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'Ice dancing is still skating at its core' Dancing on Ice star Matej Silecky reveals skating secrets

Dancing on Ice is back and enjoying huge viewing figures as six million Brits tune in to watch stars such as TV presenter Cheryl Baker, Love Island winner Kem Cetinay and Hollyoaks actress Stephanie Waring take to the ice to impress judges and wow the nation. Mandy News had the pleasure of talking to Matej Silecky – partner of Coronation Street's Brooke Vincent – about how he got started, punishing schedules and working on the hit TV show.

16th January 2018
/ By James Collins

Dancing on Ice dancer MATEJSILECKY

Please introduce yourself tell us how you got into the industry.
I am from New Jersey and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. I was a competitive figure skater and dancer from childhood through university, and gradually transitioned into professional shows shortly after graduating. I’ve always been interested in film, production and digital arts, so it’s exciting to be involved in a production that includes all of this and more!

How did you get into skating specifically? What came first – dancing or skating?
I started skating when I was about four, but with hockey. I started dancing about the same time because I am Ukrainian-American, and my cousin is a professional Ukrainian dancer (now instructor/choreographer) who trained under a Prima Ballerina that emphasised ballet as the foundation of dance. Competitive figure skating started a couple of years later.

Where did you learn that talent? Is there a school or classes you attended? What training did you do?
I’ve been very fortunate to have great coaches and instructors in both figure skating and dance throughout my career. As a skater, I competed in singles and pairs, and had the opportunity to work with Alexei Mishin for a number of years. Even more than jump technique, his teaching knowledge and structure helped me get through a very serious knee injury when I was younger. 

I also worked with Alexander Zhulin and too many great US coaches to list. In dance, besides the ballet and Ukrainian dance, I trained ballroom (smooth and some international standard) at a school run by World Champions, Diana and Gary McDonald. I still work with my coach there, Pamela Licht, whenever I am in NJ. I joined hip hop groups while at Berkeley – it’s fun to use a dance base to learn new styles and then see what can transition to the ice.

While I’ve noted a couple of coaches whose names you might recognise, I want to emphasise that it’s usually been the less known coaches that really supported my goals. I think it’s most important to find a coach that truly believes in you and supports your efforts – they have to have good technique and know how to teach it – but a great coach/student relationship is so much more than that.

My pairs coaches for my last competitive season are a great example of that – Daniel Raad and Felicia Zhang. I was determined to skate Senior Pairs at the US Nationals, but already had a really abbreviated training season due to partner injuries, then I injured my shoulder. The coaches we were with basically said give up, so we made a late coaching change to Daniel and Felicia. They were amazing – accepting the limits we had to work with and they still helped get us through Nationals. That’s the kind of team we all hope for!

What's a typical day for you in terms of learning a new routine?
There isn’t really one answer to this, as learning a competitive skating program or even choreographing a solo or pair show program is so much different from a large production number. I like to choreograph and have done some of my own numbers and programs for younger competitive skaters. 

As for learning, especially in a group, I just try to go with the flow. It is usually pretty easy for me to remember choreography, so I just try to improve each time and support the team effort.

How much training is too much and how much is not enough? How many hours do you do a day?
Since I’m relatively new to doing shows, I’m still cognizant of the big differences in training between competitive life and show skating – especially a TV show. In all cases, I am a big believer in giving the body and mind a day off from training each week. Everyone needs that recovery, which reduces the risk of injury. As to hours, I used to train on ice 15-20 hours per week, with another 2-3 hours per day of off-ice; rotating between dance, cardio, strength training and plyometrics, yoga. My best seasons were when I was working with coaches and trainers that knew how to put together an annual training plan to have you peak at the right time.

Show skating is much different – you aren’t learning as many new skills, for example, but you have to perform multiple times a day at a consistently high level. Maintenance and protecting your body is more of a focus. For a show like Dancing On Ice, it’s different yet, as you aren’t really focusing on your own skating at all, but on teaching someone learning a new skill and creating programs that showcase them.

How much dancing off ice do you do for stability, conditioning etc?
During this show period, I don’t really have an opportunity to take any dance classes. At other times, I take dance classes – various styles – for fun and to maintain technique or learn new skills. This ranges from various styles at schools like Broadway Dance Center to returning to my ballroom instructor.

