Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto: Online Interview
Merely four years after joining efforts, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto have already been touted as Olympic hopefuls as a result of their consistent and impressive climb up the world dance standings. The team finished in seventh place at these most recent World Championships, following two bronze medals on the Grand Prix and second place finish at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.
Over the years they have earned themselves the title of Junior National as well as World Junior Champions, and their consecutive silver medal finishes at the Senior Nationals has earned them both a spot on the US World Team the past three years, and the recognition to be among the world’s best.
Training at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., their careers are destined to blossom as they further develop their talent and skills. Tanith and Ben are part of an emerging dynasty for United States Ice Dancing. In a discipline traditionally dominated by European teams, Tanith and Ben have successfully managed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field while emerging as one of the world’s best. Their ambitions remain to represent the United States in Olympic and World competition. Coached by Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva, their ability and talent are sure to grow with time.
Paula: Were you satisfied with your placement at Worlds last year? Is there anything you would have liked to have done different?
Tanith: Our placement was extremely satisfying, especially when compared to our results from the 2001 and 2002 Worlds (17th & 13th). Of course it is wonderful to be climbing up in the standings with such momentum; however, more than anything else we were proud of how we skated, and delivering performances which set new personal bests.
Benjamin: This whole season we have been thrilled by all the positive feedback we have received. Worlds was the most satisfying personally because we were able to skate cleanly in all three of our events; something we had yet to accomplish during the year.
Pam: If I remember correctly, both of you signed that petition regarding 3rd place in the ice-dance competition after Worlds in Nagano. Why would you do that when it could potentially hurt your skating in the future? Don’t get me wrong, I thought that Drobiazko and Vanagas should’ve gotten the bronze, but why put yourselves on the line?
Tanith/Benjamin: There was a sense of security provided by the fact that almost all of our fellow competitors signed their names to the petition right beside ours. We knew that as a group, it would be unrealistic to assume that we would all be penalized for being so untraditionally outspoken as they would not be able to punish the entire event. It is also worth mentioning that we felt the intentions of the skaters was quite warped by all of the media attention this issue gained. Somewhere along the way it was labeled as a protest, or an attack by the skaters to the ISU, when in actuality the majority of the skaters, including us, took this course of action to try and establish some kind of communication with the ISU officials so that we could work together to ensure the satisfaction of everyone involved in our event that we are a part of an equitable and respected sport.
Paula: Sometimes it seems that international judges somewhat discriminate against North American dance teams. Do you feel the same way and do you feel you have a legitimate shot at becoming World Champions in the future?
Tanith/Benjamin: As North American skaters in an event which, historically, has been dominated by European skaters, we have been trying to climb the ladder to the top for many years. We have the extremely good fortune of following in the footsteps of amazing teams like Liz and Jerod, Gorsha and Sur, Peter and Naomi, and Shae and Vic (the first North American world champions). Their hard work and dedication pushed North American dance up in the world and has opened the door to all the young teams with a dream.
Meagan L: Tanith, what is your current status towards becoming a U.S. citizen?
Tanith: At the moment I am living in the U.S. with a green card which I received late August, 2002. Although we thought earlier on in my immigration process that I would be able to squeeze in my citizenship process just before the 2006 Olympics, it seems that is no longer a realistic possibility. Now we look ahead to 2010, and hope that our time will come. As of right now, there is no end in sight for our careers in this sport. One thing that has helped Ben and I build such a strong bond is that we both have a great passion for skating and performing. As long as we both continue enjoying what we are doing, I see no reason why we wouldn’t skate through 2010.
Laura B: I would like to know Benjamin’s nationality. I know that Tanith is Canadian and that Benjamin comes from the Chicago area.
Benjamin: My father was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago when he was 7. My mother was born in Chicago and her family has roots in Romania and Russia.
Jim M: Tanith, what do you plan to do when you finish your eligible career?
