During any Winter Olympics, there’s always an onslaught of newspaper (and now Web site) articles written by people who either think they know figure skating and actually have no clue (look for these disguised as “expert bloggers” on freelance news Web sites) or know they haven’t a clue but feel obligated by their employers at the Podunkville Times-Picayune to pretend they do. Usually, the latter are eyerolling macho male sportswriters who ordinarily wouldn’t be caught within 100 feet of a sequin, but manage to draw the short straw on the sports desk when the reporter who will have to cover the figure skating events is chosen. They make it abundantly clear to their regular readers that they don’t want to do this, that they think figure skating is not a sport, and that they cannot possibly take it seriously, but hey, this is their job for the next two weeks. So they would like to tell us that they understand that Johnny Weirdo has a good chance to win the ice dancing figures this year, so long as the judges don’t dock him for wearing fur because they don’t like it — and the fact that they probably will just goes to show that figure skating is not a sport!…sigh.
Rest easy; Toepick! will in future present the best of that mess for your perusal and amusement. For today, though, we’re concentrating on a topic inspired by one of them: skating music. Let’s review which music is overused, why, and whether anything can be done about it.
First, it should be stated that Overused Skating Music can be classified into five distinct categories: Old Warhorses That Never Go Away, Original Dance Warhorses, Today’s Hottest Fads, Cyclical Trend Riders, and Music That Belongs to Somebody Else.
Old Warhorses That Never Go Away are the pieces of music — usually classical, ballet, opera, or Broadway musical — that have been used for skating competitions since the first caveman tied bones to his feet to get across a frozen pond and discovered it looked cooler if he borrowed Fred Flintstone’s gramophone with the bird whose beak served as a needle to play some records while he did so. You know ’em: Carmen, Malaguena, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Firebird, Scheherazade, Samson and Delilah, West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet (both Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky versions and all movie versions), Don Quixote, selections from Turandot, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (especially the second and third movements) and his 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Moonlight Sonata, Concierto de Aranjuez, Carmina Burana, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and (especially in ice dancing) any and all tangos by Astor Piazzolla or involving a bandoneon (especially Libertango). Some movie soundtracks have also achieved this pinnacle of status, such as Zorba the Greek and The Mission. And there are pieces that tend to get used at the end of skating programs just because they’re so rousing and lead to a big finish, such as the Light Cavalry Overture by Franz von Suppé. You are so sick of them that you could scream every time you hear someone is setting a new program to one of them…and yet it doesn’t quite seem like a skating competition if at least one skater doesn’t use them.
At Toepick!, we never feel as if we’re truly at a skating competition until we hear our first Malaguena. Then, we know we’re in the right place.
Original Dance Warhorses: These are similar to (and sometimes overlap with) Old Warhorses That Never Go Away, only they’re extremely specific to a particular type of ice dancing Original Dance rhythm. For example, if the rhythm of the season is Paso Doble, get ready to hear España Cañi over and over. If it’s a tango, get ready to hear a lot of Libertango, Jealousy, and Hernando’s Hideaway. If it’s Jive, Swing, or rhythms from the 1920s through the ’40s, prepare for lots of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “In the Mood,” “Bei Mir Bist du Schön,” Barry Manilow’s “Dancin’ Fool,” Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “Jumpin’ Jack,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and “Hey Pachuco.” How about Latin? Get ready for The History of Love and “Another Cha-Cha.” If it’s a waltz, get ready to sail down The Beautiful Blue Danube, fly with Die Fledermaus, or hide behind the Masquerade Waltz. Blues? You are going to hear “Summertime,” “Harlem Nocturne,” and “Blues for Klook” until your ears fall off. Folk? Consider yourself lucky if “Dark Eyes” and “Kalinka” never appear.
Today’s Hottest Fads: This category consists of two major types of music: soundtracks from the latest hot movies and instrumental themes from currently popular recording or performing acts. The first type is obvious, and it’s an especial favorite of male skaters. If they must suffer ridicule for their choice of sport, they at least feel better and more macho skating to a score from the latest summer blockbuster where lots of people got shot and blowed up real good. Of course, if it were up to most of the skaters, this category would be filled with original versions of all their favorite rock and pop music — but alas, most of their favorite rock and pop music contains lyrical vocalizations illegal in all but ice dance. So, if they can snip out a long instrumental portion of their favorite tunes to use, they will, but if not, the other solution is to perform to the latest London Symphony Orchestra recording of that Metallica or Queen song they love so much. Failing that, there are still plenty of alternatives: music by acts young skaters think of as being “classical but hawt” — Bond, Vanessa-Mae, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and so on. Fully half of these acts are gimmicky ensembles of women playing string instruments who pose nearly naked on the covers of their CDs to better help their classical label sell their music. Or skaters choose background music composed for hot touring companies: Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and any Cirque du Soleil show, or songs from current musicals. Some of these, of course, eventually turn into Old Warhorses That Never Go Away, while others are mere Cyclical Trend Riders that wax and wane as the years go by.
