VANCOUVER – Twenty-seven members of Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky’s family died in World War II, a heritage the siblings share along with their passion for ice dancing and pursuit of Olympic glory.
When they take to the ice representing Israel in three programs starting Friday night, the Zaretskys (pictured) will pay tribute to that family history. Their marquee performance, the free skate Monday evening, is set to the music of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie about the Holocaust.
In doing so, they are sending a message about the importance of remembrance and a significant chapter in their family’s and country’s past, in a venue most pairs will use to focus the audience’s attention squarely on the present.
“We grew up with this every year, the memory of Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day],” Roman Zaretsky said Thursday of the reflection on what befell their family in Minsk, Belarus, from which they made aliya in the 1990s. “It’s very important to us.”
Alexandra Zaretsky said they were also drawn by the emotive power of the piece and the opportunity to convey that to the audience through ice dancing.
“We felt that we loved this piece and that we could do it the way it needs to be done,” she explained.
Still, those same qualities make it a difficult routine to practice – and live with – day in and day out.
“It very hard to skate every day to this music,” Roman Zaretsky said of the emotional toll.
“You’re feeling it, and you’re always getting the picture of the movie” in your head, his sister noted. “It’s hard, but it’s a good, strong piece.”
Of course, the potent pull of the music helps the expressiveness and emotional connection with the audience that are crucial components of ice dancing.
“A lot of people came to us and said they were crying when they saw the dance and the music. It touched them,” Roman Zaretsky said of their first performance of the routine this season, which happened to be in Germany. And what moves an audience can move a judge, he acknowledged – “if you do it well, of course.”
The haunting melodies of Schindler’s List
aren’t the only evocative notes with which Israel’s ice dancers hope to move the audience – or celebrate their background. For their original dance on Sunday night, they are using the decidedly more upbeat “Hava Nagila.”
When the dance’s theme was set as a folk dance, the officials suggested teams choose a piece reflecting their national origin, and the Zaretskys were happy to comply. To them, “Hava Nagila” was the obvious choice.
When it comes to Jewish folk dances, according to Roman Zaretsky, “The happiest one, I would say, is Hava Nagila. Everyone knows it. It gets people going. Even at hockey games, they start playing it.”
He said that in their previous performances this year, every time the familiar klezmer piece came on, the audience would start to clap along.
“That’s the purpose – if the people are going, the judges will go, and you never know,” he said. “It helps you go.”
But before the original and free dances comes the compulsory routine, in which everyone does the same steps to the same style of dance – in this case, “Tango Romantica.” Such uniformity gives the judges a clear comparison among the couples.
Of course, this couple isn’t exactly a couple – and being siblings can pose a challenge when you’re seeking to convey the passion of a romantic dance.
“It’s hard. It’s impossible to look at your brother or sister the way you look at a man or a woman, but when it gets to that, you have to act,” Alexandra said.
As their coach, Galit Chait-Moracci, put it, “It’s like the movies – put two actors together who aren’t husband and wife. It’s acting. When you’re skating you’re not thinking, oh, this is my brother, I can’t do that.”
She referred to the pairing of an ice dancing couple as “an arranged marriage” that requires both members to play their parts.
As it happens, performing romantic numbers is the only disadvantage to which the Zaretskys can point in being a brother-sister team. Otherwise, they think they have a big advantage over their competition.
Roman Zaretsky refers to “all the connection and understanding” the two have, having grown up side-by-side, albeit separated by four years (he is 26, she 22). Proving the point, Alexandra responds simultaneously with the same words, pointing out that other pairs “have to start at the beginning” when they are first matched up as adults.
But whatever difficulties they have going into the tango, they’re less frightening for Alexandra Zaretsky than what she faced carrying the Israeli flag at the head of the country’s delegation during the Opening Ceremonies last Friday.
“I was scared I was going to fall down,” she said – more so than when she takes to the ice.
“I was the first one to get out there. And while you’re standing there, there are 60,000 people just sitting there, not including everybody else [on TV]. I don’t know how else to say it, it was just scary,” she said.
“I was definitely much, much, much more nervous than when I get on the ice. On the ice at least I know how it feels and what to do.”