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Sarah Explains the Finer Sports

Figure skating with sarcasm, statistics, and rapturous adoration.

Skate America 2016 Ladies Recap: Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Skate America was in the Chicago area this year, which was mostly a great deal for me. I didn't have to pay for air fare or a hotel room; I got to sleep in my own bed after a long day at the rink; I could give visiting friends valuable advice on where to sample the local cuisine (i.e. pizza and beef sandwiches). On the other hand, it was an hour drive each way - longer on the two nights when the geniuses at the Illinois Department of Transportation decided to close a bunch of lanes on I-90 - and while I technically had the four days off work, I still had to squeeze in time for a couple of job responsibilities. The end result is, I had less time to blog during the event than I did during Skate America 2015 or this year's World Championships. Fortunately, I tweeted nonstop from the arena, so I have good notes. Here's what stood out, focusing on highlights of the competition itself but working in some of my observations from practice sessions and the gala. To avoid an overwhelming level of TLDR, I'll focus this one on the ladies, cover pairs and dance in one post, and finish out with a lot of feelings about the men.

I had high hopes for the ladies' event, which included many notable up-and-comers and a deep, unpredictable field. First, let's get the disappointments out of the way. Angelina Kuchvalska of Latvia proved unable to match her surprise fourth-place finish at last season's European Championships, and she finished a dismal last in both segments. Rumor has it that numerous coaches have been courting her, and judging from her struggles this weekend, she'll be wise to take one of them up on the offer. Roberta Rodeghiero, who looked like the future of Italian skating after a win at the Lombardia Trophy and a Grand Prix bronze in France last season, followed up her so-so Challenger Series results with unsteady jumps and unmemorable programs. Similarly, Serafima Sakhanovich, who seemed poised for greatness after racking up the medals in juniors, appears to be one of the many promising Russian teens who peaks at 14 and never gets any further. It's too bad, not only because I'd liked her junior-level skating, but because she was getting close to landing a quadruple salchow in practice. 

Also much reduced from their glory days were the two Japanese veterans. Both Mao Asada and Kanako Murakami are former Skate America champions; I had to miss Asada's 2013 victory, but I was in the stands for Murakami's dark horse win in 2010. Neither much resembled the skaters they'd been when they won those events. Murakami was an outright disaster, taking heavy deductions for underrotation, including downgrades on two of her three short program jumping passes. She's always had trouble recovering from a shaky start, and it was rough to watch her get visibly frustrated as the mistakes piled up. 

Asada, on the other hand, was a pleasure despite the costly errors that kept her off the podium. Her programs this season, both with Latin themes, embrace her maturity with winking sexiness, although neither is as joyful or memorable as her short program from last season, which might be my favorite Mao program ever. Asada didn't attempt a triple Axel, and she had trouble getting enough rotational power for even a triple lutz or triple flip. Her finest moment was at the gala, with a mesmerizing performance to a cello suite by Bach that let her shine as an artist.

The standout Japanese lady was the third-stringer, the one who was just supposed to be having a development year. Mai Mihara broke out in 2015 with terrific performances at the Junior Grand Prix, then disappeared from view again after a rough outing at Nationals. After Mihara won the Nebelhorn Trophy last month, we all should have had an inkling that she was a medal contender here, but I scarcely heard her name from my fellow armchair experts - and frankly, I wouldn't have put money on her, either. But the second she landed her effortless triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program, she made herself a star. She's an understated skater, but there's a natural shine to her in person, especially in the small moments, like the stop-turn-smile before her short program step sequence. During the practice sessions, Mihara looked like she was in over her head, but she'd shaken that in time for competition. I hope she'll maintain that focus at Cup of China, win another medal, and get people to stop confusing her with Satoko Miyahara once and for all.

