by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Melanie Hoyt
After the competitive struggles of recent seasons, including a disappointing fourth-place finish at January’s Canadian Figure Skating Championships after an unfortunate fall, Alexandra Paul & Mitch Islam are prepared to make their case this season for a spot on Canada’s Olympic team.
But though busy training full-time at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in pursuit of that goal, the two took some time in May to support developing ice dancers at home in Ontario, leading a seminar at the Skate Canada Brampton-Chinguacousy club.
“That was actually our first time putting on our own seminar,” said Paul. “We did it for the ice dance coach there and it was actually a lot of fun. All of the teams were fairly young, so we focused mainly on basic skating, and then we looked at their programs that they just started with and we helped them with a few lifts, we looked at their spins and twizzles and compulsory dances. So it was a lot of fun for us just working with little teams and kind of having people look up to us like that.”
“Yeah, it was definitely a fun experience,” added Islam, who coached at other rinks for several years while still training in Barrie. “We both love kids and we had a blast working with them, and I think we both really enjoy teaching.”
Paul & Islam’s season officially commences in October at Skate Canada International in Saint John, New Brunswick. After missing the 2012-13 Grand Prix series, the team is excited to make their return to major ISU competition.
“Obviously, it’s a great confidence-booster, and it’s great for building some motivation as we move forward into the season,” said Islam. “The last couple of years have had some tough things happen to us, so it’s definitely some good news for us to get, and obviously we welcomed it with open arms and we’re super-excited to get back on the Grand Prix circuit.”
The couple will be competing alongside training mates Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje and Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, a situation which provides a few benefits.
“I think it will help us feel more comfortable at the competition because we will be there with people we train alongside every day,” said Paul, “and it will be amazing motivation training with the competition leading up to the event.”
And to take on the new season, the team is armed with two programs intended to showcase their strengths. In the Finnstep short dance, the team will be skating foxtrot and quickstep rhythms to songs from the musical “Crazy for You,” an adaptation of Gershwin’s 1930 musical “Girl Crazy.”
“For our short dance this year,” said Paul, “we really wanted to show people the dance-y side, and – not more theatrical, but more expression and kind of a ‘grand’ quickstep and foxtrot. Very dance-y and musical.”
The couple’s free dance is set to selections from the score of the 2011 film “W./E.,” about the love story between Britain’s King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom he abdicated the throne.
“It’s kind of a flawed movie, but it has really beautiful music,” said Islam. “We’ve done a lot of programs together. At this point of our career, we’ve done enough to kind of get an idea of what we like, what we enjoy doing, what our strengths are in terms of music choices. So our free dance includes various kinds of pieces – we’ll be going between genres of music, let’s just put it that way. It’ll be a good compilation of stuff and we’re looking forward to kind of capturing the character of each piece.”
Like many of their previous music selections, “W./E.” is a piece new to ice dance, adding to its appeal for the team.
“I think that Mitch and I are just drawn to music that we haven’t seen skated before,” Paul said. “It allows us to have more freedom with the choreography because you aren’t trying to make it different from someone else who has already skated it, allowing us to really make it our own.”
Along with new music have come new elements. “We’ve been working a lot on new lifts this summer,” said Paul. “We’ve been training with one of the pairs coaches at DSC [Sergey Petrovskiy], really focusing on lifts every day.”
In the midst of the new, however, the team will rely as usual on a costume designer they’ve worked with since their time at Mariposa — Denis Pizzacalla, who counts among his creations Tessa Virtue’s 2010 Olympic free dance dress.
“He’s from Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said Paul, “and we’ve been working with him ever since we’ve been skating together, and before that, too. He’s absolutely amazing, and he always creates the best pieces, and everything is so well put-together and just looks beautiful with what he’s done with it.”
The team will debut their new work at August’s Thornhill Summer Skate, an event at which they’ve competed nearly every year of their partnership.
After a full year of training in Detroit since relocating from their previous base at Barrie, Ontario’s Mariposa School of Skating, the couple has settled in nicely.
“There is a typical day at DSC,” said Paul. “We usually start the day around 7:30 in the morning. We skate for an hour-and-a-half, and then we have some time off to go back home and have lunch and rest a bit, and then we have our next session for another hour-and-a-half, which usually will consist of starting to do run-throughs and bigger sections of programs. And then after that we either have a workout class or dance class right now every day.”
“Right now, we’re doing two contemporary classes,” added Islam, with the team likely to switch later to a schedule of both contemporary and ballet. “We’re going to be working with, I believe, Kathy Johnson, Patrick [Chan]’s coach, because she’ll obviously be here. Once she gets out here, I think she’s going to be teaching some contemporary classes, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Working in North America’s largest ice dance facility has been beneficial in some particular respects, as Paul notes the examples others can provide in handling challenge.
“The nature of DSC right now is there’s so many senior teams, and everybody has conflicts on the ice, everybody has some problems,” she said. “No ice dance team is going to be picture-perfect in agreeing on everything. But you kind of just learn from everyday life being at the rink – everybody is struggling with new choreography, and you just kind of watch and learn. You choose what you want to emulate on the ice and you choose what you don’t want to. So it’s great to have so many teams and so much variety.”
