The Scottish brother and sister ice dancing team of Sinead and John Kerr had their sponsorship funds cancelled last fall by the Scottish Sports Funding Body, Sportscotland. Infuriated by the national agency’s lack of confidence, they vowed to become British champions this season. They succeeded by winning their first British ice dancing title, defeating both of the teams that had won in previous seasons. The Kerrs had finished on the podium at all of their previous British Championships, but never at the top.
Internationally, the Kerrs goal for this season was simply exposure. “We wanted to get as good a place as possible at Europeans and Worlds,” Sinead said. “But mainly we want to get ourselves noticed.” They were wildly successful at Europeans. First they garnered the only standing ovation in the dance event from a large and knowledgeable crowd in Budapest for their innovative and athletic free dance.
Then they finished tenth, the highest finish for a British dance team since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. And finally, they wowed the other skaters at the closing banquet when John appeared in full Scottish clan regalia, including a kilt.
“This year, we just need to make an impression and see where we stand at Worlds,” John stated. “Then we’ll know what we need to do to start moving up. Ideally, we’ll be able to make it to the Olympics in 2006. We just have to satisfy our Olympic Committee’s requirements of being in the top half at Worlds.”
Although most brother-sister dance teams start together, the Kerrs did not. Sinead actually started roller-skating first when she was eight. “A man across the street from us started a roller skating club and took me along,” she said. “About a year later, we went to the ice rink. I did both roller-skating and figure skating for a year, but I preferred the ice a lot more. I liked the grace of the ice rather than the bumping of the roller skates. And the roller skates felt heavy on my feet.”
“I did some solo dance tests and competitions just for fun,” she continued, “but I was competing in freestyle until I was 15. I did up to double Axel and landed some triple toes, but I was more of an artistic skater. Then I was at a solo dance competition and a boy asked me to be his partner for dancing. So we got going and I did both dance and freestyle at the British Championships that year. I was eighth in junior ladies and Jamie (Ferguson) and I were third in junior dance so I decided to concentrate on dance.”
John, who is two years younger than his sister, also began skating when he was nine. “A rink opened up that was closer to us,” he said. “My mum was always taking Sinead to the rink and I went along. One day a coach asked me to take a shot at it. I skated singles until I was 17 and had up to my triple lutz. One year, I got as high as fourth in junior men. Then about five years ago, Sinead and Jamie split up and we got together. We skated junior for a year, then went straight to seniors.”
“Jamie lived quite far away and we had different goals,” Sinead said. “I was more ambitious. Since John and I had similar styles, I thought we could skate well together. The only problem was that I jump and spin the other way so I had to get used to spinning opposite to what I was used to.” “We haven’t had any difficulty doing the more romantic dances as brother and sister,” John noted. “When we started, people were telling us that we needed more chemistry, but now some people tell us they didn’t know we were brother and sister. They thought we were married. We have better chemistry than some of the married couples that don’t show it on ice.”
“We’re absolutely in favor of the Code of Points,” John stated. “At the Nebelhorn, we were 7th in the compulsories, second in the original, and third in the free. You didn’t get that kind of movement in dance before.” “The only problem is the Level 3 elements,” Sinead said. “A lot of the lifts were either ungainly or struggling. You have to know your limits. You can have all Level 3 elements, but can you do them at the end of the day? There’s a lot more people pushing for the top levels and falling.” “It’s good for us because I came to dancing late so it’s difficult to catch up on the compulsory dances to people who have done them for years,” John said. “In general, the compulsories have been our weakest point,” Sinead agreed. “We’re not very high in competitions and have to catch up with the original and the free. The original dance has been our strong point this season, but we’re catching up on the compulsories.”
The Kerrs train with Joan Slater in Edinburgh most of the year, but visit Roberto Pelizzola, a former student of Slater’s, in Italy during the summer. “Joan’s been out biggest inspiration and influence on our career,” John said. “We wouldn’t be here without her. Roberto’s a fantastic technical coach. We worked with him three or four weeks in the Alps last summer and for a week or so before competitions.” They usually work on ice for four hours a day, five days a week, increasing to six days a week in the summer. Then they do a few more hours of off ice work every day – ballroom dancing, Latin dancing, hip hop, and gym work. They also roller blade in the summer.
