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Postcards from Detroit: Baldé doesn't hold back

Canadian skater impresses at Skate Detroit with help of lyrics
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Elladj Baldé used music with lyrics in his short program, finishing in first place with the help of music from James Brown that included lyrics. -Getty Images

Belatedly coming to grips with the 21st century, the International Skating Union (ISU) has decreed that single and pairs skaters may use vocal music for their competitive programs. But most figure skating coaches know judges are a conservative lot, and many bold enough to have their pupils perform to lyrics are still tiptoeing around the edges -- recycling ice dance favorites, like Michael Bublé or a bit of Broadway, for fear of blazing too strong a trail.

Not Elladj Baldé. The Canadian showman, who just missed a berth at the Sochi Olympics with his third consecutive fourth-place finish at the 2014 Canadian Championships, gave 2014 Skate Detroit a kick in the keister with an exuberant jolt of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "I Feel Good," created by So You Think You Can Dance champion and showman extraordinaire, Benji Schwimmer.

Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, who coach Baldé at Detroit Skating Club, worked with Schwimmer a few seasons ago when the West Coast swing champion created a memorable short for another of Sato's students, Jeremy Abbott. Fortunately, Schwimmer found time in his packed schedule to visit DSC this spring.

"I knew I wanted to do something Motown, or similarly old school," the 23-year-old Baldé said. "Benji had a brainstorm. He played 'It's a Man's Man's Man's World,' and, right way, it was, 'Yes!'"

The combination of Schwimmer, Baldé and Sato clicked. Schwimmer laid out the concept and steps, while Sato worked on the elements and transitions. Baldé watched videos of "The Godfather of Soul."

"It was two days, and then it was done," the skater said. "It worked right away."

Baldé wasn't letter perfect at Skate Detroit Friday night. He opened with a quad toe, a jump he first landed in competition at Skate Canada last season. He followed that with a solid triple Axel but two-footed an intended triple Lutz and failed to complete a combination. Still, he won the event with 71.46 points.

"The program needs more mileage," Sato said. "This was a good start."

Missing out on Sochi must have stung. The coach has never seen Baldé work harder than this offseason.

"He has been very dedicated," Sato said. "He shows up on time and is ready to go. Even those bad days, he's not ruining his sessions."

Emulating the "hardest-working man in show biz" -- a moniker that Brown, who died in 2006, sported for much of his career -- doesn't come easy.

"My legs were burning at the end -- I was a little tired," Baldé said. "I was going to do this program in Kazakhstan in May, at Denis Ten's show, but I really wasn't ready. It's the kind of program you can do in shows."

Not to mention while wearing his bright blue costume, with its sequined vest and high waisted pinstripe trousers reminiscent of Brown in his prime.

"The designer did an awesome job; I have a great team here," Baldé said. "I'm working with [physical therapist] Britta Ottobani. I have a new cardio plan; I've lost a lot of weight. I feel I'm getting in the best shape of my career."

Douglas Razzano, who placed sixth at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships after a stirring free skate, took second at Skate Detroit with his short to modern flamenco guitar music, earning 70.13 points.

The 25-year-old skater, who trains under Doug Ladret in Scottsdale, fell on his opening quad toe but fully rotated the jump. He turned out of his triple Axel and then finished strong with a fine triple toe-triple toe combination.

"For this early in the season, I'm happy I rotated the quad," Razzano said. "Of course, I still have work to do on the program. I need to nail those jumps."

Roman Sadovsky came in third out of the 12 skaters. The young Canadian coped with two major distractions during his short. Following a double Axel at the start of his program, a suitcase rattled down DSC's bleachers, prompting many to duck for cover. Then, after the teen landed a triple loop-triple toe combination, his music stopped. "Pick it up after the loop," shouted Michael Slipchuk of Skate Canada. Sadovsky did, earning 67.61 points.

Glenn's Summertime hits the spot

U.S. ladies held off several top Canadians to grab the top three spots in the senior short event held late Friday night.

Amber Glenn took top honors with a smooth, powerful performance to George Gershwin's "Summertime," highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop combination that soared across the ice and prompted a string of pluses from the judges.

The U.S. junior champion fought a bit for the landing of the triple Lutz and finished strong with a solid double Axel to earn 61.13 points.  

"I'm kind of a perfectionist -- I have to get that under control," the 14-year-old Glenn said. "There are things I can improve on. I can sell it more, get more comfortable. But it's a great start."

Sticking with the Gershwin classic was a last-minute decision on the part of the Texas skater and her coaching team, which includes Ann Brumbaugh and Ben Shroats.

"I started with a different program -- 'You Raise Me Up' -- but it really didn't suit me," she said. "Maybe, one day when I'm more mature, I can return to it.

"I love the style of 'Summertime.' I'm comfortable with it; I feel I can be aggressive out there."

Glenn opens her international season at the first Junior Grand Prix of the season in Courchevel, France -- some 5,000 feet high in altitude.

"My goal is to make the Junior Grand Prix Final," she said. "I'm looking forward to getting my critique, hearing what the judges think I can do better."

Brumbaugh and Shroats are building up Glenn's stamina.

"We're doing a lot of altitude training, a lot of cardio -- two or maybe three run-throughs a day," Brumbaugh said.

Glenn -- a tall, powerful jumper -- hopes to add the triple Axel to her repertoire.

"We've been working on it a bit, but we decided not to do it during the season [because] we don't want any injuries," she said.

"We're hoping to add it sometime during this next quad [four-year cycle]," Brumbaugh added.

In the meantime, Glenn has plenty of firepower. She plans two triple-triple combinations in her free skate on Saturday: a Lutz-toe and flip-toe.

Hannah Miller impressed with a dynamic program to Stravinsky's Firebird, choreographed by Daniil Barantsev. The Michigan skater is second with 57.97 points.

The speedy skater hit a triple toe-triple toe, with the second jump a shade under-rotated. She followed with a triple Lutz and a solid double Axel.

Miller, who was limited by a right ankle injury last year, stuck with last season's short.

"I've always loved the program, and I didn't get to show it as much as I wanted," she said. "All in all, it's working out really well this season. I'm working on the expression and everything that goes with [the program] in addition to the choreography."

This is the first season Miller is including a triple toe-triple toe in competition.

"It's a jump she couldn't do for the past two seasons due to ankle injuries," the skater's coach and aunt, Kirsten Miller-Zisholz, said.

Miller landed the combination cleanly in winning Skate Milwaukee earlier this month.

Another Texan, Ashley Shin, rounded out the top trio with her short to Paul Anka's "My Way," choreographed by Olga Ganicheva. (The program did not feature the famous Frank Sinatra vocal.) She has 53.61 points.

The powerful skater hit a huge double Axel, as well as a triple flip-triple toe and triple Lutz -- although the Lutz may have had an edge call.

"I'm very happy; it was a great skate," said Aleksey Letov, who coaches the U.S. junior bronze medalist in Dallas.

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