SALT LAKE CITY — When Jeffrey Rogers, a principal teacher at Ballet West Academy, learned he would be teaching a student named Nathan Chen, he heard one message loud and clear: There is something special about this kid.
Rogers hadn’t heard much about Chen when the Ballet West Academy director and another instructor first talked to him about Chen.
“They said, ‘There’s this kid, Nathan Chen. He’s the thing — the future of figure skating,’” Rogers remembers his colleagues explaining.
And before they walked away, they left Rogers with a strict charge: “Don’t screw it up.”
“I just kind of looked at them and I was just like, ‘OK,’” Rogers remembers replying in a slightly wavering tone.
It didn’t take Rogers long to see what all the fuss was about.
Chen, a Salt Lake City native, was already starting to make a name for himself in the figure skating world when he embarked on his six years of training at Ballet West Academy in 2006. Now, he’s making headlines as the recently named U.S. champion in men’s figure skating, was featured in a commercial during Sunday’s Super Bowl and is preparing to represent the United States in the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The 18-year-old skater is earning plenty of hype about his technical elements — he was the first skater to land five quads in a single program — but those who trained him at Ballet West readily notice the artistic side to his talent.
“His artistic components are as high as his technical components,” said Peter Christie, who was the director of the academy when Chen first started training and is now Ballet West’s education and outreach director. “That’s another thing that sets him apart is when he’s getting those huge scores … (it’s) because there’s so much more than just the quads.”
Chen's recent win at the U.S. championship — his second time earning the title — proved Christie's point. He scored 41 points more than his closest competitor and earned higher execution and component (artistic) scores than every other skater, according to the Deseret News, which Cati Snarr, another one of Chen’s instructors from his time at Ballet West, said hearkens back to his ballet training.
“In ballet, you don’t just dance a piece of a ballet, do a big grand step and then dance again. You make everything link together,” said Snarr, who has previously worked as Ballet West’s children’s ballet mistress and is now a principal faculty member at the academy’s Park City location. “I think that his artistry is going to change the game of the sport too because he’s not just a trickster, he is an artist out there on the ice. He’s doing something different than just tracking and doing a trick. He’s flowing into every move that he makes.”
Chen, who performed alongside company dancers in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” likewise recognizes the effect his training at Ballet West has had on his skating career. According to a news release from Ballet West, Chen specifically highlighted the dance company when taping a promotional package at the ballet studio for NBC News in the fall.
“This is where it all started,” Chen told NBC’s Stephanie Gosk. “My training and ballet background definitely gives me the competitive edge on the ice.”
Chen further explained the effects of his ballet training during a recent phone interview, saying it gave him a solid foundation.
“I think that ballet and skating definitely go hand in hand, especially growing up at Ballet West, which is an incredible academy,” he said. “The technique there was impeccable, so being able to have that at a very young age definitely allowed me to come onto the ice and at least know where to put my arms, how to move my body so that it creates a line, how to dance to music.”
Christie and Rogers said Chen came to Ballet West Academy with a strong work ethic, great memory and unfailing consistency. Although they knew early on that ballet would likely not be Chen’s ultimate goal, Christie said the instructors were eager to “influence and contribute to his success” in any way they could.
“Once I’d fully grasped Nathan Chen, I was on YouTube watching videos of ice skaters and figure skaters and I was trying to find the correlations between what I was going to be doing in class, which was still going to be a full ballet class for the rest of the boys, but was also going to enhance what Nathan was doing,” Rogers said.
Chen was also quick to express his thanks to Ballet West Academy.1 comment on this story
“They put a lot of time into getting to every kid’s need and helping them as best they can,” Chen said. “I’m hoping that they feel proud of the work that they put (into me) — to see that one of their kids is able to go to the Olympics. … I’d like to thank them.”
And, according to Christie, the admiration is mutual
“We’re proud of being part of it and knowing him and knowing that our small part in that is helping him to achieve (success) and to separate himself out from the rest of the group to be at the head of the pack,” he said. “We could see someone who’s going to make history, and he will — and he already has.”
The 2018 PyeongChang Games begin Feb. 8, with opening ceremonies on Feb. 9.