At last month’s figure skating national championships in San Jose, California, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue took to the ice after the sibling team of Maia and Alex Shibutani. The “Shib Sibs”—a nickname that I did not make up—have been the most successful U.S. ice dance pair of the last quadrennium and were heavy favorites to win the national title yet again; they had just skated to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” which marked their second time performing to a Coldplay song. This Olympic year’s free dance was the final part of an emotionally and thematically connected trilogy that they hope will score them an Olympic medal.
The Shibutanis skated with as much feeling as one could possibly squeeze out of dancing to a Coldplay song with your sibling, which is a statement you should take however you will. When Hubbell and Donohue, both 26, struck their opening poses, they shot smoldering glances at one another. This would be something totally and tonally different. From Coldplay to foreplay, if you will.
Performing to a medley of Rag ‘N Bone Man/Beth Hart, Hubbell and Donohue steamed their way across the ice. Though they are as technically precise as the best teams in the world—they were among the six ice dance pairs in the world who qualified to this year’s Grand Prix Final—that technique can be obscured by the passion they bring to their free dance. All ice dance performances feature close holds and lifts, but Hubbell and Donohue devote more of their choreography than, say, the Shib Sibs to gazing at each other and caressing each other’s faces, or touching each other’s torsos and abdomens in a sensual way. These are the kind of choreographic moments reinforce the heteronormative origins of the sport, but they are also not the sort of things anyone wants to watch a brother and sister do.
Ice dancing has strong connections to the ballroom dance tradition and was dominated for a long time by the British, who created most of the compulsory dances that were based around waltzes and foxtrots and the like. Back then, sport was characterized by a stiffly held upright carriage; movement came almost exclusively from the feet. But as the Eastern bloc countries entered this Olympic discipline, they brought with them a more theatrical style that changed the sport. This was especially true of skaters from the former Soviet Union, which has always strongly emphasized ballet. This shift in style led to more romantic and sensual programs, which necessarily presented a challenge to brother-sister ice dance pairs who didn’t want to go all Blue Lagoon with their performances.
You are perhaps wondering why skaters would choose to partner with siblings at all, given that partnering presents such stylistic limitations. The short answer is that, if you’re a female skater, finding a suitable male partner can be very, very difficult. Take Hubbell, for instance. Though she now skates with Donohue, she actually spent most of her skating career training and performing with her older brother, Kieffer. Female skaters greatly outnumber their male counterparts. In Culture On Ice, Ellyn Kestnbaum writes, “In ice dance competition, unpartnered skaters (the vast majority of them female given the demographics of the skating population) have no place in the international competitive structure.”
As a result, it is hardly unheard of for male skaters to be enticed into a skating partnership with money and other material perks. Even Hubbell’s brother had to be induced financially to partner with her initially, albeit at a parental level. “My parents secretly paid my brother, like, a monthly salary,” Hubbell told me. “Not much, you know, like 50 bucks allowance or something per month to skate with me.” Hubbell and her brother skated together for 11 years, although the payments ceased after the first season.
The way that Hubbell described the challenge of finding a suitable partner will be queasily familiar to any single New Yorker:
“You know, you look for a boy that’s a little bit taller than you. Maybe the same age or a few years older. And you know you want to try and hope that he’ll be basically at the same level, but let’s be honest the men in our sport are few and far between. So you know there are many girls I think that you know they have to really see the potential in the guy and and we don’t have you know our pick of the litter. And they do frankly they have so many choices of girls. So you know, you just try and just try and find a boy who can kind of work for you and try to impress him so he’ll choose you...Kieffer was kind of the perfect guy that I was looking for at that time. He’s two years older than me. He’s about four inches taller than me. He’s very gifted. He’s a hard worker. He’s so nice. So my brother was kind of that perfect fit. But you know girls kind of dream of having that built in.”
You have all of the things you’d read in a dating trend article in [insert name of any women’s or lifestyle publication here]: more women than men; men getting to choose and women having to wait to be chosen; great women not finding a partner. It’s not even a metaphor, and all of it is very dispiriting.
