Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto: Interview

Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto

Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto

Although Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto have already enjoyed the fruits of hard work and dedication to the sport of figure skating upon winning the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, their work is not done.

This season, the current World bronze medalists placed second at Cup of China and first at Cup of Russia, easily qualifying for a spot at the Grand Prix Final. However, on Dec 11, just days before the event, Agosto injured his back while lifting Belbin during practice. The team had no choice but to withdraw.

Due to the nature of Agosto’s injury, he was instructed by his doctor not to perform lifts with his partner for one to two weeks while undergoing physical therapy. While Agosto was healing, the team decided to scrap there current Free Dance to That’s Entertainment! and work on choreography for a new dance in time for the US Nationals.

“My back is completely healed now,” said Agosto. “Unfortunately, I’ve had back problems on and off for many years now. At least we have a lot of experience with these types of injuries and know exactly how to deal with them most efficiently. In this case, it was time off lifting – while doing our best to maintain our conditioning.”

Their new routine to music from the Amélie soundtrack was received well by the crowd in Spokane, Wash., but the team feels it still needs work.

“We were very realistic heading into Nationals about how well we could perform a brand new FD,” said Belbin. “We were pleased with what we put out there to start with, however, I would have to say that the program was only at about 50-60% ready for Nationals.”

The team hopes to get that percentage up to 70% in time for the Four Continents which is only three days away. “Then we will really make the big changes before Worlds when we have more time at home to do it,” added Agosto. “We are working very hard on the new program to make sure it is something we can really contend with.”

The team plans to make it more difficult and intricate, as well as improving on the expression and the lines of the program. “I believe by Worlds we should have a product we can be very proud of and fight for a spot on the podium with,” said Belbin.

Paula (USA): How on earth were you able to come up with a new FD (after Ben injured himself) in time for US Nationals?

Tanith/Ben: We had been considering changing the Free Dance since we debuted it at Cup if China, but wanted to give it more time to grow before we made that final decision. We felt that it was much improved when we competed it at Cup of Russia a few weeks later and with Grand Prix Final being so close we had decided to go ahead and keep working on it at least through that event, if not the rest of the season.

We were already familiar with the music from Amélie, and were thinking of using it possibly for a future season; however, when Ben injured his back it seemed like the best use of the time, while he could not lift me for that week and a half, to go ahead and start choreography on a new program. We still overlapped that process, once he was healed, with training the That’s Entertainment! program in the event that the new program didn’t come together in time for use this season.

Thankfully this style came much more naturally to all of us and we felt like it was a better product, even in its early stages, to bring to Nationals. We feel great about the decision we’ve made and all the hard work we put into bringing this program together so quickly. We hope you all enjoy it as much as we do!

Paula (USA): What made you decide to go with Amélie?

Tanith/Ben: The soundtrack from Amélie is very beautiful and full of great music, not to mention the story from the movie itself is really interesting and follows a theme of living life to the fullest and celebrating even the tiniest moments in time. It provides a lot of inspiration to skate to and we thought it would allow us to improve our speed and lines in training it as well.

Laura B. (USA): Do you feel any less prepared due to your success at the Olympics and Worlds, as well as the commitments you have had to honor? You are a wonderful team!

Tanith/Ben: Thank you Laura! We did feel less prepared heading into this season compared to previous years because we were so late in starting our training after the Champions on Ice Olympic tour. We cannot make excuses or apologize, this was simply a different kind of year than anything we’ve ever dealt with, and the post-Olympic season is always so unpredictable.

In the end, it felt as though the last skating season ran straight into this one and we’re now doing our best to get our feet back underneath us. We are completely aware that our training suffered due to our very busy schedule in 2006, but we have been working non-stop since the Olympics and remain determined and driven to achieve much more in our sport.

We have all the faith in the world that with our positive attitude and work ethic, we can recover from any set-backs and reinvent ourselves to come back stronger than ever for these next few years leading up to 2010.

Our success last season opened some incredible doors for us and has given us some amazing opportunities. We feel extremely lucky to have the “strains” on our time that we do. It is a learning process for us to figure out how to take advantage of these new and exciting opportunities while still being able to maintain a high level of excellence in our skating. We have been working on many changes to our programs to make them more competitive as well as more artistically creative. Hopefully everyone will like them as much as we do.

