by Lynn Rutherford | Photos by Daphne Backman

When Daniel Eaton hit town for the Lake Placid Ice Dance International in Norwood, Massachusetts in August, he was ready to rock.

He and partner Yura Min had a rhythm dance set to Queen hits, and Eaton was doing his best to embody Freddie Mercury, complete with a tight t-shirt and 1980’s style chevron mustache.

“I was going all out, for sure,” the 29-year-old said.

By the time Min and Eaton, who compete for Korea, returned to Norwood for the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic three weeks later, the mustache – and the rhythm dance – had bitten the dust. Glam rock gave way to hip hop, including Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”

Min & Eaton skate their original rhythm dance at the 2021 Lake Placid Ice Dance International in August.

Turns out, Queen just doesn’t have enough street cred. Under ISU rules, for the 2021/2022 season teams must include at least two different rhythms from “street” dances including hip hop, jazz, reggae, funk, blues or disco. Mercury’s song stylings don’t fit the bill.

“We had an ISU official come out to the rink (in Novi, Michigan) a couple of weeks ago and advised that the music was too questionable  for a street rhythm,” Eaton said.

“Every time we went to the boards, we were asked, ‘What type of music is this?’ and our answers weren’t adequate,” Min, 26, added. 

Then and there, the skaters put on some hip hop (Macklemore, but not the cut they ended up using). Min wowed the officials with her popping and locking.

“They said, ‘Why in the heck are you not doing hip hop? She is so good at it — why would you not capitalize on that?’” Eaton said.

Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, where Min and Eaton hope to win one of four remaining Olympic ice dance spots for Korea, was coming up fast. So, the skaters called Charlie White, who often helps with Novi-based teams’ choreography.

“Charlie is a good mentor for the whole mindset required to maintain this type of athleticism,” Eaton said. “We said, ‘We have four days, we are leaving (for the Classic) next week on Tuesday and we have to build a program.’ And he said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’”

“Without Charlie, we wouldn’t be here, for real,” Min said.

The skaters and White, along with coaches Igor Shpilband and Pasquale Camerlengo, began work on Thursday, September 16, finishing the next afternoon. Min and Eaton got some training in that Saturday. When they performed their new rhythm dance in front of judges at the Classic last Friday, it was only their third run-through of the program.

Even so, the skaters think the last-minute change is a blessing in disguise.

“With the quick turn-around, it was hard, but I feel like throughout the season when you have two programs you work on every single day, you kind of lose the spark,” Min said. “This one was so fresh, I feel like we were both on it, and it shined through in the performance. We got five points higher (at the Classic) than at Lake Placid just a few weeks ago.”

“We both liked the Queen program, it was fun to perform, (but) I think this new Macklemore is such a hyped song, it gets a lot of people involved,” Eaton said. “It was a great change, in my opinion. It capitalizes on what Yura does so well, which is that hip-hop style, and it’s made me the best back-up NSYNC dancer there is.”

Min and Eaton earned 67.85 points for their rhythm dance at the Classic, putting them third behind Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin, in that segment.

“We came here and it was nice to perform it and get the response we were planning on, because we wanted that response with the Queen program and we didn’t get it,” Min said.

They were less satisfied with their free dance to music from “Les Misérables,” including “I Dreamed a Dream.” It earned 168.28 points, and they finished fourth overall. 

The program was subtle and sensitive, but lost ground when a diagonal step sequence rated Level 2 – something the skaters vowed to correct for Nebelhorn.

“I think with us focusing so much on this new rhythm dance over the last two weeks, we kind of lost touch with our free dance,” Eaton said. “We are just going to kind of get back to ground zero on it, work together to find a good passion for the program again, try to build more power, more character through the different sections.”

“Similar to the storyline in the play, it’s kind of a fight for life at Nebelhorn,” Min said.

Min is well acquainted with Olympic qualification pressure; with their fourth-place finish at Nebelhorn in 2017, she and former partner Alexander Gamelin won a spot for Korea at the PyeongChang Games. They went on to place 18th.

The partnership with Gamelin ended July 2018, and Min and Eaton teamed up a few months later. They sat out the 2018/2019 season as Eaton, a two-time U.S. junior champion and two-time World junior medalist with former partner Alexandra Aldridge, waited for a release from U.S. Figure Skating. They placed eighth at the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, but Eaton’s back trouble ended their 2020/2021 season.

“We started getting ready for last season, and then had to find some new methods with treatment and couldn’t get a good flow going,” Eaton said. “We ended up withdrawing from the entire season and focusing on coming back as strong as we could for the Olympic season.”

When Min and Eaton take the ice in Oberstdorf, their biggest competition will likely come from teams from Armenia, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Australia.

“We haven’t competed against a lot of the teams we are going head-to-head with for a spot,” Min said. “And we are all in a similar score range. Whoever goes out there and burns up the ice, will qualify a spot.”

“I am definitely a goal-oriented person; I am 29 years old and I have dreamed of going to the Olympics since I was three,” Eaton said. “My body has been through a hell of a journey with this sport (with) surgeries, injuries. They used to call me the comeback kid — I would break myself before competition and some how manage to come back with a medal. This is finally my time, we are going to get that spot, we want it.”