Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships Recap: All Aboard the Rhumba Train

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter perform their free dance.
Photo via ice-dance.com.

Skating fans are used to busy weekends, especially in the era of live streams and YouTube. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a weekend in July so crammed with skating, though. Between July 27 and 30, fans had to choose among the Glacier Falls Classic, a high-profile American club competition; a South Korean test event that determined assignments to the Junior Grand Prix and Olympics qualifiers; and Minto Summer Skate, a Canadian pre-season event with an impressive roster, especially in men’s singles. I’m working my way through videos of those events, and if I get through them before the Challenger Series begins, you can count me as one very determined and sleep-deprived skating fan.

What kept me away from that wealth of attractive choices was my favorite summer skating event, the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. Why do I love it so much? For one thing, as the name implies, it’s nothing but ice dance. That makes it a more manageable and focused event than most, and it gives me a chance, early in the summer, to hone my eye for pattern dance checkpoints and clever attempts to respond to ice dance’s ever-changing rules. For the past few years, it’s featured the most competitive ice dance fields of the pre-season, making the Challenger Series look like the bush league in comparison. This year was stronger than ever before, not only because the international portion of the event is drawing more and more prestigious competitors from abroad, but because there are so many incredible American teams. It’s a USFSA test event in an Olympic year, in the United States’ most stacked discipline, and everyone was trying to rhumba their way into the national federation’s good graces. Before last weekend, the reigning top three American teams looked like they had their tickets to Pyeongchang booked, but several young teams brought skills and scores that could make American ice dance far more interesting than expected. Meanwhile, the top juniors proved that the four-year cycle to come will be both crowded and unpredictable. And that’s just the Americans; there were plenty of strong statements from the international competitors as well, including a Russian surprise.

I’m just covering the most notable routines in this post, but I live tweeted the heck out of this thing. If you missed it and now want my mostly accurate play by play (with brief digressions about laundry and Cabaret), I Storified the whole thing.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit weren’t the first to skate, but their short dance is a useful example of where I see the required Latin themes going this season. My knowledge of Latin ballroom dance is 10% classes I took in junior high and 90% devoted So You Think You Can Dance viewership, but apparently, that puts me ahead of a fair number of ice dance coaches. Throughout the weekend, teams with lovely, lyrical styles proceeded stiffly through their Rhumba patterns, either struggling with or not bothering with the hip and butt movements that make Latin dance look Latin. I wouldn’t have pegged Pogrebinsky and Benoit for Salsa King and Queen, but their musical interpretation was among the best of the weekend. It helps that Benoit is an un-self-conscious showman, and that Pogrebinsky moves with a natural shimmy. They skated like they’d been paying attention in dance class, picking up the nuances of posture and timing, but also like they’ve embraced the style. At this point in the season, their performance quality is way ahead of their technical precision, though. The judges rightly docked them on both levels and grades of execution for their pattern dance and step sequences: they often drifted from their intended edges, and their free legs didn’t always match. Their curve lift, however, is magnificent, a floating spiral that has the makings of a signature move.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter are definitely back. Eagle-eyed ice dance fans knew it after their pattern dance, which they executed perfectly – they were the only senior team to earn a level 4 – and with stunning speed and ice coverage. I was initially perplexed that they lost a level for what looked like a spectacular pass of twizzles, although they might need one more position to earn full credit. That, plus a little slide out of line on the second set, took away from what is normally one of their strongest elements. They didn’t even try for traditional Latin ballroom, but they were loose and engaged, a variation that worked for me. The judges, however, weren’t as enthusiastic, and placed them a few tenths of a point below both Parsons & Parsons and Pogrebinsky & Benoit in components. The gap wasn’t huge, but it suggests that their unconventional style might hinder them this season, especially since judges are often disinclined to reward first-year seniors for artistry. Their chemistry has always come off more as intense friendship than smoldering romance, and they’d be wise to figure out how to adapt that to the Rhumba before autumn rolls around.