Vicky: I love the way you skate, but this season there are a couple of pairs that overpass you with their scores. How do you plan to deal with that fact? Are there any elements you plan to change to lift the level of difficulty?

Tanith/Ben: Thanks Vicky! This entire year is going to be a process and the best thing that we can do for ourselves right now is continue trying to create more innovative lifts and choreography to use in our programs, and not be discouraged by any results or remaining challenges we face. Hopefully we can lift our levels and execution scores to be more competitive with the top of our field at the World Championships in Tokyo.

This is one of the very exciting aspects of our sport – there are changes in the results from event to event! We learned a great deal from competing at Cup of China and Cup of Russia. We got excellent feedback about many of our elements which were scored lower than we would like. There are so many variables that effect the score of an element. Many times it is as simple as holding a position in a lift half a second longer. We are confident that the next time we compete we will have better scores than the last time.

Donna (Canada): People say that you refused to go to Russia for the Grand Prix Final because you were scared to loose there to Shabalin and Domnina? Can you comment on it somehow?

Tanith/Ben: People who think that are simply wrong, Donna. If we were afraid to lose, we would not have gone to Cup of China or Cup of Russia where we faced this team, as well as many other strong competitors. We were more prepared heading into the GP Final than we were before the previously mentioned events, and we were looking forward to showing the progress we have made since then.

Injuries happen more often when you’re pushing yourself as much as we have been, even up to the very last day before we planned to leave for the event. Thankfully it was not a terribly serious injury and we should be strong again in time for our next competition.

Larry (USA): You have been with Shpilband’s group your whole career together, isn’t that right? Have you ever thought about reaching out to other choreographers for new ideas?

Tanith/Ben: Yes, Larry, we have been with Igor since the first time we skated together in 1998. Igor and Marina have raised us in skating and we are now like family. We trust them to guide us in the right directions and, should we all agree that a new choreographical vision would benefit us, that is certainly something we would be willing to pursue. We have discussed this possibility before and may try a different choreographer for a show program to begin with to see whom we work best with. It is important to infuse some fresh styles and ideas to anything, especially something as important as our programs

Larry (USA): Tanith, you are such a natural in front of the microphone. Do you have any reporting or public relations irons in the fire at present?

Tanith: Thank you very much Larry! I am currently signed on with ABC’s Good Morning America as a correspondent, although I am not doing any on-air work at present since it would be too difficult to both compete and do television work simultaneously. After the World Championships I hope to pick up where I left off and gain even more experience in front of the camera. I would love to be able to continue work in television and someday, once I have achieved my goals in skating, tackle a new career in broadcasting as my next challenge.

Anonymous: Who comes up with all your really intricate and amazing lifts in your programs? How do you really immerse yourselves into the programs and feel the character of what you’re portraying?

Tanith/Ben: Thank you for your kind assessment of our abilities! Our lifts have always been a combination of Igor, Marina, and ourselves. Marina is very creative and helps us with both those things actually. She has incredible vision and knows all her skaters well enough personally that she can always find a way to create a story within the program which we can relate to. She is always very honest with us when we’re believable in our characters and when we’re not. If she says that we’ve found the key to the program, then we’ve know we’ve got something to be proud of.

It is always a trial and error process, which sometimes can be very time consuming. Recently we have spent probably more time on lifts than we ever have before. We felt at the beginning of this season that our lifts were all old lifts somehow reshuffled and recycled, so we really buckled down to the task of creating new ones.

Anonymous: What are you favorite and least favorite compulsory dances?

Tanith: Well I don’t think it’s a huge secret that we’re not the biggest fan of compulsory dances, haha! So I suppose my answer would be, whichever one is the shortest, but generally I prefer the waltzes.

Ben: I think the Golden Waltz is the most interesting and challenging dance. I hate to do it because it is very difficult, but it is satisfying to do well (not that I would know what that is like). I struggled with the midnight blues. I always felt that it was just a very awkward dance to do.

Larry (USA): I was so impressed by the charity show you guys organized for the tsunami victims. It was better than COI, SOI and everyone else. Any more plans along this line?

