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Dangerous drama: Dance lifts becoming 'scary'

Ice dancers talk about perfecting intricacies of lifts under IJS

After suffering a concussion, Lynn Kriengkrairut now wears a helmet when she and partner Logan Giulietti-Schmitt try out new lifts.
After suffering a concussion, Lynn Kriengkrairut now wears a helmet when she and partner Logan Giulietti-Schmitt try out new lifts. (Tom Briglia)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(07/13/2012) - As the sport of ice dancing has progressed, dance lifts have become ever more athletic, dramatic and exciting. They look very dangerous to the casual viewer, as borne out by some terrible falls during the Olympics and other major championships.

A number of dancers assured us that the danger is all too real.

"It is as dangerous as it looks," five-time British dance champion John Kerr said. "The way dance has developed in the last five years, it's exponentially more athletic than 20 years ago. Charlie [White], Andrew [Pojé] -- they take my breath away."

"With the new system, the sport of ice dance is definitely more athletic and daring," agreed John's sister and partner Sinead. "In the past, you could get away with smaller lifts that were less complicated. There was no need to push yourself beyond your comfort level."

Four-time U.S. silver medalist Melissa Gregory, who competed under both the 6.0 system and the international judging system, brings a broad perspective on dance lifts.

"For us, being part of both systems, it depends on the skater," she said. "When people are going for something new, the lifts tend to look more acrobatic. Some of the lifts we did under 6.0 were very difficult, but they might not have scored high. A lot of skaters are trying to find lifts that are different and new and exciting, and that might be where they get dangerous."

To learn a new, complicated lift, dancers usually develop and practice it on the floor, in sneakers. Next, they may progress to working it on the floor but wearing skates.

"When you put the skates on, the weight changes," Evan Bates said. "It's different than in shoes. Madison [Chock] and I work really hard on lifts on the floor, and we put a lot of time into them before we take them on the ice."

The length of time a team works on a lift on the floor varies.

"Paul [Poirier] and I are pretty good about lifts and I trust him, and he's pretty good about catching me before I fall on my face," Piper Gilles said. "We probably do it six or seven times off ice before we try it on [ice]. The first couple of times [on the ice], it definitely gets your heart going a little bit."

The next step is to try the lift on the ice but to take it slow. The man might start work on a one-foot lift on two feet for a while.

"If it was a really difficult intricate lift, Denis [Petukhov] would start on two feet to get the mechanics of it," Gregory said. "It takes time to iron out the kinks. Usually, we're very sore when we're working on new lifts."

Dancers sometimes practice a fast rotational lift more slowly, although it can actually be easier at full speed.

"Speed helps," Gregory said. "When you do it slow, sometimes it's a little more difficult. When you have speed, it flows; it's safer. Balance is more difficult on the ice when you don't have speed."

Even if speed eventually makes a lift easier, it's still necessary to start practicing it slowly on the ice, Poirier pointed out.

"You try it off the ice, not rotating," Poirier said. "And then on the ice, you add one rotation, very slow, and then gradually add speed. For the very complex lifts, if you try to do them full out, it's recipe for disaster."

Choreography

The process of choreographing and developing a new lift usually starts in a studio.

"We start off ice, in the ballet room," Logan Giulietti-Schmitt said. "Our coach, Yuri [Chesnichenko], is pretty creative with lift ideas. Lynn [Kriengkriarut] and I have a lot of input. We have an idea in mind, and Yuri does a lot of lifting with the girls at first to see what will work. Of course, there are a few things that don't work as well on ice as they do off."

Giulietti-Schmitt says the team looks in a lot of different places for inspiration for lifts, including acrobats, ballroom dance events, live dance performances and TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance."

Poirier mentioned that adding rotation to a lift adds another layer of complexity and difficulty.

"I think rotation is what makes the whole process of choreographing lifts so difficult and time consuming," Poirier said. "You might have a great idea off the ice, but the moment you add rotation to it, it pulls the girl and doesn't work. But sometimes it leads you onto something else you end up liking better."

Reverse lifts

Every now and then a dance team composed of a strong lady and a smaller man includes a "reverse lift," in which the lady lifts the man. France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat were famous for their reverse lifts, and Federica Faiella dropped Massimo Scali on his head during an upside-down reverse lift at the 2007 European Championships. Sinead Kerr usually lifted John at least once during their free dances.

Sinead said there's more to pulling off this maneuver than just the lady's muscling up.

"My arms don't come into it. You have to be very solid on your feet, and I feel like I'm a very confident skater. You have to have good core strength," Sinead said. "We've been doing this lift for years, and we've maybe had a fall on it once. It wasn't that I dropped him; I fell, and he fell on top of me."

Even in the usual boy-lifts-girl lifts, Bates stresses that just because the man is lifting the lady, that doesn't mean the man is doing all the work.

"The majority of the work in the lift is done by the lady," Bates said. "They're the ones who have to have the strength and flexibility."

On the topic of which partner is more responsible for making a lift work, Poirier said, "It would depend on the lift. Sometimes it's more the girl holding on; sometimes it's the guy holding onto the girl. I think where the lifts get really dangerous is any point where if the lift were to go down that the girl would not land on her feet. It's the ones where the girl is upside down that get very scary."

"The biggest thing for me, as the male part of the team, is having as strong a foundation as possible," Giulietti-Schmitt said. "Establishing [my] position and trying to make myself as sturdy as possible is my first priority. Then there are things you try to focus on, like grabbing a boot, getting her in a certain position in relation to your own body.

"Not every lift feels exactly the same. You have to make split-second adjustments to make sure it gets there and doesn't end up in disaster."

Injuries

Despite all their care and experience, even the top teams sometimes have falls. At the 2006 Olympics, Marie-France Dubreuil of Canada lost her grip on partner Patrice Lauzon and hit the ice so hard that the team was ultimately forced to withdraw from the competition. Most ice dancers are philosophical about the risks.

Gilles says she has been dropped a few times.

"I've been dropped on my face," she said wryly. "I had a black eye on Halloween; it was swollen shut and kind of beautiful. These things aren't easy, and mistakes do happen."

"There are light-bulb memories of bad crashes on lifts," Bates said. "I guess it comes with the territory. You try to minimize that and hope it doesn't happen. I had my Achilles severed in the middle of a lift. You've got to be careful. There are blades flying around, and people in the air."

Kerr mentioned a fall by British ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland in Zagreb in 2008, from which Coomes suffered a severe concussion.

"It's just the same as with pairs now -- they work with acrobats," Kerr said. "A lot [of the time] off the ice, the girl wears a helmet. Ice is hard, but it's less hard when you're moving fast."

Giulietti-Schmitt said that, after suffering a concussion at the beginning of last season, Kriengkrairut wears a helmet when the team practices new lifts.

"We've had a few mishaps ourselves with head injuries, so we're trying to be extra cautious this year," Giulietti-Schmitt said. "She wears the helmet until we get comfortable, so she feels a little more secure doing things that are new. I'm pretty stable for the most part, but obviously anything can happen. When we're doing the element outside of the program, we'll do it with the helmet."

Sinead Kerr dislocated her shoulder in a fall during a lift in 2010, an injury which contributed to the team's decision to retire from competition in 2011.

She said, "It's always inbuilt with the guy not to drop the girl. They hate to drop a girl. John's a great lifter; we've hardly ever had an accident. A good partner's very protective of the girl, and they'll always try to save them."