So, all better? Not really.

Today, Yahoo! Sports’ Fourth-Place Medal blog asks the musical question: Were Domnina & Shabalin’s “Now, With 40% Less Racism!” new-and-improved original dance costumes way better than what they originally had — and was the dance any less offensive? Answers: No and no. At least not according to a few actual people of Aboriginal origin. Or, for that matter, to Toepick!’s eyes. Yeah, he looked less dark and she looked less like someone piped white gingerbread-house frosting all over her body, but otherwise the costumes — reddish-orange loincloths, leaves protruding from every orifice — were pretty much the same (see before and after pics at the link). And the dance, complete with sexist ponytail-pulling and woo-woo-woo-woo hand-patting over the mouth, looked like something little white kids do when they’re playing Cowboys and Indians in the backyard. Or at least like they did many years ago.

There are now people who say the fact that this team is even as high as third going into the free dance is an outrage, that it just goes to show they’re going to be handed the gold in the end. We don’t know about that, but we do think we know what we’re going to dress up as for Halloween this October. And by the time we get done, there’s not gonna be a Pat Catan’s between here and Ashtabula with so much as a stick of fake fern left in its floral department.

Hey, quit workin’ MY side of the street!

But seriously folks…we at Toepick! love it when other Web sites show funny skating stuff, because we can link to it and have a second to catch our breaths before making another original post. So enjoy these links:

NBC’s Olympic Web site has a wonderful That’s awkward! slide show of ice dancers in compromising positions.

BuzzFeed just discovered how awful most skaters’ faces look in mid-jump and has posted a gallery of The 20 Funniest Figure Skating Faces.

If you haven’t found these already, enjoy, and keep watching for more original content (such as it is) from Toepick!

Nos condoléances et sympathies, Joannie

Normally here at Toepick!, we like to keep things on the light and frivolous side. But there are times when even we have to take time out to recognize a loss to someone who is part of this beautiful, bemusing sport we love to poke fun at. This is one of those times.

All our sincerest sympathies go out to Canada’s Joannie Rochette on the sudden loss of her mother today.

Not to reveal too much or to make it all about us, but Toepick! once stood in similar shoes…and ours weren’t fitted out with blades, and we weren’t about to compete in the biggest Olympic Games of our lifetime in our own home country as a contender for a medal. Remembering how that time felt, and how difficult it sometimes was just to get up and put on clothes and a face with which to meet the day, we can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be in her situation.

So, while we will continue our plans to cover the events of this Olympic ladies’ competition with a light touch (we hope), around Ms. Rochette in particular we are erecting a Snark-Free Zone. And, as she moves forward with her plans to skate in it, our hearts will be with her.

Oh, those wacky Koreans

As you might have heard yesterday, Yu-Na Kim and her entourage have finally arrived in Vancouver and she has begun practicing. And as you might expect, everyone in South Korea got pretty excited, including its comedians, or would-be comedians, anyway.

Three of them recently put together a little presentation poking amusement at not only her bu at a variety of Olympic sports, which they posted to YouTube. The bad news for those of us in the USA? YouTube says we can’t watch it there, because it contains material copyrighted by the International Olympic Committee and has thus been blocked from us. Too bad…but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch it on a Canadian Web site. So, without further ado, Toepick! provides you with this link from the Toronto Star at which you can catch Korea’s answer to The Three Stooges doing their thing to mock Yu-Na, short-track speed skaters (are the cries of “Oh no!” in that portion a double entrendre? We think so) and several other sports (it’s the video right after the one of Shani Davis. Shing, shing!

http://thestar.blogs.com/podium/2010/02/morning-links-day-10.html

The All-Time Figure Skating Political Incorrectness Olympics

It seems only appropriate on this day of the 2010 Olympic ice dancing Original Dance event that Toepick! present its own gold, silver and bronze medals for skaters who, in its eyes, take the prizes in the All-Time Figure Skating Political Incorrectness Olympics. Not necessarily for things they did in an Olympics, but for things they did, period.

To heighten suspense, of course, we’ll introduce the winners in reverse order of finish.

The Bronze: To German ice dancers Kati Winkler & Rene Lohse, whose competitive career spanned the ’90s and early aughts. I’m sure Kati and Rene are both really nice folks, despite their predilection for some truly bizarre costumes over the years. Here’s just one example:

And if you think that’s good, you should have seen them as drippy Salvador Dali watches. Or the daytime and the nighttime. Anyway, for the 2000-2001 season, they decided their free dance would be set to gospel music. Nothing wrong with the idea, but the costumes they used initially caused quite a stir:

This is actually how they looked toward the end of the season, and it doesn’t seem there’s all that much to fuss about. I mean, they seem to be attempting to look like poor sharecroppers or something, perhaps recently freed slaves (they must have knotted ropes around their waists to symbolize something). But none of this was the real issue.

The real issue was that in the first incarnation of these costumes, Kati was also wearing a kerchief on her head. A hair-covering kerchief, tied in front, with the tie ends sticking way out on the front of her head. She looked like a clueless white version of every stereotype of the African American slave ever seen. All she needed was an apron and a spatula, and she would’ve been all ready to make some pancakes.

For their future competitive appearances, Kati ditched the kerchief. And once she did that, the program became 100% less absurd and 100% smarter and more respectful. We can only thankful Rene didn’t choose to wear his hair like he did when they were portraying robots.