Tanith: To be completely honest, I’ve been asking myself the same thing! First and foremost, I will continue my schooling through University alongside my training while I am eligible, although I cannot say for certain right now what I would choose to major in. I definitely want to build myself a solid foundation with something outside of skating which I can shift over to once I’m retired from the sport. I have recently become more and more interested in broadcasting, but for the moment I am completely focused on my skating. I began skating when I was barely three years old, and since then it’s been all I’ve known, so I can’t wait to get out there and find out what else I can succeed at in this world.
Cheri: You knew that the 2002 Olympics would be out of reach for you due to the nationality issues, yet you still chose to skate with each other. Had you exhausted the search for ice dance partners in your own respective countries?
Tanith: I certainly felt like that was the case. I had been partnerless in Canada for at least a year before I decided to skate with Ben and move to the U.S., and after what seemed like a completely hopeless search in my home country, I decided that I was better off looking outside of Canada and actually finding the right partner for me, rather than sit at home and wait around for the next best thing to walk on by. Of course, as the fairy tale goes, I did find my perfect match in Ben, so it’s a good thing I made the decision to take a chance and look on the other side of the border.
Benjamin: Tanith was actually the first tryout I had after splitting up with my previous partner. My coach at the time, Susie Wynne, felt very strongly that if I wanted to excel to my full potential in ice dance that I would have to go train in Detroit under Igor. When he called her and asked that I come for a tryout we just had a feeling that this was my opportunity. The tryout just made that feeling even more clear that this was the right partner, the right coach, and the right environment for me.
Bergeron: What is the thing you like most about competing in ice dance? What is the most difficult aspect of your training?
Tanith: I believe that if you are a true performer, it is simply something you are born with and will never be able to let go of. I would definitely put myself into this category because I absolutely love to entertain. I love the feeling of being able to connect with an audience and read the reactions they have to our movements. Choosing ice dancing over pairs or freestyle was an easy decision for me to make as soon as I realized that dance was going to be the best outlet for me to express myself as much as I could possibly stretch it.
Benjamin: The most difficult aspect of ice dance is being original and creative. Every season, we strive to create new elements that are interesting, capture the essence of the music, and that no one has ever seen before. That, along with the performance aspect that Tanith so eloquently described, is also the aspect that I love about ice dance.
Mary: What do you feel is your major accomplishment, both on and off the ice?
Tanith: On the ice, I think every step we’ve taken has been a great accomplishment, but I suppose if I had to choose one event it would be skating as well as we did at this year’s World Championships. We struggled through training prior to this event because I had come back from China quite sick, and then also re-injured an on going back problem I’ve been having, so we were especially proud of ourselves for holding it all together and then really putting everything we had into our performances. The most important thing to me off the ice are my relationships with my family and loved ones. There are far too many opportunities in life to get caught up in this busy world and take for granted those who are truly special. Building and maintaining those meaningful relationships is something I consider an accomplishment in itself.
Benjamin: I have to agree with Tanith that this year’s World Championships was a great accomplishment for us. We had a great season, but had struggled with our focus and consistency. At Worlds, however, we were able to keep our concentration and focus through the entire competition and deliver three of our best performances ever. When I am not skating, I have found several other activities to keep me busy, but I believe that remaining happy with my life so far is my biggest accomplishment.
Anonymous: While every situation is different, the USA (and to some extent Canada) has had difficulty in fostering the development of junior ice dance teams so that they can have a long, fulfilling career. Do you have any thoughts about what the USFSA or Skate Canada could be doing differently?
Tanith: I believe over the past few years, the USFSA has been very aware of this trend in their newer teams, and has been actively taking steps to offer these younger skaters a variety of programs and support to help them build a solid foundation for their partnership. In my opinion, however, maintaining a partnership has a lot more to do with those closer to the athletes themselves, like the coaches and family, and of course the skaters themselves. There are a lot of factors to consider when forming a team, and it is rare that all the pieces of the puzzle come together just right, but I think we have seen the beginnings of some very promising partnerships coming up in our junior ranks & I wish them all the best.
