Rostelecom Cup Ice Dance Roundup: Feelsiness Is Not a Program Component

The Grand Prix season has begun, and it feels strange to watch the opening event from home. This is the first year in a long time that Skate America has not kicked off the series, with Russia hosting the inaugural event instead. Regardless of location, one thing always stands out about the first Grand Prix competition: nobody is quite ready for it. Even as the Challenger Series has created broader opportunities for athletes to iron out their programs earlier in the autumn, everyone looks shaky in October. I have plenty of notes on the ladies’ and men’s competitions, but they mostly boil down to that – everyone was a mess. The podiums in the singles disciplines were more or less as expected, and even the winners would most likely rather forget these performances and move on.

The one discipline where the top contenders looked ready to go was ice dance, and that’s part of why I have the most to say about dance this week. There were missteps here and there – and a couple of big disappointments – but it looked more like January than October for the teams at the top of the rankings.

The most anticipated performances of the weekend were by Maia and Alex Shibutani, largely because they were one of the few teams to skip the Challenger Series and debut their new programs at the Grand Prix. Strategically, this seems to have been wise: they looked rested and ready, and their overall score bested everything so far except for Virtue and Moir’s astronomical total at the Autumn Classic. Their choice of programs is also strategic, especially their free dance, a Coldplay medley that recalls the “Fix You” program that became a signature piece for them a couple of seasons ago. Some skating fans get irritable when athletes recycle choreography or themes, but it’s a smart decision in an Olympic year. Most four-year fans missed “Fix You” the first time around, and the Shibs can rest assured that they’re presenting an interpretive style that the judges are on board with.

Instead of innovating artistically, they’ve made notable technical upgrades to their lifts, and they have this season’s tricky Rhumba* pattern dance down cold. The Shibs are still having trouble earning maximum levels on their step sequences, though, and I’m hesitant to blame that entirely on the judges’ pickiness. I saw several missed edges in their free dance step sequences, and I’m not convinced that Alex’s one-foot section in their circular step sequence clearly shows all four types of difficult turns. They’ve confirmed that they’re among the strongest contenders for an Olympic medal this winter, and even have an outside shot at gold – but they have some technical refinements to work on between now and February.

* I’ve noted on Twitter, but not here, that the ISU’s official name for the pattern dance is Rhumba, while the standard spelling for the dance style in general is rumba. When it comes to concerns about ISU policies and practices, their inability to spell in Spanish is pretty far down my list.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev snagged silver, since they were the second-ranked team at the competition and were skating on home ice. But their fellow Russians, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, stole their thunder, and a different judging panel might not have respected the pecking order so much. Stepanova and Bukin beat Bobrova and Soloviev’s technical mark by several points, but Bobrova and Soloviev received a program components advantage that left the two teams virtually tied in the free dance. In past decades, Russian ice dancers’ clean, fluid movements were in a class by themselves, but now, teams like Stepanova and Bukin reach Grand Prix podiums despite frenzied performances. There’s a certain beauty to their unkempt style, like strands of hair coming loose from a bun, but their lack of polish stood out. However, Stepanova and Bukin executed their technical elements with admirable precision, raking in high grades of execution even when the transitions and choreographic moves around them looked sloppy. Their distinctive and difficult twizzles earned the highest execution score of the weekend, beating out even the Shibutanis – and I can’t argue. As for their choice of program music, well, it’s been a weekend of Mute and Replace around here anyway.

Seniority aside, Bobrova and Soloviev do present stronger components – they are smoother, faster, and crisper than Stepanova and Bukin – but I was surprised that the judges gave them the benefit of the doubt on so many elements. Their twizzles ticked off all the boxes for a level 4 and were solid enough, but compared to the Shibutanis or to Stepanova and Bukin, the element was nothing special; the judges nonetheless only set them back by a couple of tenths of a point in execution. I’ve long argued that twizzles are the element that will benefit most from a wider range of possible grades of execution, and now I’m starting to think that ice dancers should earn a bonus for placing them in the second half of their free skate, as athletes in the other disciplines do for difficult jumps. Much of the impact of the Shibutanis’ twizzles comes from their late, surprising appearance in the choreography, while Bobrova and Soloviev get their twizzles out of the way early and focus on lifts. Those lifts were terrific this time around, uniquely difficult and with a newfound control. But a botched dance spin so disrupted the flow of their program that it should have impacted their components score. Bobrova and Soloviev’s mistake should have kept them off the podium altogether; Canada’s Gilles and Poirier, as well as Stepanova and Bukin, skated more cleanly and with greater confidence.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier’s fourth-place finish inspired a flurry of “wuzrobbed” claims, about which I have mixed feelings. Gilles and Poirier are among my favorite current ice dance teams: they take both artistic and technical risks, and are often an antidote to the tonal and structural sameness that can drag the discipline down. I do think they skated well enough for bronze here – ahead of Bobrova and Soloviev, but behind Stepanova and Bukin. In the free dance, Gilles and Poirier received the same distribution of technical levels as Stepanova and Bukin (and indeed the Shibutanis), but they fell behind on grades of execution. That’s fair enough; Gilles and Poirier were less sharp and less explosive. Their program components did seem low to me, especially since their skating skills and timing showed more maturity and consistency than Stepanova and Bukin’s. Squinting at the protocols, we can see that that a number of judges – the ones from Turkey, Canada, and France – marked the two teams about equally in these components. But some of the other countries – particularly those from Belarus, Russia, and the Czech Republic – favored Stepanova and Bukin by more than a point. Judge #1, from Belarus, awarded an 8.00 for Interpretation/Timing to Gilles and Poirier in the free skate, and a 9.25 to Stepanova and Bukin; Judge #4, from France, split the difference, assigning 8.75 to both. These scores are not so wildly divergent as to trigger a review, but they do indicate that some judges had a clear preference that impacted the results, and that might have reflected subjective taste rather than which team demonstrated greater speed, control, and engagement.

