Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are confident they’ll impress the judges at the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki this week with changes they’ve made to their programs.
“We’ll knock their socks off,” Bates said, and his partner laughed.
This is the last time they’ll compete their free dance to the music “Under Pressure,” by David Bowie and Queen, which features the apropos line “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?”
Chock and Bates have reached every step on the world podium but one – the top step. They won the silver medal in 2015 – when they were U.S. champions – and took home the bronze in 2016.
This season, Chock and Bates were silver medalists at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships while also placing second at Skate Canada, Rostelecom Cup (the grand prix event in Russia), Ondrej Nepela Memorial in Slovakia and the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany. They were third at the Four Continents Championships in February on the 2018 Olympic rink in Gangneung, South Korea, with their only bad outing a disappointing sixth at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, in December.
“Under Pressure” is an understatement for what Chock and Bates will feel in Helsinki at their fifth world championships together. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are two-time defending champions, but Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, the 2010 Olympic champions and 2014 silver medalists, returned to competition this season after a two-year layoff.
Chock, 24, and Bates, 28, also face fierce competition from teammates Maia and Alex Shibutani, the two-time national champions and reigning world silver medalists. (Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic gold medalists from Team USA, have not competed since 2014. They will not defend their title in PyeongChang next year, but have not retired.)
“Getting another world podium is harder,” said Chock, who placed eighth with Bates in Sochi, as well as seventh at the 2013 worlds and fifth in 2014. “There’s one more amazing team (Virtue and Moir), but they’re definitely a really good addition to the figure skating season.
“When you’re on the ice, it’s just you and your partner trying to perform the very best that you possibly can. It’s not about anyone else. You have to just take your moment and own it.”
Seeing room for improvement in their footwork, Chock and Bates hope their recent tweaks will earn Level 4 ratings from the judges rather than Level 3s – even if their socks stay on.
Most of the changes are in the short dance, performed to “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, which fulfill the blues and hip hop requirement set by the International Skating Union.
“When we change the steps, it just feels like it has more life again,” said Chock, who noted they altered their partial step sequence and moved around a few turns in their side-by-side and their diagonal step sequence. “It’s good for the program as far as the overall speed and flow and energy, so I only see positives coming from changing our footwork.”
Bates said the couple and their coach, Igor Shpilband, recognized that putting in more difficult steps brought an increased possibility of mistakes.
“What we talk about a lot is the balance between just going for it and really investing all of your energy into the choreography, but at the same time having the calmness to execute,” Bates said. “It’s a matter of repetition and of having the consistency of energy output in practice that you’re going to have in the competition.”
He added that feedback they received in the five weeks since the Four Continents Championships helped them sharpen the emotional aspect of their free dance, which has evolved all season.
“Based on performances, especially nationals, I felt like we were able to really grab the crowd and bring them in with us,” Bates said. “In the second half of the program, everybody’s energy in the arena was sort of adding together to create a special moment at the end – and that’s really what we want to do in Helsinki.
“It is a little bittersweet knowing that it’s the last time that we’ll do this program that we both love so much.”
The upbeat “Under Pressure” was a departure for Chock and Bates, who began skating together for the 2011-12 season with a free dance performed to Frederic Chopin. They followed that with music from “Dr. Zhivago,” “Les Miserables,” “An American in Paris,” and then “Piano Concerto No.2” by Sergei Rachmaninoff last season.
“Based on our previous music selections, we really wanted to try to do something that would be different and out of the box,” Chock said, “and yet engaging to a mass amount of people – a song that was well-recognized and loved. We obviously feel a very strong connection to this music.
“Especially when there are a lot of lyrical programs, it’s a nice change of pace, and it really energizes us and hopefully the crowd feels that and it energizes them as well.”
Shpilband brought the song to them, and their choreographer, Christopher Dean, the 1984 Olympic champion with partner Jayne Torvill, was on the same page.
It has served them well.
Chock and Bates won the free dance at Skate Canada, but lost the title to Virtue and Moir by a score of 189.06 to 188.24 (the American team’s personal best). They also won the free dance at the U.S. nationals in January, although their score was not enough to overtake the Shibutanis.
Defeating the Shibutanis “just solidified the confidence that we’ve had all season in our skating,” Chock said. “Going into the second half of the season, we really wanted to showcase these programs and perform to the best of our ability. Nationals was a huge step forward for us in that direction, and we’re going to keep stepping in that direction for the rest of the season.”
Chock, who designs her team’s costumes, said she and Bates have a “good energy” with the Shibutanis, with whom they competed even when they had previous partners. “It’s definitely a strong competition and one that really motivates us to work harder and plan better and be more strategic with how we perform and how we train,” Chock said. “It’s really made both of us as teams become a lot stronger and smarter, so only good things can come out of rivalries like this.”
While “Under Pressure” was an easy choice for Chock and Bates’ free dance, Bates said the selection of music for the short dance, “took some negotiating. Madison brought in ‘Bad to the Bone’ pretty early in our search for music and it wasn’t accepted right away. We had to keep coming back to it and bringing it up and advocating for it, because we just loved it. We felt like it was really edgy and it would be something that people hadn’t seen us do before in the competitive atmosphere.”
For the hip hop piece, as soon as choreographer Rohene Ward mentioned they needed something “really funky,” Bates said, “It just clicked that we needed to skate to ‘Uptown Funk.’ We literally got right on the ice and started choreographing it.”
Modifications have kept it fresh ever since. However, Chock and Bates’ programs aren’t alone in needing to be revitalized.
On the way home from Four Continents, the ice dancers stopped in Hawaii on the way back to their training base near Detroit.
“We planned a little vacation,” said Bates, who celebrated his birthday during the break, “just to feel refreshed and recharge our batteries before the final push to worlds.”
And, for a few days at least, they weren’t under pressure.