Denis Ten: Not Just To Skate, I Have Stories To Tell

A Short Letter From Pang/Tong

Thinking of Denis, it would always thrill us to recall how our lives have gone through for the past few years.

We first met him in 2005 Moscow World Championships. At that time we, attending the gala show, were handed flower bouquets from a little flower boy, who was just 12 years old then. Denis reminded us that in 2009 we have reached to him after his long program, saying that, “you are good of your age.” 

In the following seasons, we’ve witnessed him gradually presenting his full talent through sensational performances. Our friendship and collaborations grew deeper in both competitions and ice shows. 

In fact, he was one of the first to know our coming back to competition again when we performed altogether in 2014 “Christmas on Ice” show, just a few weeks before the Four Continent Championships. Later in Shanghai, we delivered our curtain call performance, winning a bronze medal. Coincidently, he also finished in 3rd place in men’s event.

It further touched when we were invited to join his “Denis and Friends” show this summer. With his great efforts to make it through, we’ve gained unforgettable memories in his home country, Kazakhstan.

After fully retired, we shifted our focus from competition to our own company, committing to figure skating outreach in China. At the end of 2015, we met in “Christmas on Ice” show for the second consecutive year. During the 8-day tour, he shared his organization of the ice show for the third time, helping skating kids to grow, dedication for the Olympic bid team as well as his stories in the new programs this season.

During the time when we stayed in Boston for the Worlds Championships, not as athletes but assistant coaches, we felt for Denis’s struggling performances after knowing he got his hip injured three weeks before the competition. We sent our best wishes to him.

The Third “Denis and Friends” Show: Something More Than Just A Show

“Denis and Friends” show has gone through three times successfully with most elite skaters to come. Apparently not every skater understands why Denis pushes it forward each year.

However, there was something more than just a show. Denis numerated Chinese great skaters like Qing Pang/Jian Tong, Chengjiang Li, and Lu Chen. In striking contrast, Kazakhstan never had so many eminent figure skaters. 

In earlier years, Denis used to skate on open-air rinks in sneaker-like skates. “It was never professional. Just to see now world top skaters come to Kazakhstan, people who never saw figure skating before now see not just one skater or two, but a huge cluster of the best skaters in the world.”

Charity. That is one thing behind the show. In 2014, two shows toured in Almaty and one in Astana, the capital. In Astana, they met a 6-year-old boy tortured by 3 types of cancers. All funds they gathered in the show came to him to cover medical surgery expenses. The young boy did an operation in India and started to feel better. Unfortunately, he still needed further medical help.

According to Denis, the whole preparation process of the show seemed like mission impossible within two to three months. Denis credits the success of the show to his big production team, independent sponsors and goods offered by Almaty’s mayor. The mayor is a fan of “Denis and Friends” show, some times being a piano accompaniment on stage.

The third ice show evolved in all aspects. A huge stage set above ice containing symphony orchestra live to build the whole structure. Athletes were allowed to warm up behind the stage on a small-sized ice in a tunnel, which was connected to the central ice.

Another progress in the third-time show is having Chinese skaters Pang and Tong in cast, performing Dream of Love deliberately chosen by Denis. He said the amorous couple was big professional, he regarded it as such an honor to work with them. 

But it’s not roses all the way. He for the first time knew that traveling abroad is not that easy for Chinese, compared to Japanese or Korean who do not need visa to come. In such case, Denis considerably helped Pang and Tong and several Chinese fans with visa issue through his personal relations with the foreign department minister. “I’m hoping more Chinese fans could come one day”, said Denis.

My Own Foundation: A New Way To Help Young Skaters

Denis candidly told he thought about just stopping there after Sochi, but switched back on ice with new motivations and goals, especially after returning from “All That Skate” show, where he skated with Korea’s legendary skater Yuna Kim. Stunned at the change Yuna has brought to Korea’s figure skating, Denis then thought it was not the right time to stop. 

