First Annual Dick Button Artistic Skating Festival Honors a Legend and Celebrates Dancing on Ice

By Paul Wylie, ORDA Director of Sport and 1992 Olympic silver medalist in men’s singles skating

The audience stood on their feet and applauded. The finale of this one-of-a-kind, first-time-ever gathering of artistic skaters and performance companies produced an overflow of hugs, laughter, smiles, and a tears that all pointed to one inevitable conclusion: “We needed this!”

Special things happen when creative people come together. Especially when they do so in honor of a collective hero and champion they all esteem so absolutely. When it was over, many turned to one another and began asking the same question: “When can we do this again?”

The Dick Button Artistic Skating Festival in Lake Placid, October 1 and 2, was a bold and glorious affair that – as Dick Button did many times throughout his 70-year career – had many in the figure skating world re-imagining their art.

Over the two-days, many of today’s most talented skaters presented their approaches to creative movement and expression in an array of formats that included an informative symposium, on-ice workshops, and joyous performances. All focused on the pure expression of music, movement and emotion on the ice. All taking place in the historic 1932 arena where Dick Button first began learning his craft many decades ago.

Beginning on Saturday evening in the theatre of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, skaters and coaches gathered for social time. The program that followed gave them all a chance to learn from leaders in the artistic skating community as a select panel shared video of their work and engaged in a discussion of their artistry.

During those first hours, several questions were posed by the audience:

What is artistic skating for you?

Do you have a clear artistic process, and, if so, how do you define it?

What pieces represent your best artistic work (and why)?

How would you like to leave skating better by your work?

Sunday was a big day for participants. That morning, the on-ice workshop portion of the event included six 45-minute sessions with artistic directors and choreographers who led as many as 55 skaters on the ice through edge classes, improvisations, and breathing techniques, with the individual sessions encompassing what Nathan Birch, head of Next Ice Age, terms a “charette.”

The morning included:

  • Karen Courtland-Kelly offered instruction on performing the Maltese Cross, the “Flying Mercury” and other movements that are historically poignant while also being applied with new variations. Based on her research into the roots of artistic skating, Karen unveiled relevant movements that use the blade to make patterns on the ice, the origin of which are centuries old.
  • Elin Schran presented her Ice Flow class which focuses on breathing, edges, and skating techniques that are approachable for multiple levels of skaters. Her positive approach to the class was infectious and had participants focusing on the pure enjoyment of skating, even shouting, “wheeee,” as they came around a forward glide.
  • Kate McSwain of American Ice Theatre asked for the lights to be turned down in the arena to create an ambiance amenable to exploring various types of improvisation. Many participants later told how this session the most cathartic of the weekend. Several who mentioned they felt a new freedom to explore movement and emotions they’d never before accessed on the ice.

That afternoon, there were additional workshops and shows:

  • Nathan Birch of The Next Ice Age worked with participants to focus their attention on precise feet and body positions to achieve balletic unison and to emphasize lean, line, and turn out. He worked on the idea of “lilt” which uses rise and bend of the lower body to generate seemingly effortless speed, in the style of Janet Lynn.
  • Moira North of Ice Theatre of New York presented a choreographic workshop, showing two performances – When Atoms and Take Five. She then had Sarah France teach a step and have the participants interpret various pieces of music, showing the different emphasis of arms, body, and facial expressions.
  • A Doug Webster clinic concluded the morning with parts of Ice Dance International’s class that put a wide range of skills together in a full-speed demonstration of flowing steps and turns.

The afternoon’s remarkable schedule also offered opportunities for professional soloists and companies to present their finished products. Performances that were the culmination of experience, thought, practice, training, and artistry. All of the companies participating contributed to the show, displaying over two full hours an incredibly satisfying breadth of skating.

  • World Figure and Fancy Skating incorporated patterns and movement in two pieces which were performed to a live saxophone performer, Neil Wright of Saranac, NY.
  • Sam Devroye perfomed “Sunset” to Grofe’s lyrical Grand Canyon Suite, displaying extension, glide and beautifully turned-out spirals, camel spins, and spread eagles.
  • American Ice Theatre offered a contemporary piece created especially for the Festival, a performance that felt the most au courant of all. Moving from tight shapes to using toe picks and even finishing on the barrier, they explored boundaries and created a piece that was fun and surprising.
  • TJ Carey performed “Serpentine Loop,” choreographed by Elin Schran, which was an exploration of the range of emotions present in poems written by her sister, a performance with introspective, yet staccato and angular movements interspersed.
  • Ice Dance International performed their entire show, Grace, one the company is currently performing on tour. Uplifting, fresh, and athletic, the company moved through musical genres, expressing the inspiration derived from enduring the recent pandemic. This inspiring 90-minute presentation created a fitting finale to the weekend – the one that brought the audience to their feet.

As a dedication to Dick Button and his legacy, this Festival was a fitting “first pancake,” leaving those present eagerly anticipating the next time we will all be together, performing, presenting and learning.