An interview with Renee Roca. Roca was a three-time US National Champion in Ice Dance with different partners: she won the 1986 title with Donald Adair, and the 1993 and 1995 titles with Gorsha Sur. Her longevity in the sport is hard to top, spending 14 years in the Senior ranks. Roca is probably best known for twice missing out on the Olympics for incredible reasons. After retirement she moved on to become a very popular show skater, and is now a choreographer and coach. She talks about how she became successful after a relatively late start, the drama of the 1994 season, and why she enjoyed working with hockey players. 1 hour, 4 minutes, 37 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing moment in skating: Oh my God, there’s so many to choose from [laughs]. Okay. I would say….there was the time when Gorsha Sur and I were in the Brian Boitano/Katarina Witt tour, and we were rehearsing, I believe it was a dress rehearsal. And I had been given by the costume designer, in this group number, like, this little midriff thing, it was like these skinny stretch pants, the whole midriff was open, and then there was this poochy bikini top. So we went out to see it under the lights, and it was a group number so of course everyone’s out there. And there were boys and girls and we would change partners every few steps with some sort of gesture in between. Well, it turned out that the partner I had coming up was Paul Martini, and I had to go down on my knees and do a back bend while he skated with two feet over me. And I happened to be facing the sound board where the sound and music director was. And the number’s going along, and I slide onto my knees, and just as I’m going into my back bend and Paul Martini is just about to skate over me — the whole top went up to my neck. Like, exposing everything, right in front of the sound board where the sound guys were [laughs]. And I — everyone was howling with laughter, but I just yanked it down and kept on going, and right after the number was over I went straight to the wardrobe person and said, you have to do something to latch this down. So they ended up putting a big metal ring and attaching the bottom and the top to that. It was just brutal. I’ve had a couple of things like that, fortunately never with a full audience. But often enough [laughs].
On starting skating and choosing ice dance: I didn’t exactly choose skating, it sort of chose me. I started late, I was ten years old, and at the time, when I was young, my sister and I learned to do many things. Fortunately I had parents, especially my mother, who let us be interested in anything we wanted and take lessons. So we did horseback riding, we did swimming, and gymnastics, and ballet, we had piano lessons and art classes, tap dancing — we just took anything. When we were younger, I think my mother just lived in the car, driving us around to lessons. And skiing and skating were the winter things that we did, and little by little the skating just started to take over.
I didn’t really intend to compete or anything like that, but my best friend was a girl who lived two doors down from me, and her mother was a skating instructor. Her mom took us to the rink one day and just let us play around while she taught classes. And I didn’t know this, but when we got back she called my mother and said, you know, Renee really should be taking some kind of lessons, she’s just naturally pretty good. So that’s what I did. And year by year the other kinds of lessons just started to fall to the back, and skating sort of took over my summers. And then we started skating every day during the summer, and it became more of a serious thing. At the time when I started skating, we did figures, freeskate and dance — everybody did all three disciplines – and dance was just the one I preferred more than the others.
On her balletic style: I think I took ballet, tap dancing, gymnastics, all of that stuff, before I ever got a pair of ice skates. And I always loved watching ballet, going to ballet class, and going to ballet performances. When I was a young skater, my heroes were the ballet dancers —the Baryshnikovs, the Suzanne Farrells, all of those people. Those were the posters I had up on my wall [laughs].
It wasn’t like I was trying to imitate any particular way or to form myself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my parents — I’m first-generation, my mother is Russian, my father is Cuban, so maybe we had more of a European influence in the house, with music and food and all of those cultural things. But [looking European] was not an intentional style I was trying to cultivate.
On competing with Andrew Ouellette and placing 3rd at the world junior championships: I was 15 or 16, and I moved to Columbus, Ohio, because that’s where he was from. He had a British coach so that’s kind of where we ended up. I wasn’t even old enough to drive then. Once I started competing, the goal was to get to Nationals, and then once I competed at Nationals, I wanted to go internationally. And at that time, they didn’t have the Junior Grand Prix, so junior worlds was pretty much it. So we made the junior world team, and that was my first international skating trip, which was so exciting, and that was my introduction to international events. I vividly remember being told sometime after Nationals, the federation was going to have this meeting to decide who gets to go to junior worlds, and on this day or this day they’re going to call. And I remember the whole day waiting for that call, is the phone going to ring for me, is it gonna? And it did, and I was just so excited. In those days you had to wait for a phone call [laughs]. Now the envelopes come out, or sometimes your coach knows and they have to tell you, or you have to go online, but we got a phone call. Even if there was an answering machine, I wouldn’t have left the house.
