conviction that 50% of our sport can be done with a calculator and the other is in essay form... they really don't interfuse. No matter how hard one tries it is nearly impossible to put objective values on those incredibly nuanced and brilliantly written Program Component descriptions. Unfortunately many skaters and coaches don't know what to do with them! The hard reality is that figure skating really is 50% sport and 50% performing art. The key to its success lies in training and developing skaters with that thought in mind... then the sport can be more perceptively adjudicated.

Q: How can we encourage skaters of all ages to nurture and explore skating's artistic and professional side?

A: My son Kai is studying dance and also studying film making. It has been really interesting being a part of these two worlds as they have so much in common. I realized that children enter the dance world because they love the feeling of dance. In film making kids get hooked because they love the visual aspect of film and movement on camera. My son's film making style has been greatly affected by his dance education. He has a certain choreographically element to his editing and synching of sound and music that I don't believe would have been detectable if he had not danced. I feel the skating world does not attract enough people (coaches and skaters) who are drawn towards dance, movement and music. Many children start skating because they love to win competitions and this is fine. The problem arises when they discover that they know nothing of 50% of their score…and most likely neither do the coaches! They suddenly realize that they need to learn to listen to their music and move like a dancer. They need to learn to phrase music and understand rhythm  and tempo. They need to move from their core, find their center and point their toes and have port de bras and a sense of epaulment . They don't understand the terms piano and fortissimo or rubato or retard. If the coaches demanded this of them think of how different the outcome would be!!  I could go on and on about the vast bastions of empty, one dimensional training that go on in ice rinks around the World! Its no wonder that there is a lack of artistic and professional skating! We need to encourage a different more well rounded type of skating that attracts and percolates these talents that I speak of above. The coaching tends to be very one dimensional. The emphasis is on learning to jump and that is where it stops. There needs to be so much more. There should be a much more serious emphasis on the performing aspect of our sport/art…for example coaches seriously entering their students in showcase type competitions. There is great opportunity in putting emphasis on these disciplines. Often coaches don't allow time in year-round training for these things and that is a shame. They think it is a venue for 2nd rate skaters. I say…raise the bar and make it a first rate venue. The multi-dimensional emphasis, at an earlier age would naturally develop more, well rounded skaters that would make either great competitors and or artistic - performance oriented type performers. Part of the problem now is that our sport doesn't produce very interesting, compelling talent unless the emphasis can be about jumping. When you put these skaters in show type environments they fall flat. I would love to see skaters train so that they can perform a piece without a triple jump in it and make it compelling. There are only a handful of skaters in the World that can do this and that should not be the case! So I feel the start of producing and nurturing the artistic and professional side of skating lies in bringing up the skaters in this manner. There should exist no hierarchy that says jumps and technical skating are the most important. That is the fault of the coach and it s the coach that nurtures that initial direction and guidance that creates the blueprint of the skater. Coaching needs to nurture the complete aspect of what it means to skate, jump and perform to music. Small steps towards stimulating and exciting children in physical, emotional and musical ways can go miles towards producing compelling performers,  down the line in their careers. What one learns is that cross pollination enriches the skater. Understanding musical phrasing helps strengthen technical jump timing. Learning to fill space multi-dimensionally,  as a dancer helps to fill and take command of the big ice arena….in turn helping to complete skating elements with more confidence. Every coach needs to ask themselves if they are achieving this. If not… rethink and regroup as this is where the nurturing starts. The beginning seed is where the future flower blooms.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":