Ice, Dance, and Drama (#112)

Maia and Alex Shibutani in 2011
Maia and Alex Shibutani on the podium in 2011- Wikipedia.

When my parents divorced, my dad got the TV. I lived with my mother, TV-less, for several years. (And half of my American readers thought I was kidding about being a poor and hungry child. Nothing like the lack of a TV to really bring poverty home, right?) But don’t pity me. Sure, I totally suck at pop culture references in Trivia games, but I discovered books. I lived on the prairie with Laura Ingalls and on the Island with Anne Shirley. Life was good.

But then the Olympics rolled around. My mother was an Olympic Junkie. She couldn’t bear the thought of missing the games. So she got a TV. With an antenna, in case you were wondering. We watched figure skating, and I was immediately hooked. There were costumes! Music! Dancing! And DRAMA. Judging partisanship, vote swapping, rival country-panning, even physical attacks on rival skaters from your own country! Figure skating had it all.

Future Genius Judgmental Doctor Sister and I argued over the best skaters as only a gymnast and dancer can. When Tara Lipinski beat out Michelle Kwan for the gold, I was incensed. “Tara’s choreography sucked! She has the grace of pig and never finishes her arms!”

Future Doc Sis was smug in victory. “But Tara did the harder jumps. Michelle bailed. Tara deserves the gold.”

And it was ON. While Team Michelle didn’t win Olympic gold, we sure as hell won the Battle on the Ashbough Sofa. (Got your back, Michelle!)

The same physique that enabled me to crush my smaller sister soon ended my ballerina dreams. My teacher told my parents to steer me into track and field. She was very encouraging: “They have the hammer throw for women these days.”

But the joke is on my old teacher, because I earned my sequins in competitive partner dancing years later. Probably I would have been more successful in the hammer throw, but I enjoyed the hell out of spinning around the floor to music.

In dance, the ultimate performance is one that combines music, choreography, athleticism, technique, and connection. The finished product is an art form that makes the audience cheer and weep simultaneously.

Finding that perfect combination of elements is rare on the dance floor, and even rarer on the ice.

My beef with 3 out of 4 figure skating routines is that music, choreography, and connection come last. With single skaters especially, the breaks and accents in the music are rarely emphasized. This makes sense, because if a skater lands on their ass on a jump, it’s very, very hard to catch up with the music. Most skaters won’t take this risk. The triple lutzes have priority over merging music and moves. Skating choreographers generally pick lyrical, classical music or soundtracks that don’t require complete synchronization with the skater’s routine.

The best skaters can still draw the audience into the performance, but it’s rare. The best example was once Michelle Kwan’s bittersweet exhibition after the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Michelle had missed the gold again, settling for a bronze medal. She skated to the oh-so ironically titled “Fields of Gold,” sung by Eva Cassidy. Everyone knew it was likely her last Olympics, and yet Michelle smiled like a champion throughout, but your could feel her sorrow. There was a tear on her cheek at the end.

If you watch, just ignore the commentators. This video had the best quality.

I had a tear on my cheek, too. Hell, everyone did.

Michelle aside, watching singles skaters is generally like watching horses on a steeplechase course:

“She’s approaching a jump!”

“Argh! I can’t bear to watch!”

“She landed it! Well, there was a little stumble, but she hung onto it!”

“Oh, thank God, the jumps are over and the finish is ahead!”

I feel the audience often claps out of sheer relief that a skater didn’t fall and break something.

But ice dancing is different. There are no jumps, and the lifts aren’t as showy as the ones in pairs skating. Hard as fuck, mind you, with a million position changes, though. (Unlike those pairs lifts where the male skater hoists his partner over his head and merely skates the length of the ice. Yay for you, brute strength.)

The ice dancers’ routine is also choreographed to the music’s every nuance.

Which is why ice dancing has become my favorite type of figure skating. Luckily for me, while Americans currently trail the Japanese in men’s skating, the Russians in women’s skating and everyone else in pairs, our ice dancers teams are on the rise. NBC is actually airing ice dancing, making sure its viewers can watch Team USA winners and revel in the myth of American exceptionalism.

Probably everyone knows about Olympic Ice Dancing Champs Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But right behind them at the 2011 World Championships were siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani. Straight up from the Junior level, the Shibutanis took third place at their first World’s. They were talented and adorable. I couldn’t wait to see them grow and dominate. It’s what the figure skating world expected.

But that’s not what happened. The Shibutanis improved, of course. They won smaller events, and placed at multiple events.