As a sibling team, Rachel and Michael Parsons have a tougher row to hoe than most of their competitors this season. It’s hard to stay on the right side of the line between sassy and creepy, but Rachel in particular is an expert at conveying sex appeal without looking like she’s directing it at her brother. She’s like a girl at a family wedding who dances with her brother to get the groomsmen’s attention. I’m also a fan of their unusual middle section, which features a blues-rock song that happens to have a Rhumba beat; I wish they’d matched it with a similar song for their beginning and end, since there’s a bit of a disconnect between their music selections. Michael’s unfortunate stumble and tumble during their non-touching step sequence took away from the overall effect of the program, but their twizzles at the end were perfect. The transition to their final spinning motion – one of the weekend’s most authentic Latin ballroom moves – is the kind of ending that judges remember, and it will be rewarded even more handsomely when they skate this clean.

This video contains the entire first warm-up group; Carreira and Ponomarenko are first to skate.

For my money, the most successful Latin ballroom number of the weekend was in juniors. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were the first to skate in a large junior field, and nobody else came close to their score – or their energy level. During their step sequences, Ponomarenko did most of the heavy shimmying, but Carreira’s in-character choreography during their lift was a delight. Latin dance styles look better if you’re willing to stick out your butt and arch your back, and Carreira and Ponomarenko committed to those curvy body shapes. Their height probably helps them here; their lines stay long and elegant when they stick their chests out. They also whipped through one of the best twizzle passes all day, maintaining strong edge control and synchronization through difficult positions. They’re practically guaranteed the junior title at Nationals this winter, and if they keep skating like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone keeping up with them internationally, either.

The junior events were strong overall, and also interminable. Lake Placid features both an international competition and a club competition; both American and foreign competitors are permitted in both, and the difference lies mostly in how the scores figure into international records and federation monitoring. In other words, it’s a meaningful distinction for skaters and coaches, but not so much for spectators. Only three senior teams participated in the club competition, but the field was far deeper for juniors, since they don’t have an Olympic Games on the line. I’m skipping a number of strong junior performances, particularly those by Caroline & Gordon Green and by Avonley Nguyen & Vadym Kolesnik, because the United States is simply awash in up-and-coming teams.

The star Americans of the club competition were Chloe Lewis and Logan Bye – or, at least, they were supposed to be. But neither of their programs have made it to YouTube, and a week after the fact, I realize that I can hardly remember them. Eliana Gropman and Ian Somerville made a bigger artistic impact with a flamenco free dance that seems designed to convince the judges that these two have grown up a lot. Somerville no longer looks like a little boy with man-sized upper body strength, and Gropman’s flirtatiousness feels age-appropriate. Their edges and speed aren’t where they need to be, especially in such a deep domestic junior field. Their lifts are extraordinary, though, and they have an easygoing, appealing chemistry. Gropman and Somerville practically tied Lewis and Bye in the free dance, and only Carreira and Ponomarenko earned a higher score in the international division. That places them more solidly in the hunt for a junior medal at Nationals than I would have predicted, and strongly in the conversation at the Junior Grand Prix as well.

The other stars of the junior club competition were a surprise Russian entry. Someone on Twitter tipped me off to their presence, and after checking the roster for the international event, I said they must have been mistaken. But Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov appeared, as rumored, and they brought their tutu. While it was thematically appropriate for a Black Swan routine, it became a visual distraction and prevented them from executing close dance holds. When I managed to stop looking at Polishchuk’s costume, however, their performance was impressive, like a miniature Russian ballet on ice. I wanted more speed in their steps but couldn’t argue with their precision or edge depth. Their twizzles gained speed as they went, and the arm variations both suited the music and increased their difficulty. They outscored every junior team in the free dance, across both divisions, except Carreira and Ponomarenko, which is good news for those who want to see Russia have a prayer against the American ice dance juggernaut.

At the international event, nobody came close to the caliber of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. Only three senior teams beat their overall score, and that’s despite fewer required elements in the junior free dance and lower potential scoring value in the junior short – and despite a mistake in their final pose that counted as a fall. Up until those last seconds, this was nearly perfect. Their twizzles, in particular, were extraordinary, moving from one difficult position to the next while maintaining uncanny synchronization. They also got an impressive amount of interpretive mileage out of this music, although I hope they don’t make a career out of breathing life into bland, heavy selections that suck all the youthful energy out of them. Choices like this make it harder for them to showcase their emotional versatility and amazing speed.

