by Jacquelyn Thayer
Last season offered one particularly key lesson for 2016 U.S. national pair champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea: choose the music with which you connect and which, then, can connect with the audience. It led them to a successful free in skating warhorse “Music of the Night”; it led them further off the beaten path with a sharp switch from the equally traditional “España cañí” for the short program to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.”
But that need for connection also proved much for any prospective new selection to live up to, until the team hit upon one YouTube find.
But this find — Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave — struck with coach Jim Peterson, who further offered Rimsky-Korsakov’s Song of India as a companion cut, which opens the program.
“We are ecstatic with our choice,” said O’Shea. “It’s something that feels really comfortable already this early in the season and we’re skating well to it — I don’t even mean element-wise, but it’s music that we feel good skating to and that’s something that we have found is so important in our success this past season. Not just having music that is playing while you’re skating, but really skating to music and having music that brings an emotion out in Tarah and myself so that we can then help the audience and the judges feel that emotion.”
A focused path for the short helped to narrow coach/skater musical debate.
“After skating to Hozier last year, we really felt that it was the male perspective of a relationship and this year we wanted to take more of the female perspective,” said Kayne. Given a pool of strong female artists, the final choice to draw together two pieces from late British chanteuse Amy Winehouse — a cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Back to Black” — wasn’t too difficult. “I love Amy Winehouse so we kind of brought her up, and we love the sultry sound she brings and we really like the storyline it gives,” said Kayne.
Indeed, Kayne identifies story — alongside a natural liking for the selection — as the central basis for their connection with a given piece of program music.
“We always have a strong storyline that goes with our music, no matter what it is — even if it’s not something the audience knows right away,” she said. Phantom offered a familiar tale; others, like this year’s free, matter first for the skaters themselves.
“That’s something that really helps us, knowing what our part is and knowing whether I’m a princess or a slave, or whether I’m in love with him or whether I don’t like him in this program,” said Kayne. “We need to know what’s going on and what storyline we’re trying to portray to the audience.”
“If you’re an actor on stage and you know the lines but you don’t know who the character is, you’re not going to be able to tell a very good story, right?” continued O’Shea.
Peterson, he notes, encourages skaters to research a selection, from the story it might tell to the narratives surrounding a composer’s life, a skater’s own associations, or natural links with another piece of music or idea.
“And when you create those characters and create that story,” said O’Shea, “not only can you tell a story to someone else, but it helps you get through the program, because you know step by step where you’re going, you know what you’re doing in that time and what face you’re supposed to make and what feeling you’re supposed to feel.”
Fitting for an emphasis on musical connection comes something of a new choreographic direction. For the first time, the team worked primarily with five-time U.S. ice dance champion and world medalist Judy Blumberg for both programs rather than with Peterson. While Blumberg had previously aided in footwork for the team along with training on turns and skating skills, her lead role this time has brought a new flavor to their material.
“The general difference between Mr. Peterson and Judy is that Judy has an ice dance background while Jim has a pair skating background, so they bring two entirely different worlds to our choreography,” said Kayne. “Judy can also bring the female perspective to partnering.”
Technically, the pair have zeroed in on improving a central weakness: the triple twist, which last season earned only a Level 2 in nine of 14 skates and picked up negative GOE on eight occasions. It’s work that Kayne refers to as a “[complete] revamp.”
“We really just took it down to basics,” she said. “We spent a long time without doing any triples. We were just doing technique work, so we were doing a lot of singles, a lot of off-ice, what we call ‘pop-ups.’”
“Explosion to the top of the twist without any real rotation,” explained O’Shea.
“Basically, if I was going to relate it to a jump, it would be like doing just the take-off without any rotation, just working on getting the height,” continued Kayne. “I think before, we were very rotation-centric and we weren’t able to get the height at the top of the twist.”
“We feel that if we can get rid of the weaknesses in our skating, we’ll have a much more cohesive program and we’ll feel confident going into every competition,” said O’Shea.
