Young ice dancers Nelli Zhiganshina, 20, and Alexander Gazsi, 23, have made a good impression skating for Germany the last two seasons. Third in Germany in senior dance during their first season in 2006, the couple took the gold in 2007 and went on to Europeans and Worlds, where they finished 16th and 18th respectively. That was a good beginning for a team that had not been seen outside of Germany before then.
The dancers opened the 2007-08 season by placing seventh at Skate Canada in Quebec, then finishing fifth at the Golden Spin of Zagreb and eighth at the Cup of Russia.
Both skaters first came on to the ice when they were four. “I always liked to watch the skating on television,” Zhiganshina recalled. “My mom was a coach for kids and she took me to the rink with her.” “I started under the old Communist system,” Gazsi said. “They tested all the kids in kindergarten and I was chosen for figure skating. That was the first sport that was tested so I did not try any other sports.”
“I skated by myself until I was 12,” Zhiganshina continued. “Then all the coaches said I should go into dance because I could skate so well. I like dance because it’s not just jumps and spins. It’s more artistic and you can show more emotion on the ice.” She competed with Denis Bazdyrev until 2004 for Russia, but never placed high at Russian Nationals.
Gazsi started dance at nine. “I could not jump,” he explained. “I really like pairs because it’s so exciting, but I like dance because I feel it more. He competed for Germany with Sandra Gissmann, placing second at German Nationals in senior dance in 2004 and 17th at Junior Worlds in the same year.
The couple began skating together in 2005. “It’s a funny story,” Gazsi said. “My partner had quit for school and her partner was not compatible so we were both looking for new partners. I went with Angelika Krylova looking for girls, but didn’t have any good tryouts so I had stopped for the summer. Then, I went to Moscow to try with some girls, because Elena Kustarova called me. She was the one who brought us together for this tryout in secret.” “When I was told that there was a new guy from Germany,” I didn’t want to do a tryout,” Zhiganshina admitted. “But after 15 minutes of skating, I knew we had to skate together.”
Kustarova and Svetlana Alexeeva coach the couple, which trains primarily in Moscow. “In the summer, we have ice for six hours a day, six days a week, Gazsi said, “but during the season, we only do four hours on ice each day. And we do off ice athletics and ballet every day. We have both done ballet since we were kids.” Because Gazsi is a private in the sports division of the German Army, they also train in Berlin and Chemnitz during the summer when he must do his military service.
Kustarova choreographs the couple’s dances. This season, they are using “Black Eyebrows and Hazel Eyes” and “Marusia” by Josef Kobzon for their original dance. “We talked about different kinds of folk dances, but we didn’t want to do a German dance,” Gazsi said. “So we chose a Ukrainian folk dance. There will be too many gypsies this year and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted something that would be good to skate in our own style and that would be fun to watch.” “When we played the music the first time, I really liked it,” Zhiganshina added.
Their free dance is to music from “La Boheme” performed by Charles Aznavour. “It’s a modern version of the music,” Gazsi said. “The coaches wanted us to skate with emotion, but we were happy it wasn’t too dramatic. Maybe next season, we will try something more serious.” “We hope we can skate to all kinds of music,” Zhiganshina added. “Last year, some of the dances were really easy to show. This year, we’re very happy with our tango.”
“We have been playing around, trying to find some new lifts,” Gazsi said. “We’re using some of the lifts we had last year, just to get points. But it’s a little bit uninteresting with the new system when everybody is trying to do the same lifts.”
The couple saw the test for the new proposal for rotating compulsory dances in Oberstdorf this fall. “That idea is very stupid,” Gazsi stated. “To really compare all the couples, you have to see them all do the same dance. Some dances are easy and some are not. It would be better to have no compulsory dances at all.”
Zhiganshina is in her fourth year of study at a sports university in Moscow, with about two and a half more years to go. Gazsi graduated from a three-year college program in design and plans to attend the university in the future to study architecture. He has also been studying Russian and has become relatively fluent in the last two years. “It’s hard to live far from my family in a very different culture,” he said, “but I got used to it.”
For now, the dancers plan to compete at least until the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010. “That’s our focus at the moment,” Gazsi said. “Afterwards, we will see. For this season, we need to pass the Beiers in Germany so we can go back to Europeans and Worlds and have more points for the Grand Prix.” They have to be careful this season because Gazsi cut a tendon in his hand while skating earlier in the year and must have surgery after the season to correct the problem.