I'll never forget the first time I saw them skate. It was 1995 and I was doing what any self respecting skating fan in 1995 did on a Saturday afternoon: channel surfing skating. That's right... You had to choose between which skating event you wanted to watch on television back then. More often than not, you'd have to videotape one channel while watching another, and you'd still be missing at least one or two events altogether.
CBS was broadcasting the 'Riders Ladies Figure Skating Championships', a professional competition where twelve women competed in two qualifying competitions and the top four skaters in each group advanced to the final round. The first qualifying event (held in Mankato, Minnesota) also featured a pairs competition pitting Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Christine Hough and Doug Ladret, Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval and a fourth pair I wasn't familiar with at the time, Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding. Performing their dramatic "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" program where Anita portrays a a ship and their masked program to Enigma's "Sadeness", I was instantly in love with this pair's skating. It was what resonated to me as interesting, creative, entertaining and what I thought skating should be. With programs that were jam packed full of unique elements, interesting choreography and that had concepts, that told stories, and had the costumes to go with them... that was the whole package.
Over the coming years, I'd watch them tell the "Titanic" story, perform with a torch on the ice to Vangelis' "Voices" and earn their place among the world's best professional skaters by winning the Legends Of Figure Skating Competition. Their "Mustang Sally" program was even referenced on FOX's American Dad. World Professional Champions, U.S. Open Champions, Trophee Lalique champions... What always made Anita and Frank so special was the fact that they always have and continue to push the envelope and make entertaining audiences their first priority. Their skating was instrumental in influencing my own skating. I learned that while jumping wasn't my forte, I could hone other moves like spirals and hydroblading and make feeling and interpreting the music number one. When I first got it in my head I was going to blog about figure skating, interviewing this team was definitely at the top of my bucket list! I was fortunate enough to catch up with Anita in between "Relight My Fire" shows at Phantasialand park in Brühl, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, where Anita, Frank and their production company Glacier ICE are performing straight through until November.
Q: I must confess I don't know a lot about your early careers (as amateurs) though I know that you and Frank teamed up as professionals and got your start doing events like the U.S. Open & World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain. Can you tell me about your own start in the sport, turning professional and how you two met?
A: We have known each other since we were children! Originally, we were both from Chicago, Illinois. In the 60's there was only one main indoor rink in Chicago that had competitive skating sessions - Rainbo Ice Arena. We both skated there. I was a singles skater and Frank was doing singles as well as pairs with his sister, Beth. We lost track of each other when Frank moved to Colorado Springs to train and I moved to Milwaukee to go to college. We met again in 1987. I was the rink director of a small outdoor rink in Racine, Wisconsin. I had enough money in my budget to hire another "act' besides Elaine Zayak for the grand opening of the rink. I found Frank and asked him to pair skate with me and told him I would give us our first paying 'gig' together. He had a long list of terms that I had to agree to before he would skate with me! After a few months of skating together, we started dating and became engaged in May 1988. Now I like to say that we have been 'happily unmarried' for 25 years.
A: Frank was a national senior competitor in both singles and pairs. He was the silver medallist at the U.S. National Championships in senior pairs with Gail Hamula, finishing right behind champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Frank and Gail represented the U.S.A. at 2 World Championships. Frank is also a graduate of University of Northeastern Illinois and he was a competitive swimmer before ice skating took all of his free time. My family lived an hour from the ice rink, so I was a "test" skater, as I did not skate much in the winter but would attend a skating camp for the entire summer to train and pass my tests. I have my gold level in freestyle, dance and pairs as well as my Canadian gold freestyle test. I started coaching when I was 18 years old and attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I was in the Fine Arts program with a major in dance and I used my schooling at the university to increase my skills as a coach. I passed my PSA master rating exam in figures and freestyle back in 1988. I love coaching and both of us are still members of the PSA and keep our CER ratings up as well.
A: I think that our Enigma - "Sadeness" and “1492” are audience favorites. When we presented these numbers at the pro competitions most of the other pairs teams were doing sexy or lovey dovey programs, so the audience and the TV directors were really ready to see something different! We had been living and working in Italy for 3 years and I fell in love with the masks from Carnival and the theatrics of the live operas, all of which we incorporated into these programs. "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" won us 1st place at the Trophee Lalique in Paris, France. We performed a new program this past winter in Germany to "Hallelujah" by Alexandra Burke. She won the English TV show "X- Factor" with this song. The audience reception to this program was fantastic.
A: I love skating PERIOD! I cheer anyone who has a good skate and I feel bad for those that don't have a good day.