On teaming with Donald Adair: I think I was ready to take the next step. At that time I had been coming up from juniors, we were training in Columbus, which was not a big hub, and I wanted to be in a place where there was more motivation and high-level skaters, which turned out to be Detroit. I knew that I wanted to get inspiration, and I wanted to be a small fish in a big pond. And I don’t think my partner wanted that. I think he wanted to be close to home, and he was interested in academic things around home. So I think it was just kind of a natural progression.
[Winning at nationals in 1986], it was like one of those goals you hope to achieve. You want to get to Nationals, and then when you get there you want to be in the top three or the top five, and then once you’re getting close to that, you’re thinking, I want to be first, first, first, I want to be national champion. It was a big goal that was fulfilled.
At worlds that year [where they were sixth]….I’m so bad with years, you have no idea, people say, which year did you do this, and I’m — I think so little about my past, I could not even tell you what marks I got at what events. I have memories of big events, but that just seems so far away and so long ago.
On Adair retiring after Nationals in 1987: That was très horrible, that was awful. All I can tell you is what he said: I’m tired. That was it. It wasn’t that there was an injury, or that there was some emergency off ice, like a family thing, it wasn’t really financial, it was like — I’m tired. Which to me is not a good enough excuse, when you’re a few days away from a world championships in your home country.
And to be very honest, and I don’t think Donny would deny this, he was not a really devoted person to train. A bit lazy, always had to coax him to try to do a run-through, coax him to be on time at the rink — it was just difficult. He’d show up at the rink and wouldn’t do anything. And I was getting more and more panicked, and so were our coaches — come on, you have to do more run-throughs, and he would just refuse. It just came to a head one day, ten days out [from worlds], and he just said, I’ve had enough, I’m tired. And I just couldn’t even believe it. Because after you’ve gone to worlds, your next goal is Olympics. And all that just went away. But that’s not just the way he was thinking or what he was about. I couldn’t wrap my head around it because it just wasn’t a good enough reason. We haven’t talked about it since, we haven’t had any sort of relationship since then. He walked away, and I just thought, if you’re going to be that way, then it’s just not worth even — I don’t think any answer that he would have given that I could see would have fulfilled anything that would have been a reasonable answer about stopping like that.
On teaming with Jim Yorke after that: When you had attained a certain level like I had with Donnie, and then you’re left with completely empty hands, looking around going, what do I do — I didn’t really have many options. I could have quit but I didn’t feel I was quite ready to do that, I felt like there still might be more. I always thought Jim was a really lovely skater, and so we agreed to try it. I think we only skated for a season or a season and a half, but I have to tell you, he was the hardest worker, and we got along. We never fought, ever. He was the nicest person to skate with every day, and maybe the talent level with the two of us had to be developed over years and years, but I really enjoyed that season. We just worked so hard and there was no arguing, we just did what we were told, and that’s what we did. At the end of it, he was like, I’d really like to be training in California, I’d like to do these other things, and I didn’t want to stand in somebody’s path if they wanted to move in a different direction. I think that we sort of looked ahead at, this is what our results are, do we have any way to move up in the ranks? And at the time it didn’t really look like there was much of an opportunity, because the teams ahead of us seemed really to be pretty set and were going to be there for a while. So we said, there’s probably no movement that’s going to be happening for the next couple of years, so if we have other goals — and he had things he wanted to do, and I was, yeah, I can be looking around for other things too. So that’s what we did. And then along came Gorsha.
On starting as a choreographer: After that 1989 season, I thought that was probably it, because how many people can turn around with another partner and attain the same sort of level? I mean, it’s pretty rare that you can be national champion or go to worlds — Artur Dmitriev has done it with a couple of partners, Olympic champion with different partners, which is extraordinary — but there aren’t a lot of people in pairs or dance that can even win a national championship with different partners. So I thought, well, if this is my path —I’m a true believer in fate and destiny, that you are just led to places that you’re meant to be. No matter how you try to force things, life is going to take you where it’s meant to lead you. So I just sort of let things come and go, and let things happen. So at that time I just thought, yeah, well, I’ll just work with my coach here and I’ll get into the choreography side of things. I was just sort of experimenting with moving on.