Tanith/Ben: Yes, Larry! Actually we have just begun planning a sequel to our show, Skate-Aid, this time hosted in a bigger venue… possibly The Palace of Auburn Hills. We hope the second time around we will be able to raise even more money for another worthy cause. We have never had so much fun as we did organizing and hosting/performing in that show. If what we do can help make a difference, then we feel obligated to do what we can to help.

It’s also great to be able to get together with all our friends, some of the greatest figure skaters in the world, and put on a show for a reasonable price which makes it much easier to bring along the whole family, not to mention that all the proceeds benefit a good cause. We will definitely keep everyone informed as to our plans regarding the details of the show.

Annie (USA): Who are your main costume designers?

Tanith: My mother is still my main costume designer, although we used different costume-makers for the red latin dress from last season (Dore Designs) as well as the FD dress I used through Nationals (Natella Denze) before changing to my mother’s red one for the Olympics.

Anonymous: Which of your own original dances is your favorite and why?

Tanith: I think it’s a tie between the Swing OD and the Latin which we performed at the Olympics. I loved doing the Swing because Ben is a Swing dancer off the ice and he made it so much fun to do because of his personality and enthusiasm. The Latin program was great because it finally helped us get to a different level of maturity in our performance and connection with each other. We had so much confidence each time we took the ice to compete with that program.

Ben: My favorite OD was the swing number. I love swing dance and I really felt like we were able to capture the fun and carefree nature of the dance. It was always fun to perform.

Anonymous: What’s the hardest thing you have had to overcome as a team?

Tanith: I don’t know that there’s one specific thing that’s been more difficult to overcome, but I think now it’s just the time we’ve been in this sport, and finding ways to stay motivated as we ourselves evolve and get older. Our friendship has been the one constant over the years that I’ve come to rely on, so even on the days when I feel like I’ve lost some of my competitive drive, I can be push myself for Ben knowing that he would never want to let me down either.

Ben: Nearly 10 years together is a pretty big hurdle for anyone. Tanith and I have been so lucky that we get along well enough to still be best friends after so many years. Last year was probably the most difficult time we have ever had. The whole year had many ups and downs both on and off the ice. We had amazing success, but also dealt with a lot of personal loss at the same time, I think we are still trying to figure out how to compartmentalize all of that.

Anonymous: Which competitions have been the most memorable?

Tanith: I would say the last three National Championships, Worlds 2005, and the Olympics.

Ben: Of course the Olympics is right up there at the top, but more important is the national championships where we performed the “Elvis” free dance. We came 1st in the OD, marking the first time we had ever beaten Lang and Tchernychev. All of a sudden, possibilities of what could happen if we became National Champions came flooding into our heads and the next day we blew it in the free dance and LOST. That was one of the most important experiences of my career because I learned that nothing is certain and that I have to take things one at a time. Focus is so important and I learned the hard way what happens when you get ahead of yourself.

Anaira (Macedonia): You are very talented skaters and I wish you best luck for the season. Have you ever considered a musical choice that will attract the public more as your routine goes on? Sometimes it is hard for me, just a skating fan, to “stay” with you all the way to the end. Thank you.

Tanith: We have always tried to please the audience first and foremost with our performances but finding a music selection that pleases everyone, including the judges, is a challenge. I appreciate your honesty and would love to hear from all our fans what music they suggest we skate to. Perhaps we should have take a poll and whatever song gets the most votes, we’ll skate to as an exhibition program that year. What do you think?

Ben: Thank you Anaira. Music selection is hugely important. The audience is always very important to us; we draw upon their energy to help our performance. The more we can draw the audience into our performance the more success we feel. I hope that we don’t lose anyone along the way.

Toni R. (USA): With your new found ‘stardom’ you’ve seen a boom in exposure for US Ice Dance. Do you think with continued success you can also be a part of bring skating in general back in the spotlight?

Tanith: I think that’s about all that we can do as skaters for our sport right now; keep pushing ourselves and make the United States such a powerhouse in skating that we can’t be ignored. If we can do that, along with finding more entertaining ways to showcase our talents in the exhibition spotlight, I believe skating can make a comeback.