Paula: What do you feel are your strengths in skating?
Tanith: I think as a team, Ben and I connect very well with both each other, as well as the audience. Our chemistry with one another generates a lot of energy when we skate, and I think that is something we can really build off of in the future as we continue to develop the more technical side of our skating.
Benjamin: Tanith and I have been able to offer the audience many different sides of our skating since we started competing. Each year we have explored new styles and rhythms to show versatility in our skating.
Kristina R.: In what areas do you feel you need to push yourselves further in order to move up in international standings?
Tanith/Benjamin: I think a lot of what we’re missing are things which will naturally come to us as we gain maturity, and experience. This past year we really pushed ourselves technically, and now that we’ve reached that next step, we’d like to maintain that level of difficulty while giving our skating a more polished and elegant look. We think the greatest skaters of all time have truly mastered that effortless look when they perform, and we’d love to work towards that as well as we continue to grow.
Paula: Is there any particular music you absolutely refuse to skate to and if so, why?
Tanith: It may take me some time to warm up to our new OD music for next season, because I’ve always disliked swing music. Then again, I never though I would enjoy skating to Elvis either, but I definitely had a lot of fun with it in the end.
Benjamin: I am very open-minded when it comes to music, and I have learned to never say “never” when it comes to music.
Paula: What would you describe to be the most definitive moment in the history of the ice dancing discipline and why?
Tanith: When I think of dance, I can’t help but think of Torvil and Dean skating to Bolero. We recently had a chance to work with both Jane and Christopher when they taught us their original dance from the ’94 Olympics. Together with the ISU dance committee, Chris asked Ben and I to demonstrate this dance at Trophee Lalique and also in Washington after Worlds, to propose it as a new compulsory dance. It was such an experience to be able to work with them and skate the same steps he and Jane did in Lillehammer. Ben and I both have endless amounts of respect and admiration for their skating and what they’ve done for our sport, and Bolero was just the pinnacle of all that.
Benjamin: Tanith is making my portion of the interview very easy. <grin> I would just like to say what an honor and a pleasure it was working with Chris and Jane on their Rhumba. They really made me appreciate how incredibly good skaters they were and still are. They inspire me now even more than they did before.
Paula: In the pro and eligible circuits, who do you admire the most in ice dance and why?
Tanith: Well of course, as I mentioned in my reply to the previous question, Torvil and Dean were always great idols of mine. Through their skating they helped inspire me to want to dance and achieve the same level of greatness that they have. Liz and Jerod, who we are fortunate enough to train with, are also a team that I look up to very much. They are one of the only teams I have seen who have continued to improve even after turning pro, and that is only through their strong work ethics and passion for the sport, something which I hope to be able to maintain just as they have for the length of my career.
Benjamin: I also have always looked up to Torvil and Dean, even more so now, after having worked with them on the new Rhumba compulsory dance. My former coach and Olympic Team member Susie Wynne really inspired me to reach for my dreams. She always made skating and training fun and always knew how to make me want to work harder. I have also always admired Liz and Jerod. They were one of the reasons why I wanted to move to Detroit. I knew that they were the one of the best teams I had ever seen and I had to train there if I wanted to be like them. They have really set the ultimate example of work ethic on and off the ice.
Paula: What do you think can be done to make Ice Dancing more popular in the US and improve the US team’s competitive edge in this field?
Tanith/Benjamin: Excitement is what any audience wants in a sporting event. In the past, we think that ice dance has had the reputation of being predictable and therefore, not as exciting as other events. We also agree together that as US ice dance gets better and better, people will become more interested in what we are doing. As skaters, we have to work hard towards our goal of being the best skaters we can be. U.S. ice dance has grown so much due to the efforts of great skaters like Liz and Jerod, Renee and Gorsha and Peter and Naomi who have raised the bar for all of us. Also, we have begun to see shifting in the standings, unexpected results, and many new ideas about how to make the judging system more “fair.” All these factors will only help make people more interested in what happens in the ice dance event.