And it’s also a matter of bringing up their technical arsenal: the pair is working on adding the triple toe loop to their jumps. “[A second triple] is something that we have always trained — we’ve always focused on just consistency first,” said Kayne. “So I think that’s still going to be our motto going into the upcoming season, and hopefully that will be a consistent element for us this season.”
That consistency led them to last season’s successes — most notably a first national title, some strong autumn scores, and a first-time trip to Worlds in Boston — but will also prove beneficial as they build on their international status. For the pair slated to compete this fall at Skate America and NHK Trophy, the 2015 circuit marked their official Grand Prix debut after hip surgery for Kayne prevented their competing at 2014’s events.
“We kind of got all the firsts out of the way in one season, so now we can settle down and really work towards establishing ourselves internationally,” said O’Shea. “It’s not something that happens overnight,” but is, rather, a matter of continuing to demonstrate their solid technical base.
“And for me,” added Kayne, “It’s not just consistency like ‘Okay, they’ve landed their elements today,’ but that every time we go out, we show enjoyable performances and solid improvements every time, whether that is ‘Oh, they did a new triple today’ or ‘Their skating skills are improving’ or ‘Their performance was more engaging’ — we just want to show improvement.”
Motivation to grow can come from their fellow pairs, with both Kayne and O’Shea seeing flashes of inspiration from all corners. Surveying the world’s top teams, “we look at them and say we want to have speed like that, we like that footwork sequence, but I wouldn’t say that there’s a specific team that I look up to, particularly,” said O’Shea. “But I definitely pick out certain things from other teams all the time that I’d like to emulate and maybe even do a little better in.”
“I think it’s hard for me because I have certain performances by specific teams that I can say, oh my gosh, this team doing this program — that was paramount, inspirational,” said Kayne. “And then I’ll say, and then this team doing this program, oh, that was perfect. So it’s really hard because there are just so many different pair teams that I love.”
What’s more, Kayne’s special affection for ice dance naturally informs her perspective as a skating spectator. Others at the rink will ask her take on a competition or for news of results, “because I will be the one person who will know what happened because I watch it,” she said.
While top American teammates have offered some recent favorites, like last season’s “Hallelujah” waltz short dance from Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue and a wildly popular “Fix You” free from fellow national champs Maia and Alex Shibutani, one couple north of the border has been a particular favorite.
“I have always been really inspired by Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir],” she said. “I’ve found a lot of inspiration in both their competitive pieces and their exhibition pieces. I often bring ice dance lifts in to Danny and make him try to do them with me.”
The memory inspires some laughter. “We’ve tried a lot of pieces from Tessa and Scott’s Carmen” — their 2012-13 modern free dance, her favorite program from the duo — “and their ‘Stay’ exhibition as well, which I don’t think has ever made it anywhere because they were so ridiculous when we tried them. ‘I think it’s like this’ and then we’d, you know, fall over.” It was one small way for Kayne to pay tribute. “They showed so much emotion during [Carmen], they really made me want to find a way to skate the same program.”
The daily rhythm of their off-ice pursuits further ties the skaters to the sport. O’Shea, “full-time skater, part-time at school,” is a junior at the University of South Florida working towards a degree in mechanical engineering. Both he and Kayne coach at Ellenton, a job opportunity he counts as a blessing.
“We feel very privileged to be coaching because we used to, at the finish of the day, go to a restaurant and be servers,” he said. “And that’s pretty intense work after a full training day, not getting home until 11 or later. So we’re happy to have transitioned into coaching careers of some kind, with the little ones, at least.”
And Kayne’s creative inclinations have led her to a new endeavor: a YouTube tutorial channel, Level 4 Look, launched July 4.
“[It’s] marketed towards skaters to teach younger skaters — or older skaters, or whatever audience it’s reaching — techniques on how to kind of take a dress and music and create a makeup look for that,” she said. “So basically performance makeup.”