As full-time students of the DSC’s ice dance program, the team also participated in this year’s DSC Ice Show, a five-performance revue from June 6-9.
“It was definitely tiring,” laughed Paul. “We needed a day off after that. But it was a lot of fun. It was amazing to have that many shows. It was stressful, but it was a good experience to have.”
“They put on quite a production for these five shows that they do,” Islam continued. “Like Alex said, it was tiring, of course, but we had a lot of fun, and it’s well-organized and it’s well-produced, so we had a ball doing it.”
For the show, the couple performed their exhibition to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” a program that was choreographed in early 2012 by another Mariposa-trained skater with whom both skaters have long been acquainted – Jeff Buttle.
“I think we were the first dance team he worked with, to be honest,” said Paul. “It was definitely challenging at first, I think, because he had to learn a little bit more about partnering, but it was really successful. We went through it pretty quickly and he kind of caught on to the whole dance thing really quickly.”
“Jeff is really brilliant with choreography, so it was a bit of an adjustment for him at first to work with having to do choreography for two people,” said Islam. “But once we got out there, it was a fast process, and we had a bunch of fun putting that together.”
Buttle was involved from the first step.
“He brought the music to us,” said Paul. “He has such great music taste that we asked him what he thought would be a good program for us to skate to, and he found that music, and we just fell in love with it right away. I think it was the only one we really listened to.”
Paul and Islam have also looked to other greats of Canadian skating as a source of inspiration.
“Definitely for both of us I know, for Alex as well, that we really loved watching Marie-France [Dubreuil] and Patrice [Lauzon],” said Islam. “We loved their work. They have some of the most memorable free dances for me and for Alex as well. And obviously growing up watching Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir] has been such a motivator for, I think, anyone in Canada, really. Even though, of course, they’re competitors, you’ve got to kind of look up to them. They’re probably one of the greatest dance teams of all time, so it’s definitely been a pleasure to be in kind of the same era as them, and just to see what they do.”
Like those teams, Paul and Islam embrace the connection in their skating.
“I think we try to draw the audience in,” said Paul. “We mainly focus on the story between us and then want to bring the audience into that. I guess we are projecting something on them as well, but I would say it’s more drawing the audience in for us.”
Islam agreed, adding, “I think that’s kind of an extension of our personalities. We’re not, honestly, the most extroverted people, but definitely the connection we have on the ice is meant to kind of draw people in.”
The team has worked to enhance their projection to an extent. “It’s something we’ve had to work on as a team together,” said Islam, “being a little more extroverted on the ice with our facial expressions and our overall body performance. But at the same time, we’ve held true to the fact that we try to draw people in, and that is naturally what we’re good at. So that’s something we try to harness when we put our programs together and construct them.”
Such shared values and goals have contributed to the strong partnership the team has established. In the process, the connection they’ve developed has not only benefited them on the ice, but has proven an asset as they’ve transitioned into their new life together in Michigan — and the two offered an appreciation for some of each other’s best qualities.
“He can get me out of a bad mood pretty quickly,” said Paul. “He can put me in a bad mood,” she added as Islam laughed, “but he knows how to get me out of a bad mood fairly quickly, which is helpful skating. And it’s very helpful in everyday life, too.”
“And for me,” continued Islam, “obviously, we’re living together here in Bloomfield Hills, and it’s nice to have, you know, a female roommate that you can handle, that you can live with. She’s one of the most reasonable people that I know, and she’s pretty down-to-earth and low-key so she’s super-easy to live with. And that translates onto the ice as well.”
And life in Bloomfield Hills has brought its pros and cons.
“Well, for me,” laughed Paul, “there is one of the best malls in Michigan about 15 minutes from where we live, Somerset Mall, and that hasn’t been the worst thing to happen in the world. So that’s been great for me. But one of the worst things, I would say, is that I’m four hours away from home and so I don’t get to see my family all that often.”
“You know, I’ve been in Barrie my entire life,” said Islam, “and it’s been great to kind of branch out and meet new people and have new relationships with people that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So that’s definitely been one of the positives for me. And obviously, the bad side, like Alex said, is you’re four hours away from your family and your friends and the town you lived in your entire life, so obviously you miss those people.”
But the two have adapted to their new life in other ways.
Sports fan Islam has found an appreciation for Detroit’s major league programs. “I mean, obviously my heart is in Toronto with those sports teams,” he said. “But it’s been cool to come here and have such easy access to the teams. For example, a Toronto Maple Leafs game is a lot more difficult and more expensive to get a ticket to than a Red Wings game, so I’ve definitely been enjoying that, and I’ve totally embraced the sports teams here, and I’m enjoying going to all these different events.”
And Paul has embraced a long-time hobby. “I grew up helping my mom cook,” she said. “For some reason, when I was little, I was always in charge of something to do with dinner and baking, and so I’ve just grown up loving to cook. So I’ve kind of taken that on even more now that I’ve moved away from home, because I have to cook all of my own meals. And I get really happy with myself,” she laughed, “if I make something delicious or something looks pretty, so I like to take pictures of it.”
“It works out for me, too,” added Islam. “How lucky am I to live with her? I get some good meals.”