How do you keep yourself injury free and what are your tips to somebody for cooling down and eating right for a working week?
For me, a better question would be about coming back from injury. As noted above, I had a serious knee injury during my competitive years as a singles skater. I was initially told I would never be able to skate again and my goal should be walking up stairs pain free. I didn’t accept that and went on to years of competitive skating. I did this by diligently following every rehab instruction and working really hard – but also listening when told NOT to do more.

More recently – less than a year ago, I had shoulder surgery for an injury caused by lifting my partner during skating. Again, I was told not to expect a full recovery. But, here I am. I am still rebuilding some strength but am already far beyond expectations. Recovery from shoulder surgery is tedious, boring and frustrating – you want to do more sooner than you should but doing so can actually be harmful.

So, what is the real trick to recovering from injuries like that? I think it is mustering up all the determination you can to just take it step by step and always believing you can get there. Having a strong support group of health care providers and trainers is also really key – I couldn’t do it without them. For example, besides PT, I have an amazing yoga instructor in NJ who has a lot of training in rehabilitation. Plus, she’s just super positive – we all need people like that to keep us pushing through.

Eating – it is hard to eat well while traveling around and working crazy hours. I am not always the best at this, but I do try to carry along healthy snacks like fruit, a protein bar, edamame, etc. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants, ever.

Do you take breaks from dancing during the year? Is that something that all skate dancers need? If so, for how long?
I do take breaks from skating, but I am still physically active. I love snowboarding and even considered switching to doing that competitively a number of years ago. Unlike an ice rink, the mountain is different every day plus you are outside in amazing surroundings. 

I also take breaks by traveling, and taking cycling and hiking trips around the world. I love to visit new places, museums and art exhibitions.

Obviously, there’s added risk of injury when moving at such a speed – what are the trickiest moves and how do you master them?
Since my background was in singles skating, I’d have to say the hardest elements to learn were certain triple or quad jumps – and which ones are different for different skaters. For example, triple Lutz was harder for me than triple Axel; quad toe easier than triple loop. So, I can’t even say the difference was toe or edge jumps. It is also more challenging than many realise to properly centre a spin and increase speed once you are in position. 

It just takes lots of repetitions under the eye of an instructor with good technique because you have to make the correct adjustments to improve.

What has been one of your most challenging routines to learn and why?
Hmmm – tough one. Learning a routine is rarely hard, though perfecting it is. There is a balance between the number of repetitions needed to perfect something and over-practicing to the point it becomes “flat” while performing. The most challenging circumstances for me have been when I know that my schedule hasn’t allowed enough practice time (like while I was in university). 

Still, shows really do teach you that “the show must go on” no matter what came before, you give it your best!

How did you become involved in Dancing on Ice? What's a typical shooting day or working week like?
Oddly, I likely have my shoulder surgery to thank for being a part of Dancing On Ice. I did a show last holiday season (2016) and – after doing all I could to avoid surgery – realised there was no other option and had the surgery in February 2017. I was offered another professional show skating contract with a company that was doing its very first ice show, then they concluded I wouldn’t be adequately recovered by their early summer start date. 

The Dancing On Ice opportunity arose shortly after, and since the start date wasn’t until October, I had enough time to complete my rehab.

Since joining the show, my work weeks have been pretty unpredictable. As I’m partnered with Brooke Vincent, our training is limited and has to fit around her full-time work on Coronation Street. That makes for some early hours and even skating on the small outside holiday rinks in Manchester just to get a bit of time in. I often don’t get my schedule for the next day until late the night before, and I just try to go with the flow and make the most of the allotted time. 

This ties into my answer about challenging routines – we have to put aside our perfectionist tendencies to get a routine done because the show goes on no matter how much time we get or don’t get the week before. I give Brooke a huge amount of credit for learning a new skill while working a full-time job, and for not being afraid to put the routine out there no matter the crazy week that went before!

What are your tips for somebody starting out who wants to go into ice dancing?
Well, I think it’s important to remember that ice dancing is still skating at its core. And, like ballet being the foundation for most dance, basic skating skills should be the starting point for ice dance (and other figure skating). If you don’t learn about forward and backward inside and outside edges, if you don’t learn the basic arm positions that go with each edge, etc., how to ride on and glide through those edges - you will always be hindered in learning the next steps.

I also think that the higher end of basic skating skills ought to include basic partnering skills – many singles skaters never get this. If they did, there would be more of an opportunity for skaters to advance in ice dance and pairs.