Gabrielle Daleman did Canada proud with a 4th-place finish that reflected consistency as much as strong technical content. If you've been grumbling about junior ladies with tiny little jumps throughout the Junior Grand Prix, Daleman is the antidote. She gets extraordinary height, although she needs it to compensate for her loose, bent knees in the air. While she incurred a downgrade for the short landing on her triple lutz-triple toe loop, it's great to see her standing up at the end of that difficult combination, and the triple toe-triple toe in her free skate was a breeze in comparison. Both of her programs - an underused Massenet ballet, Herodiade, for her short; the warhorse-y but appealing Rhapsody in Blue for her free - suit her graceful and upbeat style. Unfortunately, she's the first Grand Prix casualty of my Weird Old Rock Test: her short program choreography works better with Simple Minds' All the Things She Said than with the Massenet. The judges noticed, too, placing her almost 10 points behind Ashley Wagner in free skate program components despite the second-highest technical score in the segment.

I mostly felt bad for Gracie Gold, who was supposed to be entering a head-to-head grudge match with Ashley Wagner but struggled with both her jumps and her overall focus. Even before the troubling comments about her weight and self-image that she made after her short program, something seemed amiss. Her entry technique on her hardest jumping pass was so uncertain that I mentioned a triple flip-triple toe on Twitter, only to have a follower ask if she'd switched from the lutz. She hadn't, and the triple lutz-triple toe loop in her short program was spectacular, a bright spot in a painful meet. Gold looked distracted and distraught throughout, to the point where she was hard to watch. If she's as troubled as she seems, I hope she treats her mental health as she would any other health problem.

Ashley Wagner, on the other hand, was in fine form, backing up her World Championships silver medal with a confident and snazzy victory. Her jump technique remains unreliable - the judges called her on a bunch of underrotations and a bad edge - but she executed them with such finesse that it was easy to excuse the errors. That's exactly how the judges approached both of Wagner's programs, rewarding her energy and the overall difficulty of her choreography with sky-high components marks. Generous as those components scores were, they felt right, a reminder that the second mark can be used for truth and justice. I'm not wildly in love with her free skate, to Muse's Exogenesis: Symphony, which I think is a bit ponderous and abstract for her. I suspect she'll grow into it as the season progresses, though, and find a way to make it her own. But her short program, to a remix of The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," is an instant classic, a little menacing and utterly unique.

Wagner might have been the leading lady of Skate America, but an ingenue nearly stole the show from her. At age 20, Mariah Bell isn't brand new, but she's reinvented herself this season, earning medals at two Challenger Series events before her triumphant silver medal at Skate America. She's a potent vehicle for Rohene Ward's tricky choreography, but it used to overwhelm her, getting in the way of powerful but inconsistent jumps. She struggled with her triple lutz-triple toe loop during her practice sessions, but she found her feet when it counted. The combination at the top of her free skate might have been the best triple-triple of her life, earning a grade of execution almost as high as Mihara's and setting her up for a program that built in charm and confidence as it went on. The most exciting thing about it is, Bell arrived as the ultimate underdog, a last-minute substitute for an injured teammate. She doesn't even have a second Grand Prix assignment yet. And she's delivered the first truly extraordinary performance of this season's Grand Prix.

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12 Great Men's Performances from the 2016 Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating

Gentle readers, I am behind on my blogging. It was the Skateapalooza that did me in: I spent so much time watching the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, Autumn Classic, Japan Open, and JGP Tallinn that I ran out of time to write. Fortunately, last weekend marked the end of what has become the first phase of figure skating's regular season: the last Junior Grand Prix event wrapped up in Dresden, Germany, and the Challenger Series will go on hiatus until after the senior-level Grand Prix. Longtime fans will point out that the figure skating season never used to start this early, and we have a point. When the ISU started streaming the JGP for free on YouTube, then archiving video of every skater, following the international junior circuit became worthwhile. The Challenger Series didn't even exist until two years ago - a development I'll get into in the intro to my first Challenger Series best-of post. The near-universal availability and high quality of the JGP streams means we all get to see promising skaters at the start of their careers, and it also gives national federations incentive to let young skaters develop psychologically as well as technically rather than hurling them into the fire pit of senior-level competition before they're ready. As a result, the best junior skaters routinely performed jumps on par with the Challenger Series seniors, and many showed off beautiful skating skills and mature interpretation as well. If you skipped the Junior Grand Prix because you didn't know it was going on, or you assumed the juniors wouldn't be worth watching, or 30 free skates at 5 AM is not your idea of a good time, here are 12 reasons to pay attention now that the series has ended.

