This Contemporary Choreographer Also Makes Winning Ice Dance Routines

Contemporary dance world darling Jonah Bokaer takes his work very seriously, and it shows. Highly focused on craft and unconstrained by the traditional definition of a choreographer, the former Cunningham dancer has developed dance apps, pioneered new relationships between visual art and dance, and worked with collaborators as illustrious as Pharrell Williams.

But fans of his heady, intellectual work may be surprised by a recent project that he calls one of the most rewarding of his life: Choreographing for Team USA ice dance pair Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter. Bokaer was introduced to the pair by the mother of one of his company's supporters, who just happens to be an Olympic ice skating judge.

We talked to Bokaer—who, true to form, takes his work for the ice incredibly seriously, too—about what it was like to go back to basics as a non-skater, and why he thinks skating is even more technical than ballet:


On Starting from Square One

Bokaer had minimal ice skating experience when he began working with McNamara and Carpenter, and on his first day he fell down immediately after stepping onto the ice. (He says his skating has improved somewhat since then.)

"I felt as though I was going back to square one in terms of learning a new language," he says. "It involved becoming a beginner again."

Following in Twyla's Footsteps

After agreeing to choreograph for the ice, Bokaer (predictably) began an exhaustive research project, learning about ice dance and looking for a precedent of concert choreographers working in this medium. "One of the few I was able to find was Twyla Tharp choreographing for John Curry in the '70s," he says, "which led to USA receiving the Gold."

On His Free Dance Routine

While most ice dance routines are set to pop music or songs with lyrics, Bokaer's free dance piece for the duo—which earned them an overwhelming win at Lake Placid Ice International last year as well as other accolades—is set to Yann Tiersen's "Porz Goret."

"I believe it was an elegant choice," says Bokaer. "I wanted to create something that was unforgettable and unique. We were working closely with the music, breaking down the minutiae of the score."

"I approached it in terms of a portrait of the skaters themselves, creating something extremely customized for them," he says. "What was special was getting to know them and who they are as artists."

On the Rehearsal Process

"Sometimes I would visit the rink and choreograph for them on ice; sometimes they would come to New York and work in my studio off the ice," he says. "It was a process of trial and error. I had more limitation on the ice and then in the studios the skaters had more limitations because they didn't have their skates. There's a conundrum there. The translation of footwork is what fascinated me and coming up with a system with how you could rehearse on either."

Bokaer says one of the most fascinating parts of the experience is that the routine is expected to change throughout the competition season. "It's a process of constantly adapting it in response to studying competition and the technical elements that need to take place," he says.

On the Differences From Concert Dance

"The closest comparison to ice dance in pairs would be a pas de deux in ballet," he says. "But in lifts, the man's hands can't go above their shoulders. It's tremendously technical, much more technical than ballet. And it's absolutely different in terms of orientation. The ice is several times larger than the world's biggest stages. In terms of how you're communicating to an audience, there are much bigger expectations of energy and expression. It's also a double performance in that the skaters have to perform to the judges but they also have to perform 360 degrees around them."

Why He Does It

"To see world class athletes performing my choreography is very rewarding to me as an artist," he says. "And to have a personal connection to the skaters, much like I have with all my dancers."

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Rachel Papo

Our 8 Best Pointe Shoe Hacks

It turns out that TikTok is good for more than just viral dance challenges. Case in point: We recently stumbled across this genius pointe shoe hack for dancers with narrow heels.

Dancers are full of all kinds of crafty tricks to make their pointe shoes work for them. But don't fear: You don't need to spend hours scrolling TikTok to find the best pro tips. We rounded up a few of our favorites published in Dance Magazine over the years.

If your vamp isn't long enough, sew an elastic on top of your metatarsals.

Last year, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Elizabeth Murphy admitted to us that her toes used to flop all the way out of her shoes when she rose up onto pointe(!). "I have really long toes and stock shoes never had a vamp long enough," she says.

Her fix? Sewing a piece of elastic (close to the drawstring but without going through it) at the top of the vamp for more support...and also special-ordering higher vamps.

Solve corns with toe socks

Nashville Ballet's Sarah Cordia told us in 2017 that toe socks are her secret weapon: "I get soft corns in between my toes because I have sweaty feet. Wearing toe socks helps keep that area dry. I found a half-toe sock called 'five-toe heelless half-boat socks' that I now wear in my pointe shoes."

(For other padding game-changers, check out these six ideas.)

Save time by recycling ribbons and elastics.

Don't waste time measuring new ribbons and elastics for every pair. Washington Ballet dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson told us that she keeps and cycles through about 10 sets of ribbons and crisscross elastics. "It makes sewing new pairs easier because the ribbons and elastic are already at the correct length," she says. Bonus: This also makes your pointe shoe habit more environmentally friendly.

Close-up of hands sewing a pointe shoe.

Murphy-Wilson sewing her shoes

xmbphotography, by Mena Brunette, courtesy The Washington Ballet

Tie your drawstring on demi-pointe.

In 2007, New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild gave us this tip for making sure her drawstring stays tight: "I always tie it in demi-pointe because that is when there's the biggest gap and where there's the most bagginess on the side."

Find a stronger thread.

When it comes to keeping your ribbons on, function trumps form—audiences won't be able to see your stitches from the stage. Many dancers use floss as a stronger, more secure alternative to thread. Fairchild told us she uses thick crochet thread. "Before I go onstage I sew a couple of stitches in the knot of the ribbon to tack the ends," she says. "I do a big 'X.' I have to make sure it's perfect because I'm in it for the show. It's always the very last thing I do."

Don't simply reorder your shoes on autopilot.

Even as adults, our feet keep growing and spreading as we age. Atlanta podiatrist Frank Sinkoe suggests going to a professional pointe shoe fitter at least once a year to make sure you're in the right shoe.

You might even need different sizes at different times of the year, says New York City Ballet podiatric consultant Thomas Novella. During busy periods and in warm weather, your feet might be bigger than during slow periods in the winter. Have different pairs ready for what your feet need now.

Fit *both* feet.

Don't forget that your feet might even be two different sizes. "If you're getting toenail bruises, blood blisters or other signs of compression, but only on one foot, have someone check each foot's size," Novella says. The solution? Buy two pairs at a time—one for the right foot and one for the left.

Wash off the sweat.

Blisters thrive in a sweaty pointe shoe. Whenever you can, take your feet out of your shoes between rehearsals and give them a quick rinse off in the sink. "If feet sweat, they should be washed periodically during the day with soap and water and dried well, especially between the toes," says Sinkoe.