Ben: It has certainly been very exciting to see the growth of Ice Dance in the US over the last 10 years. Every year we see more and more talented young teams bringing new energy and life to the sport. Their enthusiasm is inspiring to us and I hope to the general audience as well. We all have a vested interest in the re-growth of the sport as a whole.

Cathy (USA): Where do you keep your medals from competitions – especially from the Olympics?

Tanith: I’ve never been overly attached to my medals, aside from our Olympic of course, so I think my mom has most of my medals from my early years and the GP medals, etc., in a box in my furnace room. My Olympic medal is in a case in my living room, and all other events I’d rather remember with photos and little keepsakes I have around rather than the medal. When I’m older, looking back on these times, it’s those moments and experiences I’d like to remember rather than what color my medal was.

Ben: Fort Knox lock down :-) just kidding. I keep some them on the shelf and my mom has the rest of them.

Oisau: Tanith, It’s a very private question… Evan Lysacek is your boyfriend or just friend? Good luck!

Tanith: Evan is one of the best people I’ve ever known and very big part of my life. He makes me happy when nothing else can and I don’t know what I would do without him. I’m a little too shy to share the details of my personal life though, thank you for your question Oisau!

VC (USA): Tanith, you have always worn really neat earrings with your costumes. Where do you find those earrings? Also, do they bother you when you skate?

Tanith: I always get asked about whether or not my earrings are distracting, but to be honest, they’ve never really bothered me. I find them all over and just pick them up whenever I see them, knowing I’ll no doubt have a dress in a color to match, haha. Most of the time though I find them in costume accessory stores.

Marquita (USA): Hi Tanith and Ben! I just wanted to know what was the most challenging element for you both to learn individually and how long it took to “get” that element?

Tanith: Igor still drills me on stroking all the time so I guess I still haven’t got that down pat, at least not correctly, haha. I can’t be too hard on myself, as long as I’m working as hard as I can and keeping a good attitude about it, that’s all I can ask for.

Ben: Hi Marquita! Every year Igor gives us very difficult footwork. It feels like I forget how to skate every year and it takes me a long time to get those steps feeling natural … usually not until worlds :-)

James: What aspect of your skating do you think that separates you from the best in the world?

Tanith: I think our performances and commitment to the stories and characters of our programs are what make us different. We have to be dancers, athletes and actors, to be the best.

Ben: What country we’re from :-) I feel like we have a style that is different from everyone else. I always try to have some kind of fun with whatever program I am doing and to try my best to share that with the audience. I want everyone to have as much fun as I am.

Lynn (Canada): For your Free Dance program every year, do you pick out the music and theme? If so, how do you come up with the new ideas every year? What has been your favorite Free Dance so far as a couple?

Tanith/Ben: It is always a huge project to pick a free dance. In the past Igor has always had very good ideas for us and I has usually found the music that we end up using. We like the Elvis free, the gypsy, the swing and latin ODs. Our favorites were fun and lively, ones we could really connect with. A program is always an evolutionary process for us, so we’ll see where it goes from here.

Larry (USA): I first met you all when you did an exhibition and meet-and-greet (part of a promotion for public television) at one of the December cheese fests. You were so generous with your time and showed such an enthusiastic spirit — you guys rock! (OK, that wasn’t exactly a question…)

Tanith: Haha, thank you Larry! We very much appreciate your, and all our fans’, support! It’s what brings our spirit and personalities into our performances. Feel free to speak with us anytime you bump into us at an event and we’d be happy to answer questions like these in person if we’re not too busy!

Ben: Thank you so much Larry. One of the most rewarding parts of our job is getting to meet people like you who appreciate what we do. We really do draw off the audience when we perform, so its really like getting to meet the other half of our team.

Mary M. (USA): You do this old lady’s heart good when I see the beautiful performances you give each and every time you’re on the ice. My question is: Are you partners off the ice as well as on? May God grant you all the very best in the coming year.

Tanith: Thank for writing in Mary! I am so happy that our performances can bring something positive to you. That is what we aim to do each time we take the ice, so it is wonderful to hear. Ben and I are partners off the ice only in the friends category, but our relationship is part of my life’s foundation and I don’t know what I would ever do without him, on or off the ice. Thank you again for your question and Happy Holidays!