Unfortunately for Hubbell, Kieffer eventually left skating due to injuries and other issues and she was forced to search for a new partner. “I thought maybe I was done skating,” she said. “Because usually you know by the time you’re 20 and you want to be at the top of senior and you know once you’re at that level like the good ones are kind of taken, and very rarely do you find a good partner who’s the right size who is actually from the same country as you. Because you know I knew I wouldn’t be able to be released to skate for another country and you know the talented men out there probably wouldn’t be able to skate for the U.S., either.”
(That last problem is its own thing, if you were wondering. It actually took a special act of Congress for the Canadian-born Tanith Belbin to be naturalized in enough time for her to skate for the U.S. at the 2006 Olympics. There are several cross-national pairs in figure skating, including the 2018 Olympic gold medalist in pairs skating, Bruno Massott and Aliona Savchenko. Massott is French and just got his German citizenship in November, clearing him to represent Germany with Savchenko, who is Ukrainian, in Pyeongchang.)
As it happened, Hubbell found a suitable partner in Donohue fairly quickly. “He just showed up at the rink one day, Zach, and he wanted to come back and train with the coach I was with at that time,” she told me. “They partnered us up for one day and then the next day, we decided to skate together.”
That she found a new partner as quickly as she despite the fact that her height—a comparatively towering 5-foot-7—made her partnering options more limited than they would be for many of her female counterparts.
There is a pragmatic reason for this, as it turns out. For most pairs of skaters, the woman is typically several inches shorter than her male counterpart. In a practical sense, this makes things like lifts easier to execute. The height difference is especially stark when it comes to the pairs skaters, since the woman is tossed several feet in the air on some moves; the lifts, unlike those in ice dancing, involve hoisting the woman over the man’s head with straight arms. Think of the woman in pairs skating as inhabiting a role a little bit like that of a flyer in cheerleading.
It was her height that caused Hubbell to abandon her first figure skating ambition—pairs skating. “I kind of wanted to do pairs,” she said. “I was always a daredevil and not afraid of many things and so I thought that would be so cool. But already when when I was like, oh, 11 years old, I was almost this height. People quickly told me that I’m not sure pairs skating is in your cards.”
This seems a good point to mention that Donohue is 6-foot-3. The height difference between Hubbell is Donohue is comparable to those of their nearest competitors. Though Hubbell had enjoyed great success with her brother, her partnership with Donohue opened up certain stylistic avenues that had previously been closed due to the nature of the sibling relationship. “It was something that did affect my career with my brother,” Hubbell told me. “Just because, you know, I think I’ve always had, like, a very mature look and I had a mature body and curves. And, you know, and my brother is very handsome.
“I felt limited at some times where, you know, I would like to create a certain type of program and I just couldn’t,” she recalled.
Though they were careful in how they presented themselves and their programs, issues still cropped up. “Some years, you know, we have no choice but to skate to tango music,” Hubbell said referring to compulsory dance patterns in the short dance, a vestige of the compulsory dances of previous eras in ice dance. This year’s pattern is a rumba step.
“It was definitely kind of a cool feeling when I got the opportunity to skate with Zach,” Hubbell told me. “Now I can really let go and just be exactly who I am and do these kind of sexy-fun [programs].”
The Shibutanis, despite whatever stylistic limitations imposed on them by the nature of their sibling relationship, have been the premier U.S. ice dance team of the past four years and have assumed the top spot in national standing left vacant by the semi-retired Charlie White and Meryl Davis. They’ve won two world championships medals in the last four years, three if you go back to 2011. Their bronze medal in 2017 at the world championships was the only skating medal the U.S. brought back from that competition. And their current short program is the class of the ice dance field.
In 2014, the Shibutanis performed their free dance at the Olympics to a medley of Michael Jackson, which was perfect for a brother-sister duo when you consider the millions of brothers and sisters have made their parents sit through their rendition of the “Thriller” dance in the living room through the years. Watching the Shib Sibs do the same, on ice and with actual proficiency, was a delight.
