SOCHI, Russia — Maia and Alex Shibutani were in full Michael Jackson mode midway through their Olympic ice dance program Monday night, shaking their hips in zippered and rhinestone-studded costumes, seemingly having the time of their lives. Then, during the “Man in the Mirror’’ portion, Alex hoisted his younger sister onto his shoulders, and unbeknownst to the casual TV viewer but visible to the judges, they encountered an ice dancer’s nightmare.
Her skirt and tights snagged on one his zippers or stones and she struggled to get free.
The American brother-sister duo from Ann Arbor, Mich., had worked closely with Michael Jackson’s choreographers on the black costumes, down to the very last bead, sequin, crystal, zipper, and rhinestone. They had rehearsed in the costumes countless times and never had any trouble.
That is, until they were performing on the biggest stage of their lives.
They couldn’t curse. They couldn’t stop. They had to improvise, and keep smiling, because that’s what figure skaters do.
“My skirt and my tights got completely caught on his shoulder,’’ said a teary Maia, 19. “It’s a very challenging lift with a lot of different changes of position, so once I was on top of his shoulder it just got stuck and I’m supposed to drop down and twist and if I’m stuck I can’t do that, so we had two options—put the lift down and rip everything (“or undress,’’ joked her brother) or improvise, which is what we did. We handled the situation best we could.’’
Maia managed to rip away from her brother’s jacket, they threw in another lift, and wound up ninth. The only evidence of the miscue was the giant hole in her tights.
“The show must go on,’’ said big brother Shibutani.
Although the sport requires tremendous athleticism, figure skating is, at the end of the day, a show. The best skaters are great actors because they make what they’re doing look easy. That is particularly true of ice dancing, which has grown in popularity because of shows like Dancing with the Stars. Olympians perform spectacularly difficult moves bedazzled in Swarovski crystals, feathers, bridal lace, netting, and rhinestones. A typical skating dress for an Olympian can be covered in up to 40,000 beads and cost $1,000 to $5,000.
Nancy Kerrigan’s dress in the 1994 Olympics was designed by Vera Wang, had 14,500 crystals and cost $13,000. Costumes today are a far cry from the $120 Lycra dresses Dorothy Hamill’s mother sewed for her.
The designers and seamstresses who make these outfits watch competitions nervously, praying there won’t be any broken straps, broken zippers, or loose beads. Brad Griffies, the Atlanta-based designer for U.S. skater Gracie Gold and a French pairs team, said Tuesday night that most people probably don’t realize Gold had a costume glitch last week during the long program of the Olympic team competition.
“So, I’m sitting there watching Gracie on TV in her Sleeping Beauty dress, and all of a sudden, I notice during her footwork, that the hook on the back of her neck came undone,’’ said Griffies, reached by phone at his studio. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! The neck of her dress is flopping, and she has four jumps left. I freaked out. I thought, ‘I’m going to mess her up.’’’
Thankfully, he said, there was another hook about an inch down from the one that came undone. A former skater himself, Griffies anticipates costume problems that could arise and designs his costumes with those in mind. For example, he goes light on beads on the hips of ice dancing and pairs dresses because that is where the man holds the woman when he throws and twists her.
He said the neck of Gold’s dress has been reinforced by a seamstress in Sochi, and he is crossing his fingers for Thursday’s long program. Gold’s coach, the Frank Carroll, told Griffies he wanted Gold to look “old Hollywood,’’ elegant, like Grace Kelly. The coach initially envisioned a white dress, but Griffies felt with Gold’s fair complexion and the white ice, she’d look more striking in a dip-dyed blue dress that ranges from periwinkle to royal blue.
Carroll also told him to go easy on the glitter. Griffies likes to put 40,000 to 50,000 beads and crystals on a dress, but he restrained himself to 1,400. Each one was glued on or sewn by hand.
“It’s very tedious, but it’s really cool to turn on the Olympics and see your costumes out there,’’ he said. He is always curious to see what other skaters are wearing, and this week has produced some memorable selections.
German pairs skater Aliona Savchenko became an internet sensation with her bejeweled Pink Panther body suit. “Let’s face it, her body is perfect for that outfit,’’ Griffies said. “Not everyone could pull that off.’’
German ice dancing duo Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi, who have dressed as clowns and zombies in the past, raised eyebrows again this week. Gazsi took the ice as a nerdy professor, in black-rimmed glasses, a sweater vest and a bowtie. Zhiganshina played the part of a flirtatious socialite, in a fancy gold and white frock.
“Some people go for pure costume to interpret their music,’’ Griffies said. “I’m more of a sleek, sparkly guy.’’
He said he loves the costumes of American gold medalists Charlie White and Meryl Davis, designed by Luanne Williams and Stephanie Miller. “They’re always perfect,’’ he said. For Tuesday’s winning routine, they skated to Scheherazade and wore purple Arabian costumes decorated with multi-colored stoned.
Over the years, there have been many memorable costumes — and not all of them for good reason.
Who can forget gold medalist Ilia Kulik’s costume at the 1998 Nagano Olympics? He wore a bright yellow costume covered with big brown splotches, drawing comparisons to a giraffe and a rotting banana. In 2006, Stephane Lanbiel was mocked for his zebra outfit. And then there’ Johnny Weir, who always went all out, the most famous his swan outfit resplendent with 8,000 rhinestones, feathers, a fishnet sleeve and a red glove.
As Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, once said: “Skating costumes are like toupees. You notice the really bad ones.’’