U.S. National Juvenile Ice Dancing champs Chris Davis and Angel Giordano “... work to make it look easy.

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With media attention focused on Team USA and the road to the Vancouver Olympics, a pair of local skaters slipped under the radar and spun their ice dance program into gold at the U.S. Junior Championships in Cleveland.

Angel Giordano, 12, and Chris Davis, 15, who train at Robert Crown Center, won the 2010 United States National Juvenile Ice Dance Championship title in Cleveland on Dec. 19. Costumed in black and hot pink, they performed a spirited free dance to the theme from “The Pink Panther,” sneaking past their 80-point season goal with a series of moves whose level of difficulty earned them high marks.

Last month the RoundTable caught up with the skaters as they reconnected at a Thursday morning practice after a three-week break. Smiles and laughter give them away: These two are having a good time. Their friendship is an important factor in their success, says their coach, Christopher Hyland: “They really like skating together. They enjoy each other.”

Rehashing the Nationals elicits giggles and “what-ifs” from the champs. Though they suspected they could win the free dance event, Angel says they were “shocked” to finish first in the first compulsory dance. Elation turned to worry when the second dance, their favorite, yielded only fourth place.

With half their final score already determined by the compulsories, they needed 45 points on their free dance to win. After a long wait through others’ performances – and an aborted start caused by debris on the ice – they sharpened their focus and glided to victory. “We got 47,” says Angel, beaming.

“They deserved it,” says Mr. Hyland of the win. The fact that they are still talking and strategizing about the event is a testament to their maturity, he says. Mr. Hyland, who is in his ninth year of coaching at Crown and who began skating there himself in 1978, choreographed their 2.23-minute winning program.

The dance was a year and a half in the making. Once he had chosen the music, Mr. Hyland worked with Chris and Angel on individual pieces of choreography. These they wove one by one into the evolving program, adding transitions to seam them together into a graceful whole.

For safety reasons they practice lifts off-ice for three to six months before trying them on skates. But lifts are neither the most difficult nor the most important feature of ice dancing. Pairs skating requires the dazzling moves that give it a reputation for athleticism. Ice dance, says Mr. Hyland, depends on musicality and on intricate footwork that is “more tiring than lifts and jumps.”

“Ice dancing is hard. It looks easy because we work to make it look easy,” says Angel. She and Chris agree that the one-foot turns called “crossovers with brackets” (for the pattern they inscribe on ice) are the element they most dread. But they say “whips” and “laybacks” are so exhilarating they make all the work seem worthwhile.

Their gold-medal program included four level-four (the highest level) elements. That distinguished Angel and Chris from other competitors, most of whom performed only two or three “level fours,” says Mr. Hyland.

Despite the fact that they began ice dance – and their partnership – only a year and a half ago, the coach says Angel and Chris have “exceptional skating skills.” Angel has been skating for six years; Chris, though he started lessons at age 7, says he only began “seriously ice skating at 12.”

They have already begun work on the European Waltz, a compulsory intermediate-level dance for next year’s competition. Numerous qualification tests lie in their path. But their coach calls Chris and Angel “very optimistic skaters,” adding, “As a couple they find the positive thing and cling to it.” In short, he says, “You don’t have to baby them through it.”

This year, eight to ten hours of weekly practice sufficed. But competing at the intermediate level will require ten to 15 hours a week, says Mr. Hyland. As a coach, he says, he aims to “create an environment where [the skaters] can work comfortably.” Among his responsibilities
is helping them manage their time.

Though he calls Robert Crown “one of the finest skating schools in the country,” scheduling practice for his skaters can be a challenge, since, he says, “There is very little dedicated time for ice dancers.” They share the single “sheet” (ice rink) with hockey teams, the learn-to-skate program and free, speed, synchronized and recreational skaters.

The coach must factor in the pair’s off-ice commitments as well. Chris, a Rogers Park resident, has the flexibility of being homeschooled. Angel, a Nichols Middle School seventh-grader, currently begins school late three mornings a week. “We both do really well in school,” she says.

They pursue varied interests, encouraged by parents who want them to choose their own path. Angel, granddaughter of the late dance guru Gus Giordano, has extensive dance training with a recent focus on ballet. Both she and Chris take Pilates with Angel’s mom, Deb Giordano, and will soon begin ballroom dance lessons. Chris sings with the Chicago Children’s Choir and interns at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“It takes a village,” says Mr. Hyland, referring to the skaters’ support system. Their “families have to be very involved,” he says. Mary Davis and Ms. Giordano share the carpooling – and often, the children. The Giordano house is a magnet for Chris, who can list the days he is likely to be found there. As an only child, he has struck it rich with triplet sisters Angel, Peggy and Tina. Angel calls her sisters “my biggest fans,” adding her appreciation for 9-year-old brother Paul, whom she and Chris describe as “special” and “artistic.”

Chris’s and Angel’s parents “keep [the skaters’] heads screwed on straight,” says Mr. Hyland. That solid foundation helps explain the photo on the coach’s cell phone.

Angel and Chris, he says, were unhappy that the teams and coaches were not talking to each other at Sectionals. So with their parents’ help, they filled goody bags with small gifts they handpicked for each participant, presenting them at the end of the competition.

Chris and Angel’s thoughtful act rocked their world. At Nationals, says Mr. Hyland, the tension was gone. “The whole group hung out,” he says, even joining together to sing Christmas carols from the bleachers.

The image on the cell phone tells the story: competitors at Nationals, gathered together and having fun. Their parents and coach say it means more to them than Chris and Angel’s victory.