Paula: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Tanith: Any spare time I can find, I want to spend with my boyfriend, Fedor [Andreev]. There isn’t really any particular hobby that I enjoy off the ice, mostly I just want to relax and be with my loved ones.
Benjamin: I also like to spend my spare time with my girlfriend, Merrie, which isn’t difficult since we live together Luckily we are both into many of the same activities. I have recently become addicted to Paintball, and we play as much as we can. I also have begun rock climbing, which I have found to be excellent cross training. When I have time to myself, I like to play the guitar.
Bethany: This is kind of silly but what is your favorite candy?
Tanith: Ha-ha, what candy don’t I like? I’m guilty for having a very sweet tooth, but if I had to narrow it down I guess it would probably be Twizzler Nibs, Skittles, and Peach Rings.
Benjamin: If it’s sweet, I love it!
Laura: Do you two coach at your rink? If so, how many students do you have?
Tanith: I coach a few adult dancers when I am not training for competitions. I try to keep the amount small since I’m not available too much, and I don’t want to take on so much that I take energy away from my own skating.
Benjamin: I coach a few adult ice dancers, as well as several younger single ice dancers and synchronized skaters.
Anonymous: What are your favorite hobbies?
Tanith: I love poetry, so when I get a chance I’m either reading or writing it. In the summers I also really love being outdoors, camping or hiking, just taking in the beauty of nature.
Benjamin: I am a paintball junkie, I like to rock climb, and I love to play the guitar.
Jamie: Can you share with us any programs are you developing for next year?
Tanith/Benjamin: At the moment we are fresh off of last season, so there hasn’t really been much time to finalize anything for next year’s programs. Right now we are working on creating new moves and footwork which we may be able to use in our choreography once we select our music.
Rachel: What are your personal goals for next season?
Tanith: I was really proud of our work ethic this past season, and how we pushed ourselves beyond boundaries we never anticipated we would overcome so quickly. I don’t like setting any goals as far as placement goes, but I think at worlds this year we raised the bar for ourselves, and I hope to break through even more walls as time goes by.
Benjamin: Personally I would like to work on building more strength this year as well as continuing to improve my own skating.
Steph: Hi! What are your favorite movies?
Tanith: My absolute favorite movie is Pulp Fiction, but I’m also a big fan of The Usual Suspects, Shawshank Redemption, Billy Madison, Chicago, and many more.
Benjamin: My favorite movies are (in no particular order) Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, all the Lord of the Rings (also my favorite book), Spaceballs, Grosse Point Blank… the list goes on and on.
Paula and Mandy: Hi, this is more of a comment than a question. You two were by far the highlight of 2002 Skate America. My daughter and I helped with the event so we were there a lot and really appreciated not only your superb skating, but your friendly attitude and kindness towards your fans as well. It was greatly appreciated by all who had the pleasure to meet and talk with you. You are the best!!! Thanks for signing my skating magazine. I wish you much success, but please don’t ever let it go to your head like some of the others out there!!!
Tanith: Thank you so very much for your kind words. Believe me, Ben and I get just as much, if not more, out of interacting with our fans than you guys do! It really touches our hearts to know that we have people out there who support and enjoy our skating. We are both incredibly grateful for everything skating has given us, and we count our fans as a part of our team, who along with our family, loved ones, and coaches, truly motivate us to always strive to become the best skaters we possibly can.
Benjamin: Thanks so much. I am really happy that you had such a great time. I remember (not too long ago) going to Champions on Ice and moving down to the best seats in the house… right above the walkway that all the skaters used. I asked every single skater for their autographs, and I remember how excited I got when they signed my program, and how disappointed I felt when they blew me off. I was really inspired by those skaters, and I hope that someday I might inspire someone and make them want to skate.