I choreographed Jill Trenary’s freeskate program in 1990, and that was the first program I did. And I thought, well, this door seems to be open, maybe I’ll step inside this door and see what happens. Jill and I eventually became very good friends, but at the time she asked me to choreograph for her, she was kind of stuck. She had been working with Sandra Bezic, and she had scheduled Sandra to come in, but there was some sort of a date conflict and something wasn’t working out with their schedules to get together. I didn’t know Jill all that well because the freeskaters trained at the Broadmoor and the ice dancers trained at the Air Force Academy [both in Colorado], so we very rarely ran into each other. And one day I happened to be going into this little music store in the main street of Colorado Springs, and she just happened to be going out of it. So we were on the sidewalk there, and she said, oh, I’m so frustrated, I just can’t find any music and Sandra can’t work it into her schedule to come out here, and these programs have to get done because my season is starting. She just was at her wits’ end. And she just looked at me and said, do you have any music that I could even listen to? [laughs] I just said, you know, ice dancers tend to go for different kind of music because we’re kind of a different discipline, but if you’re really stuck I can send you some of the music from my old programs and see if any of those hit you, that’s about all I can offer you. Which I did, I just gave her a bunch of old tapes, and she listened to some of the stuff and she asked me, I really like some of these music choices, would you ever considering choreographing my program? And I was like, whoa, I’ve never done that for a singles skater. I said, it sounds interesting, but Jill might have already been in the top three at nationals by that time, so that was an awfully big order to fill.
So I said, we can try to work together, but this is the only way that I’m going to do it. First of all, you have to ask Christa and Carlo Fassi if it’s okay. And second, we have to do it in secret [laughs] because I don’t want to feel the pressure of people on a session staring at us and wondering what’s going on. If you and I can get private ice over at the Air Force Academy where it’s really quiet, let’s just spend a couple of days playing around and trying out stuff with each other. And if it feels like we have a good harmony with each other and things are moving along, then we can take it to the next level. But if we’re on different pages and we’re not just getting each other when we work, I don’t want to waste your time. And she said, that sounds fair. So that’s what we did. We cut a piece of music that used some of my old music, and she met me at the Academy and we worked for two days. The first day we knocked out the whole first section of a long program, and I said, OK, this is all laid out, you go show it to Christa and Carlo and get their feedback, and if it’s all right then we’ll do a little bit more tomorrow. So she did, and they loved it. And then we did the whole program in secret. Eventually people found out that I did it, but she had a good year that year. She won worlds [laughs]. But it was very innocent, just one of those fateful things from running into each other. And we didn’t know each other that well, but through working together we became very good friends, and we had a really good rapport.
On teaming with Gorsha Sur: Because he came from Tatiana Tarasova’s camp, there was a lot more influence of emotion in the skating, and perhaps at that time, a bit less in the technical qualities, in the compulsories, for example. One of my coaches was Peter Dalby, another was Bernie Spencer, so I had come from sort of a British background where they’re very particular about the correct edges and the correct footwork and turns during compulsories. They’re almost like two different schools. The Russians were really just about the drama of everything. We skated just fine together, but I think there was an adjustment in the technical compulsory side for him and an adjustment on the drama side for me.
I have a little angel named Brian Boitano, who has been my best friend in skating since we met at the Ennia Cup, gosh, 30 years ago. He has always been my biggest support, like my big brother that reaches out. If there’s a little opportunity to do something, he’ll reach out. So when it became Gorsha and Renee that were available, he was, oh, let’s take them. As an Olympic champion, a lot of things became available to him, and that boy never failed to throw my name out there.
On becoming a competitive team with Sur: What happened was, five Russians defected, Gorsha and Igor [Shpilband] and three others. And all five were taken to the Detroit Skating Club, because the club could offer them some positions. Gorsha and I did some little tours and other little things, because they had defected from the Torvill and Dean Russian All-Stars show. So once we had formed a partnership and the rules opened up for eligible skating, and there was a little window, Gorsha said, I want to go back, and I said, I don’t want to go back [laughs].