I don't usually make lists in chronological order, but it made sense this time. Of the seven competitions in the JGP series, one didn't make the cut for my men's top 12, because JGP St. Gervais was a sloppy mess in the men's event. The skaters who performed well there did better in later events; the winner, Roman Savosin, earned a much higher score at his second event, and it was only good enough for 3rd there. I'm pretty sure most of the JGP St. Gervais men's competitors want to wipe it out of the record books, and I am going to graciously move on to week two.

Dmitri Aliev (Russia), JGP Ostrava Free Skate

Last season, Aliev established himself as the kind of skater who sets up a lead in the short program and then blows it in the free skate - which is exactly what he would do a couple of weeks later in Ljubljana. But in Ostrava, he looked like he'd broken the curse. Seeking redemption for a short program in which he'd landed all his jumps but lost control of a spin, Aliev nailed it in the free skate. He proved he could open with a pair of quadruple toe loops and maintain his stamina, a feat he celebrated with a fist pump after his final jumping pass. Aliev also showed that he's terrific at interpreting his music, using the rhythm to time his jumps and telling a story in his step sequence. It was the first men's performance of the JGP season that looked like it could hold its own on the senior level.

Vincent Zhou (USA), JGP Yokohama Short Program

Zhou showed up this season looking taller and more mature, and instantly making me wonder how that would translate on the ice. Where his hardest jumps are concerned, it might be an issue - a painful chest landing in his free skate in Tallinn took him out of the Junior Grand Prix Final - but as a performer, he's grown into a young man. Relieved from the pressure of the quad, Zhou performed exquisitely, earning high grades of execution for his jumps and straight level 4s for his spins and step sequence, on the way to the JGP season's first short program score above 80. The real revelation, however, was the other half of Zhou's score. He's clearly spent his summer honing his basic skating skills; he looked proud of his speed and edge quality in his spread eagle sequence. And he's figured out how to express himself artistically, channeling his introverted presence into a quiet intensity that reminds me of Jeremy Abbott.

Kazuki Tomono (Japan), JGP Yokohama Free Skate

The Japanese men's team is in rebuilding mode, great at the top but without much of a bench. Tomono looks like one of the best bets to fill out their roster in seasons to come. Last spring at Junior Worlds, he stood out as one of the most entertaining performers, and now, he has the jumps to match. He's clearly still working on controlling the landings of his quad salchow and triple Axel, but both were lovely in the air, earning him a terrific technical score that almost snagged him a medal after a disappointing short program. But the real reasons to watch Tomono are his style and showmanship. He has a gift for making music his own. I've seen a lot of athletes skate right through An American in Paris over the years, but Tomono picks up on its peaks and valleys, showing a range of emotion that's especially admirable for a young skater. Even if he never develops the power to enter the quad arms race at the top of the Japanese field, he has Future Fan Favorite written all over him.

Matyas Belohradsky (Czech Republic), JGP Saransk Short Program

The season of crowd-pleasers continued in Saransk with a breakout bronze-medal performance from Belohradsky. A couple of weeks earlier, he'd withered under the pressure of a home-country skate in Ostrava, but the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience in Russia seemed to spur him forward. Belohradsky only competes a double Axel, but he proved that excellent execution can triumph over sloppy difficulty, scoring ahead of several ugly triple Axel attempts. He resembles coach Tomas Verner physically as well as stylistically, and he's inherited many of his mentor's best qualities, from his edge control to his crackling energy. But Belohradsky jumps with tighter rotation and cleaner form than Verner ever did. If Belohradsky keeps this up - and works out his consistency bugs - he'll be the next great Czech skater.

