Physical Acting For Skaters

By Michael Lee


Fabruary 1, 2016
   In The Loop Extended Articles

What happens when you don’t breathe? The answer is pretty simple, right?

Such a beautiful activity, this ice dancing. For going on nine years now, I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s sport or art. I asked skater Dean Copely once, “So how long do you rehearse each day?” and he replied, “First of all, we don’t rehearse; we practice.”Aha, so you’re athletes.

Therein lies the rub. Coming from theater, we rehearse our plays and present them to the public. The rewards are the applause and, hopefully, some income from grants, ads, and ticket sales. Our judges are the public and the critics. But for the most part, I’m pretty sure there are no technical specialists looking over a panel of judges’ shoulders. There are many nuances of technique... physical movements, voice tone and inflection, sets, music, props and costumes, lighting all coming together in a finished product called a play, which may last 10 minutes or three hours. The rules are pretty vague.

Does is matter whether the name is sport or art? Well, if one trains as an athlete and takes part in competition, s/he probably has a coach. An actor usually has a director. Both may employ a choreographer. The coach directs the skaters’ movements; the director coaches the actors’ actions. Huh? Though both are moving, very different goals are achieved.

And therein lies another rub. I’m asked to teach and coach “expression for skaters.” And often expression is thought of as something on the face, right? The coach tells the skater, “Go work with Michael on expression” along with a gesture of the hand circling the face like a mask. When I get the skater in the studio, the gesture that I make is from the feet up, demonstrating that the expression comes from, and is shown, using the entire body.

It’s called physical acting because the entire body must be involved, even when it looks like an isolated movement. When you think about it, a skater doesn’t skate with just their blades, right?  Singers don’t sing with only their voices. Dancers don’t dance with just their feet. Actors are often thought of as using primarily their faces and voices, yet there are innumerable techniques to develop their characters through physical gestures, arm and hand movements, tilts of the head, etc. Many actors do this naturally or instinctively, and do it quite well. One can think of Robin Williams, Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), Melissa McCarthy, Dick Van Dyke, and Jerry Lewis and immediately envision their large comical physical moves. Actors such as Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline often show smaller, nuanced gestures that convey thoughts and feelings with the tilt of the head, raise of an eyebrow or a sideways glance. But what I’ve just described is physical acting for film, where the camera is one of the most important tools. It’s what makes it cinematic art. The close-ups can get really close to show those eye movements and subtle changes in facial expression.

Let’s get back to the ice. As mentioned before, in theater we have costumes, sets, music, props, lighting…and voice (should we choose to use it). But on the ice there are only three…music, costume, and the actor. Well, the skater in this case, but you get the idea. Not being a skating coach, I leave the attention to the blades to the experts. I only work from the feet up. It’s obviously not enough to stand at the boards and yell, “Look up!  Smile!” and call that expression.

We start with the center of the body and work out from there. Literally, the body becomes an acting instrument and therefore is “played” like the musician plays his/her violin. The center is where each movement begins, often ending at (or beyond!) the fingertips or top of the head or the extended toes. The body expands and contracts naturally with breath, and to enhance that, to bring it to dramatic life, we must first understand the phenomena of expansion/contraction, then get control of it, then practice the techniques, then learn the rules, then apply the rules, then explore the size, duration, speed and length of each breath, then break the rules, then forget the techniques. Then, after a year or more, there comes a moment when the skater is acting.

Now that our skater/actor is expressing using the entire body with breath connected to every movement, the goal is to become believable to the audience. The audience can be so absorbed into a program that they forget they’re watching skating, much like a theater audience forgets they’re at a play, or a reader forgets about the book. I hope that each person is genuine with his/her friends and family, communicates with honesty and an open heart, and is real. On the ice or on the stage, our goal is not to be genuine, but to be sincere. Acting is the portrayal of the thoughts and feelings of someone else - the character. An actor does not have to genuinely be a blood thirsty killer to portray evil with sincerity; one simply has to act. A young actor/skater I’ve worked with for many years, Alex Benoit, had the lead role in the musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a couple years ago at his high school near Chicago. His mother Janice, (also a skating coach and mother to at least one other actor) told me his performance was “disturbing.” Now that’s sincere! To make your own mother forget you’re her child is acting success!

Now back to the sport vs. art debate. And, the judges. We strive to develop characters, story lines, drama and dramatic moments within the musical framework of skating, to invite the audience into the characters’ lives, and to suspend their disbelief for the length of the program.

So, what happens when we don’t breathe? It is, of course, necessary for life to continue. But we’re talking about physical acting, where every movement and gesture has a dramatic intent. I asked the question of John, a 7-year old skater I’d worked with for a while. He thought carefully for a moment, then replied, “First you’re boring, then you die.”