Cyclical Trend Riders: Cyclical Trend Riders are derived from the above three categories. What sets them apart is that they are specific examples of the above that, for some reason known only to God and skaters, is especially hot this season or the past few seasons, but will eventually fall out of favor until someday, inexplicably, everybody and his dog again decides they just HAVE to skate to it. The chief examples I would give of Cyclical Trend Riders for the current season are Firebird, Scheherazade, and the soundtrack from the movie Requiem for a Dream. The first two, because a statistically high number of top skaters appear to be using these Old Warhorses That Never Go Away for either their short program, their long program, or both this season; the latter one because for some reason a number of ice dancers and at least one pair seem to have concluded that this piece of music, despite being (to our mind) extremely dull and repetitive and from a movie that was released ten years ago, is ideal music for skating. Do not ask us why.
These pieces of music seem to come and go in cycles and, at times, by countries. We recall a Japan national championships in the mid-’90s at which it seemed pretty much every lady was skating to Scheherazade. This year’s US nationals seemed to be telling us it was a big, big year for the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker. It’s almost like a collective illness skaters and their choreographers get, and while it’s raging, you hear almost nothing else…and then when it’s over, it’s over. Until next time.
Music That Belongs to Somebody Else: You all know which music you personally think belongs in this category and who it belongs to. Trouble is, today’s skaters don’t always agree with you. They insist on skating to Bolero, despite the unflattering comparisons you tell them it will create with Torvill & Dean. They seem to think they have a right to skate to Don Quixote, despite John Curry having spoiled you for any other interpreter for all time. They leap and spin to the theme from the East of Eden TV miniseries and leave you saying “Sorry, honey, but I know Michelle Kwan, I have seen Michelle Kwan skate, and you, my dear, are no Michelle Kwan.”
You wish you could enshrine your own personal choice of music in a very special place where no other skaters would be allowed to use it ever, ever again. Good luck with that.
In addition to these categories of overused music, there are a few Overused Composers to which we need to pay tribute…overused and, to our mind, overrated. Would, for example, Maxime Rodriguez have a career at all if not for all the skating friends for whom he’s composed program music? We think not. To us, his music all sounds the same…can’t tell the one about the angel and the devil from the one about the water and the fire or the mermaid and the fisherman or whatever it is. And what is it with Raul diBlasio that skaters love him so? “Raul di Blasé” is what we call him. But noooo, everyone had to start skating to “Otonal” as if it were the greatest piece of music since Beethoven began decomposing. Whatever.
So, there you have it, the world of overused skating music. Why is it overused? For many reasons:
1. Some of it is damn good.
2. Some of it is very easy for even inexperienced skaters to interpret choreographically with a pose or two. Spanish-themed music of any kind is a classic example. Dress ’em in red and black, have ’em stand on tiptoe with both hands pressed to one hip and their head turned in the same direction, chin up and nostrils flared, and ta-da, you’ve got Spanish ‘tude.
3. The ballet/dance music examples and Original Dance Warhorses are, well, easy to choreograph for ice as well.
4. The ballet/musical/movie examples are familiar enough that no one needs to guess at what the “theme” of the program is, if it has a theme. Choreographers can assign a skater a character to interpret that everyone, including the judges, knows: Juliet, Maria, Don Jose, Odette, etc.
5. The Old Warhorses have stood the likability test of time.
6. The Today’s Hottest Fads examples are easy ways to get the audience into your program.
7. Skaters and choreographers think judges prefer the Old Warhorses.
8. Skaters are afraid anything too off the wall or modern will not find favor with the judges.
9. Skaters see other skaters using the music and think “I wanna skate to that, too.”
10. Skaters think music used successfully by other skaters will make them a success as well.
11. Some skaters and choreographers don’t listen to a wide enough variety of music and musical styles from all eras and all parts of the world to keep their ears open to both old music that hasn’t been overused and new music that might work (whether it’s a currently hot tune or not). And even if they do, they’re afraid the judges won’t like it.
Finally, can anything be done about overused skating music? Answer: Not unless the skaters, coaches and choreographers do something to stretch their horizons and take some risks. Let’s hope they do. In the meantime…is that the strains of Carmen we hear?