Hawayek, Baker: 'We're focusing on the basics'After regressing last season, dancers set out to fine-tune skating skills
The months after the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were productive for Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, but they weren't very exciting.
"Lots of long days, long hours, not doing anything but drills. It got a bit monotonous," Hawayek said. "We'd ask our coaches, 'Can't we work on new programs? New elements?' They said, 'No, you have to stroke.' They wanted us to show more confidence in the solidity of our skating rather than work on new things."
Ice dancers always strive for more speed and power. But the duo had extra reason to go back to basics: Last season, they slipped from fourth to fifth in the talented U.S. ice dance ranks.
"It was a bit of a wake-up call," Baker admitted.
"After nationals, we talked to officials and got their straightforward feedback on why we were fifth, when we were fourth the year before and when we were aiming to be third," Hawayek said. "It's a lot easier going into a season knowing exactly what they want to see from you rather than have it be a guessing game."
Judges and fans got their first good look at the "new" Hawayek and Baker last week at the Autumn Classic International in Pierrefonds, Quebec, where the fruits of their labor appeared to pay off: They won the silver medal behind a career-best free dance that moved them up from third place after the short.
The couple has already had their share of international success. After winning the 2014 world junior ice dance title, they entered the senior ranks the following season with a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy, a fourth-place finish in the U.S. and a coveted assignment to the Four Continents Championships, where they placed fifth.
"We had really quick success at junior and then solid success at senior, but it's not realistic to expect your career to go perfectly," Baker said. "There were certain things we were focusing on last year we did not need to focus on. This season, we're focusing on the basics."
When you're trying to crack the upper echelon, there's only one way to take constructive criticism: with gratitude.
"It didn't hurt at all," Baker said. "We were thankful [officials] were able to say that to us. Sometimes, they might beat around the bush and say, 'Maybe this, maybe that' rather than be upfront. We got the feedback, and we thought, 'OK, let's work hard on this.'"
Two of their coaches at the Detroit Skating Club, Angelika Krylova and Natalia Annenko Deller, acted as drill sergeants during the offseason, inviting guest coaches to come in and deliver opinions. They worked for four to five hours each day, while many of their rink mates were polishing their programs for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships.
When the time came to choreograph a new free dance, the team stuck with its back-to-basics approach, collaborating with coach Pasquale Camerlengo on Franz Liszt's "Liebestraum."
"One of the big things people told us last season was that our free dance (set to the soundtrack from The Theory of Everything) was theatrical," Hawayek said. "Which is fine, we loved it. People that understood it loved it as well, but the ones who didn't understand it said we were so invested in it ourselves, (that) it was an internal piece. This year, we wanted something people could appreciate as art rather than try so hard to grasp a concept or story."
"'Liebestraum' translates to 'dream of love,' and that's the basic concept we're going with," she continued. "Ultimately, we're just going with the goal of skating it like a dream -- very ethereal, very light. We're going for pure skating."
Their short dance, to Flo Rida's "How I Feel" and Michael Bublé's "Feeling Good," benefited from Hawayek's expertise in hip hop.
"She's good at it, she studies a lot of videos, and she has a lot of insight," Baker said. "Pasquale had excellent contributions, and we also worked with Benji Schwimmer and Serge Onik, who works with a lot of teams in the (Detroit) area."
They first put their programs to the test at the Dance Chicago Championships in Geneva, Illinois, in August, winning both the short dance and free dance over 11 other U.S. and international teams. They incorporated feedback from that competition, and U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp, into their programs before heading to Quebec, and have time to make more adjustments before their first Grand Prix assignment, Skate Canada.
"It's a plus getting our programs out earlier this season in a competition environment," Hawayek said. "I think last year we waited too long to compete. Our programs feel well conditioned for this point of the season and, so far, we've gotten positive feedback from judges. We're excited to see where the programs can progress from here."