The senior international competition reflected an equally deep American field at the top level, especially since four of the top five finishers at 2017 Nationals didn’t participate. That makes it hard to guess how the younger teams in attendance will stack up against the veterans, although scores like these – especially in July and with significant technical errors – signify the possibility of big shake-ups in the established order. Lake Placid was also a reminder of the tough road for teams like Karina Manta & Joe Johnson and Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge, who finished far ahead of most of the non-American field. They’d be stars in almost any other country, but as long as they represent the United States, they’ll struggle even to secure international assignments.

Manta and Johnson got a lot of love from fans last weekend, and it’s about time. They finished a respectable fifth overall, with scores that would easily put them in the top 20 at a World Championships, and yet significantly behind at least half a dozen of their fellow Americans. Their technical deficiencies are clear in comparison with the top teams: they’re slower, with more limited transitions, and their steps lack the precision and momentum that the very best ice dancers achieve. But if Manta and Johnson came from anywhere else, they’d have a lot more visibility and opportunity. As tired as I am of Moulin Rouge, I can admit they brought some freshness to it, along with a warm and natural chemistry. The judges agreed, awarding them relatively high components scores in both programs. That’s a great sign for them, along with high marks for interesting lifts that make their short stature look like an advantage.

Teams from abroad didn’t make much of a mark at the senior level, at least in terms of their scores, but it was fun to see how several young teams from small federations are progressing. Nicole Kuzmich and Alexandr Sinicyn, who represent the Czech Republic, caught my eye during last season’s Junior Grand Prix with their quirky flair. The judges aren’t always on board with their performance style, and their components scores were all over the map, with marks for Interpretation ranging from a respectable 7.00 to a downright nasty 5.50. As a devotee of Kander & Ebb, I’m offended, because Kuzmich and Sinicyn’s choreography captures the ugly magic of recent Cabaret revivals. Like Manta and Johnson, their strengths are big lifts and big personalities, and their step sequences tend to drag. They’re the kind of team that makes me wish I knew less about ice dance, so I could stop grumbling about levels and just enjoy them.

The only non-American team to threaten the top of the senior ranks was German duo Katharina Müller and Tim Dieck, and they also win my award for most improved since last season. Their flow across the ice is lovely, and they’ve figured out how to maintain speed through their steps and transitions. They’ve also developed a dance spin and a twizzle sequence that show off their lines and core strength. But what I’m most excited about is that they’ve finally given me the Whitney Houston number I’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to think of a ’90s movie more ripe for an ice dance tribute than The Bodyguard, and they’ve nailed the mood and story. I wanted to see more fire from them in the faster sections, and they seemed to get lost in their upgraded lifts. If they can iron out the kinks, though, they have a shot at an unexpected trip to the Olympics.

You know I’m all about keeping ice dance weird, but I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the Parsons’ free dance theme this season. Chilean folk music is about as far out of my musical wheelhouse as one can go, so part of it is just a distaste for the unfamiliar. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here, to fully blend in the character of the folk dance traditions that go along with this music, or to more directly address the tragic history that coincided with the Nueva Canción Chilena movement. (I knew nothing about this until I looked up their music, but here’s a brief explanation of how Latin American folk music revivals intersected with politics in the ’60s and ’70s, and here’s some information on Victor Jara specifically.) I can’t expect ice dance to provide us all with valuable lectures on 20th-century South American history, but I can spend three sentences grumbling about divorcing music from its cultural context.

Technically, the Parsons siblings were exceptional in the free dance. They have amazing control in their turns; their twizzles seemed to stop time, because they glided during the transitions rather than moving frantically to maintain their speed. The choreographic lift at the end of this program is likely to remain one of my favorite ice dance moves of the season, not only because it makes such a beautiful shape on the ice, but also because it requires so much strength from both skaters. And as usual, Parsons and Parsons express the unique emotions of a sibling bond in a way that’s endearing and familiar to anyone who’s close with a brother or sister.

