Ice Network

Shibutanis set new U.S. standard in short dance

Top four finishers all focused on getting the most out of their programs
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Reigning U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani arrived in Kansas City as the team to beat, and after registering a score of 82.42 for their Frank Sinatra/Jay-Z short -- the highest total ever awarded at the U.S. championships -- the brother-sister tandem sits atop the field. -Jay Adeff

Three words describe the short dances at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday night: fierce, fiercer and fiercest.

The country's top ice dance couples -- Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue -- hit the Sprint Center firing on all cylinders, amping up their energy from earlier in the season and earning stratospheric scores.

The Shibutanis' Frank Sinatra/Jay-Z mash-up of blues and hip hop came out on top, earning a U.S.-record 82.42 points for its electric mix of soul and insouciance. The world silver medalists, winners of the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final last month, looked supremely confident from start to finish. Their complicated steps and arm movements appeared organic yet controlled. Four of their five elements gained Level 4's, including perfectly synchronized twizzles that covered most of the rink.

"In between the Grand Prix Final and this competition, it's been about pushing the boundaries of the program, showing more energy," Alex said. "I don't want it to sound like muscle memory or practice -- it's (about) being in the moment."

"I didn't know it was a record, but as far as performance, it was our strongest short dance so far this season," Maia said.

The program's origins are rooted in many trips from the siblings' home base in Canton, Michigan, to Los Angeles to collaborate with Hokuto "Hok" Konishi, Ryan "Ryanimay" Conferido and other members of the hip hop dance group Quest Crew on movements and music.

"This year, the Shibutanis' programs are taking a lot more responsibility," one of their coaches, Massimo Scali, said. "It's been a beautiful process to watch, seeing them get so detailed and precise. It's a full-time project for them. They're skating with their hearts, not just their technique. They can transfer all of their emotions to the fans and judges."

Marina Zoueva, the Shibutanis' primary coach, credited work done after the Grand Prix Final with improving the performance.

"The program is really growing," she said. "We made some changes [linking] the first and second parts, and some little changes to transitions. Now, the score and everything else is better."

After placing sixth at the Grand Prix Final, Chock and Bates, along with coach Igor Shpilband, retooled their short dance, set to a medley of "Bad to the Bone" and "Uptown Funk." The result is a bit harder-edged, faster and freer. It earned four Level 4 elements and 79.96 points.

"We were trying to do a difficult entrance to the twizzles, which was not going great, not getting rewarded," Bates said. "We switched it, and it was a good change, because our consistency improved, and we can build on this performance for the rest of the season."

Their hip hop choreographer, Rohene Ward, visited the skaters at their Novi, Michigan, training base last month.

"We worked on making things more comfortable," Ward said. "We wanted to keep the program current, keep it evolving. We drilled it over and over again, pushing past the point of comfort. They're taking on the characters and really engraining this kind of style, pushing themselves as artists."

From their blues, set to Nina Simone's powerhouse "Feeling Good," through the gyrations to their hip hop medley, including "Can't Touch This" and "Ice Ice Baby," Hubbell and Donohue oozed confidence and sex appeal. They were the only team to gain all Level 4 elements, and their 79.72 points included the event's second-highest technical element score.

They, too, made changes after placing fifth at the Grand Prix Final, removing one hip hop song and focusing on a "more retro feeling."

"We started (the season) with a huge goal, (to skate to) a mash-up of nine songs," Hubbell said. "We wanted to do something really authentic. We feel more and more confident with it; audiences are responding, and so are the judges."

Patrice Lauzon, who trains Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal, credited extra training time.

"At the beginning of the season, doing that program, they were very tired; it was hard to perform all of the levels and all of the artistic," Lauzon said. "Now they are starting to do it to its potential. We're still working on it."

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker's entertaining routine to blues and hip hop versions of "Feeling Good" was not far behind the top teams in terms of performance quality. Their blues section was skated with deep edges; their hip hop section had big movements and good speed, and they earned 72.60 points.

"Something we've worked on this year is not holding back, really performing from the very beginning of the program to the end," Hawayek said. "There were things that could have been better, but in general, we're really pleased."

The couple, who were disappointed with their fifth-place showing in the U.S. last season, appear to be on the upswing.

"Last year was hard, with my concussion in September, and it was a learning season for us," Baker said. "We trained hard, but we took a little bit for granted, and a few injuries didn't help. Now we're focused on each other and pushing ourselves mentally and physically, and seeing what can happen."