Andrew Torgashev (USA), JGP Saransk Free Skate

Torgashev arrived at his first Junior Grand Prix event with a big question mark over his head. After winning a National Junior title in 2015, he'd lost an entire season to injury while many other American teenagers had developed massive technical and artistic upgrades. Torgashev's silver medal in Saransk proved that he is still very much a factor. His quad toe loop was a little messy, but he stood up and got full rotation credit. The judges gave him plenty of points for his fast and difficult spins, too, with level 4s and high grades of execution on all of them. Torgashev hasn't yet shown that he's capable of a clean free skate - he fell in Saransk, and things got even hairier in Dresden a few weeks later - but even with errors, he's an expressive and captivating skater. 

Ilia Skirda (Russia), JGP Ljubljana Free Skate

Skirda came into his first JGP season with some buzz surrounding him. A clean and sprightly free skate at Nationals, along with a 4th-place finish, had earned him some attention. I don't think anyone expected him to do this well this fast, though. He was a mess at JGP St. Gervais, but everyone else was a bigger mess, bringing him a silver medal at his international debut. In Ljubljana, however, he faced stiffer competition, and a pair of near-flawless performances showed that Skirda means serious business. His jump technique is terrific, but his greatest assets are his extraordinary fundamentals. He's fast and tireless, with gorgeous knee bend and core flexibility, all of which add up to some of the loveliest skating of the JGP series. Imagine what he'll achieve when he starts competing his triple Axel.

Alexei Krasnozhon (USA), JGP Ljubljana Free Skate

Yuzuru Hanyu will get his name in the history books for landing the first ratified quadruple loop, but Krasnozhon actually beat him to the punch by about a week. His landing was unsteady, his grade of execution low, but he completed four revolutions and stood up. Then, as if to make sure we all knew that his landings are normally much better than that, Krasnozhon performed two triple Axels with enormous speed, amplitude, and confidence, as if he hadn't gotten the memo that he's only skating juniors. What makes Krasnozhon endearing, though, is his quest to develop an artistic identity for himself. In Ljubljana, Krasnozhon made Rodeo his own, expressing a youthful sweetness that can't be manufactured. The best part of the video comes after he'd finished skating, in his reaction to his scores - too excited to contain himself, but also doing the math, reassuring himself that he was headed to the Final.

Graham Newberry (Great Britain), JGP Tallinn Short Program

You know what's more fun than a bunch of quads? Watching a young skater give the performance of his life. In his opening pose, Newberry looked like he knew he had this in the bag, and even before his perfect triple Axel, I believed him. Newberry might not have the speed or edge control of the top competitors, but his smile and style put most of them to shame. Newberry beat his prior personal best score by almost 10 points, earned the second-highest short program technical score of the meet, and generally recalibrated everyone's expectations. Plus, he put on a show. If there's a reason to wake up before dawn and watch a live stream, it's catching unexpected delights like this one.

Koshiro Shimada (Japan), JGP Tallinn Free Skate

In an era when most young Japanese men are trying to be the next Yuzuru, Shimada has achieved remarkable results by cultivating his own style instead. Still, Shimada shares one of Hanyu's greatest artistic strengths. It's rare to see such a young skater use his whole body to highlight the rise and fall of his music, and to give shape to its nuances. My favorite moment in this free skate came near the end, when Shimada punctuated a little boom of percussion with a fast, controlled dip into a spread eagle. Shimada's quad salchow attempt was a risk that didn't quite pay off, and he didn't even try a triple Axel at all in Tallinn, so he'll most likely spend another year in juniors while he refines those difficult jumps. But he has one of the most beautiful and reliable lutzes in men's skating, with a deep entry edge and tons of height. The two excellent lutzes here were a big factor in the career-best score he earned.