But they didn’t win Nationals. They didn’t make the podium at World’s again. Instead, the Shibutanis were eclipsed by a new American team. Half of the couple was Madison Chock. Ms. Madison is Andy’s favorite ice dancer because:

a) She’s from Redondo Beach, Andy’s old stomping ground,
b) She’s of Hawaiian AND Chinese descent,
c) Her original partner was Greg Zuerlein.  Andy the carnivore laughed like a lunatic every time their names were announced: “Look, honey! It’s Chuck and Sirloin! BAHAHAHAHAA.” He also probably likes her because she’s model gorgeous, but the steak thing sent him over the top. You have no idea how upset he was when Zuerlein retired.

Andy was the only one upset. Chock quickly teamed up with Evan Bates. They won Nationals and beat the Shibutanis repeatedly. Maybe Chock and Not-Sirloin had better choreography, or deeper edges, or less illness and injury.

Or perhaps it was because the Shibutanis skate at a disadvantage, being brother and sister. One of the quickest ways to connect with your partner and your audience is to tell a love story in your routine. Preferably a tragic one. Romantic music, sensual moves – the audience recognizes the story immediately. (Especially if you pair it with a heartbreaking ballad. I’ve grown very tired of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.)

But if you’re brother and sister, well, that sexy shortcut comes with a serious ick factor. Forget it. No one wants to see incestuous romance.

Last weekend, the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships were held in Minneapolis. Andy insisted that the Shibutanis would never beat his girl Madison Chock and her Not-Sirloin partner. Maia and Alex would have to split up, he said. The ick factor was holding them back. At first, it seemed like Andy was right.

Chock and Bates put out excellent programs. They were in the lead, looking unbeatable.

Ice Dancers Maia & Alex Shibutani
Image from the oh-so honest Figure Skating confessions on Tumblr.

The Shibutanis took the ice. Their opening position had Maia’s head resting sadly on Alex’s shoulder. Coldplay’s “Fix You,” began to play:

When you try your best/ but you don’t succeed…

With that, Maia and Alex hooked the audience. Everyone knew their story. Everyone felt their anguish. And even if you didn’t know their story, well, we all can sympathize with working our ass off and still not winning. (Donald Trump excepted.) As Maia and Alex swooped and flowed through Peter Tchernyshev’s perfectly choreographed routine, they told a glorious story of sorrow, perseverance, love, and triumph.

It was the ultimate ice skating performance. The one I always hope for when I watch figure skating.

Athleticism: 6

Technique: 6

Music: 6

Choreography: 6

Connection: 6

A perfect 6, at least on the Ashbough scale. Yes, yes, I know, figure skating doesn’t use “6” anymore, but the new system is a bitch to explain and the mark for perfection on it constantly changes. In short, Maia and Alex were brilliant. I haven’t been so moved by a performance since…well, ever.

Andy agreed with me. The judges even agreed with me. For once.

And the Shibutanis won their first National title.

Can’t wait to see them at World’s.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

37 thoughts on “Ice, Dance, and Drama (#112)”

  1. I watched the competition. I am as addicted to ice skating (which I can’t do at all. I can’t walk on dry pavement let alone ice with teeny tiny blades.) as an alcoholic is to booze. I often prefer non-competition shows because the skaters seem looser and free. I appreciate your information. I never know what to look for and can’t always tell the jumps apart. Then I never understand what they dinked for. Looked damn good to me. I am less about the jumps because they really aren’t pretty.

    1. Yeah, the exhibitions used to be my favorite. Their main advantage was that the skaters could use music with lyrics! Only recently have all the competitive figure skating categories embraced music with lyrics. I think it’s a fantastic change so far — it broadens the appeal and the pool of music available.

      Also, we were all tired of Moonlight Sonata and Swan Lake.

    1. I do! Yes, the Russian skaters got a lot more ballet training. Sasha Cohen had one or two routines that were tightly choreographed to the music. And when she hit all the elements, she was unbeatable.

      But you never knew when she was going to fall…

  2. This is one of the things I do miss about being in the US – watching the Olympics (without having to desperately try to figure out how) and competitions like ice skating and gymnastics, both sports I love. I think its natural for young girls to adore these competitions. I know I did and still do.

    These sports also felt like being Asian was finally an advantage, do you know what I mean? So, another reason to stare wide eyed and hold my breath during competitions. I did see the Shibs and then I watched the “sans Sirloin” couple for comparison, but I couldn’t watch the later after seeing the winners, they were so boring.

    Mad love from the other side of the globe. xxoo

    1. Your childhood thrill at seeing Asians represented at the Olympics reminds me of all the talk in publishing — YA especially — about how the industry is missing the boat on diversity. Kids want to see themselves on the covers of books. We need books with Asian kids, Latinos, African-American kids, etc. It’s empowering.

