Maia Shibutani is a 2014 Olympic ice dancer who competes with her brother Alex. The Shibutanis are three-time world championships medalists, four-time Four Continents medalists, two-time U.S. champions and 14-time grand prix medalists. Maia and Alex are writing about their journey for TeamUSA.org as they approach the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Alex and I are in Moscow, Russia to compete at Rostelecom Cup this weekend. Official practice starts tomorrow, the short dance is on Friday and the free dance is on Saturday. This competition is the first of six grand prix events that make up the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. Over the next six weeks, there will also be competitions held in Canada, China, Japan, France and the United States. Skaters competing on the circuit can be assigned to compete in up to two events. The top six ranked skaters/teams from the series will compete in the Grand Prix Final, which will be held in Nagoya, Japan at the beginning of December. In figure skating, the grand prix series occurs annually every fall. Currently, we are a little less than four months away from an event that doesn’t occur every year: the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea!
Alex and I upload vlogs to our YouTube channel (somewhat consistently) and are very active on social media. This blog is a little different, but we’re excited to be writing for Team USA! We’ll be sharing our experiences with you between now and April of next year. Get ready and remember I included this disclaimer: this first blog entry is a long one…
The next few days feel special to us because this will be our first competition of the season! We are debuting two new programs that we will be performing throughout the season. This is our eighth year competing on the grand prix circuit and it is cool to be back in Moscow. The audiences here are very knowledgeable and supportive. We also have good memories from the first time we competed in Moscow when we won our first world medal in 2011. There are more reasons why debuting our programs this week holds special meaning, but I will get to that later…
Figure skating is a sport where we train year-round. Our last competition was the 2017 world championships at the end of March in Helsinki, Finland. Since then, apart from taking a long weekend off in June, we have been working non-stop to create and develop our two new programs. I am really proud of all that we have already accomplished. While in a lot of ways the Olympic season is “just like any other season,” Alex and I are experienced enough to know that that isn’t the case. Here are a few reasons why:
- Normally we plan our training so that we are peaking at the world championships in March. The Olympics, however, are held in February. Therefore, the entire timeline of the season is shifted a little earlier. For example, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships are usually held in the middle of January. This season, they begin right after New Year’s. It is that much more important to be well trained and confident in your programs from the start of the competitive season.
- There are more "eyes” on the sport during the Olympics. While we are training, developing material and competing every year, the Olympics are undeniably the biggest stage and competition our sport has. This year is an exciting opportunity to share our work, what we love about skating and what makes our community so special with a bigger global audience.
- There are more commitments associated with an Olympic year. Because of our competitive success these past few years, heading into this February, we have more responsibilities. We are very happy to be working with different companies and sponsors, and we are proud to be working with the USOC on the “Thank You, PyeongChang” program.
Of course, there are more factors at play, but knowing the three things I listed above, and having experienced the Olympics firsthand in 2014, Alex and I knew that it was important that we were very organized about how we spent every day. Our planning for this season began long before the end of March.
We have been very productive since the world championships and have never gotten more accomplished during the spring and summer. In addition to training at home in Michigan, we worked with skaters, dancers and musicians in Switzerland, Los Angeles and New York.
Each year and usually before every competition, we are asked what our “goal” is. When it comes to our skating, Alex and I have followed a plan we set in place following Sochi. This past March, we celebrated our 10-year anniversary of working with our coach, Marina Zoueva. Together, we have been through SO much. Becoming Olympians was a dream come true, but once we accomplished that, we decided to set new goals heading into this Olympic cycle.
Our main goal was to become the best team we could be. While that may sound vague, that thinking has allowed us to set our own path. Figure skating is a subjective sport. We are competitive people, but beyond achieving results, Alex and I wanted to push ourselves to grow and create work that we could really be proud of. Part of our development has come with time, but we have also made choices over the past few years that completely changed who we are as athletes and artists.
Through our experiences, I’ve come to believe the expression, “everything happens for a reason.” We have definitely had to fight through adversities and hard times, but we have learned, persevered and come out a stronger team. We love what we do and are passionate about our work. Having perspective and experience has made us better competitors and performers.
For this first blog, it was suggested that we share what our creative process is like. The first word that comes to mind is “unique.” What we set out to do, and how we did it, is very time consuming and exhausting, but extremely fulfilling. We have learned that collaboration is a very important part of our success. Apart from our main coaching team in Michigan (Marina Zoueva, Massimo Scali, Oleg Epstein and Johnny Johns), Alex and I work together with people from all over the world. Balancing opinions, information and communication is a skill, but we are very lucky because while we have a large support team, we are extremely selective and specific about who we spend creative time with. The skaters, choreographers, dancers and musicians who we work with are all people we admire for their skills and experience. While they are talented people at the top of their respective fields, we don’t have to waste time worrying about their egos. These mentors and collaborators turned friends work with us because they believe in us. They want to help us fulfill our vision and they inspire us to be our best.