Alexander Samarin (Russia), JGP Tallinn Free Skate

Last season, Samarin looked like a bland, inconsistent jump machine who would never make it past juniors. Despite some brilliant moments - a gold medal at JGP Croatia, the second-best short program at Junior Worlds - he seemed to lack both stamina and charisma. Samarin and his coaches must have come to the same conclusion, because he completely reinvented himself over the summer and became one of the stars of the 2016 Junior Grand Prix. He won both of his JGP events, in Saransk and Tallinn, and it wasn't just the smooth, reliable technique of his triple Axel and quad toe loop that brought him gold. He's capable of unusual jumping passes as well as difficult ones; he shows off rare edge control in his triple lutz-half loop-triple flip combination. Samarin's most striking transformation, however, has been in his artistry. Rock music brings out his personality, and in his free skate in Tallinn, he found the grace and lyricism in the squealing guitars of a Scorpions ballad. 

Conrad Orzel (Canada), JGP Dresden Free Skate

After I saw Orzel compete at Skate Detroit this summer, I sang his praises, and you all thought I was off my rocker. A few months later, he won silver at JGP Dresden with a free skate that made people other than me take notice. Sure, there were wobbles here and there, but Orzel also showed resourcefulness, saving several rocky landings that a less focused skater might have bailed on. Orzel also landed the only clean quadruple jump of the meet. As the program progressed, he shed his nerves and embodied his music, a blond samurai who'd just won a major battle. If he can keep up this momentum and confidence, Canada might have found its next men's skating star.

Jun Hwan Cha (South Korea), JGP Dresden Short Program

From a technical standpoint, Cha was better at his first JGP event, in Yokohama, where he earned the highest overall score of the series and landed a gorgeous quad salchow in his free skate. With that performance, Cha removed all doubt that he's the next big thing in men's skating. In Dresden, he missed that jump, and his technical elements were less neat and controlled in general. Nonetheless, Cha was by far more fun to watch in Dresden than in Yokohama. Between the two events, he apparently backed off on his jump training to focus on artistry and basic skills, and in the course of a month, he transformed from a cute but unpolished jumping bean into a young man with keen edges and a sharp sense of humor. His short program - to a song from A Chorus Line that should be the anthem for men's skaters everywhere - leaves him no time to breathe and minimal margin for error. Earlier in the season, Cha looked like he was just getting through it. In Dresden, he looked like he owned that choreography. And the arena. And possibly the world. 

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This Weekend in Ice Dance Disasters: Nebelhorn Trophy, JGP Ljubljana, Russian Cup of Samara

The thing about ice dance disasters is that, in any other discipline, they'd be tiny mistakes. If a singles skater puts her foot down too early, she might lose a point or two in her grade of execution, but if an ice dancer does the same during a twizzle, the whole element goes down several levels, tanking the team's score. A minuscule timing error in a pattern dance can make a team miss all their checkpoints, knocking them down to a Level 1, while slow and out-of-sync footwork is almost the norm in pairs. Unless you watch an unhealthy amount of ice dance, you're probably mystified by why teams look like they want to drown themselves after what looked like a terrific performance. 

Let's call the summary of this weekend's notable ice dance performances An Introduction to Screwing Up Your Dance. 

This weekend's ice dance competition covered all of the major categories except for costume violations, which is to say, at least nobody's dress started shedding feathers and sequins. But just about anything else that could go wrong, did go wrong somewhere in Europe: at the Challenger Series Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the Junior Grand Prix Ljubljana in Slovenia, or a small Russian domestic competition in Samara. Most of these programs were enjoyable overall and had great moments, and I have plenty of positive things to say about them as well. Still, they provide a pretty thorough aggregate picture of where and why the deductions come in.