A: In my opinion, the lack of pro competitions has really hurt the popularity of our sport. Most of the skaters who are ready to leave the 'eligible ranks' but still would like to compete have nowhere to go. All professional skaters have less possibilities to expand their untapped potential of theatrically slanted competitive programs. Now that the ISU has approved the pro-am Japan Open, there is at least one competition for the audience to see their favorite skaters like Kurt Browning and Surya Bonaly compete. It doesn't matter how many shows you do, the feeling of doing a competition is different and everyone prepares harder for an event where you get judged.
Q: What was the experience of creating some of your most amazing programs with Brian Wright like?
A: Brian was a genius! We would arrive with 2 choices of music and concepts and play them both for Brian, then he would select the choice he preferred. It was team process with us coming up with the music and concept, Brian doing the choreography, with costume designers from Los Angeles, and music editing done in San Diego. We had competitions such as the U.S. Open, World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain, Miko Masters in Paris, Trophee Lalique, Legends Of Figure Skating Competition, Riders Cup and others to show off our work.
Anita, Frank and Brian Boitano
A: In terms of ice choreographers, lately we have worked with Simone Grigorescu, Lori Benton and Doug Webster. We have worked with dance and theater choreographers as well. While we were in Berlin, we worked with World renowned dance choreographer and director Marc Bogaert. Marc helped us with our company's ice portion of the "Winter Traume" spectacular at Friedrichstadt-Palast. Last year in Eilat, Israel we performed two comedy numbers as "Big Girls". We loved the ability to make the audience laugh and the children smile! I see us doing more on ice comedy in the near future! On these performances we worked with famous Israeli director Hanoch Rosenn, 'the prince of mime'.
Q: You have performed in Guam, Israel, Europe, North America and everywhere in between. What was your favorite place you've traveled to and what are some of your favourite memories?
A: Hard questions as we have performed in over 8,000 shows and traveled to more than 17 countries for our work. Frank has been to every state in the U.S.A. except Louisiana. We have been in many interesting locations but we do have some favourites! Performing at Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin was AMAZING. This theater has the largest stage in the world! We shared this huge stage six nights aweek for 18 months with 100 dancers, musicians, singers, comedians and acrobats. Our company co-produced the ice section of "QI" with the theater. Performing on the outdoor rink in the summer in Sun Valley, Idaho is always magical. We share the ice with so many amazing skaters. The Sandcastle Theater on the island of Guam was amazing as well. We could walk to work via the beach every night. Performing at the Royal Garden Hotel in Eilat, Israel was also something. We lived one block from the Red Sea! Our favourite arena would probably be Bercy which is located in the heart of Paris where we won Trophee Lalique the only year they sponsored a pro competition. The French loved our "1492" number! We skated in the ceremonies at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics - LIVE TV for millions of people, in a stadium that held 80,000 energized and screaming fans! Just thinking about it gave me goosebumps! Skating outside in front of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for NBC's “Too Hot To Skate”... performing at the Shubert Theater in Boston in “Footloose On Ice” with Nancy Kerrigan and Scott Davis... I could go on but I'll stop.
A: You are responsible for everything and the last ones to get paid. We love show business, so spending countless hours on the production process is rewarding for us when we see the end product on opening day. Fortunately with Frank’s past experience as treasurer of Ice Capades and assistant manager of “World Cup Champions On Ice” he understands production economics very well.
Q: What are your thoughts on the ISU's 'new' judging system and how can it be improved or changed?
A: The IJS system changes every year. I think today's skaters have better spins and footwork sequences but it has also stifled creativity. Our concern is that the general public still does not understand the current judging system and thus they do not watch the skating competitions.
A: While performing in a Sun Valley show we were entering into a bounce spin (headbanger) and right as Frank took that hard back inside edge to pull me off my feet he stepped onto a gum wrapper that had blown out onto the ice! We both fell hard but fortunately we came out of it with only some bruises as well as bruised egos. One other scary moment was when a helicopter tried to land on the ice while we were performing in a show on the Sun Valley outdoor rink! Turns out the helicopter pilot thought the rink was the landing pad for the hospital. Fortunately, we have never had a bad accident. We try to be a proactive as possible by trying out things in advance, training programs, as well trying doing dress technical and lighting rehearsals. Frank is checks the ice conditions before every show!
Q: What's one thing about you most people don't know?
A: Mmm.. that I'm really ninety nine years old and just look really good?
A: We love to skate, including the sometimes boring process of training and we love to skate together. And I must say, we have been blessed with good luck and good health all these years.
Q: What is your motto or mantra in life?
A: Move it or lose it!
Q: What would you tell someone that wanted to pursue what you are doing in life?
A: Work hard, utilize every opportunity that comes to you, be verbally thankful to all of the people that help you along the way and show true gratitude to the Ice Goddess as she commands respect for the slippery surface we call our stage.
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