by Jacquelyn Thayer
Any move up from the junior ranks in skating to senior can mean upheaval. For U.S. ice dancers Julia Biechler and Damian Dodge, bigger transitions were in the works.
Though the team has long been based at Aston, Pennsylvania’s IceWorks, changes at that elite rink, where coach Natalia Linichuk once trained students including Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, introduced some unexpected training wrinkles this year.
The motivation created by a competitive training environment was naturally in some peril. One help? A decision to expand their coaching team. Once a week, the couple travels to the bustling Ice House in Hackensack, New Jersey, to work with Galit Chait on their technical focuses—a measure that also provides opportunity to work in a larger group once again.
At home, while teacher Zhanna Palagina has been added to work with the team on ballet movement, long-time coach and choreographer Yovanny Durango has taken the reins as head coach, with Linichuk working in a more advisory capacity.
“She’s always helped us with kind of the mental mindset and getting our skating skills on their own to be stronger,” said Dodge, noting the coach’s success in creating Olympic champions like Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov. “We feel that that’s a big thing where if you get to a competition, if you’re nervous or you’re anxious or you start to get tight, that’s the one thing you can rely on. If you know you have good basic skills, at least you can try to rely on them.”
It’s a mindset that’s assisted in a fairly smooth transition to the senior ranks this season. In their second season on the Junior Grand Prix circuit last year, the team picked up their first international medal, a bronze at JGP Cup of Austria, and followed it up with a fifth place finish at Nationals in the highly competitive U.S. junior dance field. With Dodge turning 21 long before July 1 of this past year—the cut-off age and date for dance and pairs men to remain junior eligible—any choice to advance was made for them. Contrary to creating new pressures, though, the move upward has so far eased them.
Entering their first senior Challenger event, September’s Lombardia Trophy, offered freedom from expectations.
“It’s not like we’re expected to be here to be first or last—we don’t really know where we fall, so it was just, okay, we have to do it; we’ll see what happens,” said Dodge. “With the Junior Grand Prixes, I definitely felt, at least, because I was older for being on the junior circuit, that the clock was ticking and it was ‘Okay, we only have this many seasons left of junior eligibility. We definitely need to try to get more done.’”
Both partners agree that the sense is one of “calmness.”
“In junior, it feels like everyone’s really eager to prove themselves,” said Dodge, noting the “aggressive” quality of competition feeling. “It does feel with senior, it’s less ‘Okay, I’m trying to prove myself’ and more ‘You know what? Here we are, this is what we’re doing. If you want to watch, watch; if you don’t want to watch, then we’re still going to do it.’”
But if competition has eased, expectations from some of those at the top have heightened.
“At this point, the judges and the tech panel know ‘Okay, you obviously know what a key point is at this point. You know what all the turns are. You know what you should be doing,’” said Dodge.
“They expect more of you,” said Biechler.
The senior progression also means tackling longer and potentially more challenging material. A Midnight Blues short dance to “Why Don’t You Do Right” and Imelda May’s cover of “Tainted Love” highlights some authentic swing movement, helped along by coach Durango’s competitive ballroom background and work with additional off-ice instructors.
“He brings in videos, but we also look them up ourselves, and as soon as we know whatever the genre is, we do try to do as much research as we can,” said Dodge. “There’s a lot of things in swing you can do on the floor, but bringing them onto the ice is definitely a challenge. So that was actually kind of a struggle in the beginning of the year—figuring out how to get the stuff that we choreographed off-ice to actually look decent on ice.”
A contemporary free dance to Sia’s “Breathe Me”—along with an instrumental insert from Great Big World’s “Say Something—is one that arose by happenstance.
“[Durango] brings in a big variety of music selection, music choices for us, and asks us, ‘What direction do you want to go in this year?’ and we talk about that sort of thing and we narrow it down from there,” said Biechler.
“So this year, we wanted to take a completely different route with our free dance, and he just one day randomly played the Sia piece,” continued Dodge. “We both knew it, but as soon as he played it, we were like ‘Wait, actually, maybe we should scrap our idea that we’re going with and go this route.’”
And connection to a piece, they noted, is the key to audience connection. “So as soon as this piece played,” he said, “we were kind of on our own playing around, and I think all three of us were like, ‘Okay, this has to be it, because if you feel it, then you’re going to be able to show that to other people as well.’”
That drive to skate to the material with which they most connect informs, in a way, their admiration of couples like two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
“One thing that we always felt as we’ve kind of gone up the levels is we always tried to go for programs that were a little bit different than what our peers were doing,” said Dodge. “A lot of times it felt like we got shot down”—the team sometimes changing a program direction after initial negative feedback.
