by Anne Calder | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Skate America, the first 2016 Grand Prix event, was held in Chicago, IL from October 21-23. Ten dance teams representing seven countries competed for prize money and qualifying points for the Final in Marseilles, France from December 8-11, 2016.

Short Dance

The 2016-17 senior pattern requires one section of Midnight Blues plus one Partial Step Sequence skated to the same tune and tempo. Swing or hip-hop must be used for the touching midline, diagonal, or circular step sequence.

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani opened their program with “That’s Life” performed by Frank Sinatra. The team hit all the midnight blues key points and earned a level 4; the partial step sequence was level 2.

For their hip-hop second rhythm, the Shibutanis wanted to do something appreciated by both the skating and outside world. A mutual friend connected them with Hokuto “Hok” Konish and Ryan “Ryanimay” Conferido of the multi-talented American hip-hop group, Quest Crew.

Over the summer the Shibutanis spent time in LA and “Hok” in Canton working on their dance, music, costumes, etc. Conferido created a mix that seamlessly blended the opening blues vocal “That’s Life” into a hip-hop rhythm with the combined singing of Frank Sinatra and rapping of Jay Z.

“Since Jay-Z has compared himself to Sinatra, the idea really excited us,” Alex explained. “It was just a matter of trying to make it work with the music. We’re really excited with what we’ve come up with.”

The hip-hop section included their level 4 twizzles and level 2 not touching midline step sequence and rotational lift. The reigning World silver medalists scored 73.04.

“We saw the protocol, and we got a level 4 on the blues, which we were happy about. The rest I think we’ll just have to wait and get some feedback.

Russians Ekaterina Bobrova & Dimitri Soloviev used “Mercy on Me” sung by Christina Aguilera for the opening blues melody that included four elements: the level 4 twizzles and straight-line lift and level 2 pattern and partial step sequence. Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing” introduced the swing section with the level 2 not touching diagonal footwork. The team earned a 68.92. The score and levels were lower than at their Nepela “B” event.

“This is not our first performance in this season, and we unfortunately are not happy,” Soloviev said. “We will have to investigate why the levels are so low. In some places we do agree, and in some places we are surprised.”

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue (USA) danced a level 4 blues pattern and level 3 partial step sequence to “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. The hip-hop medley included music by MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Salt N Pepa, Sir Mix-a-lot, the Sugar Hill Gang, D.J. Snake and Lil Jon.

“We wanted to give it a really hip hop competition feel with all the music cuts, the crazy mix, bringing in all the genres and all the decades,” Hubbell said. “It’s growing well and by the end of the season it’s going to be a huge hit.”

The twizzles and straight-line lift were level 4. The US reigning bronze medalists scored a season best 68.70, just .22 behind the Russians.

The second Russian team of Elena Ilinykh & Ruslan Zhiganshin danced blues and swing to “Big, Bad Love,” performed by Ray Charles & Diana Ross and “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Louis Prima. The team earned level 4 for their blues pattern, twizzles and curve lift. Both the partial in hold and the not-touching midline step sequences were level 2. The score was 66.60.

In fifth place were Italians Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri (64.79), followed by Isabella Tobias & Ilia Tkachenko representing Israel (63.33).

The remaining teams included: Alisa Agafonova & Alper Ucar (TUR) 58.98; *Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit (USA) 58.18; *Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin (KOR) 56.25; and Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed (JPN) 56.19.

* Made their Grand Prix debut in 2016.

Free Dance

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani won their first Skate America gold medal with a free dance they call “Evolution”, which involves their growth and change; it builds on the momentum of last year’s break out season. The program opens with a mesmerizing piece called “Spiegel im Spiegel” or “mirror in the mirror”. Alex arranged the second section in collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The reigning world silver medalists earned level 4 for the twizzles, lifts, and combination spin; the serpentine and diagonal step sequences received level 3. The GOE judges’ technical marks were all 2 and 3, while the factored component scores averaged 9.30. Their free skate scored 112.71 and the total was 185.75.

