Da da da-ncing on ice: Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell on their programs, representing Latvia, and juggling a PhD, work and skating

Da da da-ncing on ice: Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell on their programs, representing Latvia, and juggling a PhD, work and skating

Latvian ice dancers Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell only met three times before they started skating together, with their new partnership beginning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With all the ice rinks closed in the UK, the team were unable to train, as they weren’t representatives of Team GB. Ipolito says it got to April/May before they decided to drive to Switzerland, where her parents live, as they wanted to compete the next season and thus needed to start preparing. She expressed that it was like being “thrown into the deep end: we had to build a relationship quite quickly,” adding with a laugh that “the nine-hour car journey was an icebreaker.”

Favourite Movie?

Aurelija: The curious case of Benjamin Button.

Luke: I quite like Logan. That’s the only one I can think of at the moment, but that’s not my favourite I’m pretty sure.

Both Ipolito and Russell stumbled upon skating as young children by chance, and the passion for the sport was something they discovered quickly. Russell recalled with a laugh that his “grandmother’s next-door neighbour had some vouchers to go skating, so we made good use of those!” Although he briefly questioned the reality of pursuing figure skating as a career in his teenage years, “the artistry of it and the nuances of the technicality” of it drew Russell in and prompted him to commit to the sport. 

Similarly, Ipolito took a crash course in skating during a summer when she was a child, and has “never looked back” since. She has experience in speed skating as well, participating in long-track events before properly competing in ice dance. Comparing the two disciplines and their respective ways of training, she explained that “it is totally different. They do a lot more off-ice training, they don’t really even train on the ice during the summer: it’s a lot of cycling, running and general stamina,” also commenting on the longer nature of the speed skating blade.

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© Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell | Instagram

Favourite and Least Favourite Choreo Element?

Aurelija: Favourite – choreo steps. Least favourite- choreo twizzles. I just don’t get them.

Luke: Choreo slide is my favourite. I think it always adds another level onto skating; it’s always fun to watch. Least favourite – choreo twizzles.

As for their training locations currently, Ipolito described it as “complicated”, with Russell working in London and Ipolito doing a PhD in pharmacology at the University of Oxford. The pair mix training locations across different places in the country on a routine basis. Despite Ipolito initially considering doing a part-time PhD, she went for doing it full-time, and explained that she is able to set her own working hours and get her experiments done while still making time for her training. While the focus of her PhD and her skating career are unrelated, Ipolito described that “obviously they’re super different, [but] it is nice because I can use one side of myself on the ice and another in the lab. On the ice [it] is physical, in the lab it is very mental, so it’s nice to have the balance.” Nonetheless, there are still some areas of overlap: “although science doesn’t sound like it’s creative, there’s creativity involved in planning experiments and deciding what you want to do.”

With moving back and forth between these different commitments, both skaters are frequently on the move, and Russell described their typical day as “either working or doing a PhD, going straight to a different ice rink or a different part of the country, and then ready for the next day skating first thing in the morning.” It may seem like a lot, yet the pair has never entertained the idea of not juggling work and ice dance, and are able to maintain the balance between the two despite the difficulties that it brings.

Aurelija: It has kind of been a non-negotiable to be able to do both. There have been points where we’re exhausted and we see how much everyone else is training, and their training situations, where I am like, ‘it’d be a lot easier if we just skated’; but at the end of the day I want to get my PhD, I want to go on to do other things later in life.

Luke: We started skating together during lockdown, when things weren’t that busy […] but then as reality set back in, ice rinks opened up, I went to work, Aurelija went to university: it became more of a struggle, but it’s something that we both went into with both eyes fully open, knowing that we were going to have to make sacrifices. So I think we’re both really tired but we knew what we were signing up for.

Beginning their skating partnership during the pandemic didn’t bring just negatives for them – there were also positive aspects. Along with the opportunity to train in Switzerland came the chance to have a program choreographed by Alexander Gazsi, a former German ice dancer and an individual who Ipolito described as “incredible” both as a person and as a choreographer. 

Ipolito and Russell have grown more comfortable with each other as the seasons have progressed, and communication has always been key between them; they agreed that they’re always ready to sit down with one another, discussing any issues that come up. “If we didn’t have those conversations, I would have ended up burning out,” Russell confessed. Ipolito expanded on this, saying that “if we see one of us is really tired, we’re immediately like, ‘Okay, what’s going on?’ [and we don’t] just leave it and try and train and it gets worse and worse and worse”.

