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Shibutanis Pumped to Power up Olympic Berth in Boston

by Liz Leamy

Team ready to rock audiences with fun pop programs

Last summer, Maia and Alex Shibutani made a video to the compelling club anthem, #thatpower by will.i.am (and Justin Beiber) that somehow seems to represent a message to the skating world as they prepare to make their bid toward an Olympic berth at the 2013 U.S. Championships in Boston this week.

The four and a half minute video, directed and produced by the Detroit-area based brother-sister dance team, who also happen to be the 2011 World bronze medalists and three-time U.S. medalists, was created during Mao Asada’s ‘The Ice’ show in Japan last July and is a virtual hit in that it has had more than 72,000 hits on YouTube, the popular video website.

It features the team skating, dancing and lip-synching with Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist and two-time World titlist, Jeffrey Buttle, the 2006 Canadian Olympic bronze medalist and Gracie Gold, who was second at the 2013 U.S. Championships, among others, to lyrics that tout the power of confidence.

No doubt, this popular YouTube video seems to have been a telling statement by this team, who has skated together for 10 years, going into this Olympic season. This past fall, they clinched a bronze medal at both Skate America in Detroit and at the NHK Trophy in Japan.

Although the team missed making the Grand Prix Final by a few points, they said it only motivated them to work harder in preparation for Nationals.

“We feel good with Nationals being [a week] away,” said Alex Shibutani, 22, in a conference call last Friday. “The Olympic club is something we all aspire to and the opportunity to represent our country is something we take very seriously.”

His sister, who is 19, feels the same way.

“We’re so glad Nationals are next week,” said Maia Shibutani. “We’ve had a successful Grand Prix season and it’s our first time [trying] to qualify for the Olympic team, it’s a dream come true.”

Certainly, much of the reason the Shibutanis have arrived at this juncture in their decorated competitive career (they were intermediate, novice and junior national champions as well) is because of their commitment to their skating.

In 1999, they started taking lessons (Maia was four, Alex was seven) in Greenwich, Connecticut. Initially, they worked with Slavka Button, who taught five-time U.S. titlist Janet Lynn and Kathy Bird, a national coach based in the New York-metropolitan area. During this time, they passed numerous U.S. Figure Skating tests and won area competitions in the singles groups.

“They were eager, loved the sport and wanted to learn,” said Button, a Professional Skaters Association Hall of Fame member who works in Greenwich, Connecticut and Westchester, New York. “I felt they would make it to this level.”

After several years, they relocated to Colorado Springs to work with Patti Gottwein, an international dance coach. A few seasons later, they moved to Canton, Michigan in order to train with the iconic Olympic ice dance coaches, Igor Sphilband and Marina Zoueva.

Under Sphilband’s and Zoueva’s direction, the team scored a World bronze medal and two National podium finishes and established their reputation as a leading international dance duo.

When Shpilband and Zoueva parted ways more than a year ago, the Shibutanis decided to team with Zoueva and also Oleg Epstein, and the dynamic has been effective.

Regarded as one of the most consistent and technically apt teams in the dance community, the team has spent the past year working steadfastly with Zoueva and Epstein, as well as some famous dance choreographers, on elevating their performance level.

“The connection with the audience is very important to us and we’ve been working on it all year,” said Alex Shibutani. “We perform our best when we’re having a blast out there.”

In choosing their programs this year, the Shibutanis were all about showing the fun in their skating.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves but have fun as well,” said Alex Shibutani. “We recognize the Olympic stage means there’s much more attention to our sport.”

For their short dance, they decided on an upbeat medley by Michael Buble that feature the songs, “The Best is Yet to Come’ and ‘For Once in My Life,’ which so far, has been well received by audiences.

“It’s feel good music and we’ve enjoyed skating to it all year,” said Maia Shibutani.

Their free dance, meanwhile, is a compilation of peppy Michael Jackson tunes including ‘Wanna Be Starting Something,’ ‘Man in the Mirror’ and ‘Thriller.’ In crafting this program, the Shibutanis used the talents of Corky Ballas from ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and dancers from the ‘This is It’ tour, Travis Payne and Stacy Walker.

“We’ve never had a program where the energy level is so amazingly high,” said Alex Shibutani. “Michael Jackson’s moves were so iconic and we wanted to show the diversity of his performance value.”

Following NHK, the Shibutanis decided to shelve the song ‘Ben’ from the medley and use the song, ‘Man in the Mirror,’ which they felt fit better with the overall program design.

“We were lucky to start the year with a free dance program that was structurally sound,” said Alex Shibutani. “We were able to keep the integrity of the artistic vision.”

Meanwhile, the team changed their choreographic lift and spin in hopes of earning higher levels from officials.

Somehow, this strategic approach, coupled with their work ethic, should very well get them the results they want.

In fact, the Shibutanis, who trains in Canton with Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning five-time U.S. champions, 2010 Olympic silver medalists and two-time World titlists and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Canadian Olympic gold medalists, are regarded by their peers as extremely hard workers.

“[The Shibutanis] are incredibly hard workers,” said White. “I think it’s one of their greatest assets.”

This team’s mindset goes beyond their own skating, however, as they are vocal about doing everything in their power to help promote the sport through their performances this Olympic season.

“An Olympic year brings a different set of eyes and attention to our sport and it’s a great opportunity for [figure skating],” said Alex Shibutani. “So many of our experiences through this sport have shaped us as people.”

He also cites the significance of the Olympics in relation to its overall global effect.

“I guess I have a romantic notion about the Olympics,” he said. “It has a unifying quality about it and for two weeks it brings the whole world together.”

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