With Coldplay’s “Fix You” building toward an instrumental crescendo, ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani start their twizzle sequence. They skate side-by-side across the ice and spin at the same time. They gather speed along with the music. Every arm movement, every change in foot position, every switch in direction from counterclockwise to clockwise to counterclockwise is perfectly in synch.
The sequence finishes after 18 rotations and the crowd roars.
The Shibutanis are known for their twizzles, an element Alex describes as “kind of like the quads of ice dance” because they are technically demanding and risky. And like a quadruple jump, twizzles can dazzle or disappoint.
A “twizzle” is defined as a multirotational, one-foot turn that moves across the ice. (By contrast, a spin is a stationary multi-rotational turn.) Twizzles appear most often during ice dance routines where skaters must perform the element in sync with each other.
When perfectly executed, twizzle sequences often become the highlight of ice dance programs. The Shibutanis’ “Fix You” free dance offers a perfect example of that. It draws the audience in and shows off the siblings’ strong skating skills. When ice dancers fall out of synch during twizzle sequences or go through them too slowly or trip when traveling across the ice, it can ruin the flow of a program and deflate the energy in the arena.
So what does it take to be among the best twizzlers in the world? Alex says there are no secrets. He credits practice and his 12-year partnership with his sister. Having skated together for such a long time, the siblings have a good sense of how aligned they look while spinning through twizzle sequences.
“You practice and repeat things so many times,” says Alex. “In general, it’s muscle memory. By the time we get out there, it’s like second nature. We’re just doing it. Hopefully, we’re rotating so fast that we can’t really see each other and it’s just kind of a feel thing.
“I’d also like to think that there’s natural twizzling ability.”
Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and at World Championships in Moscow in 2011 and London in 2013, agree that practice time and experience skating together are the keys to successful twizzle sequences. Davis and White have been partners for nearly two decades.
“We could often times hear the placement of each other’s feet based the sound that our blades were making on the ice,” says Davis. “It goes to show just how detailed and how down to the nitty-gritty the synchronization on twizzles gets.”
Meanwhile, Maia adds that skating ability, music cues, and choreography all play a role, too, helping the Shibutanis stay in sync with each other.
“In order to have really strong twizzles, you need strong individual skating skills because you’re not holding on to each other,” says Maia. “You have to try and make sure that you’re precise for the unison to be right on.”
This season, the guidelines for the short dance require skaters to perform one set of sequential twizzles, which means they must incorporate two separate spins across the ice with one step in between.
Each free dance needs to include at least one set of sequential twizzles with two or three separate spins that move across the ice with up to three steps in between.
In both their programs, the Shibutanis go beyond the minimum twizzle requirements and pile on the rotations because, Alex says, “It shows a confidence level you have with the element, and we like doing twizzles, so we’ll do more.”
That confidence is one reason the Shibutanis will be strong contenders for the ice dance title at the Figure Skating World Championships this week at TD Garden. It also helps that they have been on a winning streak.
In January, they took home their first national title, defeating defending ice dance champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Then in February, the siblings earned their first major international title at the Four Continents Championships and posted personal-best scores for an international competition with their short dance and their “Fix You” free dance.
“There’s no pressure that we feel,” says Alex, who was born in Boston and remains a devoted fan of local sports teams. “We took a lot of confidence from nationals into Four Continents. And that first ISU [International Skating Union] title was a huge accomplishment for us.
“We knew we had several weeks to go home and really improve and progress, and we’ve done that. We’re skating at a really high level right now.”
Entering a twizzle sequence, the Shibutanis first focus on gathering enough speed and winding up with enough directional force to keep rotating as long as the choreography demands. From there, muscle memory carries them through the rest of the sequence. At least, if all goes as practiced, it should.
But what if something goes awry?
“There are things that you can do,” says Alex. “Strong teams are able to adjust, to make self-corrections. If Maia notices that I’m going off one way, she’s very skilled and talented to follow me.
“You try to hide those little things. But we will be able to tell you afterwards that it might have been a little bit different.”
At TD Garden, the “Fix You” program and its twizzle sequence should be a crowd-pleaser and a judge-pleaser again.
“For us, it’s just another element in the program, because staying in the moment is important,” says Maia. “But with our two programs this season, after our twizzles, the audience always really reacts well, so that gives us more energy for the rest of the program.”
When it comes to the mental side of the twizzle, Maia repeatedly emphasizes the importance of staying in the moment, because when skaters think too far ahead, it often goes badly.
“If you lose focus for a split second, then you’re finished,” says Maia.
Alex adds that it all happens so quickly “there’s no room for mental errors at all.”
In the middle of their free dance twizzle sequence at nationals, the Shibutanis could sense how well it was all going, how they appeared perfectly in synch. There was no need to hide anything. And they hope for nothing different at Worlds.