by Melanie Hoyt | Photo by Robin Ritoss

The 18th annual Four Continents Championships will be contested in Taipei City, February 16-21, 2016. The championship was last held in Taipei City only two years ago, and this is the fourth consecutive Four Continents to take place in Eastern Asia. As usual, it is expected that the Canadian and American teams will battle for top honors and medals in ice dance.

Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje of Canada have a perfect record this season, exactly the place that they were in when they won last year’s Four Continents title. Their short dance to Johann Strauss selections has been picture-perfect all season, and should give them the lead in that segment if they hit their levels. Their more modern free dance has been more of a work in progress, but at the Canadian Championships in January, they introduced a new lift in the middle and a bit of reworked material. The result was a dance that fit together and had more flow than the earlier outings this season. At any rate, it is probably the most difficult free dance that will be performed in Taipei, in terms of difficulty and variety of holds and turns. They were given level 3 on all three footwork sequences at Canadians, so it will be interesting to see if they have changed anything in their sequences since then to push for level 4.

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani are the new U.S. champions, triumphing over defending champions Madison Chock & Evan Bates with a powerful Coldplay free dance that brought the audience in St. Paul to its feet. Like Weaver & Poje, they have a strong set of dances, but their edge probably lies in the free dance and the performance ability that they have found in the past few outings of it. The Shibutanis earned all level 4s in both dances in St. Paul, but the American callers have been notoriously enthusiastic about giving top levels to top teams in the past few years. At the Grand Prix Final in December, they had six level 3 elements over the two competition segments. If they can maintain St. Paul’s high levels internationally, though, the Shibutanis have a chance to challenge for the gold medal and head into a home World Championships with a ton of momentum.

Chock & Bates are also contenders for the top spot. Although they lost a close event to the Shibutanis last month, they had been scoring higher in the first half of the season and finished second to the Shibutanis’ fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chock & Bates did not earn a perfect set of levels at the U.S. Championships, and they even had a surprising level 2 on their spin in the free dance. They still won the short dance in St. Paul, although their dance, even when skated very well, doesn’t seem as natural of a waltz as Weaver & Poje’s or the Shibutanis’. They are very consistent skaters that check the boxes that they need to check, though, and should be expected to come back fighting in Taipei.

Last year, these three teams were all incredibly close after the short dance, but the free dance spaced the teams out a little more, into the order that most expected heading into the competition—Weaver & Poje with the gold, silver for Chock & Bates, bronze for the Shibutanis. This year, the competition has the potential to be even closer and less predictable.

The next set of American and Canadian teams are expected to challenge for fourth and fifth, although mistakes from the top teams could open the door for Canadians Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier and Americans Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, two teams on the upswing this year.

Gilles & Poirier were fourth at Four Continents last year, just over eight points from the podium. This year, they may close the gap a bit, particularly with their original and well-trained free dance to “She Said” and “Neverland.” Their short dance this year has been polarizing for fans, but as long as they skate well and earn their levels, it is capable of scoring quite well.

They will likely battle Hubbell & Donohue, who may have the edge, based on their qualification to the Grand Prix Final this season. Hubbell & Donohue are likely to start out ahead in the short dance, where they have hit level 4 on both Ravensberger patterns in their last two competitions, and where they beat Gilles & Poirier head-to-head at Trophée Eric Bompard in the fall. In the free dance, Hubbell & Donohue have the type of program that must be skated really well to have the full impact, as the music is subdued. If they do skate it well, though, the effect is lovely.

The final representative from the North American ice dance contingent is the team of Élisabeth Paradis & François-Xavier Ouellette, training mates of Hubbell & Donohue. They came from behind at the Canadian Championships to earn the bronze medal with a lovely and moving free dance to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” While they will probably not challenge the other North American teams, Paradis & Ouellette have a personal battle to fight in Taipei: they need to earn a 29.00 TES in the short dance so that they can compete at the World Championships this year. They have been named to the team by Skate Canada, but do not yet have the required minimum score in the short dance. At the Canadian Championships, their TES was 33.52, but internationally this year, their TES has been 21.00 at Skate Canada (although they lost their lift there) and 25.54 at the U.S. International Classic, so it may be a tall order to get to 29.00 with ISU championship judges.

It is worth noting that this will be the first time that South Korea has sent a full roster of three teams to this championship. The host of the 2018 Olympic Games has actively been trying to build its pairs and dance programs. National champions Rebeka Kim & Kirill Minov are expected to lead the trio, but it will be interesting to see how Ho Jung Lee & Richard Kang In Kam do in their senior international debut; they had a strong JGP début in the fall. Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin will make their ISU championship début here; it is also the ISU championship début for Gamelin, a former junior international competitor for the United States.

The roster of 16 teams is the largest field since 2005, even without an entry from Mexico this year.

The short dance will kick off the competition on Thursday afternoon, and the free dance will be held Friday afternoon.