Pogrebinsky and Benoit’s free dance was almost too rough and unready to assess fairly. It’s one of those programs where the second viewing brings out all the little problems: the places where they struggled to maintain unison or shuffled out of a difficult element instead of making a clean transition. Of course, the big disaster struck near the end, when they fumbled the entrance to their planned straight line lift and had to scrap the entire element. The program has good bones, though. It’s refreshingly upbeat, with lots of emotional range, and it gives them all kinds of opportunities to skate close together and show off the full range of their flexible cores and long legs. One of my favorite things about it is how much of the performance work it loads onto Benoit, whose bold on-ice personality should never be wasted. He gets to chase after Pogrebinsky like an eager puppy. Conservative ice dance judges don’t always take to programs that let the male partner shine this much, but maybe Pogrebinsky’s red dress will distract them. In any case, it’s promising that they scored as high as they did despite losing all credit for a high-value lift, and this seems destined to become a very cool program once it’s debugged.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were the team I was most worried about, coming into the event. Literally unbeatable during their 2015-16 junior season, they looked like shadows of their former selves a year later. Even if they hadn’t spent a season burning off a lot of their good will with the judges, I would have had reservations: their quirky, sinister style differentiated them from the pack in juniors, but I feared that senior-level judges might interpret it as immature or too narrow. This must have occurred to McNamara, Carpenter, and their coaches, because they centered their free dance around a classic ice dance theme. McNamara and Carpenter have done brilliant work with reinvented classics before – their 2015-16 free dance was the most innovative Carmen in at least a decade – and they’ve brought a similar originality to the tango.

The team’s chemistry has always been intense, but never exactly romantic. At their best, they approach that chemistry as a strength rather than a liability, and that’s definitely what’s going on here. They’re like a pair of rival assassins, each waiting for the other to let down their guard so they can slip the knife in. Last weekend, they never wavered from that narrative, even as they showcased a full set of lift upgrades. Their twizzles blended into the music so naturally, they felt more like a choreographic move than one of the most challenging technical elements of the program. McNamara and Carpenter’s lack of senior-level experience did show through their step sequences, though. They left points on the table with rushed and unsynchronized steps and turns. Lifts and twizzles are the signature elements of ice dance, but step sequences bring the big points. Nonetheless, not many teams are capable of crossing the 100-point threshold in the free dance in midsummer, or posting an overall score that would have had them knocking on a top ten finish at the most recent World Championships. In that context, it’s almost better that they have obvious areas where they need to grow. They can only move up from here.


Next on The Finer Sports: a round-up of notable performances from other recent skating events, and maybe a brief digression into Broadway divas.

2017 US Nationals Field Guide: Championship Ice Dance

The United States has the strongest ice dance program in the world. Even the Just Happy to Be Here contingent is terrific.

Maia and Alex Shibutani in the short dance at the 2016 Grand Prix Final.

It’s part four of my US Nationals preview, and we’ve finally graduated to the senior level! Yes, that means I’m skipping pairs, partially because pairs are the first to go when I’m short on time, and partially because my opinions on pairs are not actually worth a hill of beans. If you’re interested in catching up on juniors – and you should be – go check out my other 2017 field guides:

  • Junior Ice Dance, featuring a deeper field than you’ll probably see at Euros and a genuine race for gold
  • Junior Men, where the top contender will try to land a quad loop
  • Junior Ladies, with a ridiculous amount of pint-size talent, an update to reflect a last-minute withdrawal and replacement, and an explanation of the four-point scale I’m using in all my field guides

Now, onward to championship ice dance. I went easy on the juniors, but I pull fewer punches when assessing senior skaters: there’s more at stake, and they’re old enough that they can take it. And since we’re looking at a field in which the majority of competitors are legitimately world-class, the only way to explain the difference between great and extraordinary is with merciless nitpicking.

The wonderful problem is, for a combination of reasons that really do make sense but would take an entire long blog post to explain, the United States has the strongest ice dance program in the world. There are teams from other countries that can and do beat the Americans – it’s not like women’s artistic gymnastics over here – but no other nation has as many excellent dance teams as the USA. Watching Russian Nationals a couple of weeks ago, it blew me away how precipitously the quality of skating dropped after the top few teams. The high expectations for ice dance achievement in America seem to have thinned the herd: only 11 teams have entered this year, and 7 of those teams are so accomplished that they didn’t have to qualify through Sectionals. Even the Just Happy to Be Here contingent is terrific. Here’s the lowdown on the field, with equal time given to the JHBH squad and the two sets of reigning World Championships medalists.