His momentum accumulated when he saw so many more little fans in Kazakhstan, who all wanted to skate and looked up to him. “After all this, I realize that if I stop today, they’ll have no visible idol to follow” , this is what kept him stay.

Denis dedicated himself more to the shows and skating seminars, which, in Denis’s eyes, would be important for the Kazakhstan kids to gather information. The skating youth could watch the practices during the ice show rehearsals and talk to the world-renowned skaters back stage. More than that, in 2014 the skaters chosen have enjoyed a 7-day master class led by Alexei Yagudin and Brian Jourbert. Last summer, the seminar had Joannie Rochette, and Elladj Blade to teach the young.

Apropos of Kazakhstan kids, Denis depicted them as who never sit at home and actively involved in all sports like soccer and skating. Their athletic ability in blood is deemed as huge potential in figure skating. Denis believes in his ability to spot the hidden talent. “I have an eye and could tell right away the juniors who I feel most likely to stand out in their 20s. Apparently, there are a lot of genius.”

Now Denis unveiled a new chapter starting up a private foundation aimed at new ways to help the young. Recently, the foundation has just sent two talented girls abroad for training. One is a 12-year-old girl who started to skate in Toronto, the other is around 14 and just moved to New Jersey. Denis further introduced their working pattern, “We helped them through connections to the coach. If they go to competitions from US or Canada to Europe, it would be expensive to take the coach, their mom and somebody else along, so the foundation help with this kind of expenses.” The foundation is not so far large though, Denis acclaimed more to carry out when it gets bigger.

As for the future of the two, it’s always a hard prediction with girls. Physical and psychological fluctuations may be bothersome, but it still worth trying. It may take years to testify how it turns out with the two young girls. Noticeably, there is already one rising star from Kazakhstan under spotlight – 15-year-old Elizabeth Tursynbaeva training with famous Canadian coach Brian Orser.

Elizabeth made her senior debut on the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, finishing in second place. After that event, she clinched a bronze medal in Golden Spin of Zagreb. As men’s 2-time champions there, Denis felt gratified with the fellow, “She is vey young and skates very well in Zagreb. My first time when I saw her, she is a grown-up skater. It was great to see not only me going into international competitions and earning medals”. The two Kazakhstan national flags rising in men’s and women’s events spurred Denis on. Hopefully, more Kazakhstan figures can be anticipated.

The Olympic Bid : No Bitterness, Bright Memories

Being a two time Olympian and bronze medalist, Denis is one of Kazakhstan’s most recognizable faces in winter games. Naturally, he joined the 2022 Olympic bid from the very beginning as the ambassador. The next day after men’s free skating in Sochi, Denis presented at the bid Almaty 2022. Recalling how he adventured on the other side of the Olympic Games, Denis said, “Athletes see their own competitions and people only see different sports. Behind the curtains stands a different world, a lot of hard work, brainstorms, patience and ideas”. It is only a tip of the iceberg. Just after winning the Four Continent Championships last year, Denis returned home, standing up to IOC’s evaluation.

In May, Denis alongside the Kazakhstan biding team shot the promotional video in Almaty when there was deep snow. It was never easy to think that in March, he participated in the world’s champions with a podium finish.

Thanks to that the other four candidates dropping out of the original official list, Beijing and Almaty are the only two cities vying for final round of vote. “Sounded like partnership to witness (each other). Beijing had successful Olympics in 2008. For us, we just try our best to present our way and share a totally different idea to the world”. Almaty’s compact nature pointed by “Keep It Real” won 40 votes, ultimately defeated by Beijing by a tiny margin in the race. Quoted from Denis’s bid presentation, “people say history was only written by winners, I doubt”, the young country has already made a victory just by being there as a finalist.

Denis’s personal history carved more sweet memories. “I enjoy the time when I could be with the biding committee. It was the fresh air. Because I’m always at the rinks, keeping the same routine, I never stop skating or take a vacation. I always skate to the year. In this period, I will have to leave with my skates along, and get to learn new things”.

