The Thank You Canada Tour was a chance for ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje to skate their competitive programs in front of audiences from coast to coast on a nightly basis for nearly two months.
It was also an invaluable opportunity to pick the brains of two of the best in the business — Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
"Since we were on the tour for such a long time, it was impossible to have a coach with us at all times," Weaver said. "Also I don't think there can even be a coach who knows as much as Tessa and Scott do collectively, so it was an incredible resource to have with us.
"On days off we would ask Scott in particular to come to an extra practice, and share his two cents, which he's so willing to do, they were so generous to do. Even on our 30, 40-minute practices every day we would throw an idea their way, it was constant open communication. A lot of little details wouldn't be the same without them, so we're very grateful that they were able to share their time and nobody was as busy as them."
After skipping the fall Grand Prix season to perform on the cross-country Thank You Canada Tour, Weaver and Poje return to competition at the Canadian championships this week in Saint John, N.B.
Committing to two months on the road was a difficult decision, but the world silver and bronze medallists say they're better skaters for the experience.
"It was absolutely the right decision for us, we had invaluable experience across the country, we performed both of our competitive numbers, we were able to put the performances together every day, no matter what, which was a really great experience," Weaver said. "We came back with an invigorated motivation to return to competition."
"We really felt like we needed the new challenges, and it really helped us to perform on a daily basis, pushed us as artists but also as athletes to make sure we were on top of our game, and were ready to shine at a moment's notice," Poje added. "I think that created a confidence in us ... because if we do the same thing and expect different results, then that's short-sighted of us. We had to make sure that we tried something new, we wanted to take that risk and we felt it's paid off thus far."
The Thank You tour opened on Oct. 5 in Abbotsford, B.C., and ended — 28 shows later — on Nov. 24 in St. John's, N.L., and the grind, the dancers said, was about as big a departure from the their normal training routine as it gets. They travelled and slept by bus. They practised for 45 minutes in the afternoons, and then maybe squeezed in a group rehearsal. They'd perform between three and five nights in a row.
"We learned how to get our things done quickly and efficiently, and then anything we weren't able to get through we knew we just had to make it happen every night," Weaver said.
And every night meant pleasing fans, not performing for judges. They hope that nightly focus on the artistic side will carry over into competition.
"When you compete constantly, you tend to get stuck in the technicalities of the sport, and it becomes a little bit intense in just making sure that you execute the elements as precisely and properly as possible, and sometimes you forget it is still an art, and still a performance," Poje said. "If you're in a show, your main goal is to perform for the audience and to really bring that story across. So it helped to push that to the forefront of the experience.
"But we wanted to make sure that we still kept those technical hats on at the same time, so we tried to create that same balance."
Asked about a favourite memory from the tour, Weaver said: "Oh my gosh, a million are coming to mind."
Performing their free dance in Quebec City was one, Poje said.
"Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah," Weaver agreed.
Retired Olympic bronze medallist Joannie Rochette emceed that show, and so introduced their free program to French song "SOS, d’un terrien en detresse," which they're skating this season in memory of Kazakh skater Denis Ten, who was stabbed to death in July. Weaver and Poje had fallen in love with the song when Ten skated it at a show last season.
"Just to have the French audience there listening to that song, it just brought that extra little special moment, and being able to reconnect with (Rochette) for that one show was so much fun and it created a beautiful moment for us," Poje said.
The landscape of Canadian ice dancing looks markedly different this season without Virtue and Moir, the two-time Olympic champs. Weaver and Poje will battle Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier for the national title. When Virtue and Moir stepped away from competing in 2015 and '16, Weaver and Poje won gold both seasons, while Gilles and Poirier claimed silver.
The national event will determine the team for the 2019 world championships in Saitama, Japan.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press