stars shining bright in short dance

My name is Lori and I teach high school theatre and dance on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

I begin each of my classes with a question of the day and one of the questions I often ask is, “What is a memorable gift you have received?” Each time, when it is my turn to answer, a number of thoughtful gifts come to mind and among my very favourites are two tickets. They were given to me at very different times in my life but both gave me the chance to experience performances that I will never forget; one ticket was for the 2010 Olympic free dance competition to see some of my very favourite ice dancers, including Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the other ticket was to see Ella Fitzgerald when she came to Toronto for one of her final performances. Both tickets were extremely difficult to get and were the most thoughtful things that those gift-givers could have done for me. I wouldn’t trade either experience for anything. Since Tessa and Scott will be skating to music by Ella Fitzgerald (and Louis Armstrong) this season, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on those two gifts.

being in the audience

The tickets to Ella’s concert at Roy Thomson Hall had sold out so quickly that they added seats on the stage with her to accommodate some of the demand. There were a few rows on either side of her, a few rows behind her, and, if I remember correctly, a few rows in some kind of balcony above and behind her. I was one of the ones lucky enough to have a seat just a few feet away from her on the side. It was a bit like winning the lottery; seeing “the first lady of song” at last and so close was beyond breathtaking.

One of my strongest memories of that performance was of Ella apologizing to the audience behind her for having her back to them. She had been ordered by her doctors to do most of her performance sitting and did so on a stool, which prevented her from turning and including her audience in the way she would have liked. The audience assured her with gigantic smiles and a great deal of exuberance that the performance was just perfect. We were all just so ecstatic to be there. Diabetes was affecting her terribly and it was not long after that when she had to have both her legs amputated, yet her desire to perform allowed every one of us in that audience that night to have the chance to witness the beauty of her stunning singing and her larger than life personality.

When I saw the 2010 Olympic free dance competition live, it was another once in a lifetime experience that again felt like winning the lottery. I was only a few rows away from the ice, yet I was unaware that Tessa was also suffering excruciating pain in her legs, yet still driven to perform—to do what she loved despite surgeries, constant physiotherapy and endless pain.

I am grateful to both women for their perseverance, courage and deep desire to share the beauty of what they do. It allowed so many of us to see them perform at two of the greatest events I have witnessed.

As I watched both performances, I remember noticing myself holding my breath, knowing that I was witnessing greatness, watching those who are among the best, if not the best, in their fields. Lyrics from “Cheek to Cheek”, one song from Tessa and Scott’s short dance, come to mind: “My heart beat so that I [could] hardly speak”. Actually that wasn’t true. There was no “hardly” about it. I couldn’t speak at all, nor did I want to.

great partnerships

“Heaven. I’m in heaven ...” are the opening lyrics to that song and they also describe what a great partnership can feel like, to the partners themselves and to those who have the privilege of watching, listening to, and enjoying the amazing results of that partnership. It couldn’t be more fitting then for one of figure skating’s longest lasting and best partnerships to skate to the music of one of jazz’s best partnerships, Ella with Louis.

Ella was amazing on her own. In fact, over her career, she recorded over 200 albums, sold over 40 million albums, won 13 grammy awards and essentially was the most popular jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. But when Ella performed with Louis, who was another jazz legend in that era, the whole became even greater than the sum of its parts. According to one review, “some albums mark a decade. Others mark a generation. And others go far beyond all that, managing to change the face of music history forever and ‘Ella and Louis’ is just such an album”.

ella and louis

Ella is known for purity of tone, unbelievable diction, incredible musicianship and a voice that was flexible, spanned three octaves and demonstrated immense versatility. Doris Day once said, “the one radio voice that I listened to above others belonged to Ella Fitzgerald. There was a quality to her voice that fascinated me, and I’d sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang her words”. Johnny Mathis said simply, “Amongst all of us who sing, she was the best.”

Ella is also considered to be one of the greatest scat singers in the history of jazz. A singer who scats sings the melodies and rhythms of her song, but without the words. She uses the voice to create a sound similar to an instrumental solo. Ella Fitzgerald once said, “I stole everything I heard but mostly I stole from the horns”, referring to how she became one of the best in the world at scat singing.

