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Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker latch on to humor, joy and being organic

ISU World Team Trophy - Day One

OSAKA, JAPAN - APRIL 15: Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker of the United States compete in the Ice Dance Rhythm Dance on day one of ISU World Team Trophy at Maruzen Intec Arena Osaka on April 15, 2021 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Koki Nagahama/International Skating Union via Getty Images)

International Skating Union via

To survive and thrive in ice dance, you have to enjoy roller-coaster rides.

At the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden three weeks ago, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker left the ice after their free dance to minimalist composer Phillip Glass’ “First Movement” and Blondie’s 1978 blockbuster “Heart of Glass” feeling good about their chances for a career-high worlds finish.

Then, up came the score: 113.43 points, some eight points lower than what they had earned for the program at Skate America last fall.

“Technically, I think we put out a solid performance and met all the requirements with a very strict panel here, but the judges were looking for something clearly different,” Hawayek said. “Now, we understand there’s always inflation from U.S. national events, but I didn’t feel like there was that much at Skate America. And then on top of that, not 10 points less than what we performed.”

“We’re very frustrated,” Baker said. “We got extremely good feedback from this material all season, only positive and only growth feedback.”

As it turned out, other teams had similar frustrations in Stockholm. Hawayek and Baker, who stood 11th after the rhythm dance, climbed to ninth, equaling their previous best result in 2019. Not want they hoped for, but hardly a disaster.

“I think that we’re going to 100-percent push through this and it just makes us stronger at the end of the day,” Hawayek said. “And maybe at the next event, the judges will see the same program, but it’s from a different side or something like that. So we’ll see.”

That next event, World Team Trophy, is happening in Osaka, Japan this week. Hawayek and Baker take the ice for their free dance on Friday, where their goal is to earn far closer to their Skate America score than they did in Stockholm. The signs are good: on Thursday, the team gained 76.79 for their “Saturday Night Fever” rhythm dance, considerably higher than their score in Stockholm.

Worlds was just one more bump in the road for the skaters, who teamed up in June 2012 and won the world junior crown in 2014. Since then, the three-time U.S. bronze medalists have had to fight their way into the crowded U.S. ice dance spotlight, competing alongside all-time greats including Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and their current Montreal, Quebec, training partners Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (three-time reigning world medalists), and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates. At ages 24 and 27 – still young, by ice dance standards – they believe more lies ahead and are committed to one day standing on the world podium.

“Those ups and downs, that’s not stopping anytime soon,” Hawayek said. “We’re not easily defeated. We’ve had triumphs in our career, and disappointment, and continually push pass it. I think that’s what makes us one of the strongest teams out here competing.”

Here is more on how the team uses humor and maturity to help manage competitive stress:

The last few seasons, you’ve become well-known for your comical exhibition programs, especially your gender-bending “Battle
of the Swans.”

Baker: We have our humor, just as everyone else does, and we like to portray that.

Hawayek: We both see the galas at the end of competitions as opportunities to perform and do things we can’t do in competitive programs. It’s funny because Jean-Luc and I are incredibly, incredibly serious people for our work. We take what we do on the ice to heart so much, and we go into every single day with the utmost respect for one another and for what we do. So even though we have that lightness, it’s never a lack of sincerity or seriousness.

During the final press conference at the U.S. Championships, your Montreal training partners, Hubbell and Donohue, really praised the humor you bring to the rink.

Baker: I’ve always been kind of a goofball and I like to make people smile and laugh, so sometimes I just like to do whatever I can to get to that point.

Hawayek: It kind of releases the intangible tension that could build from doing an elite sport. I’m not saying we don’t ever have those moments on the ice where we are feeling tired, or discouraged, or anything like that. That all comes with it. But I think because we lead with that lightness and that joy for what we do, it makes training easier in that respect.

Tanith White (2006 Olympic silver medalist and NBC commentator) said during a broadcast that it would be great if you would work elements of this humor into some of your competitive programs.

Baker: It is something that we’ve talked about and something we would be very willing to explore. It has to kind of arise naturally; Kaitlin and I are not going to force something like that, because we find that when you try to be funny, it’s the farthest thing from funny. You know, when you meet someone that’s really authentic, you are genuinely attracted to them. But when someone is not authentic and they kind of put on a face, you don’t really get a good vibe from them. So [authenticity] is one of the things that we really cherish when we create material, whether it be for a show or competition.

It sounds like showing that humor in a competitive program could be challenging.

Baker: When you do that kind of program, you’re so focused on the humor and the real interaction that’s happening, that sometimes you can lose sight of doing a rocker or something like that. That could take you, if you’re talking about a world stage, from third place to eighth or ninth, because we all have similar [element values]. So it’s definitely something we’re curious to explore, but we also need to play it at the right time.

Plus, different countries have different ideas of humor. What is funny in the United States, may not be as humorous abroad.

Hawayek: The reason that we like injecting humor and joyfulness and a little bit of light-heartedness into our programs, is to bring joy and enjoyment to people. So there’s definitely a line that we very carefully tread and are respectful of, because regardless of the culture or the country that we’re in, we never want to offend. We only want to inspire and bring joy to people. So, we always keep that in mind when we’re creating our show programs or even our competitive programs as well.

In keeping with the theme of authenticity, you’ve talked about how your “Heart of Glass” free dance doesn’t necessarily have characters or a storyline, but simply captures your emotions listening to the music.

Hawayek: Our free dance is very organic, it’s something that comes from deep within us. And I think that we will start shifting ourselves more and more to the organic [side] of our creativity. Sometimes, that may lead us in the direction of having a role [to] portray, but I think that we’ve proved not only to the world but to ourselves that we are capable of doing many different things.

Baker: Something Kaitlin said in an interview a few months ago: we are trying to allow the audience and the judges to go on a journey with us, as if they were going into a museum. When you go into a museum, you see beautiful pieces of art. Now, if you read [about] the artwork and exactly what’s happening within the story after you see the painting, you might be confused. Or, if you read the story before looking at the painting, it can be confusing because it’s not what you would imagine yourself. So something that Kaitlin and I are both latching on to is just being organic and allowing the music to speak to us.

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