The Silver: As much as we hate to knock another nice guy, we have to do it when someone else appears to have whacked him with the culturally clueless stick. In 1996, as he was a teenager just making the upward career trajectory that would end in his 2002 Olympic gold medal, Russia’s Alexei Yagudin gave this exhibition, set to music titled “One Banana”:

This example, amateur video from a Spanish summer camp, is used here because the banana in it is so obvious. In this performance from the 1997 Worlds exhibition, it’s hard to see what he’s holding (looks almost like an ear of maize), but it gives you an even better idea of the general offensiveness of the whole thing:

Yep, he’s attempting to portray an African by wearing a grass skirt and headdress, a bare chest with absurdly exaggeratedly painted nipples, and swiveling his hips around girlishly while brandishing a banana. Oh no he d’in’t? Oh yeah, he did. Luckily, he grew up a bit, broke with Alexei Mishin (coincidence? You be the judge) and left this kind of thing behind.

The Gold: Yep, she wins the gold here too, as she did in so many other things. While figure skating owes Norway’s three-time Olympic champion and 10-time world titlist Sonja Henie a lot, there’s no way around the fact that this was a woman who admired Adolf Hitler and went so far as to salute him at the 1936 Olympics (as, admittedly, many of the athletes did). Which is more than merely gauche or politically incorrect; it’s stomach-curdling, and really not laughable at all. So let’s turn away from Sonja’s politics to a cheerier subject: namely, her skating. Toepick! offers this video as a bit of a palate cleanser to prepare you for whatever weirdness the original dance has in store for us tonight. It’s a tropical South American scene, only with ice and skating. Now that’s funny.

Our Olympic “STFU” List of the Week!

OK, we’ve been off for a bit, but we’re back, with Toepick!‘s own “STFU List of the Week.” This is our list of the people in skating who we’d personally like to see shut their pieholes — for a while, at least. This list, we will admit, revolves around the results of the Olympic men’s event. Not because we’re insane fans of Evan Lysacek or dopey American homers, but because we think the guy skated it, he earned it, and that settles it. Enough already.

Not so for Camp Plushenko. The sour-graping, sore-losing and whining from that quarter has been loud, long, and glommed upon by everyone else in the world who seems to be under the delusion that figure skating is, or should be, a jumping contest. Well, if it is, Mr. Plushenko should have landed more jumps near the end of his program, no? Besides, we at Toepick! know figure skating is not a jumping contest. It’s the insane combination of creative performance and sport that makes us love it as much as we do.

So, a hearty “slam it shut, you’re catching flies” goes to the following…

Evgeny Plushenko. Might as well start at the top, right? Evgeny, my man. You won an Olympics in 2006 that was conducted under the same scoring system as this one. This time, you didn’t. Suck it up and take it like a man. Don’t complain about how everybody else in the competition was a bunch of light-loafered girlie-men just because they didn’t do a quad like you. You have made a damn big statement in the figure skating world with the run of medals you have. You have nothing to be ashamed of. If you want to come back in four years and try again, go right ahead; we hope you’ve learned by then to accept things as they are and work with it. In the meantime, kwitcherbellyachin’ before we have to send you a picture of Brian Orser embracing Brian Boitano on the Calgary podium to give you some concept of what sportsmanship is like.

Alexei Mishin: Same to you, bud. You say that if men’s figure skating isn’t determined by who lands the most quads, it’s no different from women’s figure skating and should be combined with it. Well, you seem to have forgotten that most women don’t do triple axels either. Oh, but I guess the ones who do should always win, right, because it’s all about jumping? Or is women’s skating all about being frail and delicate and pretty? (Hmm, where is that bucket when I feel like throwing up into it?) Hey, maybe men’s and women’s singles should be combined. Women and men run major marathons together, and awards are made to the highest-finishing women and the highest-finishing men. Now that skating is judged on a point system rather than by comparing skaters to each other, why not do the same here? Maybe it would do something to rid ladies’ skating of all the stupid dainty fragile stereotyping that has dogged it over the years. Maybe it would also rid men’s skating of the notion that you have to be a macho jumping hack to be a real man on skates. You know, all that sexist crap people like Alexei Mishin still believe, about how ladies’ skating is about being pretty and dancey, and men’s is about jumping your ass off.

Yana Rudkovskaya: Excuse me, but just where do you come into this? Since when is the wife of the guy who came second considered a legitimate critic of figure skating results? You’re saying the Russian government now has to “defend our sportsmen and protect their honor” because Hubby didn’t win. How? Does Putin call up Barack Obama and demand a meeting with pistols at sunrise? I mean, damn. We all know how Canada feels about hockey. If their men’s team doesn’t win the gold on home ice, is Stephen Harper going to have to step outside with the leader of whichever country does win so they can duke it out? I fail to comprehend the logic here.

Vladimir Putin: Yeah, speaking of you…if you want to console Plushy in his sulky ‘tude, fine. But really, your country and ours are really better off not getting into another Cold War. Especially over figure skating. Let’s not go back there.

Elvis Stojko, Brian Joubert, Thomas Rogers (of Salon.com), and any other would-be media pundit who thinks men’s skating is all about jumps, aggression, and basically being a blustery macho jackass. Yep. We’re telling you all to stick your homophobic crapola where the sun don’t shine. Which probably doesn’t make you happy, because something tells us that guys such as yourselves have a really, really tough time with the concept of sticking anything back there. Sorry. But seriously, fellas, you need to lighten up. It might shock you to realize this, but no man ever turned gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) as a result of pointing his toe, skating to classical music, or showing a little attention to body carriage and form. We promise. A guy doesn’t need to do quad jumps or skate like Quasimodo to prove he really Big Strong Tarzan He-Man. Your girlfriend won’t dump you. Really. She might even like you better if you reminded her more of Johnny Weir and less of Johnny Bravo.

OK, Toepick! feels much better getting that off our chest. Now we can go on. Whew.

Skating music…the good, the bad, the stuff that makes you bang your head against the wall.

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.
And finally…
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?