1. Don't Fall Down.

You'd think that "don't fall" would be rule #1 in figure skating, but in the other three disciplines, skaters frequently win despite a fall. In ice dance, however, falling will send a team tumbling down the ranks. Kavita Lorenz and Joti Polizoakis got a late start to the season after briefly splitting up over the summer, and it showed throughout their performance in Oberstdorf. For the first couple of minutes, it looked like Polizoakis was the weaker link, as he missed steps and turns that shaved levels off their serpentine step sequence. They managed to keep up the difficulty in their lifts and twizzles, but so-so grades of execution reveal that the judges saw uncertainty in those elements as well. The real killer, though, came in their diagonal step sequence, the last difficult element of their free dance. Step sequences in dance are deceptively hard, and the rewards for a great one can be huge; a level 4 diagonal step has a base value comparable to that of a quadruple jump. Lorenz's fall had the same effect on their score as when a men's skater doubles an intended quad, misses a planned combination, and falls. It's especially a shame because this free dance will be terrific when Lorenz and Polizoakis get a better handle on it. Many current teams look awkward in the realm of Latin dance, but Lorenz and Polizoakis have the ideal posture and chemistry for flamenco. They're on the roster for next weekend's Ondrej Nepela Memorial, another Challenger Series event, so they'll soon have another chance to prove they can get this right.

2. Don't Miss an Entire Element.

When I used to teach, I would frequently tell my students it was better to turn in a failing paper than to not turn one in at all. After all, you still get some points for an F, whereas a missed assignment is an automatic 0. It's the same with required elements in short programs: if you don't check one of the boxes, you get no points, even if what you did kind of resembled one of the requirements. In their short dance at JGP Ljubljana, Sofia Polishchuk and Alexander Vakhnov made the kind of freak error that keeps figure skating unpredictable. Their curve lift requires Polishchuk to stand on Vakhnov's boots, but as she went into it, she missed one of his feet. The tragedy of it is, they were great otherwise, better even than in their free dance, which contained no significant mistakes. The choreographic moves between their twizzles are unique and cool, and make their short program twizzles more difficult than the ones in their free dance. They skate close together and stay deep in the knee. It's also clear that they've spent the past month correcting the timing errors that got them in trouble with their pattern dance in St. Gervais. And they have two of the most adorable smiles in ice dance. With a bronze medal in St. Gervais and silver here, Polishchuk and Vakhnov will probably just miss the qualification threshold for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, but watch out for them next fall - or sooner, if they bring their A game to Nationals.

3. Don't Do Lifts You Can't Get Out Of.

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev have one of my favorite free dances of the season so far. I should be less surprised: they've always been a versatile and musical team, with edge control that makes me swoon. Maybe it's peer pressure getting me down, trying to convince me they shouldn't be my favorite Russian team, but there aren't many current ice dancers that can turn drab Chopin and overused Vivaldi into a unique, vibrant, and coherent free dance. They're especially adept at skating fast to slow music, maintaining the character and mood of the piece while subdividing the tempo to keep up their momentum. They're also one of the few top teams with seamless transitions and no Look At Us, About To Do A Lift moments. The two lifts in the second half of the program should be the biggest highlights, and while Bobrova is aloft, they are. Soloviev's speed during their rotational lift looks impossible, especially since Bobrova is upside-down, like a passenger on the world's most nausea-inducing amusement park ride, and yet both look graceful. The only problem is, she can't get down, and those stunning lifts devolve into awkward messes as Bobrova fights to keep her butt off the ice. At a low-stakes meet like the Russian Cup of Samara, which they were going to win by 60 points no matter what, it's no big deal. Internationally, however, they'll get destroyed for those lift exits, no matter how beautiful everything else is.