The Shib Sibs are hardly the first successful brother-sister ice dance duo in history. The most successful pair in that category were Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay of France, who are generally credited with helping to transform ice dance in the late 1980s and early ’90s with a series of avant-garde programs. These were bold, but hardly romantic; one of their programs was about Argentina’s dirty war. Their skating generally didn’t evoke the ballroom or social dances from which ice dancing typically draws, and their more ambitious choreography was authentically bizarre, all odd angles and shapes, deep edges and knees. The Duchesnays won a world title and an Olympic silver medal for their efforts. (Today, they inspire Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, an up-and-coming U.S. sibling team that won the world junior title last season.)
It certainly helped that the Duchesnays’ choreographer was the British legend Christopher Dean, one half of the greatest ice dance pairs of all time. Dean, along with skating partner Jayne Torvill, performed one of the most iconic programs in history—their 1984 free dance to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” which won them the gold medal at the Olympics. During their heyday, Torvill and Dean were noted, like the Duchesnays, for strikingly ambitious and creative choreography. And they are one of the few, and perhaps the only, ice dancing pair to achieve the kind of stardom typically reserved for singles skaters. There’s even a Wikipedia page that’s just “Torvill and Dean.”
“I think there’s something marketable about a single person, a single man or a single lady,” Hubbell said. “A kid can dream of being that particular person and maybe it’s a little bit less accessible to the public to understand the partnership and understand that dynamic.”
The U.S. has the Shib Sibs, but we are yet to have a “Torvill and Dean” moment in ice dance. All of America’s iconic skating moments have come on the singles side of the sport, from Dick Button in the 1950s through to Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan. The most famous pair in recent skating history, Tonya and Nancy, weren’t a pair at all.
That emphasis on singles skating has persisted despite the fact that ice dancing has yielded more medals for the U.S. over the last decade than the other skating disciplines. This string of success begins with Belbin and Agosto and continues with the medal-winning run that White and Davis made from 2010-2014, when they took the Olympic gold. The Shibutanis have won three world championships medals themselves since 2011. Another American duo, 2015 national champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, are also competing in Pyeongchang and have picked up two medals in world championship competition.
It’s not just the relative ease with which the Olympic hype machine can turn solo virtuosos into icons, or anything as simple as America’s obsession with the individual that makes ice dancing inaccessible relative to singles and even pairs; the sport really is difficult to parse. In singles skating or pairs there are jumps and throws and the familiar suspense of whether a move will hit or not, but the difference between the top ice dance teams is much more subtle. What they’re doing—the footwork, the deep edges, holds done at top speeds—are exceedingly difficult, and that comes through. But they don’t communicate risk the way jumps do; a certain element of danger is missing, and replaced by more subjective elements related to performance quality.
“We don’t make as many mistakes,” Hubbell explained. “So it is hard to, you know, have some breakout performance where all of a sudden, you go from the bottom to the top. Everybody in dance kind of skates, to the outsider’s eyes, like kind of perfect every time.”
It’s the stylistic choices—music, costumes, choreography—more than the intricate movements that the skaters’ feet are doing across the ice that the general audience notices. At this Olympic Games, the Canadian ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions and the defending Olympic silver medalists, have been the subject of intense scrutiny due to the sensual nature of their free dance, which includes what can only be described as some light face sitting. People are far less interested in discussing their deep, pure edgework; Virtue and Moir might be the best technicians in the competition. But the on-ice passion they exhibited is all anyone can talk about. It has led to renewed speculation about their relationship status—they maintain that they only dated when they were 8 and 10 years old. (Hubbell and Donohue had been a couple in the past but now date members of the same Spanish ice dance team.)
And that’s the thing—the heteronormative male-female relationship and the attendant expectations inevitably informs the way we interpret everything we see on the ice. Regardless of what the actual relationship between two skaters is off the ice—and they’re all out there to find: brother/sister, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, or gay man/straight woman, straight man/lesbian—their task on the ice is mostly to enact traditionally masculine and feminine roles and relate to each other as a heterosexual couple would. All they can do is make it beautiful, make it felt, make it somehow real—they have to show us something, but what we see and how we see it is fundamentally on us.