Golden Skate

Stellar Season Ahead for Belbin and Agosto

U.S. ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto are poised to take over the ice dancing title in the United States.

U.S. ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto are poised to take over the ice dancing title in the United States. Last season, the popular dancers finished a close second to Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev at U.S. Nationals, but bested their teammates at both the Four Continents Championships and Worlds. They took their second silver at Four Continents behind world champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, while Lang and Tchernyshev took the bronze. At the World Championships, they finished seventh to Lang and Tchernyshev’s eighth.

That was quite an improvement from the 2001-2002 season in which Belbin battled injuries. Belbin fractured her skull when they fell while practicing a lift and was off ice for about three weeks. She then had to practice with a helmet for a while before the Goodwill Games in September 2001. Belbin also has to be careful of her shoulder, which sometimes pops out. “I have to do special exercises for my shoulder,” she said. “The first time it just popped out and when I was getting in the car to go to the doctor, I hit it on the top of the car door and it popped back in.”

But Belbin and Agosto had a solid season, finishing fifth at the Goodwill Games, fifth at Skate America, sixth at Trophee Lalique, second at the U. S. Nationals and the Four Continents Championships and 13th at the World Championships. And they won the 2001 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, giving them a full set of medals from the event after winning the bronze in 1999 and the silver in 2000.

This season, the couple took their first gold medal at an ISU Grand Prix event, winning Skate America in an upset over defending champions Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov, who won three ISU Grand Prix golds last season. “We were surprised and pleased,” Belbin said. “It was not our best skate but we’ll take it. We like the new judging system. It’s nice to get rewarded for doing more than what’s required, but we had to take out a lift that we really enjoyed because it wasn’t a level 3 lift. We’ll put it back in for Nationals and Worlds because that’s under the old system, but now we’re doing a boring lift in a level 3 position.”

Belbin is named after a goddess of Carthage, who was the patron of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the heavens. “My Dad read it in a novel and thought it was a nice name,” she said. “Of course, Tanith is also the goddess of snakes so I guess I’m the serpent lady. At first I hated it because I thought it was a dumb name When I was young I thought it was too unusual, but I’ve grown to love it. I’ve never met anyone else named Tanith, although there was a Tanis in my club once. Last year, one of the fans wrote me and told me she had named her daughter after me, so there’s at least two Taniths now.”

Agosto began skating when he was five. “I got skates as a present for my fifth birthday,” he remembered, “and I really liked the skating classes. We’d go over to the other rink and watch the bigger skaters and I was just awed by them. I was inspired by skaters like Brian Boitano and decided I really wanted to do that. I did play baseball, both pitcher and catcher. I liked playing catcher because I was into all the gear and stuff, but I always loved skating and I progressed fairly quickly so I gave up baseball.”

Belbin started skating when she was three and did only a few singles competitions before starting ice dancing, taking lessons from her mother in Canada. After a few years, she ended up working with Paul Wirtz, who started her skating pairs when she was nine since she seemed too short for dance. But when a growth spurt hit at eleven, she went back to ice dancing, skating with her pairs partner, Ben Barruco. “I was so young when I started skating that I really had no other choice,” Belbin said. “The only point where I seriously considered changing directions was before I moved to Detroit, but I have an overwhelming passion to skate. I’m willing to do something else if I find something that I’ll be equally passionate about, but I haven’t found anything else.”

The only other sport Belbin played competitively was soccer. “I actually played soccer for about nine years,” she said. “I played right halfback, with a lot of running up and down the field. I had a lot of fun and it was great for the team spirit, but towards the end, things got too aggressive. The other girls were towering over me and I got hurt a few times so I decided to quit and just skate.”

Since Belbin was born in Canada, while Agosto is from the United States, that gave the couple a choice of where to compete. Ice dancing is much more highly regarded in Canada than in the United States, but at the time there are were several highly ranked experienced teams there, while the U.S. ranks of senior dancers are were depleted. “The citizenship requirements are the same similar either way,” Agosto said. “If we were training with Igor and commuting to from Windsor Canada, there would be the question of whether we were spending enough time in Canada to meet immigration requirements, and we’d waste a lot of time commuting.”

“It came down to the training location in the end,” Belbin stated. “I had no real connection to the dance establishment in Canada and it would be difficult to travel back and forth. Most importantly, we looked at our long-term career future, and felt that the U.S. would be a great place for us. Fortunately, my father’s company has offices in both Montreal and Detroit and he transferred to Detroit, so it all worked out. Now this is our home.”

The dancers teamed up in 1998 in Detroit. They currently train at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan with Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva, after spending the last five years at the Detroit Skating Club. They usually train for two hours each morning and afternoon and teach other skaters in between, so two hours lost commuting was a big issue. “We teach adult dance and also some synchro girls who need to take dance lessons,” Agosto said.

Belbin will probably not be eligible for the 2006 Olympics but she will be a citizen by 2010. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t be together then,” she emphasized. “We plan to skate as long as we enjoy what we’re doing and as long as we stay healthy and happy. But the 2010 Olympics would be sweet.” “Our dream is to skate well,” she continued. “Figure skating is not the Olympics. It goes beyond that. It’s disappointing that we can’t take part, but it’s skating that we love, not just the Olympics.”

“We love performing for people,” Agosto stated. “It helps to find the right combination of music and energy that will get people clapping along. Then we want to bring them even more.” “We love it when people come and cheer for us,” Belbin added. “As a developing team, we really feel the support of the audience. They are part of our team. It’s incredible how much it helps our skating, especially when we get the support of the American fans.”