4. Don't Lose Track of Your Timing.

It's great to see Madison Chock and Evan Bates having fun. They've been in a stylistic rut since the 2014 Olympics - if not longer - and pop music has provided them with an avenue out. They haven't settled into their free dance yet, although the concept is one of the cooler things they've done as a team, set to a remix of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" that sends them through a range of emotional twists and turns. But it's the short dance where this team really cuts loose, and Chock in particular looks like she's thrilled to be let out of her cage. It's probably just good training, but I want to believe that her positive energy is what makes their lifts look so much smoother and more polished now than in the past. The one problem they haven't fixed yet is their tendency to get off rhythm in their steps. For the first time this season, the score sheets make the distinction between incorrect moves and timing errors in pattern dances, which is the kind of picayune distinction that only skaters, coaches, and extremely nerdy bloggers care about. Most of the top teams lost a level due to missed timing at the second checkpoint, but for me, it was easier to see that Chock and Bates were off. Their score suffered more from dropped levels in their partial step sequence, and on rewatch, it looks like the lost credit was a timing issue there as well, at least in part. Chock and Bates are capable of some of the world's most difficult ice dance moves, but they struggle with one of the discipline's requirements, which is to keep those movements synchronized with both the music and each other. 

5. Don't Biff Your Twizzles.

Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter entered the season as the bulletproof heroes of juniors, but so far, they've fallen behind last season's accomplishments. In Ljubljana, they had a number of technical problems, all related to upgrades that they don't seem to have mastered yet. But the twizzles were their greatest nemesis. In their free dance, McNamara lost control completely, stepping out of her middle set and looking, for a moment, like she was too rattled to continue. They held it together much better in the short dance, but the judges rightly docked them for unsteady edges in their first set and a loss of synchronization in the second. I wonder if the lack of a third twizzle set hurt them as well. In any case, McNamara and Carpenter have looked nervous and overwhelmed every time they've attempted this short dance, even though it features the kind of angular, menacing choreography that should be in their wheelhouse. At their best moments, they're still clearly a cut above other juniors, skating with incredible speed and moving smoothly from one element to the next. Despite their technical struggles, their components scores stayed high in reflection of those top-notch fundamental skills. But pretty will only get you so far if your elements are out of whack. It was a rough weekend to be a fan of this team, but no one took it harder than McNamara; in the kiss & cry after the free skate, she looked like she was about to boil over with rage at herself.

6. Don't Weird Out the Judges.

I knew from the moment they announced it that Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier would have one of my favorite blues/swing short dances, in a season crowded with short dances that are up my alley. For reasons that I'm sure make sense in a conference room in Switzerland, disco counts as a form of swing dance according to the ISU, giving the most offbeat team in elite ice dance carte blanche to paste on a tacky mustache and "Burn, baby, burn." Technically, the judges had to hand them this one, because it's hard to argue with the difficult, distinctive leg positions in their twizzles or the speed in their rotational lift. But some judges can't get aboard the Gilles/Poirier irony train, and a few assigned them components marks below an 8, surprisingly low for a team with such a strong resume. They narrowly beat Chock and Bates in their technical marks, but their components score held them under. In contrast, their tango free dance doesn't play to their artistic strengths nearly as much, and they seem to be reaching for a type of chemistry that doesn't come naturally to them. But it's a more conventional ice dance program, and accordingly, there was much less dissent among the judges. The overall tide of ice dance is shifting toward innovation, but Gilles and Poirier consistently pay the price for dancing on the edge.

7. Don't Let It Get Messy.

I am including this program because I enjoy it so much that I refuse to skip it, but at the same time, I understand why it was only good enough for 5th place. Ashlynne Stairs and Lee Royer get a ton of artistic mileage out of the breezy psychedelia in their Beatles medley, and they're the rare junior-level team with enough personality to pull off turquoise and magenta tie-dye. Their happy energy goes a long way toward disguising the fundamentals that still need a lot of work. They're substantially slower than the teams at the very top, and they rely more on open holds that make it easier to control their edges and see where they're going. Technically, their content is as challenging as any - like the Russians ahead of them, they got level 4s for their lifts, twizzles, and spin - but their execution isn't as clean. For instance, the rotational lift near the end of the program is almost a showstopper, except that Stairs doesn't extend her legs far enough into a split position, and Royer visibly struggles to manage his turns while keeping her aloft. There's no cure for these disadvantages but practice. The good news is, Stairs and Royer have shown how immense their potential is, and they'll have at least one more junior season to cash in on it.

