How 'The Cutting Edge' pulled off the impossible Pamchenko

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Winding up for the Pamchenko in “The Cutting Edge.” (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

The Winter Olympics are in full swing in PyeongChang, South Korea, and as usual, figure skating has taken center stage. Whether it’s Mirai Nagasu nailing an epic triple axel or Adam Rippon charming the crowd on and off the ice, there’s been a lot for skating fans to cheer about at these Games. Even though there were plenty of death spirals and throw jumps in the pairs event, there’s one move that no skaters attempted: the Pamchenko. That’s the immortal stunt that the odd couple pairs team of ex-hockey star Doug Dorsey and prima donna Kate Moseley demonstrated at the 1992 Albertville Olympics to thunderous applause. Don’t remember Albertville’s Pamchenko moment? Then you clearly haven’t seen The Cutting Edge, one of the all-time great sports movies and, quite possibly, the best figure skating feature ever. (Fans of Ice Castles and Blades of Glory, agree to disagree.)

To be fair, it’s not as if a modern-day pairs team could recreate Dorsey and Moseley’s dazzling Pamchenko display, even if they wanted to: after all, it’s a move that defies logic and physics. “The Pamchenko is just crazy impossible and totally illegal in amateur competition,” former U.S. figure skating medalist Sharon Carz tells Yahoo Entertainment. Her one-time skating partner, John Denton, agrees. “The idea of the Pamchenko is a girl being swung in a circle, then going up and spinning and then the boy catching her and putting her down. But that’s not physics! You can’t swing somebody in a circle and then all of a sudden get them up in the air and change your trajectory.”

It’s worth noting that Carz and Denton should be taken as the absolute authorities on the subject of the Pamchenko. Not only are they both former skating pros, but they also served as the skating doubles on The Cutting Edge, filming much of the on-rink action in place of stars Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney. Personally recruited by the film’s British skating choreographer, Robin Cousins — himself an Olympic champion who won a gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Games — Carz and Denton laced up as Moseley and Dorsey and performed the majority of the fictional couple’s leaps and twirls, as well as individual moments in the three-part Pamchenko.

Although their competitive skating days are behind them — Carz works in commercial real estate in Los Angeles, while Denton is a medical professional in Las Vegas — they both have fond memories of their time preparing for the historic Albertville Games. (Carz also had a small role in the 2006 sequel, The Cutting Edge: Going for the Gold.) In separate interviews, they gave us a backstage account of how they got involved in the Paul Michael Glaser-directed feature and how they made the impossible Pamchenko move possible.

A lift during the Pamchenko move. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Sharon Carz: I was sitting at the chiropractor’s office, and I get paged by Robin — this was back in the pager days. It was like the week before Nationals, and I was being a bonehead on the Pacific Coast Highway on my motorcycle and wiped out. I didn’t want to tell my coaches that’s how my neck got hurt! I’m at the chiropractor, and Robin pages me [about The Cutting Edge] and I’m like, “Well, sure.”

John Denton: The season prior to [The Cutting Edge], I was skating with another girl, and she ended up quitting skating kinda out of the blue. So I moved back to Boston for a few months and started coaching skating while I was trying to figure out what to do. I got a phone call from Robin, who said, “How would you like to be in a movie? I want you to fly out and meet Paul Michael Glaser.” I’m like, “From Starsky & Hutch?!” He said, “Yeah. I’ve got a first-class ticket for you to be in Toronto tomorrow. Can you make it?” I said, “Absolutely.”

Carz: I didn’t know they were going to pair me up with one of my competitors! John and I were competitors, and we ended up getting cast as a pair in this film. It was totally taboo. We’re stuck together [on set] in Canada, we hadn’t even talked about teaming up, and now we’re teaming up for this film, and we had to be an Olympic pairs team in a matter of weeks. Usually, it takes pairs teams about two years to look like a pairs team.

Denton: I was only required to be on the set for filming for about 18 days, but there was a lot of training with Sharon that went into [preparing for] those 18 days. Once Moira broke her foot, though, we knew we were going to be in Toronto for a while.

Watch Sharon Carz and her former partner, Doug Williams, perform at the 1990 World Figure Skating Championships:

Carz: It was only supposed to be, like, six weeks, and then it turned out to be four months! Your whole life is on hold for this time. They had to rewrite the whole shooting schedule because of [Kelly’s injury]. That was a weird day; I remember getting in the van to go to the set, and Moira just looked a bit tired and off. She had her Walkman on — now I’m dating myself — and when we got to the rink, she was skating around with her Walkman and all of a sudden something went really wonky and she broke her foot! When you’re working these long hours, your body starts getting tired and things happen.

Denton: In some ways, Sharon and I were like oil and water, for sure. Sharon’s a great gal; I think she’s super cool and very independent. She’s actually a few years older than I am, and we both like to be in charge. So you can imagine how that works: There’s a lot of give-and-take.