Ben: Thank you Mary. I am very glad that you enjoy what we do and that we are able to connect with you. Tanith and I are very lucky to be best friends off the ice. I have a loving girlfriend of 7 years who is extremely understanding of what we do and supportive of us. We have the best of both worlds.

Anonymous (USA): How did you get into ice skating?

Tanith: My mother was a skater herself into her teenage years, and went on to become a coach in Ontario before I was born. I’ve been told I spent a good part of my days strapped into a carrier on her while she taught until I was old enough to walk, and then I was on the ice almost immediately at around 2 and a half years old. It’s no surprise I’ve ended up where I am, haha, and now I can say that I’ve been skating for 20 years!

Ben: I was given a pair of skates from a friend of the family for my 6th birthday. I started going to public skating sessions and soon enrolled in an ISI alpha class. Next thing I knew I was watching the big kids working on their Axels and decided I wanted to do that too. When I was about 10 I started taking from a coach who also was trying to start a fledgling ice dance program (a group class on a Saturday morning). He convinced me to try it out and I loved it. There was a whole new dimension of skating with another person that I took to right away. The rest is history :-)

Marion (USA): Hi Tanith and Ben! Two questions: Is there a particular genre of music that you haven’t skated to but would really like to in the upcoming seasons? And of the music you’ve skated to so far, which do you think suits your style best?

Tanith: I would love to skate to music that I would respond to in normal settings. By that I mean, I don’t hear Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet…and want to dance. It’s just not my style. I believe that classically beautiful movements from ballet, contemporary or lyrical jazz dance, for example, can be just as beautiful set to more modern music and we don’t have to get stuck in a rut in skating with our music selections. Of course, we are all guilty of falling back on more familiar skating music to use for our programs, but I believe the future of the sport depends heavily now on our initiative to try and evolve our craft and keep up with the times, before we lose our audience completely. This will take time, but we already have a few ideas on how to possibly debut something new on tour in 2007. Stay tuned!

Ben: I would love to one day venture into the world of Hip Hop. There are still many unexplored rich styles of music and movement there. So far my favorite genre has been swing. It is so energetic and fun to do.

Lisa (USA): Do you have any superstitions or regimens you follow at competitions (i.e. lacing a certain skate first, lining up your guards a certain way, etc.)? If so, could you tell me what they are?

Tanith: I’m not terribly superstitious and I’ve always made a conscious effort not to rely on habits or routines before an event just in case I ever miss something and psych myself our before I compete. I do always put my left skate on first for one reason or another, but I do the same with my shoes as well, haha. Other than that I just like to try and relax, stay calm, and treat it like any other day.

Ben: The only thing I MUST do, without fail, before I compete is to have Tanith by my side. I always do things pretty much the same but never in any regimented way.

Melissa (USA): What are your plans for following seasons?

Tanith: Too soon!! haha, we’re still laying out plans for this season! All I know is I want to win Worlds and go to another Olympics….other than that, I’m just going to enjoy myself and roll with the punches! Life’s tough enough as it is without giving myself extra pressure and expectations. Skating is my job and thankfully I love it, but I need to enjoy these experiences and this time in my life to make the most of what skating can give me. I can’t think that one event or one season is the most important thing in my life, it’s just not worth it. I know I will be happier with myself and have less regrets if I approach my skating career that way, rather than think that every competition carries some enormous consequence. In the end, all things good and bad will pass, and I want to have some fun along the way.

Ben: The next few years offer us some interesting challenges both for ourselves and our sport. I would like to continue to push the limits of the sport by doing new things as well as to hopefully make the sport more interesting to a wider audience.

Paula (USA): What advice would you give to young skaters who would like to become competitive ice dancers?

Tanith: I would just say to work hard and then no matter what, you know you have every right to be proud of yourself.

Ben: Love what you do. The only reason Tanith and I have been able to be successful, is because we have loved what we do. Fans are very smart and they can tell if you are faking, so the only option is to be truthful and let your real personality come through in whatever you do. Oh yeah, you have to work pretty hard too :-).

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