Julia Biechler & Damian Dodge

The Basics: Biechler is 18 years old, and Dodge is 22. They train in Philadelphia with Natalia Linichuk. Biechler represents the Skating Club of Wilmington in Delaware, and Dodge represents the Peninsula Skating Club in San Jose. They’ve been skating together since 2012. Dodge previously skated with Cassandra Jeandell, and Biechler’s former partner is Alexander Petrov.

Season So Far: Biechler and Dodge had a so-so outing at the Lake Placid International Championships, placing 5th overall. The story was similar at Dance Chicago, where they finished 4th. Strong junior-level results last season earned them an assignment to a Challenger Series event, the Lombardia Trophy, where they struggled with levels on their step sequences and finished 4th. In the two months between that event and Eastern Sectionals, Biechler and Dodge appear to have used their training time wisely, because they posted excellent scores there, setting across-the-board career bests and winning gold in a two-team field.

Outlook for Nationals: I’m glad Biechler and Dodge’s names put them first in my preview, because they’re one of the best illustrations of the current American talent glut. In terms of scores and results, they’re maybe the 7th-best ice dance team in the United States, but they’re good enough that they could have held their own at a Grand Prix event. Their step sequence levels are a perennial problem – they can never quite get to level 4 – and they don’t present the intricate connecting moves that the top teams are capable of. Their lyrical free dance, to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” is one of my favorites of the season, but I feel like I’m still waiting for them to skate it to its full potential. It’s only their first year as seniors, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re On the Rise, although they’ll rise a lot higher if they can find some other country to skate for.

Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus

The Basics: Cannuscio is 24 years old, and McManus is 26. They have skated together since 2008, although they both had other partners before teaming up: Dean Copely for Cannuscio, Kate McDermott for McManus. They train with Karen Ludington and Christie Moxley-Hutson in Delaware. Cannuscio belongs to the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club, and McManus to the Skating Club of Boston.

Season So Far: Like the rest of last season’s National medalists in ice dance, Cannuscio and McManus skipped the club competition circuit and began their season with a Challenger Series event, the Ondrej Nepela Memorial. They finished a lukewarm 7th. Their experiences and their scores at their two Grand Prix assignments were similar, with placements near the bottom of the ranks at both Cup of China (7th) and NHK Trophy (8th).

Outlook for Nationals: After their surprise pewter medal at 2016 Nationals, Cannuscio and McManus unfortunately have nowhere to go but down. The good news is that they’re consistent, posting similar scores at almost every meet. The bad news is, those scores haven’t risen appreciably since last year, and pretty much everyone else in America is upgrading like their lives depend on it. Cannuscio and McManus skate with tremendous speed, but not always with precision, which knocks down both their step sequence levels and their components scores. Still, the problem is not really with Cannuscio and McManus themselves. The two first-year senior teams are already ahead of them, and Hawayek and Baker are unlikely to screw up as badly as they did in 2016. As a result, Cannuscio and McManus are Just Happy to Be Here this time, and it will be a surprise if their free dance even makes it to the NBC broadcast.

Madison Chock & Evan Bates

The Basics: Chock is 24, and Bates is 27. They teamed up in 2011, having both achieved substantial success with previous partners: Bates with Emily Samuelson, and Chock with Greg Zuerlein. Chock represents the All Year Figure Skating Club in the Los Angeles area, and Bates belongs to the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club in Michigan. They train in the Detroit area with Igor Shpilband.

Season So Far: Coming off two consecutive World Championship medals – silver in 2015 and bronze in 2016 – Chock and Bates have been losing high-profile competitions all autumn long. They earned their first two silver medals on the Challenger Series circuit, losing to Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte at the Nebelhorn Trophy and to Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial. At their first Grand Prix assignment, Skate Canada, they performed a stunning first-place free dance, but the unstoppable Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir beat them overall. Chock and Bates faced Bobrova and Soloviev again at the Rostelecom Cup, and they won the short dance but fizzled in the free. The real disaster, however, occurred at the Grand Prix Final, where Chock fell in the short dance and consigned them to last place, ensuring that they’ve been beaten at least once by every top team in the world, including fellow Americans Shibutani/Shibutani and Hubbell/Donohue.

