by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Robin Ritoss (on ice) & Melanie Hoyt (off ice)
After a debut senior outing marked by a top five finish at U.S. Nationals and Four Continents Championships bronze, a first trip to the World Championships as alternates proved eye-opening for two-time World Junior medalists Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton.
“Being at Junior Worlds was great the last two years,” said Eaton, “but when you get to the huge arena and have all of these people like Anna [Cappellini] and Luca [Lanotte], for example, or Kaitlyn [Weaver] and Andrew [Poje], who have been training years for the opportunity to be best in the world—seeing how much dedication is in there and seeing how much they pour into it really just motivated the two of us to try and improve our skating as much as we potentially could.”
That motivation inspired the team’s decision to relocate from the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, home for the first five years of their partnership, to Canton’s Arctic Edge, moving from the tutelage of Pasquale Camerlengo and Angelika Krylova to Marina Zueva, Johnny Johns and Massimo Scali—himself a recent Detroit Skating Club transplant.
“We really thank Pasquale and Angelika for teaching us how to be a world-level team,” said Eaton. “But we just felt in our best interest for our career and for our future, we needed to make a change to help us on the ice, and so far it’s working out really well.”
“We just felt it was the right time to change something for ourselves,” added Aldridge.
While Scali had choreographed previous programs for the team, including their 2013-14 Bollywood free dance and multiple short dances, Zueva was the primary draw.
“Massimo obviously is awesome,” said Eaton. “So it’s definitely nice to see his face at the rink, but we came for Marina because of her attention to detail. She just has this unique way of taking certain things up on the ice that really create a new character.”
Aldridge and Eaton join a camp that at present includes long-term residents Maia and Alex Shibutani, as well as new additions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov and, most recently, reigning world champions Cappellini and Lanotte on a part-time basis.
“It was pretty amazing to see how everybody kind of just welcomed us into the rink when we first came and really made us feel like this was a training facility and we were all going to be good friends,” said Eaton. “So it’s really motivating, I think, to skate with people who push one another.”
Though the team came armed with two existing programs—their flamenco and paso doble short dance to music from Carmen and a free dance to The Godfather—the move induced some revisions. For the short dance, change was minor, coming in the form of an alternate orchestration, though themes like “Les Toreadors” and “Habanera” were carried through.
“Marina basically said to us, if you feel you can portray the characters and do it well enough, we’ll keep it,” said Aldridge. “I think she’s very happy with the way Daniel and I are working at being mature, almost like paso doble dancers for the short dance, and really portraying the characters of Carmen and the toreador.”
After initial plans to rechoreograph that Godfather free dance—“[Massimo] felt, and Marina felt, that it just lacked a connection between us,” noted Eaton—in early August the team turned to a new program: Gone With the Wind, a dramatic theme which the skaters found more “relatable.” The base plan took a week to develop.
“Massimo created so many difficult transitions and we really love the emotional story Marina is helping us achieve,” said Eaton. “Creating a program from scratch with Marina is fun. She has an enthusiasm directed towards created the emotional connection Alex and I share on the ice. For example, with the polka section of the music, she always says to portray this piece of music with the thought of happiness and to imagine how Marina herself would skate to this music bouncing around smiling and joking, which is Marina’s natural personality.”
With a new environment and programs have come new elements. The couple has worked with Johnny Johns to create a few new lifts, while seeking to improve intricacy of footwork with Zueva and Scali. Revised level requirements have further demanded a new approach to certain staple elements. The two elected to include a choreographic spin in their new free dance, citing its higher base value as compared with a choreographic lift, while twizzles–a strength for the pair–have required their own second look.
“We’re having to really rethink the technique of everything because of the new difficult variation rules—you can’t just simply do three twizzles down the ice and get a level 4 anymore,” said Eaton.
“Right now with the new requirements to get the level, we’ve kind of had to rethink our technique on it, and that’s probably been the most difficult thing,” said Aldridge. “But I have no doubt that once we get used to the new technical things, that they’ll be pretty good as always.”
The move also meant a change to the team’s summer schedule, which since 2009 had included a season’s debut at July’s Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships.