The particular lyrical approach of the French team first demonstrated in their breakout 2014-15 season, with a Mozart free dance that highlighted a more seamlessly rhythmed set of musical cuts and shone a spotlight on the choreography of Marie-France Dubreuil, suggested new possibilities to Biechler and Dodge.
“It felt like they were kind of at the right time where they were able to do a program that really was different than everyone else,” said Dodge. “We admired that because it was ‘Oh my god, they’re doing it, they’re at a level where they can actually get away with it.’ And I really do feel that in the last two years, dance has changed a lot because of it.”
And a few physical characteristics have led some to compare Biechler and Dodge to a much-admired American team they’ll be competing against for the first time this week.
“I remember when we had just started, even some of the judges had said ‘Oh, you guys look like a young Madi [Hubbell] and Zach [Donohue]!’” said Dodge. “As we’ve progressed, we were like, you know what, if we could look like that and we could be like them, then that’s awesome. We look up to them, they’re great skaters. There’s just something about them, something about their attitude.”
That quality, this team noted, is one of immediately drawing a spectator’s attention, and it’s something to which they themselves aspire. But as a young team, they’re also focused, stylistically, on avoiding any pigeonholes.
“Ideally, I would like to say that we’re diverse,” said Dodge. “The one thing we try to make sure of with each program—we try to bring a different character to it or a different feeling to it. It’s something where we don’t want it to get stagnant and we don’t want people to feel like we’re a one-trick pony where, every year we do the same thing, or we can only do one type of style.”
Of course, noted Biechler, they may particularly favor a few styles, like the contemporary of their free dance. “But we also really enjoy doing fun programs, like a jazzy feel to them,” she said—something exemplified in this year’s short as well as past programs like a 2013-14 quickstep to selections from Smash.
For Biechler, a larger skating career has also offered its influence: she continues to compete in singles, ranking a solid sixth in junior ladies at Eastern Sectionals the same week she competed dance with Dodge. Though the initial learning curve to balance both was steep, it’s eased with experience.
“For me, doing both dance and freestyle gives me flexibility,” she said. “I love them both for two very different reasons. I love dance because I love the storytelling and I love being lifted and I love the edges and so much passion that goes into that. I love that aspect of it. And for freestyle, I love jumping and I love learning new jumps and I love being able to just be there out on my own and do my thing out on my own.”
The disciplines, she feels, are mutually supportive; their 2015-16 straight line lift, for example, included an axel entrance aided by Biechler’s jump experience. “I definitely feel that the freestyle helps me both physically and mentally be more conscious of my partner and being able to do more things and be super-flexible,” she said. “So doing the little tricks and jumps and being able to spin really well by myself also really helps. For freestyle, the dance part of it really helps bring out the footwork in my freestyle and the whole storytelling component part.”
At Nationals, Biechler’s focus will be wholly on dance, and the team have set some manageable goals for themselves in their senior championships debut.
“I would say our biggest goal is to look senior,” said Dodge, highlighting the quality as one largely of confidence. “We don’t expect to be [on the] podium or at the top, but we don’t want people to say ‘You know what, they look like a junior team trying to be senior.’ And that is something, especially with Galit, we’ve been working on in the last few months.”
“But with that,” added Biechler, “obviously we want to go out there and we want to have strong technical and we want to have all of that—good movement, good technical, and that sort of thing as well. We want to get good scores.”
But they’ve learned to avoid setting more concrete numerical goals.
“We’ve always been the team where if we set a number or if we set a place, it doesn’t really help us,” said Dodge. “So I know some people say ‘I want to be this place’ or ‘I want to have a score that breaks this points.’ And we did that and with our coaches, we finally realized you know what, if we do that, we’re so focused on a number and we’re so focused on such a minute part of the actual competition and the goal, that it doesn’t really help us to strive for anything.”
While Biechler’s busy rink schedule is supplemented by high school and college preparatory activities–she’s a senior through the online Commonwealth Connections Academy and was recently accepted to Wilmington University–she’s also taken on added on-ice commitments. “I’m starting to get into more teaching,” she said. “I’m teaching Learn to Skate and helping take kids through tests right now, so I’m hoping to get into coaching a little bit more.”
Dodge’s time is equally well filled. A senior at Drexel University with majors in Health Services Administration and Organizational Management, he’s in the process of applying to graduate programs for 2017. Paired with work in coaching and choreography, it’s a demanding routine. “When I’m not at the rink, I’m at school and a lot of days I’m back and forth,” he said.
And in the course of things, he also takes time for an important volunteer role, serving as counselor with a crisis line. “I deal with people who are in an imminent crisis where they’re considering ending their life or considering really drastic actions,” he said. “My job is to counsel them and get them from this really crazy situation that’s in their life and hopefully save their life—you know, keep them from doing something that they could regret.”