Outlook for Nationals: Now that I’ve painted Chock and Bates’ season in the worst possible light, I’m going to put things another way. For one thing, they’re good enough to have stood on the podium at Worlds for the past two years, a distinction that no other American team can claim. For another, they’re the 2015 National Champions, and although they lost to Maia and Alex Shibutani last year, it was very close – Chock and Bates won the short program. They’ve implemented notable upgrades to their lifts and dance spin, and they’re hitting the checkpoints in their pattern dances like never before. But their most valuable weapons are their programs this season. In their short dance, they feel the hip hop rhythm like few teams do – Bates is a fan of the genre to begin with – and their free dance, to a remix of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” is ballsy and sharp, a standout in a season with a lot of safe, same-y free dances. Even Tumblr is kind of in love with them these days. They are unquestionable Front Runners with a very plausible chance of reclaiming gold.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker

The Basics: Hawayek is 20 years old, and Baker is 23. They’ve been skating together since 2012. Hawayek’s previous partner was Michael Bramante, and Baker’s was Joylyn Yang. They train in Detroit with Pasquale Camerlengo. She’s a member of the Detroit Skating Club, and he represents the Seattle Skating Club.

Season So Far: Hawayek and Baker’s season debut was pretty much the reason I drove out to Dance Chicago, and they didn’t disappoint, winning decisively. They went on to strong results on the larger stages of their Challenger Series events, earning silver medals at both the Autumn Classic International and Golden Spin, and achieving a full set of new career-best scores at the latter. They were good but not great at the Grand Prix, settling for 6th in a stacked field at Skate Canada and squeaking into 4th place with a great free dance at the NHK Trophy.

Outlook for Nationals: In 2014-15, when Hawayek and Baker won a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy and finished 4th at Nationals in their first senior season, they seemed poised for a swift, brutal takeover of American ice dance. Two years later, having weathered injuries, illness, and the insidious “wait your turn” mentality that hasn’t been eradicated from ice dance yet, they remain a team on the verge of greatness. Their performance at Golden Spin, in particular, proved they are very much in the conversation, and their “Liebestraum” free dance is an understated pleasure, even if it’s kind of the same thing they’ve been doing for years. They have everything they need to fight their way back onto the podium, from spectacular upgraded twizzles to an increasingly natural, mature on-ice connection. Hawayek and Baker are the very definition of Dark Horses, equally capable of contending for a medal and of blowing it completely.

Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue

The Basics: Hubbell is 25 years old, and Donohue is 26. They’ve been a team since 2011. Before that, Hubbell skated with her brother, Keiffer, and Donohue skated with a number of partners, including Piper Gilles and Alissandra Aronow. Both are members of the Lansing Skating Club in Michigan and train with Patrice Lauzon and Marie-France Dubrueil in Montreal.

Season So Far: Here’s what it’s like being the third-best ice dance team in the United States. You win your first Challenger Series event, the U.S. International Classic, only to have fans dismiss it as the result of a weak field. You slip into 2nd place at the Finlandia Trophy, a little below your best. Then, as if out for revenge, you snag silver at both of your Grand Prix events, beating top Russians Bobrova and Soloviev at Skate America and rival Canadians Gilles and Poirier at Trophée de France. This qualifies you for the Grand Prix Final, where you achieve the 5th place finish most people were expecting, except that it’s ahead of Chock and Bates, and with a career-best overall score.

Outlook for Nationals: Hubbell and Donohue have had a stupendous season by any measure. The problem is, they’re just far enough behind the two top teams that it will take a miracle for them to place higher than 3rd. They’ve also saddled themselves with a couple of weird programs, pasted-together medleys that don’t cohere artistically. The judges seem more okay with these music choices than I am, but they nonetheless give Hubbell and Donohue an uphill battle in terms of expression and performance. They’re admirably game about it, though, and powerful lifts and twizzles give them a technical edge. If any Dark Horses are capable of pulling an upset, it’s these two, but it won’t come easy.

Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson

The Basics: Manta is 20 years old, and Johnson is 22. They teamed up in 2014, having previously skated with Jonathan Thompson and Tory Patsis, respectively. Manta represents the Coyotes Skating Club of Arizona, and Johnson belongs to the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs. They train in Colorado Springs with Patti Gottwein.