Belbin and Agosto work with Shpilband and Zueva to select their music each season. Shpilband choreographs their programs. Last season, the dancers used a medley of Elvis Presley songs for their free dance, which proved to be wildly popular on the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death. Included are Heartbreak Hotel, You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, and Teddy Bear. “Igor brought the music in and told us you may think I’m crazy since I’m not the biggest Elvis fan,” Belbin said. “There was a little comedy in our 2001 Sarajevo program and the judges told us they liked that playfulness in our dancing. This season, the original dance is rock and roll so Igor wanted us to have some experience with it. When you have a high-energy program, it’s easy to go over the top. It’s vulnerable to being too hokey.” Agosto added, “We really wanted to up the ante. The program was jam-packed with technical merit. It was nonstop.”

“We did a show number with the music first to work on the characterization,” Agosto continued. “We wanted to show the different sides of Elvis, both the high energy and the lovesick side.” “It was an easier role for Ben,” Belbin explained. “We understood that he’s the king. In the show program, I play a crazed girl fan, but that didn’t quite work for the free. Then we thought I could be his muse. The way Marina finally worked it out is that I am the icon of the American woman, not a crazed fan but every woman who loved Elvis. Marina wanted me to be very feminine and to have a connection with Ben and Elvis. She told me ‘I want to see Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis.’ We changed the costumes and everything. We didn’t even realize that it was the 25th anniversary when we did the program, so it was even more special.”

This season, they are skating to “West Side Story” for the free dance. “We wanted something that was more mature to show we weren’t just a couple of crazy kids,” Belbin explained. “When Igor first brought it to us, we cringed because everybody’s done West Side Story, but we couldn’t remember a good one. It has lots of great music, both slow and fast, but it was hard to choose. We wanted to show our feelings and tell the story the way it should be told.”

Belbin and Agosto were also selected last year to demonstrate a new rhumba compulsory dance developed by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean for the ISU Technical Dance Committee. “They thought we would show it well,” Belbin said. “It’s very different with different holds that we’ve never done before. The choreography is a lot different from Igor’s.”

“The compulsories are usually a weak point for uscompulsory dances are still somewhat new for us — every year we have had to learn one or two new ones,” Belbin said. “The Austrian Waltz is the most comfortable compulsory for us so far,” Agosto said. “Tanith had never skated the Austrian Waltz before last season, but I did it in 1997 with Katie Hill. We actually watched the tape, but after a few minutes, Igor said let’s not watch that.” “With juniors, you can’t get the full potential of the dance,” Belbin continued, “but in seniors, you can really show the beauty of the it.” “This year, we added Liz Punsalan and Jerod Swallow to help us with the compulsory dances,” Belbin added. “It’s good to have someone from the athletes’ side who has recently done the dances to teach you.”

Belbin graduated from high school last February. “I had a shop class from Canada that didn’t count and I had to do extra work for physical education,” she explained. “I had to fill out logs and write compositions on what I did each day in skating.” Agosto finished earlier and has been taking a few college courses, like Russian and Spanish. Although his father is from Puerto Rico, they didn’t speak Spanish at home. “I wanted to be better at it,” he said. “I’m picking it up pretty quickly.”

As for a future job, “I can’t ever see myself at a desk pushing paper,” he said. “I’m more artistically inclined and I need to do something more artistic.” “I’ve always done well in school and I’d love to go to university, but I haven’t explored what I’m good at,” Belbin said. “It will probably be something different than the arts, maybe business. I like coaching. We both teach adult ice dancers now.”

Belbin also has a number of screen credits as an actress. She performed as an extra in several productions when she was between ten and 12, usually as a kid in street scenes, but she also had many character roles. Her biggest was a major role in a CBC national television film, “Convenances and Connivences”. “I was the bad girl on the block, trying to corrupt the main character,” she said. “I spoke both French and English during the film. Working in film is a lot of fun. I like to perform. I thought I could do both acting and skating, but there’s no room for two things. I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and animation. I took a TV production class in high school that I really liked. I’ve played around with video editing on my laptop and cut some music programs on it.”

Agosto is an accomplished musician. In high school, he played the trumpet and the French horn. Now he plays guitar and piano. “I’m very into instruments,” he said. “In school, I played in a jazz band and I want to be in a blues band. Right now I just play for my girlfriend and myself. It’s a private endeavor, and definitely a hobby for my whole life. I’d love for it to become something more than that.” “I’ve recently started indoor wall climbing at a gym with my girlfriend,” he added. “I also like to play paintball.” Belbin enjoys spending time with her family,
and autocross racing with her boyfriend, skater Fedor Andreev. She also likes to read and write poetry. “I don’t have any time to devote to other hobbies,” she said.

Australia was definitely one of the high points of their travels to date. “That was the most touring we ever did,” said Agosto, who counts the Crocodile Hunter as one of the many impressions that he does. “We went to the Australia Zoo, but missed seeing the Crocodile Hunter. And we went to another zoo where we had our pictures taken with koalas. “I had my picture taken with a huge boa constrictor draped around me,” said Belbin, reprising her role as the snake goddess. “But I told them they could take it off when it started squeezing. But Australia was definitely two thumbs up.” “It’s a lot similar to here, but a lot different,” Belbin continued. “The people there are so much fun.” She cited Paris as another of the most interesting places that she has traveled. “It’s beautiful at night with Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.”

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