Carz: [The characters’ relationship onscreen] kind of reflected what was going on behind the scenes, because we were getting up in each other’s business 17 hours a day. We were basically fighting anyway, so it wasn’t that hard to go there. I think it was the long hours that did it; we’d be the first ones on the van in the morning to go to the set, then we’d be in hair and makeup for two hours, and then they would bring in the actual actors and start with them, so we’d be having to hang around all day. Familiarity breeds contempt after a while, and because we’re athletes, we’re high-energy, so having to wait around is a counterintuitive environment. John and I were kind of getting sick of each other by the end of the movie, but he and I later ended up competing together for a season.

Denton: We didn’t fight too much during the movie, because we weren’t required to do anything beyond what we were already able to do. We didn’t really get into it until we started to get ready for actual competition and had to up the ante. Our poor coach would be like, “What’s it going to be today?” We’d be outside in the parking lot screaming at each other. But a month after we were done skating together, we were back to being friends again.

Carz: John had to wear a [fake] chin and he used to take it off and stick it on the wall when we were done on set. I was fortunate in that I looked enough like Moira in wig and full makeup, so I got out of having to wear facial prosthetics. Moira and I looked so much alike that people called us each other’s names when we were on the set. And when Moira broke her foot, they pulled me in to do the drunken bar scene in case she couldn’t do it. I was dressed up like her, but she actually did the dancing from the waist up by sitting on a moving Steadicam. That’s how we got through that one. Moira was a little bit larger upstairs than I was, so I used to use [falsies]. The hair and makeup lady was constantly coming up to me asking, “Why do you always have makeup on the front of your dress?” John and I figured it out: whenever we would do a lift and I was in full hair and makeup, his face would rub up on the front of my outfit! On a daily basis, I pulled [the falsies] out of my outfit and threw them to somebody in the crowd at the end of the day.

Denton: They made Sharon wear fake boobs to look more like Moira. Those girls are so tiny, if you add anything to them, it’s like putting weight on a paper airplane. Any little change in the aerodynamics isn’t good! I had about three to four hours in the makeup chair, where they’d put on a fake forehead, pull my hairline up and color my hair. They had to bleach my hair to make me more of a blond, because I have dark hair — when I had hair! We had a prosthetic chin, too. We had to get the profile right. I remember that they used a different D.B. double for the hockey scene.

The hockey scene. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Carz: I played hockey for a commercial once, so I had some stick-handling skills, and that came in handy. They pulled in a hockey player to do the stick scene with me and kept wanting more action. All of a sudden, I get a slap shot in the leg, and I’m like, “OK, that’s enough!” Otherwise, I think I was the only one who didn’t get injured. I did have to do a blur spin, and they wanted to shoot my feet in a perfect circle. But there was no way I could stay in one spot, even if I did a perfect spin. I had to do it over and over again, and I’m breaking blood vessels in my elbows and feel like throwing up. Then there was the day when I kicked the camera — that was a little gnarly. They wanted to get a shot with our feet spinning in the air close to the camera, and they’re having us do jumps right next to the camera. I actually kicked the lens! It’s a $20,000 camera, and they’re like, “OK, we got the shot. Now we’re done.”

Denton: I had back injury where my latissimus muscle detached off of my spine a little bit. To this day that injury causes me problems. I wasn’t doing anything special, it was just the repetition for hours and hours because they want to get the take right. We were doing a triple twist move, and they’re like, “Throw Sharon higher.” I was 23, so I went, “Yes, sir!” I chucked her one time and had to catch her because she had so much speed coming down. I reached out to grab her and then detached my latissimus just a tiny bit. I still do trampolines and slack lines — I did my first double back flip over the trampoline at 49 years old this year! But if I short myself on the trampoline, my back will go out and it’s always the same injury I did in Toronto.

A throw jump. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Carz: The movie is dedicated to Paul’s daughter; she was a skating fanatic and had passed away. [Glaser’s wife, Elizabeth, contracted HIV through an emergency blood transfusion while giving birth to their daughter, Ariel, in 1981. Both Ariel and the couples’ younger son, Jake, were later diagnosed with the virus. Ariel passed away in 1988, and Elizabeth died in 1994.] Elizabeth was on the set and so was Jake; I have pictures with him. What’s ironic is the writer [Tony Gilroy, who later wrote the Bourne films and Michael Clayton] — I met him at the hotel and said, “How do you know so much about skating?” And he’s like, “I don’t know anything about skating!” It blew my mind.

Denton: Seeing how Hollywood takes artistic liberties is always fun. With the spotlights and dimmed light, this is much more like a showcase. You’d never do that in a competitive skating venue, because if you’re skating in spotlights, you can only see the parts of the ice that are lit up! Everything else is black. You won’t even know where the boards are until you’re right on top of them. A lot of times in showcases, the edges of the barriers will have Christmas lights so that the skaters can see when the boards are coming up.

The bounce spin. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Carz: A lot of the skating was real skating, but doing the Pamchenko in one move is not possible; it starts as a bounce spin, then it goes into a quad twist at a back angle, and then the landing. You can do that on a rig — I’ve done bounce spins nightly in Vegas, and you don’t want to get launched off that or you’re going to end up in somebody’s lap in Row 5! You need to be on wires, because that thing is like a human hammer throw. You’d be going outward, and I don’t know how you’d possibly get yourself upright again to be able to land on your feet. So the Pamchenko is three items cut into one: It starts out as a triple twist takeoff, which they did part of with an adagio team, and part of it with a doll. I’m really glad I didn’t do that shot, because [the female skater in the adagio pair] came in the next morning, and half of her face was like blown up from doing it over and over. I was told that you’re not supposed to do it more than three times.