Season So Far: Manta and Johnson honed their programs at several summer club competitions. At the Lake Placid International Championships, they recovered from a so-so short dance with a terrific free dance; they placed 6th, but they were only 0.15 points out of 4th place. Against a similar field at Dance Chicago, they finished 5th. At their sole international assignment, the U. S. International Classic, they were 5th again, and once again they gained ground with a terrific free dance. They were the only entry in senior ice dance at Midwestern Sectionals, but they skated like their future depended on it, setting a new career-best total score and picking up strong marks in components.

Outlook for Nationals: Manta and Johnson are another team that most other countries in the world would be proud to adopt as their own: they’d probably rank higher at a Four Continents Championships than they will at U. S. Nationals. They’re a fun team to watch, full of energy, with a different approach to technical elements like lifts and spins than most American teams. But they have a tough time getting above a level 2 on their step sequences and pattern dances, and that places them at an almost insurmountable technical disadvantage. They’ll be awfully lucky to repeat last year’s 7th-place finish, which makes them Just Happy to Be Here even though they’re capable of pulling off a surprise.

Charlotte Maxwell & Ryan Devereaux

The Basics: Maxwell and Devereaux are both 27 years old. They began skating together in 2014; Maxwell had previously teamed with Nick Traxler, and Devereaux with Shannon Wingle. She represents the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Michigan, and he the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club. They’re coached by Marina Zoueva in the Detroit area.

Season So Far: Maxwell and Devereaux appeared at almost every club competition that included ice dance. They looked great early on at the Chesapeake Open, beating their previous career best scores and, just as importantly, winning. Facing a much tougher field at the Lake Placid International Championships, Maxwell and Devereaux had a rough weekend, finishing only 9th after problems in their free dance. Their scores recuperated at Dance Chicago, with one of the strongest artistic performances of the free dance, but it was still only enough for 6th place. Relaxed and uncontested at the Philadelphia Challenge Cup, they posted their best scores of the season. Unfortunately, they couldn’t repeat that success at their first major international assignment as a team, the Warsaw Cup, where they started strong but made small, crucial mistakes in their last few technical elements. They placed 6th, near the bottom.

Outlook for Nationals: Maxwell and Devereaux aren’t going to place particularly high – they just don’t have the speed or intricacy – but they’ll be a joy to watch. Devereaux is one of the most nuanced actors in ice dance, and Maxwell keeps pace with him emotionally. It’s hard to imagine another team that could turn a medley of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” into an engaging narrative of doomed love. They’re Just Happy to Be Here, and I’m just happy to have them here.

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit

The Basics: Pogrebinsky is 18 years old, and Benoit is 21. They train in Novi, Michigan, with Igor Shpilband. Pogrebinsky represents the Peninsula Skating Club in San Jose, and Benoit belongs to the Skokie Valley Skating Club in suburban Chicago. Before they teamed up in 2014, Pogrebinsky skated with Ross Gudis, and Benoit skated with Olivia Di Iorio.

Season So Far: Pogrebinsky and Benoit kicked off their senior career with a win at the Lake Placid International Championships. At the Nebelhorn Trophy, facing several of the best teams in the world, they finished a solid 4th. Under the greater scrutiny of the Grand Prix judges, Pogrebinsky and Benoit achieved so-so results at Skate America and the Rostelecom Cup – 7th and 6th, respectively – but showed growing confidence.

Outlook for Nationals: We’re used to seeing promising junior ice dance teams make the leap to seniors and fizzle out, so it’s exciting to watch Pogrebinsky and Benoit take the opposite trajectory. For two years, they languished in the shadow of two other sets of powerhouse American juniors, McNamara/Carpenter and Parsons/Parsons, and they came up just short of an American podium sweep of 2016 Junior Worlds by placing 4th. Arguably, their biggest problem was not their competition, but their lack of artistic presence on the ice. When they moved up to seniors – the only top American junior team to do so – they showed up looking like a whole new team, full of energy and personality. They’re using Benoit’s innate charisma and Pogrebinsky’s stunning flexibility to their fullest extent, and just as importantly, they’re getting maximum levels on step sequences and pattern dances. Those levels aren’t happening consistently yet, but with a couple of months of training since their last competition, there’s a good chance they’ve made another leap forward. A more rational mind would probably identify them as On the Rise, but it’s my blog, and I can call them Dark Horses if I want to.