Alex Shibutani (L) sits with Massimo Scali (C) and Marina Zoueva (R).
Music: Perez Prado Medley (Mambo, Cha Cha and Samba) – arranged by Alex and Ryanimay
“But out of limitations comes creativity.” Debbie Allen, Choreographer.
I think this quote is very powerful and it encapsulates our mindset when it comes to how we create a short dance. There are a LOT of rules and restrictions. One rule is that the entire ice dance field is assigned a prescribed rhythm and style of music. This year, that rhythm is Latin.
Creating a short dance is a challenge we enjoy. In some ways, it is kind of like being on an episode of the TV show, “Chopped.” We’re given a basket of ingredients – a required rhythm and required elements – and we have a time limitation. But, then we have the freedom to create something special and unique. Alex and I learned a lot from creating our Sinatra/Jay Z short dance last season. Even with nuanced technical rules, it is possible to create something entertaining. Authenticity to the style of dance movement is important to us and concept is always key. We want people who may have never seen figure skating to be entertained by our program.
Alex and I have skated to Latin rhythms before, but that was in 2012. Since then, through cumulative experiences of learning and working on different styles of dance, we are – there’s no other way to put it – way better. Heading into this season, we had the confidence to set out to create a really challenging, entertaining and dynamic program.
While we were aware of the perception that as siblings, the Latin rhythms could be tricky for us to perform, we had our own opinion. In February, before our creative process truly began, we sought out advice from Derek Hough. Derek Hough and his younger sister, Julianne, have been standouts in the world of dance and entertainment on "Dancing with The Stars." They have experience performing together and even have their own show, “MOVE,” that toured the country for the third time this summer. Derek shared our opinion that Latin rhythms can absolutely be about having fun. The program we have created has a cohesive concept and it is high energy. It really suits us and we’ve made it our own. We love it!
Maia and Alex Shibutani (R) pose with Derek and Julianne Hough.
Right after worlds, we were able to attend two days of rehearsals for Julianne and Derek's show. Seeing that elite level of dance on the floor was inspiring. When we were creating our short dance, we worked with Marina and Massy, but we also worked with Serge Onik, Jenna Johnson and Maxim Kozhevnikov. Learning from both male and female dancers was incredibly helpful when we were looking to create movement that highlights both me and Alex.
Constructing the music for our program was a whole other process. Hours and hours of work have been put in to create the three-minute piece we have now. It was a labor of love, and it feels amazing to know that we have created something unique. We decided that we wanted to have a cohesive theme that ran throughout the program so using Perez Prado’s music was perfect. It doesn’t matter what time of day we are training, or how many hours we have already trained. Whenever we hear our music, we want to give it our all.
Alex Shibutani (L) works with Ryanimay (R) to compose music for each program.
Music: Paradise by Coldplay – arranged by Alex and Ryanimay feat. Jun Curry Ahn
We made the final decision that we would skate to “Paradise” while we were competing at the 2017 Four Continents Championships (the Olympic test event hosted in PyeongChang) in February. It was powerful listening to the piece in the Olympic venue in South Korea. Alex, Marina, Massy and I all felt it. This was the direction we HAD to follow. Choosing your Olympic free dance music is a crucial decision, and I realize how special it is that we were so sure of our direction.
Our free dance is very personal and its conception began towards the end of the 2015-16 season. Two years ago, we experienced a breakthrough and the trajectory of our career completely shifted. We won our first U.S. (senior) national title, our first ISU Championship event and returned to the world podium to win our second world medal. It had been five years since we won our first world medal in our debut year as a senior team back in 2011. In the history of ice dance, this has never been done. Traditionally when your results take a dip, there is no coming back five years later.
At the start of that season, we had reached a point where we decided that we needed to change. Alex and I came to the realization that when we compete, we don’t have to portray characters from an existing or well-known story like some of our competitors. There is enough room in the competitive field for different styles and it is enough for us if we are ourselves. Being ourselves for the past two years has allowed us to showcase one of the things that makes us unique on the ice. As siblings, we share a lifelong bond and through our skating and performances, we have been able to share how much we care about each other. Because we love what we are doing, we aren’t dependent on results to be proud of what we have done.