Mary: How long does it take for you to agree on your music for the season?
Tanith: I would say the entire process from start to finish spans over a period of a about two months.
Benjamin: Jim H.: With your recent but not surprising success, what changes have had to be made to your training schedule to allow you to do tours and shows so more fans can see you skate?
Tanith: It is still fairly early on in the off season to have figured out exactly what shows we will be performing in, but we will skate in as many as we can without taking anything away from our training time for next season. Although we both enjoy performing, and want to skate for our fans as much as we possibly can, we also want to make sure that we are prepared enough for next season to maintain our momentum in the dance world. I think the plan for now is just to take things day by day.
Benjamin: We are still skating now trying to get a jump start on next season. We have to make sure that any shows that we do will not interfere with our ability to progress and to continue becoming the best skaters we can be.
Elizabeth S.: How old were you when you first started skating? When did you decide to try ice dancing?
Tanith: I began skating when I was almost three years old, and I believe I was close to 8 or 9 when I started learning dance.
Benjamin: I started skating when I was 6, and I believe I was about 12 when I started dance.
Timothy C.: Who thought of the idea of dressing Benjamin up as Elvis? Do you feel upset for not making it into the Grand Prix finals this 2002-03 season and do you think that you have deserved better than finishing 9th in this GP series?
Tanith/Benjamin: I believe it was our coach Igor, along with one of our ballroom instructors, Mark, who insisted that I [Benjamin] had to wear the notorious jumpsuit. As far as the Grand Prix finals are concerned, we were disappointed that we didn’t skate our best in Lalique to qualify for the finals. Of course we wanted to go, but I think it was good that we had the time after the US Nats and Four Continents to really buckle down and train for Worlds.
Clara: I really like your programs! What advice would you give to skaters who are just starting out?
Tanith/Benjamin: Thank you! Both of us agree that you should always make sure that you enjoy what you’re doing. You are going to work very hard if you want to achieve your goals, so make sure that while you’re working hard, it’s something you love to do… it’s the only way to stay happy.
Melissa: The costumes you both choose are so classy and well-suited to your programs. Who designs them and where do you get ideas for the different styles?
Tanith: My mother designs our costumes, and makes all of my dresses as well. I am extremely fortunate to have such an incredibly talented mother, and I agree that she makes the most beautiful outfits that really suit Ben and I. Her creativity is endless, so she’s always coming up with something new and unique.
Angie: I liked your Sarajevo program. What made you choose it?
Tanith: Our coach Igor actually played the music for us for the first time, and although I can’t say that it really grabbed us right off the bat, once he had told us the story of Sarajevo and their struggle through the war we definitely felt that it was a story we wanted to tell.
Benjamin: Igor had the unique experience of winning Jr. Worlds in Sarajevo, so he had very happy and jubilant memories of that city as well as the knowledge of the devastation that took place there during their civil war. He wanted to express the two sides of his experience.
Donna: I just wanted to tell you both that I haven’t had an American dance pair intrigue me the way you guys do since Roca and Sur left amateur skating!
Tanith: What an incredible compliment! Thank you very much. It is so wonderful to feel that people are ready now to invest in us for the long run, and we will continue to work as hard as we can to hopefully never let them down.
Benjamin: Yes, thank you. I still haven’t gotten used to being included in sentences with people whose autographs I have wanted to get… I don’t think I ever will. I hope that you continue to enjoy our skating and we will do our best to continue to be intriguing
Paula: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions from your fans! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Tanith: I would just like to say how much the support from those who enjoy our skating means to us and influences our skating. We would never be able to perform the way we do if it not for the warmth and energy we feel from the audience when we skate. I can’t thank you enough!
Benjamin: Thank you so much to everyone who supports us and cheers for us. The audience makes such a difference for us when we skate. You all make us skate our best. Thanks!