Kseniya Ponomaryova & Oleg Altukhov

The Basics: Ponomaryova is 28 years old, and Altukhov is 33. They’ve been a team since 2012. Ponomaryova previously skated with Raphael Kelling, and Altukhov with Alexis Shaw. They train in the Chicago area with Alina Ponomaryova and Jamie Whyte. Ponomaryova represents the Skokie Valley Skating Club in the Chicago suburbs, and Altukhov the North County Skating Club in the San Diego area.

Season So Far: Ponomaryova and Altukhov were a near-constant presence at summer club competitions. They competed only in the free dance at the Chesapeake Open, placing second in the segment. At the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, they finished near the bottom of the rankings, 6th in the short dance and 5th in the free dance. They were again low in the standings at Dance Chicago, 11th in the short dance and 10th in the free dance. They were the only senior dance team to compete at Pacific Coast Sectionals, giving them an easy road to Nationals.

Outlook for Nationals: Ponomaryova and Altukhov are the oldest competitors in the field, and they seem to just love competing. Technically, they’re far behind most American teams, with lifts and twizzles that are visibly simpler than what the rest of the field routinely attempts. Every year since they’ve teamed up, they’ve qualified to Nationals, and each time, they’ve placed toward the bottom. Teams with far better results have shown far less determination, and that speaks well of Ponomaryova and Altukhov. I hope they use the Nationals spotlight to really shine, and to show how Just Happy to Be Here they are.

Elicia Reynolds & Stephen Reynolds

The Basics: Elicia and Stephen are siblings, ages 26 and 23. Originally from Florida, they train in the Philadelphia area with Natalia Linichuk and Uschi Keszler. Both represent the Skating Club of Wilmington in Delaware. They’ve skated as a team since 2006, their entire competitive career.

Season So Far: Reynolds and Reynolds had a tough time at the Chesapeake Open, placing 3rd in both segments. Their only other significant competition of the season was Midwestern Sectionals, where they finished 2nd in a two-team field but set new career-best scores in the free dance and overall.

Outlook for Nationals: Reynolds and Reynolds are another persistent, enthusiastic team who work hard year after year to qualify to Nationals. Every year, they look a little better, with a steady trajectory of technical upgrades and improvements to their sharpness and speed. They’re not likely to rocket up the rankings this season, but they have a real shot at raising their career best scores across the board. In terms of placement, Reynolds and Reynolds are Just Happy to Be Herebut this Nationals presents a big opportunity for them to achieve some personal goals.

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani

The Basics: Maia, 22, and Alex, 25, are sister and brother. They spent their early years in New York and Connecticut, and both retain their membership in the Skating Club of New York. They now train in the Detroit area with Marina Zoueva and Massimo Scali. They’ve skated together since 2006, a career-long partnership.

Season So Far: Following an exceptional 2015-16 in which they won gold at Nationals and silver at Worlds, the Shibutani siblings stayed out of sight until October, skipping the Challenger Series. Instead, they began their season with a Grand Prix event, Skate America, which they won by a 10-point margin. The gap was narrower at Cup of China, but they took their second Grand Prix gold with a strong free dance. At the Grand Prix Final, they posted their best international short dance and overall scores ever, but they couldn’t get past bulletproof teams from Canada and France, settling for bronze. Still, it was the first Grand Prix Final medal of their career.

Outlook for Nationals: After a big surge in scores and rankings last year, Shibutani and Shibutani have a daunting mission this season: they have to keep up their momentum. In terms of technical proficiency, they’ve raised the bar, adding difficulty to what were already the world’s best twizzles and increasing the precision of their steps. Even so, they’ll face a tough challenge from Chock and Bates in particular, and it has everything to do with artistry. A year ago, the Shibutanis had been riding high on a pair of signature programs that were already iconic by January. This season, their hip hop short program is entertaining but not as innovative as some others, and their free dance is beautiful but too abstract for a lot of fans’ tastes. There’s no doubt that they’re Front Runners, but a second consecutive title is far from a sure thing.


The championship ice dance competition begins on Friday, January 20, at 5 PM CST, and will be streamed live on IceNetwork as well as broadcast on NBCSN. For the free dance, the lower-ranked teams will be streamed on IceNetwork starting at noon CST on Saturday, January 21, and the top teams will be live on NBC in a shared broadcast with pairs that begins at 2 PM CST.

Next up on The Finer Sports: the championship men’s field guide!