Music

How does a figure-skating routine come together? Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier explain

The 2022 Olympians break down their Elton John rhythm dance.

The 2022 Olympians break down their Elton John rhythm dance

How does a figure skating program come together? Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier explain

5 months ago
Duration 2:46
Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier break down the musical elements of their 2021 rhythm dance program.

By the time a figure-skating routine arrives at the Olympics, it has been performed countless times, tweaked and refined to its fullest potential to hopefully land its skater(s) on the podium. But the road can be long and arduous, from finding the right music to placing the required elements in the right spot within a program. 

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, the Canadian national ice-dance champions competing at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, admit that they're "constantly making changes to the choreography — sometimes big ones, sometimes small ones," as Poirier tells CBC Music. Gilles adds: "Sometimes some programs take two weeks and they're super easy to put together, and sometimes programs take months to really get to where they need to be." 

By that description, Gilles and Poirier's rhythm dance this year — set to an Elton John medley of songs — falls into the latter category, taking months to perfect its intricate details. Gilles calls this program "a very slow build" that has gone through lots of transformations from competition to competition. "We're always getting feedback after each competition," Poirier explains, "from the judging panel and also us seeing certain things within the routine that we don't feel are necessarily optimal." 

The end result, as already exhibited in Gilles and Poirier's first Olympic performance this year during the team competition, is a sparkling delight; a bright and energetic representation of how music and figure skating can bolster one another into a piece of art, entertainment and, above all, a powerful display of athletic skill. 

Ahead of Gilles and Poirier's main ice dance competition, which kicks off on Saturday, Feb. 12, the pair walk us through the process of creating their rhythm dance program. 

Canadian ice dance duo Gilles, Poirier finish 4th in rhythm dance team event

5 months ago
Duration 7:09
Canadian ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier scored 82.72 points to finish fourth in the rhythm dance portion of the figure skating team event at the Beijing 2022 Olympics.

Theme

Every season, the International Skating Union designates a theme for the rhythm dance that skaters must adhere to with their choice of music and choreography. This year, teams were given "street dance rhythms," which encompass hip hop, jazz, reggae, reggaeton, blues, funk, swing, krump, popping or disco. 

Gilles says many skaters have chosen hip hop or disco because it will invigorate viewers more than some of the traditional styles of dance and music that people may associate with the sport, like tango or foxtrot. She says this is a particularly exciting theme because "there's music that people listen to on a day-to-day basis that we can perform and people can connect to." And that's important given it'll be seen by millions of people tuning into the Olympics. 

Song selection

For their rhythm dance, Gilles and Poirier chose not one, but two Elton John songs: "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues" and "I'm Still Standing." While most ice-dance teams typically choose one song, Gilles and Poirier's decision to perform a medley came out of necessity due to one of the required pattern dances they must include in the routine.

"There is a section of the dance with the pattern dance," Poirier mentions, "where everyone does the same steps, and we all have to skate to the same tempo music so we had to choose at least one song that had the right tempo and the right beat required to do this element." Thus the inclusion of "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues."

To end the program with "I'm Still Standing" brings a rush of adrenaline hurtling toward the finale giving, as Poirier described, "a really strong message that just really spoke to our attitude." 

Gilles says the process of choosing music varies from year to year. Sometimes a style of dance they want to perform dictates the song; other times, a song stands out on its own and inspires the entire routine. Both Gilles and Poirier joke that figure skaters "must have the most random iTunes playlist because it can go from tango, to folk, to metal, to classical — you really start to appreciate every type of music." 

But songs aren't always the right length for a program — rhythm dances are between two minutes and 40 seconds to two minutes and 50 seconds — which is where a music editor steps in. Gilles and Poirier work with Rob Colling, who helps translate their ideas into a refined piece of music. "We work so intimately with music, but don't necessarily know music technique," Poirier says. "And [Colling] is really good at taking our instinctive talk about music, and turning it into something technical and musical that works." 

Costumes

British pop singer Elton John dancing onstage at Earl's Court in London on May 12, 1976. (Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)

Gilles and Poirier wanted their costumes to look and feel just as vibrant as Elton John, who is a style icon best known for flashy outfits and those signature bold sunglasses. According to Poirier, their costume designer, Peter DeFreitas, "pulled some iconic Elton looks and tried to put something together." The challenge here was distilling John's theatricality into something practical for the ice. Poirier says their final looks — orange, bedazzled outfits complimented by a rainbow of decals — are statement pieces that are bound to be "different from what the other teams will be wearing." 

Choreography 

Every rhythm dance comes with required elements that must be incorporated: a pattern dance (a prescribed pattern of steps that everyone must do in order for judges to compare), two step sequences (one where the pair is connected the entire time, another where they are apart to show unison), a twizzle sequence (side-by-side spins on one foot) and a lift. Teams must also skate counterclockwise around the rink. By contrast, the longer free program gives teams more control over the structure of the performance. 

Because of that, rhythm dances can feel more limiting. Gilles and Poirier say that, throughout this past season, they've played around with choreography and elements, changing things up like the beginning of the program, for example. When they first put the routine together, the jive played a bigger role in their movements. But Gilles says, "Over the year, we've kind of moved away from that a little bit because we felt it wasn't the impact that we wanted."

The evolution of a program can feel exciting to witness and experience, as Gilles notes the pride she felt seeing the routine take shape, but she also admits that it can be confusing mentally. "Every time it's like, a new opening, a new hand movement, new everything!"

But the part of the program that Gilles and Poirier feel most confident about is the ending, with the high energy of John's "I'm Still Standing" carrying the momentum to its "slam-bang finish," as Poirier describes it. Gilles adds: "The last piece of this program is really where we start to give everything, and really ride that wave like it's a finale at a concert." 

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