The musical connection fundamental to their programs perhaps has its companion in the balance of their partnership, given what each most enjoys in working with the other: O’Shea admires Kayne’s perfectionism, Kayne O’Shea’s hard work.
“Tarah is someone who will try and create the best and take the best out of a situation and turn something into the best, no matter what,” said O’Shea. “And sure, that can be taxing at times, but I truly believe that that’s one of the qualities that has helped us become who we are and achieve what we have as a team.”
“I don’t think there is ever a day where he doesn’t give it 150 percent,” said Kayne. “And he’s always willing to push the envelope and try his best and he’s always there for me. He’s always very supportive.”
It’s a counterpoint to their creative emphases — and a harmony that’s served the pair so far.
Training base Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex has become one of the most popular rinks among elite U.S. pairs, with eight teams currently training there. It’s a system that entails some precise planning from coaches Peterson, Lyndon Johnston and Amanda Evora, each of whom serves as a primary coach for certain teams while offering additional coaching for the group overall.
“That leads to everyone getting enough time with their head coach, because one head coach being the head of everyone would probably be a little overwhelming,” said O’Shea. “But it also leads to a really group/team atmosphere, which is something that our coaches preach to us all the time. As much as we can be a team in this sport where you’re out there by yourself or with one other person, we really work on encouraging one another and being there for someone when it’s a hard day. And the younger teams push us and we try to lead by example to push the younger teams.”
Kayne agrees. “I think one of the best things about it is when we do head to a large competition like Nationals, it feels just like home when we get there, because we are all surrounded by our teammates,” she said. “Even when we go to internationals, we may be in a different country, but we may still be traveling with some of our teammates. So even if we’re competing against each other, you still have that person in the locker room that you’re used to, and even if you’re competing against each other, it’s still comforting and you have each other’s back and it feels like home.”
For the fashion-minded Kayne, costumes have proven their own team effort. Kayne creates the concept, which is executed by the rink’s in-house seamstress Dawn Imperatore. “I usually bring her designs that I find, or pictures or drawings,” she said, “and I might have a skirt from this, straps from this, a top from this, and we try to incorporate them into a skating dress.”
And sometimes another helping hand contributes.
“Or I try to describe what I want to Danny,” continued Kayne. “I don’t really have a great mind for construction, but he does, so I will try to describe what I want and he will try to tell her how it’s possible to be built. And that’s how my dresses are made,” she concluded with a laugh.
“My mom used to make my costumes growing up when I was a singles skater and I think because of that, I have an idea of how things work, how fabric will work and that kind of stuff,” said O’Shea. “And I’m going to school to become an engineer, so I have a little bit of that engineering mindset, so with Tarah’s creativity and Dawn’s ability to pretty much make everything — she can take something and create it, and then I kind of try and bridge the gap and help them understand each other.”
Adding some excitement to the team’s life off the ice? Adventuresome new puppy Snow, a goldendoodle, whose hypoallergenic nature made her a perfect choice for Kayne, who is otherwise allergic to pet dander.
“She is the best of all worlds because she’s got the smarts of both of those breeds, so she’s golden retriever and poodle,” said O’Shea. “I’ve always had golden retrievers growing up and she’s got the same temperament, which is wonderful. She’s super-smart — she learns tricks pretty quickly. She learned ‘sit’ the first day when we were trying to teach it to her.”
“We put her on the ice and she started running and she slid and all four paws went separate directions, like a baby deer,” continued Kayne.
Snow unfortunately broke a hind tibia. “So she’s been dealing with that, we’ve been dealing with that for about a month now,” said O’Shea, “but she got her cast off today and she’s all fully healed. She’s pretty excited. Now it’s just making sure she stays healthy.”
Indeed, Snow’s enthusiasm was apparent during the interview, as she proved well enough to enjoy a squeaky toy while her owners spoke.
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