      But getting editors to actually buy those books? Change is incremental. 🙁

  3. I only watched ice skating during the Olympics when I was in Spain (as it is the only moment other sports different than soccer, basketball, tennis and F1 are shown in Spanish tv, haha).
    Fun fact: I have never tried ice skating. Well, that is not fun. It is rather sad…

    1. Marta, now is the time! Your boy Javier Fernandez from Spain is now a figure skating superstar! He’d probably on TV. You’ll have to make an effort to jump on that bandwagon. 😉 I hope you get to see him.

      1. I had never heard of him, haha. Poor guy! He is probably more famous in any other country but Spain. Seriously, tv and news only care about major sports… about minor sports I only remember hearing about a Spanish girl who won the badminton championship.

  4. I’m not a huge fan of ice skating or figure skating, but I always stopped to watch Michelle Kwan. No matter what she dances too, there’s always something so elegant about her…and the character she shows each time she performs.

    I was always afraid of skating as a kid. Always afraid that if I fall on the ice, another skater’s blade will hit my face. And I feel the same way today still.

    1. Yes, Michelle has grace and presence. A very compelling skater. Special. See, even non-American, non-fans can spot it.

      Yeah, the sport can be very dangerous. Concussions are more common than blade slices, but they do happen.

  5. My mom was also a huge fan of ice skating. I remember watching Michelle Kwan with my mom growing up. It was our thing. Even now she still binge watches ice skating. I’m definitely not as knowledgeable on the sport as you, but I love watching it. It’s truly beautiful. I have so many fond memories of the sport!

    I only tried ice skating once and I fell on my ass more times than I can count, haha. But it was super fun!

    I remember when Mao was making the headlines while I lived in Japan. It was fun to cheer her on with the rest of Japan, and her ice skating was amazing!

    1. You are brave to try ice skating later in life — kids pick it up quickly, but all the adults I knew kept trying to walk instead of glide. Hilarity and bruises ensue. 🙂

      Aside from Heather, I think most women have great memories of Michelle Kwan. Since she retired, attendance at ice events has decreased. Even though our ice dancers are the best in the world right now, Americans only really seem to follow Ladies Skating. I wish our skaters had the same support Japan gives theirs.

  6. Did your husband ever take up Chinese classical or folk dance, or did his interest in dance blossom later in life? There are several Chinese dance schools on the West Coast nowadays, but most of the students start out rather young as part of extra Chinese schooling.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHDTNOHG6iI

    This was a winning dance from I think the girls senior Chinese classical category from the 2012 Taoli Cup. It’s an dance competition held every 3 years for students of dance academies in China.

    1. Thanks for the video link! That is very cool, and very acrobatic dance. Does the dancing stand alone as an event historically, or was it originally part of Chinese Opera?

      No, Andy’s interest in dance came later in life. Mainly because he wanted to meet girls. It worked out well for him!

      1. Chinese classical dance is distinct from Chinese opera, but it shares many stylistic and choreography elements with it. The physical techniques are different though and instead has some overlaps with ballet. Some moves look almost but not quite ballet while it has a wider repertoire of movements that aren’t present in historical ballet, such as the non-vertical turns, tumbling, emphasis on upper body flexibility (the dancer in the video has a spine made out of play-doh), etc.

        Figures. It can’t be helped that dance classes invariably have the men outnumbered at least ten to one.

  7. AH, fascinating! Thank you for sharing the history. Yes, the flexibility is amazing, and you can see similarities with ballet and Chinese acrobatics.

    So true. If men were smarter, they’d all learn to dance younger. 🙂 But more and more of them are catching on.

  8. I used to think ice dancing wasn’t for me. I like combat sports, endurance sports where someone shits their pants or vomits up an organ. But then one day I hurt my ankle dancing… worse than when I had injured it in a grappling match. I realized then that ice dancing is, in fact, very badass indeed.

  9. I love watching figure skating. I actually stayed up watching it until three in the morning during the Olympics in Sochi. But, I feel it is the sport that has the most controversy as it is up to the judge’s taste and perception among other things.

    Hockey is my favorite sport to watch though! 🙂

  10. Damn it. I had this long, witty, well-written comment all typed out and ready to go, but China didn’t want to let me post it. So in a nutshell:

    – you’re the first person I know (other than myself) who likes ice dancing the best out of all the figure skating events.
    – I first watched figure skating after moving to the US because Singapore doesn’t send people to the Winter Olympics (hell, I didn’t even know there was a Winter Olympics until Nagano)
    – Ice dancing ftw!

    Maybe you and Andy should take up ice dancing!

    -yueni

    1. Andy and I did some rollerblading for a while. He earned the nickname “pebble butt.” I think it’s safest for us on the sidelines. 🙂

      Man, I am sad about your missing comment. I hate it when that happens. I bet it was awesome, too.

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