The team has a strong support group that includes Peter Tchernyshev, who has taken their skating to a new dimension, Jeffrey Buttle and Stephan Lambiel. While the latter two choreographed only the exhibition programs and not the free, they were influential in adding their unique perspectives. The dancers took what they learned from them and applied it to the free program.

In the past, the Shibutanis had competed in the ISU Challenger Series for program feedback from the judges and technical specialists. However, this fall Maia & Alex skipped the events and instead made their season debut at Skate America.

“The reason why we decided to have this competition be our debut is because we really wanted to spend enough time creating,” Alex said. “We are confident in our ability to compete and perform. It was really about having the programs developed to their fullest, so we could debut them this week with a lot of confidence.”

Shibutani & Shibutani next compete at Cup of China – November 18-20.

Americans Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue skated a Love Medley to: “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” performed by Bootstraps, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” performed by Ingrid Michaelson, “Earned It,” by Bootstraps.

Marie-France Dubreuil created the free dance after asking Hubbell about her favorite song. The choreographer used the choice as the basic core of the program, and then added two other melodies as bookends to feed into and exit the theme.

The US bronze medalists earned level 4 for five elements and level two for the circular and diagonal step sequences. The free dance score of 106.99 was a season best. The technical mark increased over four points since the program’s debut at the U.S. Classic in Salt Lake City. The audience showed its appreciation with a standing ovation.

“It’s been a progression since September of making our programs more of a performance again – more technically safe as well as crowd pleasing,” Hubbell noted (earlier in the event). “We are hoping that will pay off both in the technical score and crowd response.”

The team moved up to second place and claimed their first Grand Prix silver medal with a 175.77 total score.

Hubbell & Donohue next compete at Trophee de France – November 11-13.

Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev (RUS) skated to Prelude No. 20 by Frederic Chopin, The Four Seasons by Nigel Kennedy. The dramatic presentation earned level 4 for the twizzles, lifts and spin, which received an extended time deduction. The footwork sequences earned levels 3 and 2. The team was disappointed with their marks.

“Not everything went the way we wanted it to, but now this gives us time to improve and to correct,” Soloviev said. “Next time, we will do much better.”

The program scored 105.85; both segments totaled 177.77 and won the bronze medal.

Bobrova & Soloviev next compete at Rostelecom Cup – November 4-6.

Charllene Guignard & Marco Fabbri (ITA) skated two selections from Nutcracker: “Pas de deux” and “Waltz of the Flowers”. They earned level 4 twizzles, lifts, and spin. The circular and diagonal footwork received level 3. The program scored a season best 100.65. Their total score was 165.44 and moved them up a notch after a fifth place short dance finish.

Guignard & Fabbri next compete at Rostelecom Cup – November 4-6.

The remaining teams finished as follows: Elena Ilinykh & Ruslan Zhiganshin (RUS) 165.16; Tobias & Tkachenko (ISR) 161.99; Pogrebinsky & Benoit (USA) 151.76; Muramoto & Reed (JPN) 147.37; Agafonova & Ucar (TUR) 146.10; and Min & Gamelin (KOR) 141.50.

Americans Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit made their Grand Prix debut at Skate America in Chicago. The ‘new kids on the senior block’ moved up a level after placing fourth at the 2016 World Junior Championships. The team won their first senior completion in July at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Invitational.

Interviewed after the short dance, the duo was beaming with excitement about their inaugural Grand Prix appearance before family and friends in Benoit’s hometown of Chicago.

“It was absolutely fantastic,” Benoit said. “It was such a welcoming energy from the audience. It was so wonderful to share such an extraordinary moment for us with them – a beginning of something we think is going to be special. We went out there and had a great time. Our sole purpose here was just to have the best time we can and show that we belong, and we think we did.”

The energetic short dance performed to “Trouble,” by Elvis Presley was an audience hit, as was Benoit’s Presley impersonator looks and costume. The free dance was a light and lyrical interpretation of Sadko by Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov and “The Feeling Begins” by Peter Gabriel. The Michigan based team earned a season best 93.58 score.

After each performance, the ice was showered with mittens and gloves requested by the team. A charity will distribute the items to special needs adults in DuPage County.

Pogrebinsky & Benoit next compete at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia – November 4-6.