Everett, WA

After two months and eight stops on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, the senior skaters get their turn as Skate America kicks off the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series this week in Everett, Washington. The Comcast Arena will showcase nine dance teams as they set the standard and claim the first points en route to the ISU Grand Prix Final this December in Goyang City, South Korea. 

Five-time U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto look to grab their fifth Skate America title. The last four times they competed at Skate America (2003-2005, 2007), Belbin & Agosto finished with a combined 40.06 points over the silver medalists and have not lost a phase of the competition since the original dance back in 2003, where they were second. 

All of these victories came under the coaching of Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva. This season, however, Belbin & Agosto have moved to Aston, Pennsylvania to work with Natalia Linichuk & Gennadi Karponosov. 

“It’s really been just go-go-go on the ice from the day we’ve arrived,” Belbin said during a teleconference last week, “but that aspect of our lives is going so well at this point. The training … is above and beyond anything we’ve ever experienced — and more than we could’ve expected — from a new coach taking on a team that already had so much different training set into their muscle memory.” 

“We’ve really learned so much in the last few months,” Agosto added, “and I feel like I am really excited to show off what we’ve learned and the hard work we’ve been putting in. Skate America is going to be very exciting for us just to go out and experience this new way of skating. Hopefully for the audience as well, so they can see what we’ve been doing.” 

When Belbin & Agosto sat down with their coaches to choose their free dance music, Linichuk suggested Tosca. Puccini’s opera has been used by numerous top skaters in recent years, notably Olympic champions Tatiana Navka & Roman Kostomarov when they won their world title in 2005, Evan Lysacek last season, Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya, and Evgeny Plushenko. 

“[Linichuk] said ‘I promise you no one will do it like you do it,'” Belbin explained, “and obviously that’s something that a lot of skaters have said when they choose common music. But I think that their rendition for us is so further reaching than anything that we’ve ever experienced in our support team that I believe her. I really think that it’s going to be special. … The opera genre is so above and beyond regular emotions — it’s a tragedy, the entire thing: love is not enough, lust is not enough — it’s a step above all of those simple emotions. … It is a very well-known, very classical piece, and I think in years past we haven’t always gone with completely obscure pieces. Very often we have chosen pieces that are pretty recognizable, and we’ve always found great results with those pieces. People know those pieces. They like it. They connect with it.” 

For their original dance, Belbin & Agosto are doing a 180 from the drama. 

“The rhythms from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s are so fun and upbeat,” Agosto said. “Anytime the music starts going and the audience wants to tap their toes — I think right there that is going to be a good event. So this year we’re actually doing a tap number, and it’s been a lot of fun to put together. It’s been exciting. It’s really a style that we’ve never delved into. … It’s very upbeat, Liza Minnelli is singing it, and it’s a really good time.” 

“People know as the kids with lots of energy that are going to go out there and — you know, it might be a bit messy — but boy, will it have energy!” Belbin said. “Now we need to take that energy, harness it and make it run through our fingertips, through our toes, through the extension, through everything. The energy will still be there, the crowd-pleasing aspect will still be there, but it will be done on a higher level of quality.” 

Challenging Belbin & Agosto for that top spot on the podium are reigning world champions Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder from France. The seven-time French champions have been competing on the Grand Prix circuit since 1996 and have made two prior appearances at Skate America, finishing second in 2005 and third in 2003. In the four head-to-head competitions on American ice, Belbin & Agosto have always topped the French. 

Delobel & Schoenfelder come to Everett with no coaching changes, cross-country moves, or other distractions to their skating. Another advantage for the duo comes from having already competed — and won — at a competition this season. They’ve put some mileage on their new programs, a free dance to Pink Floyd’s “A Great Gig in the Sky” and an original dance to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in which, at the Masters competition earlier this month, Schoenfelder wore makeup and colored his hair to look like an old man. It will be interesting to see if that look makes its way to Skate America. 

Although the five-time British national champions Sinead Kerr & John Kerr have never stepped on the podium at a Grand Prix event, this season could definitely change that. At Finlandia Trophy a couple weeks ago, the Scottish siblings blew away the competition, winning by more than 21 points. Now in their third season with coach Evgeny Platov, the Kerrs look stronger and faster than ever. Their moody free dance to “Ruled by Secrecy” by Muse has skating fans buzzing that it may be the Kerrs’ best ever. The high-energy original dance to “The Boogie Bumper” and “Minnie The Moocher” is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The Kerrs have a way with audiences, and with this season’s programs, the judges may be coming around as well – they received Program Component Scores in the 8s at Finlandia Trophy, one of the “B International” events. 

Another gold medalist team from the “B International” events this autumn is Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates of the U.S. The Ann Arbor-based teenagers are the reigning World Junior champions and began their first season as seniors internationally at Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany, where they captured gold ahead of Israel’s Alexandra & Roman Zaretski, who placed ninth at the World Championships in March. Samuelson & Bates have placed no lower than second at their last eight international competitions, and the University of Michigan students would love to extend that streak in Everett. They will be skating a swing original dance to Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go” and a free dance to “Amazonic” by Tonci Huljic. 

Rounding out the trio of golden “B International” teams are the French duo of Pernelle Carron & Mathieu Jost who stood atop the podium at Vienna Cup/Karl Schäfer Memorial last week. Competing on back-to-back weekends across nine time zones could be a strain on the training partners of Delobel & Schoenfelder; but on the plus side, they have had multiple experiences putting their programs in front of the judges. 

Americans Jane Summersett & Todd Gilles have also enjoyed success in multiple competitions this season. At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in August, they won both the free and original dances, as well as the Viennese Waltz (the compulsory dance chosen for Skate America). They followed that up with a bronze at Nebelhorn. Their programs, “La Strada” for the free dance and “I’d Rather Be Blue” for the OD, showcase daring choreography by Olympic champion Christopher Dean. 

Rounding out the roster are a pair of Skate America veterans and one team making their debut.