Grand Prix Final 2018: Ice Dance Preview

Are you ready for a tango parade and a throwback to trashy 90s Russian ice dance? Because the ice dancers headed to the Grand Prix Final are embracing a red lip and slip dresses like it’s 1995. 

Qualifiers

Q1. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue – USA – 30 – 200.82/200.76
Q2. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin – RUS – 30 – 200.09/199.43
Q3. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov – RUS – 26 – 195.17/200.38
Q4. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri – ITA – 26 – 192.30/196.29
Q5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker – USA – 24 – 184.63/181.47
Q6. Tiffani Zagorski/Jonathan Guerreiro – RUS – 24 – 181.38/183.05

Russia has long dominated ice dance, but the presence of two US teams in the top 6 demonstrates the decidedly North American tilt of the discipline in recent years. Scant tenths of a point separate the top three teams, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Russia could sweep the dance podium. Meanwhile, the bottom three teams will try to prove that their presence at the Final is no fluke. 

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Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue enter as the slight favourites to win from the strength of back-to-back victories at Skate America and Skate Canada. They won US Nationals in January, and it was vindication after years in the shadow of the Shibutanis. Hubbell and Donohue changed coaches this summer, moving to Montreal to train with the Marie-France Dubreuil/Patrice Lauzon/Romain Haguenauer Dream Team. On paper, these are all positive things. I’ve always loved them as a team and I will defend their short dance from 2017-18 as the best of the bunch, and so help me Cheesus I will die on that hill.  

I’m stating this up front, however, because I’m going to propose an unpopular opinion: Hubbell and Donohue’s Romeo and Juliet free dance is Virtue and Moir’s Moulin Rouge Redux. 

Think about it. They’re both narrative programs about a Tragic Love Lost. Both programs are scored with contemporary music cut for a three-part story arc. The Girl Dies At the End of both programs. Their closing poses are virtually identical–unsurprising, given that both programs were choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil. It’s wilted necks and heaving chests all around:

Hubbell and Donohue excel when they’re skating to slinky, seductive music. This is why last year’s rhumba and samba rhythm requirements worked so well for them, and why this year’s RD with the Tango Romantica seems more natural for them than the Romeo and Juliet free dance. Skaters are always trying to demonstrate versatility, so it’s not a surprise that Hubbell and Donohue might attempt something more lyrical while balancing their affinity for contemporary music. The House of Dubreuil style may eventually fit, but for now the free dance lacks the boldness that makes Hubbell and Donohue exciting to watch. 

Hubbell and Donohue’s attempt to class up a soundtrack that features a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio breathlessly quoting Shakespeare is a stark contrast to the Bedroom Moods of the Russian teams who qualified right behind them. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov simultaneously demonstrate the Russian instinct for killer edges and a fatal attraction to cheesiness. I’m still trying to solve the physics of how either of these dresses stay in place when they both look like they were pilfered from the wardrobe department of a 90s soap opera: 

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Potential catastrophic wardrobe malfunctions aside, both teams are serious contenders for a gold medal, if for no other reason than Skating While Russian is still a hidden GOE in ice dance. Stepanova and Bukin and Sinitsina and Katsalapov are excellent teams, even if their choreography integrates coy booty groping and music edits straight out of a car commercial, respectively. I’m also willing to give them the benefit of the doubt: on YouTube, their scores look a breath overinflated, but the judges are marking in real-time. It’s hard to discount the live performance quality in those marks. 

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Where does that leave our bottom three teams? All three will be skating to move up the world rankings and take advantage of the fact that other top teams are either skipping the season (the aforementioned Shibutanis), out with injury (Papadakis and Cizeron), or quasi-retired (Cappellini and Lanotte). Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were likely pleasantly surprised at scoring the fifth qualification spot, largely on the strength of a surprise win at NHK Trophy. That win came at the expense of Tiffani Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro (aka The Fifth Element Team), who finished an unexpected second at NHK when small errors piled up in their free dane. Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri are trying to capitalize on the absence of Cappellini and Lanotte to become Italy’s top dance team. 

The post-Olympic season is particularly interesting for dance. The absence of last season’s super elite teams opens up space for mid-tier teams to acquire international experience. Exposure and reputation are particularly important in ice dance because the skill margin between teams is so small. Any of these three teams would love a podium finish, but they’ll bank every stroke on Grand Prix Final practice ice as security for future international assignments. 

Up next: the single disciplines! 

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