by Jacquelyn Thayer; photo by Danielle Earl
Though maintaining a busy schedule as competitor and student, Kharis Ralph has recently added another title to her resume: Athlete Representative to the Skate Canada Central Ontario Section.
“It entails me sitting in on board meetings and trying to provide the athlete’s perspective for the Central Ontario Section,” she said during an interview earlier this month. “Because a lot of people on the board are older, and mostly they’re giving parents’ perspectives or volunteer perspectives, and there’s no one there for the athletes, per se.”
But Ralph and partner Asher Hill’s central focus remains on the ice. After a fifth-place finish at January’s Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships, the two aim to improve on those results at this year’s Olympic qualifying event. The team kicked off their season at two regional competitions, competing in the short dance at Minto Summer Skate in early August and officially debuting their Brazilian-themed free dance at Skate Canada Central Ontario (Thornhill) Summer Skate two weeks later. The team picked up solid marks at both events and credit their good beginning to a modified training approach.
“I felt really confident,” said Ralph. “We felt more prepared this year than last year because we train with a bunch of juniors, and we followed the same schedule as them, trying to run through things earlier this year. It felt like we were prepping more for the junior circuit, and that really helped us along to get our fitness levels up.”
And Ralph acknowledges some other benefits to working alongside youthful teams, including JGP Riga Cup champions Mackenzie Bent & Garrett Mackeen, at the Scarboro Figure Skating Club under coaches Carol Lane and Juris Razgulajevs.
“Training with younger kids, actually I feel like it makes us younger,” laughed Ralph. “It’s fun, because it feels more like the younger siblings. There are a lot of teams. Carol’s really good at dividing the ice, especially in the summer – there will be some sessions where we have only half the teams on the ice, and it felt like you could get more done.”
Ralph & Hill, along with their junior training mates, also got the chance to present both programs at the club’s annual So You Think You Can Judge event on August 7, a show inviting fans to catch the new short and free dances from Scarboro’s skaters. With the gala preceding most of the major Canadian summer competitions, Ralph deems it “great preparation.”
“I think the biggest thing to overcome is that you have to get through two run-throughs in less than an hour, that early in the season,” she laughed. “So it’s good because you do your programs in front of people who are going to cheer you on even if you fall, which we did this year. And it’s a supportive atmosphere, and it’s nice because the arena we hold it at is the same arena for the Thornhill competition the week after, so we get a dry run at that rink, a dry run performance in costume. Once you get through it, you’re like, ‘Yes, I can do this. I’ll be able to perform under pressure.’”
The couple’s new short dance, a foxtrot and quickstep to Ella Fitzgerald’s renditions of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “The Lady is a Tramp,” is a callback to an earlier program – their 2008-09 original dance.
“We’d actually used this music before – ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ by Ella Fitzgerald – our first year in senior,” said Ralph. “Carol really loved it and wanted us to try to explore it now that we’re older and see what we could do with it now.”
But while the short dance is a return to familiar ground, the free dance put the team in new territory, working for a week in April with in-demand Montreal-based choreographer Julie Marcotte, best-known at present for her work with pairs teams including Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford and Marissa Castelli & Simon Shnapir, and in recent years a coach and choreographer to Canadian ice dance teams like Andrea Chong & Guillaume Gfeller.
“All of our programs in the past have been choreographed by both Carol and Juris,” said Ralph. “Since they know our strengths and weaknesses so well, they always give us material that plays up to our strengths – as any sane coach would do. However, for this Olympic season, Asher and I wanted more of a challenge. We were interested in working with someone different, someone who could look at us with a different perspective.”
“We’ve known of Julie and competed against her teams since we were little,” she continued, “so Julie was a more ‘familiar’ person to approach for choreography. Because she’d only ever seen us competing, she would be able to choreograph a program that she, as an ‘outsider,’ could envision us doing. During the choreographic process, it was thus more about exploring every possible angle, rather than tiptoeing around our weaknesses. Working with Julie was really fun. We responded well to her spontaneity and expressiveness.”
The idea for a free dance, however, took a little more time.
“We were just brainstorming ideas, and Asher and I thought ‘Oh, maybe we should do something African.’ But then Carol said, ‘Oh, you’ve already done that; how about something Brazilian?’ And so we talked it over and we liked it. And we talked to Julie Marcotte, and she liked the idea as well, and she helped us find music.”
But the discussion process was a fairly typical one for the team, who usually play a key role in the conception of their free dances.
