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Springs snips: Ballas lends Latin flair to Shibs

Davis, White try a little tenderness; Hubbell, Donohue target world top 10

The Shibutanis worked with professional champion Corky Ballas to enhance their Latin short dance.
The Shibutanis worked with professional champion Corky Ballas to enhance their Latin short dance. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/11/2012) - When Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani won raves for their new-and-improved Latin short dance at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the world ice dancing bronze medalists gave credit not only to their coaches, Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, but to Corky Ballas, the five-time U.S. National Professional Latin champion who partnered with Cloris Leachman and Florence Henderson on Dancing with the Stars.

"Right after the [2011] worlds, we went to Los Angeles and did a lot of boot-camp-style Latin training with him," Alex said. "He kept up with our performances as the season went on. We went to him after the Grand Prix Final for kind of a breath of fresh air.

"We feel more comfortable with the Latin style now because of all the work we did with Corky. It's a much stronger vehicle for us."

Ballas taught many of today's top ballroom dancers, including DWTS pros Mark Ballas (his son), siblings Julianne Hough and Derek Hough, Karina Smirnoff, and others. Some years ago, he worked with ice dancing greats Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

"I explained the origin of these dances to Maia and Alex and told them body tone translates emotion into visible form," Ballas said.

"That's what is at the root of all kinds of art: body tone. The way an artist presses brushstrokes against a canvas, or an actor's facial expressions delivering lines, or the tension of a woman pressing her arm during a dance. It's not just the steps; it's the tension, the rhythm, the thought."

Ballas worked on the siblings' dance technique, so their on-ice Rumba and Samba movements would capture even more Latin feeling.

"We focused a lot on the flow," he said. "At the end of the day, movement is movement. It may be more taxing on the ice, on those blades, than it is on the wood [floor], but there are things you can do on the ice that you can't do on the wood."

There's a lot of discussion in figure skating about the challenges sibling ice dance teams face to stay "appropriate," but Ballas has little patience for such talk.

"We have a lot of brother-and-sister teams in the Latin world, including two of the top-rated amateur teams," he said. "I tell them, 'That's not your brother out there, that's not your sister.' If you're an actor, and they tell you to play a frog, you play a frog. If they tell you you're a villain, you're a villain.

"How about girlfriend and boyfriend teams? They go out and dance when they're [...] off at each other and cursing each other out. I know, I used to do the same thing. I danced with my [former] wife, [Shirley Ballas], for 20 years. It's a living hell dancing with your wife."

At the end of the day, Ballas thinks sibling teams may even have an advantage.

"It's a little easier, because you can just say, 'That's my dumb sister' or 'That's my stupid brother,' and you have to forgive them because they're family," he said. "My wife and I lasted for 20 years, but the bottom line is we didn't last."

Of course, there are a wide range of choreographic solutions.

"I didn't give them movements that were too suggestive that way," Ballas said. "There are many movements you can give, and each movement still expresses something."

The Shibiutanis embraced the challenge and are thrilled with the result.

"We're using 'Girl from Ipanema' for our second section now, and the 'Samba de Janiero,' which has a fun, Brazilian feel to it," Maia said of their new music choices. "Corky was able to infuse some Latin movements [into the dance] that really help us get through the program and really make the difference."

Ballas, in turn, has nothing but praise for his pupils.

"Their work ethic reminds me of my kids [Mark and the Houghs] -- it's amazing," he said. "But the thing I love about them the most is they are so polite. You very rarely meet polite people anymore. They're sweet and considerate, which makes time fly when you're working."

Adding some longing gazes to Die Fledermaus

Since debuting their Die Fledermaus free dance at Skate America in October, world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White have made few big changes to choreography, focusing more on the nuances of the program.

"We're still really working on the relationship between us, holding the moments, looking at each other just a little bit longer so it's more obvious," White said. "Because the music can be so one thing to the next and a lot of it is very exact, we want to make sure that we don't look at each other for one beat, then look away for the next beat, and just show more of the relationship."

"It's a really formal piece, and that was our approach at the beginning of the season," Davis said. "As the season has gone on, we've really tried to add those moments of interpersonal relationship and moments of tenderness that don't necessarily go along with the dance of that era."

So what do their significant others think of those longing gazes?

"I think, actually, we're lucky," said White, who is in a long-term relationship with five-time U.S. ice dance champion Tanith Belbin. "When you have a significant other who has been in skating, they understand the acting part of it.

"I guess I've never dated anyone who wasn't a skater, so I've never had the problem of trying to explain it to anyone, but I feel like I've heard stories about it being a little bit of an issue."

"We've been skating together since we were 9, so it's been a comfortable relationship with everyone," Davis said.

Hubbell, Donohue target top 10

Since teaming up at the Detroit Skating Club last spring, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have made quite the splash, winning the Nebelhorn Trophy, gaining a spot at Skate America and taking the bronze medal -- and third U.S. ice dancing slot for the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice -- at the U.S. championships.

"We were hoping for it," Donohue, 21, said. "We've worked ourselves as hard as possible, and it's a relief to know it's paying off.

"For the rest of the season, we'd like to improve on every performance rather than focus on standings. We understand there is a pecking order. We're content and thrilled we are going to Nice."

Like many other teams, they're targeting the levels of the Rumba sequences in their Latin short dance.

"At nationals, we had a slip in [one of] our Rumba sequences and got a Level 1, which is awful," Hubbell, 20, said. "We took a look at what the judges wanted, and our coaches got some feedback from the panel there."

Once in Nice, the young team hopes to finish its first season together on a high note.

"It's already a lofty goal to even go to worlds," Hubbell said. "We would love to finish in the top 10, but if we skate well, wherever the chips fall, we'll be happy."