During the 2015-16 season, we skated to “Fix You” by Coldplay. Lyrics like: “When you try your best, but you don’t succeed” and “stuck in reverse” really spoke to us. Alex and I were vulnerable and we made the decision to skate for each other. When we decided to skate to Coldplay, contemporary music wasn’t a common choice and we really had no way of knowing that those incredible results were possible. That season taught us the power and importance of being true to ourselves.
In a lot of ways because of that season, we had a fresh start to our career. With the two remaining years in the current Olympic cycle in mind, we developed the concept of creating a free dance trilogy. Last season, we called our program “Evolution.” It was “Part 2” of our trilogy and we made a conscious decision to be more abstract and challenge ourselves with the creative process. We wanted to show a different side of our skating and we skated to music that definitely wasn’t as well known. After the 2015-16 season, a weight was lifted of our shoulders. A quote from “Man of Steel” (2013) really inspired us to keep pushing to become stronger and to grow as artists: “You’ve grown stronger here than I ever could have imagined… the only way to know how strong is to keep testing your limits.”
Following our breakthrough season, we knew we weren’t “done.” We had just set a new standard for what was possible for us. Last year, we experienced a lot of competitive success and we proved to ourselves that we could compete under any circumstance. With both of our programs, we made huge advancements with our creative process and the growth and evolution that we experienced gave us so much confidence heading into this year.
That brings us to this year’s free dance. The trilogy concept was captivating to us because it gave us direction and encouraged us to continue to be true to who we are. We know that this year, there will be viewers who have never seen us skate before. Alex and I don’t expect people to go back and watch our programs in order. This program has been created so that it can stand alone. Our emotional connection to the music and the journey we have been on, is what makes this program our strongest creative concept yet.
Fix You -> Evolution -> Paradise
The first year, we were coming from a place of being discouraged and unsure of our identity. We dug deep and together, Alex and I fixed ourselves. The second year, with Evolution, we grew and progressed. This year with Paradise, we are becoming the skaters we always hoped we could be – reaching our Paradise together.
The choice of the piece we were using didn’t just work because of the title of the song. Lyrically, “Paradise” really speaks to us.
When she was just a girl
She expected the world
But it flew away from her reach
So she ran away in her sleep
And dreamed of paradise.
When we were a young team, we experienced unprecedented and rapid success. While we continued to improve, we weren’t equipped to stay at that very elite level. It was hard not to be discouraged, listen to the noise and give in to doubt. We reached the point that we did in 2015 because we always believed in ourselves and continued to dream and work to improve. This year's program is really a celebration of the special bond that we share.
When Alex and I first learned how to skate, I immediately knew I wanted to be a skater. I loved the feeling of being on the ice and I wanted to skate all the time. My dream was to skate at the Olympics like my heroes, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi. Alex, on the other hand, had other interests and didn’t begin skating more seriously until later. It wasn’t until we started skating together that my dream became OUR dream. In ice dance, we found something that we both loved and inspired us to work to be our best.
In order to be at our best this season, we turned to people that we really trust for help and advice. The main choreographers are Marina and Massimo, but we also worked with Stéphane Lambiel, Renee Roca, Alex Wong, Serge Onik, Hokuto Konishi and Peter Tchernyshev.
Maia and Alex Shibutani pose with (L-R) Stéphane Lambiel, Alex Wong and Renee Roca.
I only realized it as I was writing this blog, but competing in Moscow for our third time has special meaning. Our first time here was when we medaled at our first world championships in 2011. Expectations following that result were definitely high and hopeful. The second time we competed in Moscow was in 2013. At that point, things were already flying away from our reach. We were young and hadn’t developed our own point of view. Alex and I didn’t really connect to either program we were competing at the time. Both program ideas had been suggested to us by others. That competition was the only time in our seven years of competing on the grand prix series (14 competitions in total) that we didn’t medal. Our sense of self wasn’t entirely tied to our competitive results, but the thing that was most challenging for us was that we didn’t truly feel ownership of what we were doing.
Heading into this weekend, I can reflect and know that we have grown so much. This free dance has layers of connection that go at least four or five layers deeper than what I have explained. Creating a program like this has been challenging, but those challenges have led to special and important breakthroughs. We are committed and connected to every moment of our programs. This off-season, Alex and I have worked the hardest we ever have, and we are in the best shape of our lives. I feel really ready! This year, our goal is to do the best that we can do and the best that we have ever have.
If you’ve made it to this point – thank you, for reading this very lengthy first post. Alex and I are so grateful to all of the people who have been supporting us over the years. We’re looking forward to continuing to share our journey with you.
Until next time,
If you’re interested, we have been documenting our creative process in our vlogs and those videos can be found on our YouTube channel.