“When it was the final in Malaysia, it was one of my warmest memories. It was a huge team, the prime minister, a lot of athletes and my friends. I remember a lot of Chinese journalists stop by and say hi to me! Special time, busy but bright. I really enjoy this experience. I don’t feel bitterness about the result. We gave it all, we tried our best. Of course, it is something I will remember with warmth in my heart”.

Programs of His Own Story

Placing the first in World’s free skating last season, Denis’s “Silk Road” of strong personal character was well received by both judges and the audience. Leaving behind the Olympic bid schedule, Denis headed towards a new season with Misa Tango by the Argentinian-Italian composer Luis Bacalov. The Argentinian composer grew up as a musician in Italy for years, connected with resident religious people. The tango in blood with how Bacalov viewed its religion made the music soul-stirring to Denis. “It touched my heart just to hear. This one is quite exclusive”.

He found this piece special because of the composer. Both of them shared a globe trotting experience, with different ways to tell stories. Denis confessed that he never wanted to just skate or dance, but to voice his stories in skating, which is difficult considering the complicated and restricted judging system. But he insisted on a program of his own story, a program that was never done before other than a program that has no meaning.

Moving from the composer’s idea to the creation of his own short program, Denis began his storyline with the outside struggle. “Imagine you are in a desperate situation, then something happened, only after which you found it life-changing.” In the music, the moment is when “Santo Santo Senor Dio” gets started and the same words repeat. “Haunting and mourning, it never leaves you. When you sleep you hear it, when you wake up it is still there. It’s impossible to kill it. If you do so, it becomes bigger”. Then the whole fight happens from within, deep in the brains faced with the abstract idea or a bewitching puzzle, which man can’t get rid of until really solve it.

Apart from competitive programs, Denis has had a box of programs and you never know what you are going to see. One was lately choreographed by Shae-Lynn, a continued collaboration after “Denis and Friends” show. Denis saw some of Shae-Lynn’s works last year and considered her a candidate for his “Denis and Friends” show. Getting in contact, they met, had a business lunch in Los Angeles and decided. Denis highly appreciated Shae-Lynn’s professionalism. “She was an amazing professional, always focused, fresh, immersed in a world even when we eat, pondering on whether we could change this or that”.

Later, they felt like embarking on an exhibition program. Even though it was the first time training with Shae-Lynn in Toronto, the mutually tacit understanding and chemistry of working together ignited the two into a program close to Denis’s philosophy and inspiring for Shae-Lynn They picked Eminem’s “lose yourself” remixed with “The Bass Head”, featuring high-powered rhythms and rebellious spirit.

“In the program I’m a special one from a northern dimension or a northern world, travel from one place to another, came to show people the path. I’m not human being. I just get the body, enter it, and show them their thoughts about life path are wrong. In the end I leave again, I go to another dimension.”

Denis himself has anticipated the difficulty for the audience to understand such abstract programs, maybe not a program for every one without study into it. He positioned himself as a skater who never wanted to become super famous or just do to please other people. For him, it’s not about being addicted to be liked by everyone.

Meanwhile, he also believed the audience will see themselves in it. “I enjoy some fans studying me a lot. I don’t think I just skate for people that understand me. I skate for people already with me, and more who will understand it from their souls. We will share the energy.”

Epilogue

This season has been quite struggling for Denis. He did rebound after a crumbing 9th place in Skate America, nailing 3 quadruple toe jumps in Golden Spin, defending the title. But then he made a huge change going back to Lori Nichol and re-choreographed a new long program, adding in a quadruple Salchow jump into the free skating. With regard to his consistency, it left a question mark. And he later suffer from this decision for he had to withdraw from the Four Continent Champions in February citing injuries.

While people would tend to think it is time that Denis should redeem himself in the Worlds Championships like many times before, he could not make it happen this time. The Team Challenge Cup is the one last competition for Denis to fully present his two programs as it were, we wish his best luck in a few days.

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