The Kerrs do much of their own choreography. “I’m really interested in choreography, so we do a lot of our own routines,” Sinead said. “Philip Askew gave us a few ideas for our free dance. We also work with Jean-Paul Deloose from Belgium. He’s a Latin dance expert and provided the inspiration for our original dance. He’s into the lindy hop a lot so that was the basis for the swing part.” “I’ve never seen anyone so into dance,” John added. “He gives us help on artistry and shows us cool arm changes. He helped a lot with selecting the OD music. We picked it from a selection he gave us.”
“He came and told us he’d found some fantastic music from the Atomic Fireballs that would be great for the original dance,” Sinead continued. “So we used it. Then it came out on the Scooby Doo soundtrack and other people heard it there. It’s so upbeat that it gets us really moving on ice.” The Kerrs are using Man with the Hex and Lover Lies by Jay Thomson and the Atomic Fireballs for the swing combo and music from The Matrix soundtrack for the free dance. “We used to use the music for warm-up,” John noted. “It’s the kind of music that lets us do unusual moves. The first Matrix really blew me away when I watched it, but the music we’re using is only in the movie for 30 seconds or so. We didn’t see the movie and pick the music from it then.”
“We love to skate to all kinds of music,” Sinead remarked. “We like things that will let us show off unusual choreography. We’re always trying to find something different. Last season, we did the Backstreet Boys and the year before that we did The Last of the Mohicans.” “We’re trying to broaden our horizons,” John stated. “People see us and tell us that was great and you should use that style, but we don’t want to do that. But we don’t do too much classical, because so many other dancers do that well.” Off ice, Sinead likes to listen to a wide variety of music but favors British bands like Cold Play and Travis, while he prefers hip hop and Justin Timberlake. “I like things you can move to and she likes things to relax to,” he noted.” “I always wanted to play an instrument,” she added. “I have long fingers and I wanted to play the piano, but I never got around to it.”
Off ice, Sinead enjoys shopping, going to the cinema, and wandering around different towns. “I liked Lord of the Rings, Cold Mountain and Gladiator,” she said. “I like epic films and some things that are completely mindless.” He enjoys other sports like tennis, golf and soccer. They also like to travel and enjoyed a holiday trip to Italy and their visit to Budapest for Europeans. “It would be nice to go somewhere hot and not think about skating,” Sinead said. They would like to do a competition in Canada because of the atmosphere. “Canadians love to watch skating,” John said.
“Everything seems to revolve around skating,” he noted. “If we go to the cinema, we’re thinking can we skate to that. When we go shopping, we’re thinking can we wear something like that. We’re just constantly thinking about skating.” Both skaters have designed some of their costumes. “Usually my mum and I design the costumes,” Sinead said, “usually from something we saw while shopping.” “I designed my free dance costume,” John said. “The inspiration just struck me.” “We know people who are clever with their hands to make the costumes,” Sinead continued. “One of our pupils made most of our costumes this year. She’s only 15 but very clever that way.”
They keep all the stuffed animals they receive but are thinking of donating some to hospitals. “We have too many now,” John said. “We must have gotten over a hundred at British Nationals and we have very small rooms. We usually give our pins and T-shirts and stuff to our pupils as presents.” The Kerrs coach about ten hours a week to help fund their training.
Both have finished high school and done their exams so they can go to university. “Our parents said we could take a year off before going to school,” John said. “Now it’s been four years.” She did well in biology and languages, learning French and German as well as English, while he was better at history and political science. Neither has planned a post-skating career, but they hope to keep involved in the sport. “When you’re used to the way of life of an athlete, academia kind of slips away,” John said. “It will be difficult to go into a normal job,” she echoed. “It will be hard to adjust to just mental activities.”