“At one point we were getting a little nervous because we did switch and just finished making all these new programs, so we felt very behind,” said Aldridge.
Despite the adjustments, the two swiftly came to feel well-prepared, a benefit given their assignment to the season’s earliest senior international—the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, running from September 11 through 14.
“We’re on the ice from 8 A.M. until 3 P.M. every day, so there’s just so much time to train compared to what we’re used to,” said Eaton. “But Marina just has this way where she just trains these programs and they start feeling so easy, like we can do three run-throughs in a row, probably, at this point,” he concluded with a laugh.
An extended schedule has also led the team to uncover further positives.
“A strength that I think we’re both realizing now that we’re here at Canton is the ability to work with one another on and off the ice so fluidly and so consistently,” said Eaton. “We’re just really spending a lot of time working together, working on elements, and training them where we just never had this much time before. So we’re able to spend an hour on lifts, an hour on twizzles.”
With Grand Prix assignments at Skate Canada International and Rostelecom Cup, the two aim to grow as a senior team, building off the lessons learned in last year’s debut.
“I think one of the things is confidence,” said Aldridge. “Being in that last group at Nationals, we would have crumbled if we didn’t have the confidence that we had. We’re excited about not being the new senior team any more, but with that there’s also a lot of pressure.”
While the team hopes to deliver a strong set of skates at Nationals and earn a second trip to Worlds, their overall international goals remain broader.
“Internationally I think we just want to put out the best programs we can, which I think Marina understands how to train us to do that,” said Eaton.
“We’re so glad that we got two Grand Prix [assignments] and we’re still pretty new internationally as a senior team, so we’ll see this season how we rank up against the other top teams at the Grand Prix,” said Aldridge.
Among the advantages of their international career, however, the team values benefits beyond the competitive realm.
“I think we’re both so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel so much,” said Eaton. “We’ve been pretty much all over Europe. Last year we did the Asia tour—we were in China, Taiwan and then Japan within a few months of one another. So we’ve collected a lot of Delta SkyMiles over the years. But it’s definitely been an amazing experience to someday look back on and say ‘Wow, I really have done something incredible with my life.'”
“I personally loved going to Beijing, just because my mom and dad used to live there and when my brother and I were born, we lived there for a couple of years,” added Aldridge. “So when we went back there for the Grand Prix, my mom saw some of her old friends and it was good to kind of revisit where she spent five years of her life.”
“I’d have to say my top is probably Japan,” said Eaton, “because it’s just really cool to have this huge arena and to compete in front of all of the fans that were there and have such an amazing city that you’re just engulfed in.”
Between the U.S. International Classic and their first Grand Prix, the two will also perform at Harvard University’s An Evening with Champions show supporting the Jimmy Fund, alongside skaters including Johnny Weir and Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford. The team welcomes an opportunity to showcase some non-competitive facets, as in an exhibition unveiled at June’s Detroit Skating Club ice show to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
“I think Daniel and I, our personalities are very goofy, actually, and we don’t always get to portray that when it comes to competition, so it’s kind of fun to have a fun program to skate to,” said Aldridge.
Both partners relish their work and play time away from the ice.
“I work at a boutique in the downtown area that I live by and it’s just a one-woman store—it’s really small and I enjoy doing something other than skating, so it’s a good break-up from the day to day,” said Aldridge.
“And as far as my work, I teach a little bit of Learn to Skate at Detroit Skating Club, and other than that I play golf probably every day,” said Eaton. “It’s a nice break from the rink. When you’re here for eight, ten hours a day, it’s nice to get out and enjoy the sun for the little bit of sunny weather that we have here in Michigan.”
But at the rink, Aldridge and Eaton have embraced the new time to deepen their focuses after early years sampling a variety of styles.
“I think what Daniel and I wanted to show as skaters is that we can virtually do any kind of dance style, from Irish to Bollywood,” said Aldridge. “But this season is all about really finding what kind of skaters Daniel and I want to be on a more professional level. And, you know, Marina is the person to do that. She’s really changing our technique, the way our bodies move, and I think you’ll just see a different Alex and Dan this season than you did all the other seasons.”