Last Hurrah for Belbin and Agosto

Articles, Articles by Barry Mittan, Featured

This will be the last season of competitive skating for five-time U.S. ice dancing champions, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto. The skaters have earned a raft of accolades during their careers with silver medals at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, the 2005 and 2009 World Figure Skating Championships and two ISU Grand Prix Finals. They won the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships three times, the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2002, the ISU Junior Grand Prix Final in 2001-02, and nine Grand Prix events.

Belbin and Agosto will compete in their second Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada this month. “We plan to attend the opening ceremonies and stay until the end of the figure skating events, but are undecided about attending the closing ceremony,” Belbin said. “This will definitely be our last Olympic Games.”

But the dancers currently plan to continue competing until the end of the season and finish out their careers at Worlds.

“We plan to go on tour and take advantage of show opportunities as much as possible immediately following the season so we can hopefully earn enough money to either begin a university education or support ourselves during the transitional period between career shifts or possibly both,” Belbin stated. “I’m still planning to pursue a career in journalism or broadcasting so if any opportunities arise in that department after the Games, I will try to jump on them and continue building my experience in the field.”

The dancers train with Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanossov five days a week for four to five hours on ice and two to three hours off ice depending on the day.

“We alternate between ballet and modern dance classes at the beginning of every day, and also alternate between folk dance and lift class between sessions each day,” Agosto said. “We then go on to our off-ice conditioning class at an off-site training facility where we do a combination of strength, speed and agility exercises.”

The couple noted that it required a lot more work now to stay at the top.

“I think the acrobatics necessary for the lifts these days and the amount of time it takes to put into developing programs with level 4 elements is far more time-consuming than dance once was,” Agosto said. “We have to create new elements each year, unlike the other disciplines, and we have a third event. I feel that compulsory dances should be kept through the junior level and then eliminated in seniors.”

Belbin and Agosto had trained with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva in Canton, Michigan for many years, but switched coaches in April 2008.

“In truth, there are only a handful of top dance coaches to choose from today with the experience and knowledge required to continually produce champion teams,” Belbin said. “We were willing to move outside our country to train if necessary, but after making a list of possible coaching options and weighing the pros and cons, we found we were truly left with only one option (aside from staying where we were) and that was, of course, Natalia and Gennadi. We were looking for a fresh approach to our style, sounder basic skating skills, and someone with the experience and vision to guide us to the top.”

“We were shocked to learn just how different Gennadi and Natalia’s technique was from what we were accustomed to, from the most basic of steps,” Agosto exclaimed. “In our first lesson with them, we took one push and they said ‘stop, stop, stop!’  and immediately began working to erase our muscle memory and rebuild us from the ground up in the style and with the strengths they needed from us. The way in which they coach is very similar to Igor and Marina, but what they are teaching feels completely different.”

“I feel that our legs are stronger,” Belbin said. “We skate more ‘into the ice’ and have better edge control as a result. We feel much more capable now as skaters than we have been in years past and possibly even more importantly, I feel more confident in myself and what I will be able to achieve this season.”

“It’s very interesting training in Aston because it seems there are no two teams from the same country,” Agosto stated. “This summer, for example, we had teams from China, Japan, Ukraine, Switzerland, Israel, and Russia. And that’s only those I can remember. The training is more individual it seems, less of a ‘team’ atmosphere but extremely focused because of it. Our competitiveness with each other is encouraged because it can be a healthy and productive mental training tool if used positively. I’ve found I acclimate quicker to being in competition once I arrive at events because it’s not such a foreign feeling; being on the ice and seeing each team as my competitor and not only my friends.”

The 2009 world champions, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, also train with Linichuk and Karpanossov.

“Oksana and Max are great training mates,” Agosto said. “They stay focused on themselves, as we do, but there is still a sense of support on our practice sessions.”

“Sadly, we lost a great asset to Natalia and Gennadi’s camp last season with the unexpected death of our dance instructor, Vitaly Popkov,” Belbin lamented. “Vitaly was not only a ballet coach but our dance and lift choreographer, so this season we sought to replenish all those positions with new dance professionals. We are now working with a husband and wife duo of instructors. Sergei teaches classical ballet and helps us develop lifts, while Jhanna is trained mostly in modern and European folk dance styles. Her expertise lent itself perfectly to our OD this year.”

The dancers are using “Moldovaneska” for their country/folk original dance and “Ave Maria” and “Stabat Mater” for their free dance.

“Our original dance is music from Moldova,” Belbin said. “We wanted to do something European because we went Western the last time the folk OD came around. We also needed something very fast with a lot  of energy to show our ability and also contrast to our free dance.”

“Natalia brought the music to us but it was Gennadi’s idea to use the Moldavian style of dance,” Agosto noted.

“I think the folk OD will provide variety and entertainment to the audience but the excitement the program offers will depend on the style of dance the skater chooses,” Agosto said. “From what I’ve seen, it can be hit or miss.”

The skaters used the music they skated to for the Stars on Ice tour for galas earlier in the year, “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis.

“We will make new show programs for the end of this Olympic season which will return us to our better-known style of fast paced and comical program selections,” Agosto noted.

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