8. Don't Forget Your Chemistry.

In theory, Anastasia Skoptcova and Kirill Aleshin gave the best overall performances at JGP Ljubljana. In practice, two teams with significant technical errors outscored them. The difference was all in the execution, but their limitations differ from the ones that Stairs and Royer are facing. Skoptcova and Aleshin have all their underlying skills in place: the speed, the deep and coordinated edges, the close and difficult positions. But in their most challenging technical elements, they're the slightest bit off, and that slight lack of synchronization can be fatal in ice dance. Their rotational lift, for example, is spectacular once it gets going, but Aleshin seems to struggle to find Skoptcova's center of gravity as he raises her into position. Their twizzles are crisp, with secure turns, but their leg positions frequently don't match. It's like they're skating on two separate rinks sometimes. You don't need smoldering romantic chemistry to succeed in ice dance, but you do need some kind of emotional connection, and it's not just about performance. The judges pick up on a team that's not communicating effectively, and that hurts components like Transitions as well as Interpretation. Both Skoptcova and Aleshin are fantastic ice dancers, but one of the toughest thing about dance is that you're in it together.

9. Don't Take Any Choreographic Risks.

This season, most of the senior teams are using the hip hop/swing short dance rhythms as a license to experiment, and many seem to be responding to criticisms that last year's free dances were stultifyingly same-y. Not Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, though. These two have a shtick that works for them, and although their music challenges it here and there, they've chosen to stay comfortable. So far, that's working out, as evidenced by their gold medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy. Unlike the other top-level skaters in Oberstdorf, Cappellini and Lanotte were free of visible missteps, although they got Level 3s on every step sequence in both programs, so the judges caught a few things out of place. Their twizzles, however, are fast and centered, and their lifts are dramatic, although Lanotte struggles to keep his free leg aloft during their curve lift. It does seem like choreographic consistency has allowed this team to focus on the technical side, but the drawback is, it doesn't win you a ton of love from the fans. Cappellini and Lanotte gave the most impressive performances of the weekend, but they also provided fewer memorable artistic moments than almost anyone else.

10. Don't Be New.

This time last year, I was mostly expressing doubt about Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit. They seemed like minor lights an unusually talented crop of American ice dancers, unable to match the dominant results achieved by the Parsons siblings or McNamara and Carpenter, and less innovative as well. This season, it's clear that they took those deficits as challenges, and over the summer, they've narrowed the gap technically and all but erased it artistically. Plus, they took a leap that the other Americans their age were unwilling to risk, making the jump to seniors even though they're still junior-eligible. From their results this weekend, it's clear that they've made a smart strategic choice. They placed fourth, with their scores on an island by themselves: 20 points out of 3rd place, but 15th points ahead of 5th. From a technical standpoint, however, they were closer to the head of the pack, especially in the short dance, where their technical score was only 3 points behind the leaders'. Pogrebinsky and Benoit also achieved something that none of the medalists could: they earned a perfect level 4 on their pattern dance. And they did it with an Elvis swagger and an infectious sense of fun. 

Despite putting down some of the most dynamic performances of the weekend, they lagged far behind on program components, with a few judges assigning them brutally low marks - one of the judges assigned them a 5.50 for Transitions in their free dance, compared to an 8.75 from the same judge for Cappellini and Lanotte. The Italians are smoother and more intricate skaters, to be sure, but the difference isn't that huge. Rather, the judges' stinginess toward Pogrebinsky and Benoit starts to look like an old-fashioned "Who the heck are you?" tax. It will probably take a full season of strong performances to rectify that, not to mention some serious training of the fundamental skills that force even the most cynical judges to pay attention to young teams. Pogrebinsky and Benoit have some natural advantages in that respect: not only charisma and musicality, but beautiful knee bend and, in Pogrebinsky's case, exceptional flexibility. If they'd competed at the Lombardia Trophy or U. S. International Classic instead of at Nebelhorn, they'd already have a Challenger Series medal. It'll be interesting to see where they stand at the end of this season.

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