Watching U.S. Nationals this week, I had a new skater's mom ask me, "who does the choreography"? Not just for the elite skaters on tv, either. She was worried that she'd have to hire a choreographer for her Beta student at Basic Skills competition.
First of all, no your Learn-to-Skate/Basic Skills skater does not need a choreographer. The regular coach will be fine. So running down from top to bottom who should be doing the choreography?
At the elite level (that's the skaters who have a shot at making it to nationals), you'll be hiring someone who specializes in choreography for elite skaters. By the time you get to that level, you'll have lots of help figuring out who this is. Many elite choreographers are former champions, like Alexander Zhulin and Christopher Dean. Just as there is a range of high level skaters-- from kids who are "test" skaters (i.e. never make it out of regionals or never compete at all) up to stars like Sasha Cohen, there are also a range of choreography specialists. Every rink with a strong freestyle program will have "go-to" coaches for choreography.
So then comes the question, should you hire them? If you have ambitions to compete at a high level, you need a great combination of main coach and choreographer. It's not just about waving your arms around. The rules for achieving high point totals are complex and constantly changing; choreographers need to be held to the rules. Plenty of time for art when you sign with Stars on Ice. I've seen programs ruined even at the little local ISI competitions by coaches who couldn't be bothered to learn the rules. What a stupid reason for your skater to score low.
But correct me if I'm wrong; I don't think a lot of elite skaters are reading this blog. When do you need a choreographer?
Can my coach choreograph a program?
If you've got a private coach, you've got a choreographer. Every coach knows how to put together a program (or should, see above). If your skater is doing only some combination of USFS non-qualifying competitions, only ISI competitions, or only USFS or ISI test programs you really don't need to hire another choreographer. You know that a coach can put together a test program if his or her kids are passing USFS tests. You'll know if the coach has screwed up by not including a required element because you'll get the judging sheets and it will be noted. A PSA rating is also a sign that the coach knows choreography, because basic choreography is part of every ratings area, even group.
A test program should be well balanced and engaging for the skater, but does not need to set new standards of artistry. Hiring an outside choreographer for a test program (especially below the Novice level) is kind of slap in the face to the coach. How to put together a test program is one of the things that coaches know.
Starting around Novice (lower if you've got a nationals skater), or if you've got a gifted skater with ambition and a future in skating, your coach will let you know if you should hire an outside choreographer, and will have both suggestions and contacts. Below the Novice level, you do not need an outside choreographer. The parents that hire famous choreographers to do their kids' Pre-Juvenile programs get eye rolls from the coaching staff (out of sight). Parents that hire other rink coaches to choreograph low level test programs just create resentment and risk their coach's commitment to their skater.
But that one coach does such cool programs...
If there's a coach at your rink who is known for their choreography and your skater wants to work with him or her, do this for some program that is less critical, like a show solo or an exhibition. Check with your regular coach and make sure she's on board with it. Have him or her make the contact; don't go to the choreographer on your own, if for no other reason than that the very first thing an ethical choreographer is going to do is go to the regular coach and make sure it's okay anyway.
My skater never wins. I think I'll blame the coach.
First, the brutal truth. A. Your skater might get unlucky draws that place her against more gifted skaters. B. Your skater is not gifted. (ouch)
However, if you suspect your skater is failing tests or placing poorly at competitions because of inadequate choreography, first express your concern to the coach. Some aspects of choreography that can affect test and competition scores are: programming all required elements, NOT programming illegal elements, use of the ice surface (ice coverage and multiple changes of direction), correct duration, well-balanced program (i.e. don't put all the jumps together, or just skate from jump to jump or spin to spin), program not too hard or too easy for skater. At ISI competitions, you don't get to see the judges' sheets and the judges are discouraged from sharing reasons for placement. But if your skater is consistently placing 2nd or 3rd "against the book" (i.e. only skater in the flight), see if you can get the skating director at the competition to review the judges sheets to see if there is a problem. (She won't show them to you, but she might look at the them for you and tell you if the skater missed an element or had a penalty.) At non-qualifying USFS competitions you will get the "protocols" that show all the elements and the judges' placements and will clearly see if elements were missing or the component scores are consistently low.
Please note that the most common reason for poor placement or failing tests is that the skater has not completed the elements properly, or as they were choreographed, NOT that the choreography was inadequate. I recently had a skater just completely leave her spiral sequence out of a performance. Best thing in the program, required element, and she just completely forgot to do it.
Choreography, like ice time, expensive skates and fancy costumes, is something to grow into. Err on the side of caution. If you're not sure whether you should hire a choreographer, then don't. If your coach is uncomfortable with it or discourages you, listen to her.