By Brandon Penny | Oct. 22, 2016, 10:56 p.m. (ET)
Maia and Alex Shibutani compete in the short dance at 2016 Progressive Skate America at Sears Centre Arena on Oct. 22, 2016 in Hoffman Estates, Ill.


HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Maia and Alex Shibutani are taking hold of their career and it’s paying off.

They made the decision to mashup Frank Sinatra and Jay Z for their short dance music.

They made the decision Maia would wear pants for their short dance costume this season.

They made the decision to sit out the Challenger Series events and, for the first time in a couple years, debut their programs on the grand prix series.

Those decisions led to the Shibutanis leading the field after Saturday night’s short dance at Skate America.

Performing to “That’s Life,” they earned a 73.04 to lead Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia, who scored 68.92. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are close behind in third with a 68.78.

The Shibutanis appeared to be a new team on the ice. The choices they are making for themselves are bringing more confidence to their skating and their performance.

“You can see it with performance, right?” said longtime coach Marina Zoueva. “They’re not just dancing, they’re not trying, they’re not just competing. They did a performance. That’s why I’m really happy about that. I can see they’re a package – the music, the costume and the way how they perform. I was very happy.”

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The package they are presenting comes on the heels of a breakthrough season where the Shibutanis won their first national title in their sixth attempt and a career-best silver medal at world championships, proving themselves as the top American ice dance team.

Now they hope that silver medal will be a springboard to build off.

“We’re just trying to take everything that we do in our skating to the next level,” Alex said.

Alex, 25, is the one whose brainchild it was to blend Sinatra and Jay Z for their short dance. He says it’s an homage to the journey it took he and Maia, 22, to get to this level of their career.

“We’re skating to ‘That’s Life,’” Alex explained. “You have your highs and your lows, you brush the haters off, and you keep going and doing it your way. And we’re doing that.”

To help bring the idea to life, they brought in Quest Crew, winners of “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

“They’re the best crew that we’ve ever gathered and to have them help us with this program in particular gives us a lot of confidence,” Alex said. “Ryanimay helped us out. He’s an amazing and talented dancer and musician and we’re really happy. We love listening to the music even when we’re not practicing. It’s a lot of fun.”

The Shibutanis are looking forward to carrying that fun through the season and are confident their performance of the program will only continue to improve as they progress toward nationals and world championships.

“We know that’s one of our best qualities – that we always improve and show improvements, so we’re really looking forward to Cup of China next,” said Maia.

As for the call for Maia to wear pants this season, it was a decision made by the Shibutanis and Quest Crew once costume rules were changed recently.

“It’s not a choice a lot of other teams are making, but it really allows us to show our leg lines and movement and really just skate freely,” Maia said.

“It was a collective thought from the group that created the program, and it’s one thing to have the idea, but it takes confidence to wear pants out there, and I have that now! So it’s just fun.”

Also pushing themselves this season are Hubbell and Donohue, who start out skating to “Feeling Good” for the blues portion of their dance before transitioning to a hip-hop medley of several crowd-favorite songs.

“We really made a program that’s challenging physically,” Hubbell explained. “We wanted to dance hip-hop for as much of it as we could. So we really get the blues done in the beginning, and we have a little bit more of a fast-paced dance program in comparison to some of our competition that take it at a slower pace.

“We find it crowd-pleasing and we think the potential for it at the end of the season is really there.”

Both skaters have always been a fan of hip-hop music, but they quickly realized the difference between watching and performing it.

“It absolutely did not feel natural,” Hubbell said. “It definitely takes a lot of facial expression, a lot of attitude, it’s very in-your-face. And it is difficult to train on a daily basis, given both the technical side and the performance side… One thing that you really can’t translate onto the ice is hip-hop – the way that they do the popping and the locking, the very static moves.

“We’ve played with it, we’ve tried and we’ve learned it does have to be a hit and then a move because there’s no way to really be motionless on ice, and if you are, the judges don’t generally award it.”

Hubbell and Donohue are on a mission to stay true to hip-hop – to the point where they are confident that if they performed without music, it would still be clear it was hip-hop – while also on a mission to change their sport.

“I think we’re trying to prove a point to figure skating besides just wanting to do something different,” Donohue said. “Skating needs to change and evolve. It’s been in the dark ages. Pretty harsh, but it has. Everyone’s getting sick of the same music choices. I think that skaters need to be willing to push it for themselves, as well as for the outcome of what the sport will develop into.”