The twist. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Denton: For the twist, they initially decided they wanted more like a triple twist or lateral twist, and we were looking at trying to do lateral twisting to get Sharon up in the air spinning sideways. Then we tried out a straight twist, when the girl is thrown up, she’s spinning, and then you catch her and put her back down. They were trying to capture the twist, but they weren’t able to get the separation, so that’s when they moved to the trampoline and were like, “OK, let’s just have her bounce and land on a mat.”

Carz: I’m getting ready to get in the bathtub and I get a call from the first AD. He said, “Have you ever bounced on a trampoline?” I said, “Maybe,” and he said, “Will you come down to the set?” I come down, and they have a top trampolinist from Canada who can’t spin fast enough for the shot that they want. Of course, what I do is spin, so they put me on it. They’re like, “We need a back angle from the waist up,” and I’m thinking, “A back angle in the air rotating means you’re going to die!” You just don’t go there. After the bounce spin with the adagio team, it cuts to me on a trampoline that was anchored on the ice, doing a quad at a back angle, not in skates. They had the stunt coordinator working with me on that one, because I had to jump backward, pull in, stay in, and land spinning as they throw a mat underneath me on the trampoline. I’m like, “You guys do have a chiropractor for Moira, right?”

Denton: The shots that made it into the movie were spliced between the bounce spin and then Sharon spinning on the trampoline. Then, at the very end, when you see the catch and her being put back down on the ice, that was Sharon and I. We did a really common twist, the split double twist, because the rotations on the girl and the guy are traveling backward. The girl goes in to tap onto the ice backward like she’s going to do a toe jump, but instead of going into a rotation, you split your legs. So she’s splitting her legs, and the man throws her as high as he can; when she pulls her legs together, that’s when the spin comes around. Then you have to reach in and time her rotations so you can catch her by the hips and put her back on the ice. Sharon and I had a massive triple twist, because she was tiny, so I could get her up so high that her blades would be above my head and I’d have to catch her. You can’t let her land on her feet on the ice there — you’ve got to be able to capture her coming down from like seven feet in the air. So that’s what they used me for. That’s my Pamchenko moment.

Carz: I have some cool shots where I’m floating above John’s head during the triple twist. I remember doing triple twists at hour 17 over and over and over, and that was the day where I was just like, “Get one more.”

Watch the full Pamchenko in this clip from The Cutting Edge:

Denton: They really did a great job with the skating scenes; I’m a little biased, because I worked on the movie, but of every skating movie that’s ever been made I would have to say it’s probably the best, especially as far as the authenticity of the skating and seamlessness of the editing are concerned. It looks like D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly are actually skating. I think Sharon was a big part of that; she did look a lot like Moira Kelly. When she put on the wig and they used that silhouette lighting, I was hard-pressed to tell myself if it was Sharon or Moira. I could only tell by the way that they moved, not by the way they looked.

Carz: It’s like this flagship ice skating movie alongside Ice Castles. I have the original script, and it was actually written to be rated R, and they edited it to be PG, which was a genius maneuver on their part. It didn’t offend anybody and it was pretty real, apart from the Pamchenko. A lot of the stuff that they brought up in the personalities and a pairs team trying to get together and liking each other — that happens!

The triumph. (Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime)

Denton: I definitely think the film impacted the sport. This was a year before the whole Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding incident, so that hadn’t happened yet. It helped as far as popularity and sparked an interest in figure skating. Everybody talked about that movie. I haven’t seen I, Tonya, but I was at the arena the day that Nancy got hit. I didn’t see it, but I was inside the building, as many of us were. Skating is a small community, and once you’re on the national level, you’re pretty much there every year. That particular season I wasn’t competing, I was searching for a skating partner, so when that happened, it was just like, “Wow.”

Carz: Tonya Harding was on my first international team that went to Russia in 1988. I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to be her friend, and it didn’t hit me [why] until I saw I, Tonya, and I was sad for two days. It was like there was always a wedge put in there somewhere, whether it was a coach or something else. I was there when that incident happened in Detroit. I was warming up with my partner in the exact same place that Nancy got hit. Later, I’m in there getting a massage and someone runs in and says, “Hey, somebody got hurt on the Joe Louis rink.” Usually “someone got hurt” means, “It’s Nationals and everyone’s excited, so somebody runs into somebody or they hit a wall.” I thought the film was really well done. Margot [Robbie] actually learned how to skate at my rink when they were beginning the movie. Although, the difference now between The Cutting Edge and what movies do with CGI — it’s almost like I know too much, so I watch it to be entertained and not to try to analyze what I’m looking at. There’s no CGI in Cutting Edge; all the skating is real. They were very creative in the way they put it together.

The Cutting Edge is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and can be purchased from iTunes and Vudu.

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