Oh my gosh, I knew how hard it was going to be at that time, because when they all defected, there was kind of a big backlash in this country against them. There were people who were for accepting them into our skating community, and there were people who were very much against it because they felt like these people were invading on US turf. Back then it was a very big deal. Now skaters change countries and skate with anybody in the world, and you represent whatever country, it’s so common now, but back then it was a really big deal. And I was anticipating the backlash of the USFSA perhaps allowing a Russian skater into our federation, and there was no status for that. The USFSA had never had a situation like that. And some people were like, don’t let him in. Other people were, of course, let him in, this could be helpful. It was not going to be an easy road. And on top of which, he had defected from Russia, which at that time was the Soviet Union. So Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, all of those had been under the Soviet Union, so all of those countries and judges were going to have it out for him. How dare he compete for another country [laughs]. So I was looking at it from the long perspective. Not from the skating perspective — the skating was the least of our worries. It was all the political stuff that was going to be so hard to get through. Gorsha and I used to compete against each other at senior internationals! But somebody had to break the ice, somebody had to put themselves out there and be the guinea pig and just try it, and then let the chips fall where they may.
But I tell you, it was not easy. He had no status here in the federation, so when we went to the USFSA, they were like, we don’t know what to do with you [laughs]. They had never had a precedent, there was no example even to go off. And thank goodness we were in Colorado Springs at that time, because the USFSA headquarters were right there, and people were going over all the rules, like, there’s no rule that even says how something like this could even happen. And on top of that, Gorsha had to take every single USFSA dance test, from preliminary, the Dutch Waltz, the Canasta Tango — I had to take him through all of those tests.
Here we were competing at worlds and stuff with our other partners, and here I am taking him through the Dutch Waltz, oh my God [laughs]. But that was one of the very first things we had to do to try to get status in this federation. He had to be qualified, which meant he had to take all those tests, become a member, have a club, all of this. Gorsha’s the type of person, when he makes up his mind, don’t stand in his way, because he goes after what he wants, completely, until he gets it. He will climb, turn himself inside out, turn the world inside out to get what he’s after.
On choreographing for Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow in 1991 when they were competitive rivals: I didn’t think it was hard at all until the drama unfolded of the citizenship issue [in 1994]. To me, competing is competing. You train, whoever you are, you do the best you can, you compete fairly, you let the chips fall where they may. None of that bothered me. It was just when we had started this citizenship paperwork for Gorsha to be naturalized, and you find out that competitors of yours are trying to undermine it. That was the hardest thing.
On the controversy around Gur’s citizenship application, and finding out that Punsalan and Swallow had organized a letter-writing campaign against the application: We had choreographed for [Punsalan and Swallow], we were friends, we had trained together. I don’t blame them for picking up [from Colorado] and going to Detroit, because they needed their own coach and their own place. The sharing thing can get tricky, when you’re sharing coaches and training time, even though it might be a big school with lots of teams training. That wasn’t so bad, it was just when….that was so hard to swallow, it left a bad taste in my mouth. That was what stung the most, I think, because it wasn’t just left on the ice. You leave it on the ice, and it is what it is.
On the 1994 US Nationals, where Roca & Sur competed knowing they would not be able to go to the Olympics, and Roca then broke her arm in a practice session: There was a lot of drama. I should write a book [laughs]. And it was announced that we had withdrawn when we hadn’t. It was on the warmup leading up to the OSP event which was that evening, that’s when the accident happened. And the hospital just happened to be blocks away from Joe Louis Arena. So, you know, I went to the hospital, they reset my arm in kind of a cast, and I’m sitting there, like, waaah, and the doctor says, you know, if you want to go back to the building, you can. And I said, to watch? Yeah, I’ll go back to watch, I guess. And he said, if you want to skate, you can skate. Do you think you can skate? And I said, what? [laughs] He said, do you have anything in this event tonight where you’re going to be thrown or where you have lifts? And I said, no. I thought, I wonder if I could? So we said, yes, let’s go back. And I remember my coach and myself, we were in a car, and rushed to the back door of the arena, and my warmup group was going to start in 10 minutes. And you have to show your credential to someone at the door, and I was still in my practice clothes, and my coach and I were running to the dressing room with my bag, and the credential person was yelling, where’s your credential, and I was, I don’t have time for this right now! [laughs] And my coach took my skates out of my bag, my dress was still in the dressing room, and we slid it on me. And thank God for Lycra, because it’s stretchy [laughs], the sleeve fit right over the cast and covered it up. And the worst part was, my coach had to lace my skates. I just had the little ends of my fingers sticking out of the cast, I couldn’t pull with them or put any pressure on them. So my coach laced up my skates and Gorsha was white as a sheet [laughs]. I don’t really remember much of the warm-up because it was happening so fast, people were stunned, and Gorsha was just in shock. But we kind of made it through the OSP or OD, whatever it was. I don’t know, I guess I was very determined. I didn’t care, who cares? I’m going to try [laughs].
