After spending some of this year in South Korea, Maia and Alex Shibutani made their debut at the Korean pop culture event KCON 2018 LA earlier this month.
Attending for the first time as panelists, the pair filled a room at the Los Angeles Convention Center and spoke to their fans about their bronze medal placing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games, their YouTube channel, their Hogwarts houses — Alex is a Hufflepuff and Maia a Gryffindor — and a whole lot more, before sitting down with Billboard to discuss some of their musical inspirations.
As ice dancers, music plays a major role in the life of the Shib Sibs; they often spend days listening to only one or two songs over and over again as they prep for competitions. “We know that music is such a key part of what we’re doing it really informs what we do with our choreography and our performance,” says Maia, the younger of the pair at 24-years-old to Alex’s 27. They cite John Mayer and Jack Johnson as some of their long-time musician faves, and recently became big fans of Lorde.
Part figure skating, part ballroom dancing, the Shibutanis have grown to utilize songs as a way to redirect the expectation that ice dancing performances are based in the romantic chemistry between the pair of partners. They performed last year to a Frank Sinatra and JAY-Z hybrid “That’s Life,” just a year after they breathed new life into their sport with a free dance performance in 2016 set to Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Written by Chris Martin for ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow after her father passed away, “Fix You” came to revitalize the duo. “We were kind of at a point of our career where we felt broken and we wanted to fix ourselves, we wanted to fix each other, we wanted to get back to a level that we had previously attained when we were younger when there were no expectations but we exceeded everything,” recalls Alex. They took second place at that year’s world championships, returning to the podium for the first time since the 2010-11 season when they placed in third.
So when it came to prepping for their 2018 Olympic season, returning to Coldplay was an obvious choice, though they switched over to “Paradise.” “Our goal was for Pyeongchang to be our ‘Paradise,’” says Maia. “It wasn’t a romantic song, it was something that everyone could relate to because honestly not everyone can relate to romantic [music],” reflects Alex. “It’s aspirational.” It paid off, and they became the first-ever pair of ice dancers of Asian descent to take home medals at the Olympics, where they won bronze medals in both the team figure skating and ice dancing events.
But along with taking home medals at the Olympics, the duo also had the opportunity to explore South Korean culture. Leading up to the PyeongChang Games, they spent six months mentoring kids in South Korea and making connections, including Korean-American singer Eric Nam; both students and Nam ended up watching the Shib Sibs perform at the Olympics. “Talking with the students, they were teaching us about the culture and sharing who they were excited about as far as the music scene goes,” says Maia. “So that’s what made it so special that Eric was able to go watch us compete with the classroom that we had mentored.”
They also worked with Jun Curry Ahn — who rose to fame as a K-pop cover artist, and has since begun to release original music, including his recent single “Hold It Down” — for their program at the Olympics. He performed the violin for their arrangement of “Paradise.”
The Shib Sibs even had the opportunity to interact with a group of artists that inspires them, though indirectly. On Feb. 16, Alex tweeted about trying to figure out how to send BTS some personalized hats from Team USA’s sponsor Polo Ralph Lauren. “People were talking a lot about representation and diversity in entertainment at that time, and at the Olympics as well, so it just made sense,” recalls Alex about the decision to reach out. “We didn’t know they had gotten them until Jin tweeted a photo.”
The Shibutanis first heard about K-pop around 2013, when they were collaborating with choreographers Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, who had worked with 2NE1 and G-Dragon. But they didn’t really focus on it until 2016. “Korea being the host of the Olympics kind of brought it back into the periphery… and that coincided with the rise of BTS. I kinda glommed on to BTS because I liked what they were doing all around,” he says, referring to the groups Love Myself campaign with Unicef and their motivational Love Yourself album series. “The fact that they’ve been able to blend their business and their entertainment, which is music, with idealism [because] they know they have an audience of young people– the fact that they’re doing that is very commendable.”
— Alex Shibutani (@AlexShibutani) February 17, 2018
“The fact that specifically BTS has been able to build such a global community of positive people is something that’s really inspiring,” says Maia. “So now that we’re at that point with our own platform, especially now [through] social media we have that opportunity where- we love social media, we love interacting with people. Not just people that come to the arena and have the chance to see you skate live. But you can also positively impact someone that you can relate to on Instagram, or Twitter or if they just see a video of something that you’re doing and it changes something for them. That’s really meaningful.”
Creating a positive, impactful connection with the audience is immensely important to the Shibutanis, even as they’re ensuring that they do their best in their field. “You can get so self-absorbed like, ‘This competition that we’re getting ready for, for our result.’” says Alex. “There are people in the stands that are watching, that are choosing to come and pay for a ticket to support you but also because you’re giving them something. You’re sharing something with them so I think that we’re fortunate that we’re in a sport where we understand that very innately because there is a performer and audience. We want to do more to give back.”
After the high of the 2018 Olympics, the two are taking the rest of the year a bit easier and sitting out the season. The freeing up of their practice schedule has enabled them to attend KCON, where they interacted firsthand with hundreds of fans, as well as to focus on some charity events, and to explore their creative side while getting in touch with their audience through their YouTube channel.
“It’s like an extended summer break where we’re just trying a lot of stuff,” says Alex. “Coming up with a skating program or making a video is an exercise in physical, mental problem solving, and it’s like a puzzle. It’s like my Sudoku, it just takes a lot longer. That’s why we do it, though it’s stressful and tiring at times. But I think just getting better at that [is the priority], and different opportunities are coming that are exciting that we can’t really talk about.”