Another of the greatest scat singers in the world was Louis Armstrong, who was able to match his outstanding ability as a horn improviser when scatting. While many have chosen to scat, Ella and Louis were the ones who made it sound and look easy and natural, much in the same way that Tessa and Scott make their intricate steps and holds, amazing unison, deep edges, and honest and believable connection look easy and natural.

Louis recorded hit songs for five decades. Widely recognized as a founding father of jazz, his influence on jazz music and popular music in general has been immense. It is difficult to say which made him more famous: his instantly recognizable and expressive voice and stage presence—or his phenomenal trumpet and cornet playing and musicianship in general. Bing Crosby noted that Louis “was the only musician who ever lived who can’t be replaced by someone” and Benny Green put Armstrong’s talent into perspective: “Nobody could learn to play like him in a thousand years”. That said, this talent was honed with hard work and dedication. Louis once remarked, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it”.

Like the reigning Olympic champions, the two jazz legends were a team perfectly matched in skill and performance ability. Ella and Louis complemented one another beautifully, though different in personality and strengths, just like Tessa and Scott. We can see Tessa and Scott play off each other and use their bodies while ice dancing. Similarly, we can hear Ella and Louis play off each other while singing and improvising vocally and instrumentally. And, on top of it all, neither duet ever loses their chemistry with one another, a feat that is infinitely more difficult than either of them makes it seem.

“It is extremely hard if not impossible to find another jazz album where the chemistry is as strong and effective as it is here.” 
An excerpt from a 2005 music review. The last section expresses a sentiment that figure skating fans usually reserve for Tessa and Scott.

So in a season where many ice dancers are choosing from jazz standards for their short dances, Tessa and Scott skating to music by Ella and Louis is a remarkably well-fitting match.

the short dance

Louis and Ella recorded a tremendous amount of music in their careers. What about these specific choices?

Tessa and Scott’s short dance is divided into three sections.

The first section is skated to the duet “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. The opening is a perfect beginning for a tribute to the duo of Ella and Louis, letting us hear Louis’ famous horn playing right off the bat, immediately followed by Ella’s smooth and easy, world famous scat sounds. Both are equally distinctive and, along with their wonderful chemistry, help set this recording apart from the more than 60 other recordings of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Likewise, the details in the choreography, line and characterization are what set this up right away as a Virtue and Moir dance.

ella and loius. dream a little dream of me.

The second section is set to “The Muskrat Ramble”. As you listen, you’ll hear only Louis and his Hot Five, and this instrumental version of the song features Louis on his cornet. Since Louis is known for his horn playing just as much for his singing, it seems perfect that Virtue and Moir’s short dance includes music without vocals. In addition, the liveliness of the music seems perfect for the Finnstep section and a chance for Virtue and Moir to show dynamics in their skating as well as another side of the characters and the characters’ relationship.

louis and hot five. "the muskrat ramble"

We hear the duet, “Cheek to Cheek”, in the third section. Ella and Louis’ recording is one of more than 90 of this song yet, like “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, it stands apart from the others because of the singers’ uniqueness and strengths as artists and their tremendous chemistry. Likewise, Virtue and Moir are not the first, nor will they be the last to skate to “Cheek to Cheek”, but their interpretation and their unique strengths as ice dancers will set them apart.

ella and louis. "cheek to cheek"

”Enthralling moments are anything but few and far between. The most charming is perhaps ‘Cheek to Cheek’ where Ella and Louis share the intimacy that only long time lovers can experience without actually being lovers.” 
Another excerpt from a review of their “Ella and Louis” album. The last part can be easily said about Virtue and Moir as well. 

It’s so early in the season, yet they and their team have already put unique touches into the dance that make it a Virtue and Moir dance: impeccable lines and use of every tiny nuance in the music, unbelievable chemistry and characterization, and tremendous details. I was enthralled with the premier of this dance. I had the highest of hopes for it because of how much I love both them and the music—and it has already exceeded my expectations. I will eagerly follow its journey throughout the season. I know it will grow and change as the team adds to it and grows along with it and that they will make adjustments as they aim for the highest levels from the international panels and the best dance they can put forward.

Tessa and Scott’s debut of their short dance at the Quebec Summer Championships