So we made it through that, but they had reset the bone in my arm, and somehow it got knocked off. Later that night my fingers were turning blue and it was really aching, and the doctor said, if you need anything, here’s my emergency number. And that night I was getting really scared, because if my fingers and my hand were turning blue, that meant I had no circulation in my limbs, they might have to amputate my arm, I was thinking all these things [laughs]. So I called the doctor, and he said, go back to the hospital, which we did that night. And sometimes when your muscles twitch around the fracture it can knock the setting off, and that’s what had happened. It could have been because of the OD, I don’t know, but it had to be reset, and then the next day I had to have surgery to put pins in it to keep it in place. So there was no way I was going to do the free dance.
On Tanith Belbin’s 2005 citizenship application, which Punsalan and Swallow supported: Well, of course. Igor Shpilband was her coach, and he had been with Punsalan and Swallow lobbying against us getting citizenship. Times have changed, and I was very happy for Tanith and Ben [Agosto]. They were trying the best that they could, and they were innocent in all of this. But I just thought, my goodness, how times change when it suits your needs, you know what I mean, as a coach or whatever. I just thought, well, times have changed. Hmm.
On her senior-level career lasting from 1982 to 1996: That is long, I never put that together. I never look back, and that’s why when you tell me these dates and things, I’m like, oh, that is a long time. Maybe that’s why it was easy for me to just keep stepping forward. There was always a new door that was opening a little bit, and I was always looking to put my toe into a new door and see what was beyond. I guess it’s much easier when you don’t look back and count and keep track [laughs].
On her professional career: I always thought touring was more my niche. Competing, I did it because it was a means to an end. And when it came down to the decision of whether Gorsha and I were going to compete, the reason — and he was right in this — part of the reason was that he said, I understand you like performing, and prefer that way of skating. And I did. I wanted to be creative, I didn’t want to be judged, I wanted to explore things and have freedom. I didn’t want to have any political things to have to deal with. But he said, we won’t have as good of an opportunity to do those theatrical things in professional ways unless we have some titles. And you know, he was right. I was like, we don’t need titles! We can just go be artists! [laughs]. But those titles do get your foot in the door a lot easier. And once you get your foot in the door, then your creative juices can really flow. He really enjoyed competing, I can’t say I did, but I did it because I knew those titles were someday going to pay off down the road.
On posing for the ‘Whisper of Love’ bronze statue at the World Skating Hall of Fame: It was a long process. The sculptors, Douglas and Meghan Taylor-Goblet,have done statues of various skaters — they moved to Colorado for several months, and they spotted us and we met each other. And they made a decision to take us as subjects, and they just watched us train, and we were working on that lift [shown in the sculpture] at that time. They take thousands of photographs, and they took video of it on the ice. And we did the lift off the ice, in our shoes, many times so they could get up close with the cameras and photograph everything. They photographed our boots, our laces, my hair upside down. And they took this tool, I don’t know what it’s called but it’s like a small scribe, and measured all our joints, because they need all of the very specific physical makeup of your entire body, for proportion. And then they made mockups. It was a very long process, but the reason they moved to Colorado Springs was so that they could be checking back in with us over many months. The Broadmoor Arena gave them a room to work in, and they start with wire mesh figures, and then they add clay to the wire figures, and then they scrape it and form it. But it was right in the rink, so sometimes when we’d be training, they’d run out to the rink to look at us, and then run back into the room and keep scraping. It’s really special when you can have something like that. They gave Gorsha and I one of the statues, which was really nice. The one that we own is in the USFSA headquarters.