“We’re pretty involved,” said Ralph. “We always look for music together. Sometimes we have a theme and then go looking for music in that direction, but for this year it was easy because we wanted to skate to something with Brazilian and Latin music, so that gave us direction.”
Both partners share some similar tastes, each citing one particular past program as a personal standout.
“For me,” said Ralph, “it would be our 2010 African OD, and same with our tango free dance two years ago. They were just really fun to compete.” Hill too claims the 2009-10 original dance as a favorite, though Ralph suggests a particular reason: “The standing ovation we got at Nationals probably had something to do with it.”
For both Ralph and Hill, the audience experience has played its role in shaping what has most inspired them from other ice dancers.
“Well, I loved Tessa and Scott’s Carmen last year, but the first one that I really loved was their Umbrellas of Cherbourg program,” said Ralph. “For me, like when I watch them do those programs, it just looks so effortless and easy, and very light and balletic and dance-like. I find with a lot of teams now, it gets so wrapped up in the acrobatic nature of lifts that all you see is the same flailing, and it isn’t dance any more.”
Hill agreed. “Like Kharis, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, especially at  Nationals,” he said. “That was the first time I actually probably really watched them, and it was amazing to see live. I was sitting kind of front row because I was just about to go compete for my junior men’s free skate, and their event was right before mine, and I got to watch it and it was really awesome.”
But on a more technical level, Hill also draws from other disciplines.
“I like different aspects of many people’s skating,” he said. “I really enjoy Daisuke Takahashi’s skating, like his movement and the way he jumps, the way he expresses, the way he moves, body line, everything. I like a lot of the Japanese skaters, like Akiko Suzuki, how expressive she is, that kind of thing. I just like different aspects of different skaters and try to apply them to myself.”
In evaluating their own approach, Hill summarizes their style as “different.”
“We’re not the tallest people,” he said, “so we try to skate like we’re 5’7 and 6’ tall. One, we look different. I’m black and you don’t get a lot of those in skating so we already have a different look to us. And I think we’re able to pull off things that other people can’t. And I think just our movement is different – I like the way we move and it feels more organic. I find that we’re really good dancers on the ice as well. All I can say is that’s unique to us and the way we’re always able to connect to each other, and it’s palpable when you watch us off the ice.”
That connection is a component of one of the longest-tenured partnerships in the current Canadian dance scene; 2013-14 will mark Ralph & Hill’s twelfth season together. Each credits the other for making the daily grind of training a little easier.
“She’s very hard-working,” said Hill. “I guess we’re both very hard on ourselves, so if we both screw up, or one of us screws up, we want to get it correct. And I guess she’s more relaxed than me. Like, when I come in the morning, I’m like the grumpiest person in the world. I just want to do the work and not think about anything else, and she actually tries to talk. If we both worked in silence, it would be really, really bad. Like a good part of me tries to communicate and go through the motions, but she tries to engage me in the morning because I’m really brain-dead, so that’s a good thing,” he laughed.
“He’s a really good teacher,” continued Ralph. “He’s very natural when it comes to skating, and he understands body movement really well. And sometimes when I feel like I need more instruction, and if something’s not working, he’s really good at explaining it to me and trying to break it down for me so I can understand – he doesn’t just leave me trying to figure it out by myself. And he’s very patient with me that way as well.”
And both partners are enthusiastic about deepening their involvement with the sport into the future.
“My aim is to be a judge at the international level,” said Ralph. “So far, I’m on the lowest rung on the judging ladder…it’ll take awhile. Asher, on the other hand, is interested in becoming a coach and choreographer. He’s already choreographed a few free skate programs of some competitive skaters at the Novice level.”
And like many, the two have also become experienced at juggling an on-ice career with off-ice academic pursuits.
“I’m attending Ryerson University and my major is Occupational Health and Safety,” said Hill. “And I’m hoping I’ll probably get my degree in the next two years. I’ve got, like, 17 credits to go, but we’ll see how that goes.”
“I’m a history and political science major, and I’m part-time, so I train in the mornings and go to school in the afternoon. So I’ll probably get my degree when I’m 27,” laughed Ralph.
But for the time being, the team’s focus is the key season ahead – especially January’s national championships.
“Our goal this year is definitely to podium,” said Ralph. “Obviously the Olympics is right there. But I find that fact to be too intimidating, just for me personally, so my goal is just, I want to do my job on the day we compete, do what I have to do, and just really not think of anything else and not get too stressed out about all of these variables we can’t control. I just have to do my job, and that’s my goal – just to go in with that mindset for every competition.”
Ralph and Hill will next compete at Cup of Nice in Nice, France, slated for October 23-27.