Stars, Stripes, and Slots: Skate America 2019

It’s a comic oversight that a sport famed for sequins and an irrational fondness for Celine Dion has never made a Grand Prix stop in Vegas. Thankfully, someone within the ISU decided the time was right to bring the drama and sparkle of Skate America to the land of imagined hot streaks and glitter glaze to kick off the 2019 Grand Prix series.

Ice Dance Gives Me Life

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If you were looking to cast the perfect effortlessly attractive couple to play out a flirty chase plot through a club in a mid-’00s music video, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin would be it. Russian dance teams often leave me cold, but as last season unfolded I became a bigger and bigger fan of StepBuk. They can channel Resting Russian Diva Face when they want to, but they play kicky sexy cool even better. So when Stepanova and Bukin announced their free dance music was Justin Timberlake it was the most on-brand program choice of the season.

Happily, the program is more than a four minute ode to early aughts club jams. By folding Ludovico Einaudi and “Cry Me A River” together Stepanova and Bukin created a free dance that winks at ice dance’s classic and camp tendencies. It’s engaging as hell if you’re buying what Stepanova and Bukin are selling, and showmanship is 97% of the battle in ice dance. They placed second to Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue but narrowly won the free dance. 0.08 of a point looks small, but Olympic titles have been settled for less. If this team can consistently score the levels in the rhythm dance they could pose a much bigger threat to the ice dance podium order for the rest of the season.

Speaking of cry me a river: let’s pour out a ceremonial shot for the end of Nikolaj Sorensen’s man bun and celebrate his and Laurence Fournier Beaudry’s first Grand Prix medal.

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Fournier Beaudry and Sorensen aren’t exactly a new team–they paired up in 2012–but this is only their second season competing for Canada, and only in the last two season have they really started to draw the attention they deserve. Both of their programs are excellent, and I love the highlights in their free dance–their rotational lifts in particular are spectacular and musical. Did the snipping of Sorensen’s man-bun mark this team’s Growing the Beard moment? They vaulted over several teams at Skate America who would have easily buried them two seasons ago, so the bronze medal reads as both a personal achievement and a vote of confidence from an international judging panel. Again, ice dance is won by degrees, and a strong Grand Prix showing helps this team build their reputation heading into the turn of the Olympic cycle.

Nathan Chen Embraces Hip Hop and Magic Eye Prints

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“Nathan Chen skates to Elton John choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil while wearing a shirt so bright it should be regulated a psychotropic drug” sounds like the worst possible version of figure skating Mad Libs but it works. Chen’s Rocketman free skate has inspired every possible pun and will doubtless churn out more, but don’t let the jokes distract you from the fact that this program is superb. Nathan Chen is at his best when he’s unabashedly modern. Consider the skittery sweep of Nemesis, or the evocative minimalism of Mao’s Last Dacer: the most successful of Chen’s programs have created a space where he can play with the tension between his status as a quad-jumping prodigy and a performer who can punctuate a musical phrase with a well-timed flick of the pick. The resulting performances hum with a confident, kinetic energy.

Every season, starting with Nemesis and Mao’s Last Dancer in 2017-18, Nathan Chen has developed a stronger sense of who he is not only as an athlete but as an artist. He’s making great artistic decisions that distinguish him from the rest of the field. Elton John might not seem like a cutting-edge choice, but it allows Chen to tap into a crackling quality that winks at your expectations about what he can achieve. A 20-year old Asian American kid from Utah skating to an Elton John medley with a hip-hop drop is a radical choice in a sport that often struggles to place men who don’t identify with the shopworn tropes of hero, fighter, lover, or mope. The trickster quality of Rocketman is an unexpected delight and a potent antidote to the melodramatic soft-rock covers and overwrought classical cuts that plague the men’s event season after season. Add in multiple quads and a 44 point margin of victory and you have an athlete that’s compelling to watch and a competitive monster who spooks everyone around him into working just that little bit harder for greatness.

The Future of Women’s Figure Skating?

Was anyone truly surprised that Anna Shcherbakova, reigning Russian national champion and pint-sized quadlette, won Skate America? If you are, you’re not paying enough attention to the yawning TES gap that is opening between Eteri Tutberidze’s trio of jumping beans and everyone else. For better or worse, victory is written in not in the whims of fate but the hard numbers of the IJS base values, and that math is decidedly in favour of anyone who can land a quadruple lutz in a program.

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There is no shortage of online agony over the shallow cross cuts, frantic choreography, and immature artistry paired with wailing over the End of All Things Beautiful now that quadruple jumps are threatening to become a regular part of ladies competition. Much of this unease is cloaked in concern about the health and and wisdom of young athletes (all three are in their mid-teens) attempting such advanced technical elements in the tender years of middle school. Such concern is largely absent from the men’s event, where sporting lads will regularly start training quads at the same age as Shcherbakova et. al. with little fanfare.

We can debate the quality of the elements: as far as quad lutzes go, Shcherbakova’s is a bit of a squeaker, and the entry edge makes my ankles twinge with sympathetic pain. We can offer criticism about the choreography–the Tutberidze team is not famous for inspired music edits and the choreography is always a bit rushed and maudlin for my taste. But whether or not you want the sport to move in a more technical direction, it’s happening. The question now is how to nurture that development while also encouraging young athletes to invest in their performance quality. To dismiss Shcherbakova and her rink mates as technical show ponies seriously underestimates their potential.

Up Next!

Break out your formal Pooh Bear onesie and your finest corkscrews because we’re going to wine country. Next at Skate Canada: Yuzuru Hanyu returns! Alexandra Trusova makes her Grand Prix debut! Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier will skate The Most Canadian Thing Ever™ in the form of a Joni Mitchell program!

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