On her philosophy of choreography: I’m trying to take the skater, because every skater is different, and to find a way to bring out their best assets. I’m trying to make them the most of who they are, or if I see something that they don’t realize, I’m trying to push them to a new place too.
On choreographing for the Skating with Celebrities TV show: You get one real skater, and a celebrity that doesn’t really skate. So that’s like a whole learning process onto itself. As long as you have somebody who’s really into it and really trying, I don’t really care how talented you are or not. But it’s a whole different mindset. People who don’t skate…oh my gosh, there’s so much to learn, there’s a huge learning curve and they don’t realize how much goes into this. But I’ve done several seasons of Battle of the Blades in Canada, where they pair the hockey player with the figure skater. Those hockey players know how to skate, they’re used to skating, but even they don’t know how to do this pairs thing. They’re in shock. Those were some of my favorite things to work on, though, because it’s amazing to see the improvement. You’re taking somebody who’s a fish out of water and making them do what you do. The hockey players, they know how to skate, but they’ve never picked up a woman, they’ve never had to skate to music, they’ve never had to be in unison, they’ve never had to wear a skating costume and dance to a beat and be expressive. Their skating was all about moving as fast as you could, making a goal, whatever. It was so thrilling and so funny to watch. I would be in tears laughing, especially at the early stages, when these guys tried to be like figure skaters. They would take the worst falls, the funniest falls. And the celebrities too — you’re watching this person who has no clue how to do this, and by the end they’re kind of a skater. You’re watching them morph, and you’re like, my gosh, we’re making this happen. When you take a beautiful skater or a pair like Jamie Sale and David Pelletier — I worked with them for 10 years and they’re amazing, but they already know how to do things. So you’re trying to raise the bar when they’re already amazing. But when you take somebody who’s got no clue….
On the new judging system: There are certain things I do think are good. Getting a mark for the quality and the exact technique of what you’re doing, you can’t stumble any more and not be faulted for it. Every clean thing you do counts, and every mistake you make counts too. I get that. But I just feel like, gosh, had it not been for Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], ice dance would still be struggling a little bit. I think Tanith and Ben got the ball rolling, but I think the forefront of it really happened because the US was finally getting recognition for talented teams. And that really put ice dancing on the map, and now a lot of kids want to be ice dancers, which is great. But you can’t tell me that Judy [Blumberg] and Michael [Seibert] weren’t fabulous ice dancers and deserved to get dumped down all the time because the Russians were so strong at the time. The political thing was really happening, in my opinion, a bit more back in that day. Jim [Sladky] and Judy [Schwomeyer], amazing, but the Russians had a strong grip on it and were able to maneuver them down. But the point system, I don’t think the public understands it as well, because now the points can just go to the moon, and what does that mean? They’re limitless. So I think skating is struggling a bit in general because the public is getting a little lost.
On the removal of compulsory dances from ice dance competition: I’m sad to see that go. I think compulsories are a really strong basis for what we do, sort of like when figures were still in for the singles skaters. There’s just such a strong skating basis that you learn when you do those things. I understand that we don’t necessarily have to see three compulsories competed over and over and over by team after team after team, that was a bit of overkill, but to see them go away entirely is a bit sad. When we used to have to compete three compulsories, that was a lot, and I understand that it’s time-consuming, it’s expensive to keep working on that many compulsories, the public is not that interested — okay, but then you narrow things down. But just to get rid of it altogether — ice dance and pairs are starting to morph into each other. The ice dancers are actually starting to do better pairs spins than the pairs skaters [laughs]. The only thing that the dancers aren’t doing now are the throws and jumps and the overhead lifts.
On what’s next for her: I’m going to be doing Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi’s Golden Moments show in San Jose. I think it’s a revival, it used to be a Disson show that was televised but I think they’re trying to bring it back just for one night. And I’m going to be working with Lu Chen from China, she is doing a little tour, so that will be kind of fun. And I work with all my students here in LA. I try to keep one foot in many rooms [laughs].