The problem is that – despite preferring Gilles and Poirier in general – I thought Stepanova and Bukin performed better on the day. Gilles and Poirier have been uncharacteristically restrained this season. After two consecutive seasons of iconic and off-the-wall short dances, their short dance this season is a fairly conventional Latin number, spiced up only by a costume transformation trick. Their film noir free dance is a terrific high concept, but they haven’t figured out how to sell it yet. Gilles needs to find her inner Rita Hayworth, Poirier needs to choose between Humphrey Bogart smoothness and Raymond Burr earthiness, and both of them need to take notes on a bunch of old movies. I love the program’s potential, but they’ve performed it a bit flat so far.

One of the ways I get through the figure skating season is by muting program music I dislike or am sick of, and replacing it with whatever is on my current personal playlist. What started out as a mental health defense mechanism has turned into a tool for analysis, so I’m going to close out this post with a pair of transformed warhorses. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri skated with a smoothness and confidence that many other teams lacked at Rostelecom, but their “Exogenesis” free skate is a dull disappointment. When they’re playful and lighthearted, as in their Grease short dance last season and their Lord of the Dance free dance a few years ago, they sparkle. But for some reason, they keep gravitating toward ponderous themes that interpret familiar music in the same old ways. By re-soundtracking their current free dance to “Province” by TV on the Radio, I gave them a song with a similar tempo and narrative theme, but with more drive and energy. While you can occasionally tell they’re skating to something more serious, the choreography lines up startlingly well with the song I assigned them. It shows that the problem isn’t with the warhorse itself, but with the specificity of their interpretation. They’re responding to the ethereal loveliness and the tension in the Muse song, but they’re not telling its particular story, or adjusting it to create a dynamic between two people. Guignard and Fabbri are a talented team with a history of fading into the middle of the ranks, and I think this failure to project a consistent, memorable personality is a big part of that. They should have been in the conversation for a medal at Rostelecom but weren’t, and that’s largely because their artistry seldom brings out their technical gifts as it should.

I doubled down on TV on the Radio for Betina Popova and Sergey Mozgov’s Carmen free dance, and not just because someone really needs to skate to TVotR one of these days. The tempo change in the bridge of “Wolf Like Me” doesn’t quite line up with the cuts in the original music, but it’s pleasingly close. Besides, if any team could rock a werewolf-themed free dance, it’s these two. Even with the familiar music swapped out, Popova is Carmen all the way, using her face and body to give as much fierce Spanish seductress as her choreography and technical content leave room for. There are times when both skaters are concentrating more on their lifts and steps than on their characters – understandable for a young and newly formed team – but Popova’s acting skills accentuate Mozgov’s, and their connection is unusually strong for a team at their stage of development. But the Carmen comes from them, not from the choreography itself. Substitute growls and scratches for smolders and wrist flicks, and we would have a werewolf romance on our hands. Popova and Mozgov make a meal out of surprisingly bland choreography, but that’s a mountain they shouldn’t have to climb.

Next on The Finer Sports: the Grand Prix of Figure Skating continues with Skate Canada!

*Hat tip to my friend Buffy for the post title, and for the gift of the word “feelsiness.”

6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships

Madison Chock and Evan Bates perform their free dance at Nationals.

What’s a blogger to do when she wants to say everything about Nationals? Someone with more restraint – or an editor – might just skip stuff, but skating fans hate it when you skip stuff. As it does almost every year, NBC blacked out the live performances of a number of ladies and ice dancers in the earlier warm-up groups, and Twitter threw a fit. So I’m going to indulge my completist tendencies and cover everything I have an opinion about. If you haven’t read the first part of my Nationals recap, start there. This is a continuation of that post, not a stand-alone sequel.

It’s been an ugly couple of weeks in the United States, and watching figure skating has given me some emotional relief from current events. At the same time, Nationals have reminded me that America’s strength comes from the diversity of its citizens and residents, and that my country has a long track record of undermining that strength. From the 1880’s until the end of World War II, Chinese-Americans like Nathan Chen, Karen Chen, and Vincent Zhou endured laws that restricted immigration, curtailed civil rights, and stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, using rhetoric that will sound familiar to anyone following the news lately. In the 1940’s, Japanese-Americans like Mirai Nagasu, Maia Shibutani, and Alex Shibutani were stripped of their livelihoods and property and forced to live in internment camps, while European Jews, like Jason Brown’s ancestors (and my own), were turned away from American borders despite facing almost certain death in their countries of origin. In the 1950’s, Americans of many backgrounds were targeted in anti-Communist inquisitions, but Russian immigrants and their descendants – people like Alex Krasnozhon and Anthony Ponomarenko – became particularly vulnerable to interrogation, imprisonment, and professional blacklisting. In retrospect, none of these violations of civil and human rights made America safer, and several harmed the United States economically. In this, as in most things, sports are a microcosm of society, and an illustration of what we have to lose through ignorance, paranoia, and bullying.

Anyway. Also there was skating.

Continue reading “6 More Things I Learned from the 2017 US National Figure Skating Championships”

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!