Following their appearances at the European and World Championships last year, Ipolito and Russell got off to a challenging start this season, with Ipolito undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of the off-season. After four weeks off the ice and four weeks doing on-ice basics to build back strength, the team finally managed to recommence full training in early October, and competed later in the month. Along with this setback, they say that their plethora of other commitments makes it difficult to plan ahead, with their approach being on a season-by-season or competition-by-competition basis. “We weren’t even sure if we were going to make it to Euros and now we’re on our way to Euros and Worlds, so by being present we have managed to get where we wanted to be, anyways,” Russell said. Ipolito stated that “the beginning of the season was a little bit rough, and we were a bit disappointed, but we had to keep telling ourselves that we started late and haven’t had the months of training that the other couples have had, and to see it in perspective. Our last competition went really well, we’re really happy with that,” seeing this success as a “confidence booster” ahead of the European Championships.

Favourite Program?

Aurelija: Alex[ander] Gazsi [and Nelli Zhiganshina]’s zombie program, I’ve watched that so many times! [Gabriella] Papadakis and [Guillaume] Cizeron: their ‘Find Me’ spoken word program was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Seeing that at Europeans live was just amazing. 

Luke: Straight away when you asked that question, what came into my mind was Piper [Gilles] and Paul [Poirier]’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ routine, where he’s playing the painter and you’ve got Piper as the painting. That to me is perfection. 

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© Aurelija Ipolito | Instagram

The idea for their rhythm dance came after hearing a DJ playing music while sitting in a restaurant in Odesa. After figuring out what the song was, they say it was decided that this piece (Da Da Da Ich Lieb Dich Nicht Du Liebst Mich Nicht) would form the basis of their program. From there, they found the samba music which would accompany the cha-cha, and get the crowd going. “We definitely wanted to go for something slightly different with the Latin, because we knew a lot of people would be going down the ‘sexy’ route,” Ipolito said, “and we thought it would be cool to do something a bit more quirky and a bit more fun, especially because that’s more our personality.” Laughing, she went on to add, “I definitely haven’t heard anyone using our weird Da-da-da music yet!” 

As for their free dance, the two had the idea from last season to do “something different and horror-based”, setting themselves apart from many other skaters and programs. They shared that they asked their friends for suggestions for “monster-themed” songs, and came up with a medley of music by artists such as Postmodern Jukebox. 

Initially going to Mark Hanretty for their rhythm dance, they ended up having both programs choreographed by the Scottish former ice dancer. The admiration and enthusiasm that both Ipolito and Russell possess for Hanretty was palpable as they spoke of the energy, attention and motivation which he brings to the ice. “He accents every single nuance in the music. He’ll be like, ‘Hear that little click there? We have to do something on that click’,” Ipolito said, whilst Russell said the experience of working with Hanretty was “absolutely brilliant. That man’s musicality is on point.”

Aurelija: [It was] great that he went along with our weird horror idea. He totally embraced it, took our ideas on board at the same time; it was just a really cool process. 

Luke: Working with Mark has been absolutely eye-opening for me as a coach, because his energy really brings out your desire to go beyond what you would normally do in order to achieve your goals. He’s a very ambitious person, and he sends that aura of ambition onto everyone around him.

It is not a rare occurrence to see former ice dancers such as Hanretty work as choreographers after their competitive careers. When Ipolito and Russell were asked what they, as ice dancers themselves, saw as the key to good choreography and the ways in which a program caught their eye, their respective answers showcased the importance that creativity and detail in movement hold for them. 

“For me, it’s when someone is able to use the fullness of their body, including their breath as well. When you see someone straining in their movement and throwing their arms about, that to me isn’t interesting choreography; that’s just someone moving. But whereas if you’ve got someone else where they’ve been able to bring a breath into an inhale as they bring their arm up with an extension… that’s gorgeous,” Russell said, demonstrating over the Zoom call. “Using the entirety of your body to make a movement more impactful: that’s good choreography, if someone is able to use that and pinpoint that on music.” 

As for Ipolito, she “tend[s] to like programs that are a bit different. When everyone is doing the same thing, they could be doing an amazingly beautiful classical piece, and sometimes it’s still not stand-out.” She went on to say that she prefers “choreography that highlights people’s personalities […] I loved the Ukrainian team, [Maksim] Nikitin and [Oleksandra] Nazarova: they had fun programs with wacky transitions- you appreciated the fact that they were doing something so different and trying out new things.” 

© Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell | Instagram

Following the removal of the pattern dance last April for the first time in almost a century, various skaters have expressed their thoughts regarding the change throughout the season. Asked how they felt about the situation, Russell answered briefly and quipped, “I feel like I’m privileged to play a part in figure skating history in the sense that we’re trying out something new.”

“I’m mixed,” Ipolito said. “Going into this season, I was really excited about the choreo step, because choreo steps are fun and get the audience going. It’s the place where you don’t have to think about ‘Am I on the right edge?’: you can just dance. And especially for Latin, it was really exciting to have this choreo step in there.” 

“But I think that it’s really hard to judge. From my point of view, what it was meant to be was an element that was solely based on your dance ability and your choreography. So if you were a good dancer, then no matter what your skating skills were, or where you were in the rankings, then you should get a good choreo step GOE. But I think it’s really impossible to separate the choreo step as an element from the rest of the program. I don’t know if it necessarily ends up being a very objective element. I think it’s really fun to do, but really hard to judge properly. An ideal situation would be if it was given less weight, because at the moment, you can just rack up so many points in the choreo step and it seems a little bit out of proportion. So it would be nice to have the pattern dance back, and maybe keep the choreo step but just have it weighted less.”

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© Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell | Instagram

With Ipolito’s mother’s side of the family being Latvian, she says that representing the country is “amazing in that sense, when we go and compete especially in Eastern European countries, I’ll have family members to come along and be the cheering section in the crowd.” Yet it is a country with a comparatively small skating federation, and one without a large tradition of ice dance; she acknowledged the difficulties of this aspect. “Our federation has not really dealt with ice dancers that much, we don’t have a judge. Hopefully, we’ll improve and show that ice dance is actually a category to the Latvians! (laugh) It would be nice to climb up the ranks and be able to show that ice dance is possible.”

Russell described representing Latvia as “an absolute privilege”, and the two spoke about how supportive the Latvian fans and their federation are, wanting to give something back to them and “hopefully build a new tradition”. When asked about funding within the federation, Ipolito shared that “they help us as much as they can with competitions like Euros and Worlds,” but that in terms of day-to-day funds, they just don’t have the capacity to financially support the two. “Which is why Luke works, I do my PhD, I do tutoring,” Ipolito added, saying that she feels “super lucky to have our coaches Alan Abretti and Lloyd Jones: they give us as much time as they can with what we give them, and for the rest of it we just do our best!”

With last season being their first year competing together, Ipolito and Russell said that they were happy just to qualify for their assignments and attend the World Championships. This season, they are setting the bar higher for themselves and are going in with the objective of being in the top twenty for both the European and World Championships. Russell jokingly described the 21-22 season as a “participation award”, but wanted to push their results further this time and qualify for the free dance. 

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© Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell | Instagram

The pair have already challenged the conventions of ice dancing, and the originality of their programs this season promises to make their performances at both championships entertaining and engaging. Throughout our conversation, it was clear that they are striving to push boundaries further and create new possibilities for a discipline which they consider to be founded upon the very impossibility of confining it to any preconceived perception of the sport. When asked about busting myths or dispelling stereotypes about ice dance, Russell said that it’s “so hard to stereotype a figure skater. Because when you go to the ice rink, [it’s] just full of an eclectic range of people. The biggest stereotype is that there is a stereotype.” 

After consideration, Ipolito herself shared that “one stereotype that is maybe outdated now, and I guess applies to us, is that there’s always [been] the image that the ice dance couple had to be the very tall guy and the very short girl; there was that ‘big masculine-small feminine’ interplay.” And, thankfully, it is a mentality which is slowly changing, and one “that is being broken now by couples like Charlène [Guignard] and Marco [Fabbri], for instance. It’s nice to see that there’s a different representation of different types of couples, with different sizes and height differences and personality differences.” She also added that the idea that a skater needs to sacrifice their schooling or higher education to make space for skating shouldn’t be upheld as the only option available, and that skaters shouldn’t feel compelled to choose between them. 

While speaking with Ipolito and Russell, it was evident that they both celebrate, embrace, and value the multifaceted nature of figure skating. Russell shared that in their upcoming competitions, he ultimately wants to “make an impact” and see that their “labours have been rewarded”.

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One Reply to “Da da da-ncing on ice: Aurelija Ipolito and Luke Russell on their programs, representing Latvia, and juggling a PhD, work and skating”

  1. BRILLIANT Aurelija! I’ve been following you for two years now and I love watching both of you on the ice. I personally love quirky it’s a bit more fun and gets the audience excited. Definitely shows your personality more. Best of luck to you both. Enjoy it all, life’s too short not to. 😘

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