Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha have had a breakout season in 2022-23. But when the rhythm dance starts next week at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, they will unfortunately be missing from the roster. It’s their misfortune that Canada has only two ice dance spots at Worlds this year–and three high-ranked ice dance teams. So it was always a given that one of the talented Canadian teams would have to stay home from Saitama.
It’s extra-disappointing for Lajoie, 22, and Lagha, 23, because they’ve had their best season by far. The duo notched two Challenger Series wins last fall, secured their first-ever medals on the Grand Prix, and mounted a strong challenge for the title at the 2023 Canadian National Championships (ultimately falling just short and taking silver).
Not only did Lajoie/Lagha have great results, they also connected with skating fans via two crowd–pleasing and popular programs. Their “Cha Cha Slide” rhythm dance, with its spoken step commands and infectious melody, was an immediate hit and showcased their speed and energy. And the couple’s free dance to “Nureyev” from the The White Crow soundtrack revealed an emotionally intense, dramatic side to their skating that hadn’t been seen recently. Their free skate also got more exposure in a beautifully staged video from Jordan Cowan of On Ice Perspectives, which has over 11,000 views on YouTube.
Before this season, Lajoie and Lagha were already fixtures on the international ice dance scene. Their four-year junior career culminated with the 2019 Junior World title, and they’ve been competing in seniors since then. But it’s perhaps only this season that Lajoie and Lagha have captured the full attention of skating fans. The duo–who have been partners for 12 years–convey the impression of opposites on the ice. Lajoie’s wide smile and vivacity contrast strikingly with Lagha’s intensity and dramatic quality. It’s a unique partnership, in which the individual qualities of each partner are not subsumed to the whole, but rather, stand out in relief and complement each other.
Lajoie and Lagha–often known as “Marjo” and “Zak” in the skating world–train at the I.AM ice dance center in Montreal, Canada, with coaches Romain Hagenauer, Marie-France Dubreuil, and Patrice Lauzon. Although they regret that they’ll miss Worlds, they were happy to finish their season on a high note by winning the bronze medal at Four Continents.
When I spoke with them in Colorado Springs, Lajoie and Lagha expressed satisfaction with their accomplishments this season. Off the ice, Lajoie has a sunny charm befitting her surname (which means “joy” in French), while Lagha is thoughtful and incisive. We talked about their season, how they developed their programs, why they find competition difficult, and what they want to work on in the off-season.
Q: It was great to see you skate here in Colorado Springs. Can you talk a little about how your season has gone?
Lagha: It’s been going really well. We took a little time to prepare [in the off-season], and we came ready. Every goal, in every competition, has been achieved. So, in terms of results, it was the perfect scenario for this year: A full senior season with all podium finishes. So that’s really, really good.
Q: It’s great that you achieved all your competitive goals. You also really connected with fans this season and had a great response to your programs. Did you feel that energy from audiences when you were competing?
Lajoie: Yes, I feel like people really like our programs, and we can feel it. When they’re clapping their hands in the short [rhythm] dance, it gives us energy. So yes, I really felt it this year–the support of the crowd–which is pretty amazing.
Q: Your programs were so successful this season. How did you choose the themes?
Lajoie: For the short [rhythm dance], we struggled. We always struggle to choose our music, because it’s always a big decision. You keep the music for a year. And–
Lagha: –And I’m difficult. [Lajoie laughs.]
Lajoie: But that’s good. It’s good to be picky and to make sure it’s a good decision. For the short, Marie [-France Dubreuil] came with the idea [“Cha Cha Slide”]. And I think Zak and Romain [Hagenauer] were like, Hmm, we’re not sure.
Lagha: I didn’t like it.
Lajoie: I loved it! I was really happy. But he and Romain were like, ehhh. So we kept looking.
Lagha: But we didn’t find anything else, so we went with this one.
Lajoie: I was pretty happy. And I think, finally [after a while], Zak really liked it too. It’s fun, because the guy [singer] is saying [the steps], and we do the steps. So it’s very different, and it’s fun to skate. That’s the story of the short.
Lagha: The free dance was similar, to be honest. We wanted something classical, because it’s what we enjoy doing the most. Romain came up with this piece [“Nureyev” from The White Crow]. And I didn’t really like it. So I tried to find other things, and it was difficult, I didn’t find anything. Also, Romain was giving us more music that I really hated. So I told him, “You know what? No. Let’s go back to ‘Nureyev,’ and that’s it.”
Q: Zak, did you warm up to the free dance over the season?
Lagha: Yes, of course. Like two weeks after we did the choreography, I was really happy.
Q: The programs are really different. The rhythm dance obviously has a lot of quick, fast steps. And in the free dance, you have to elongate the movements to match the music. Was it challenging, having those differences between the programs?
Lagha: I think it’s actually a really good quality to be able to jump from style to style. Because I feel like we’re in an era in figure skating where most people have one style, and they stick to it. This is nothing negative; it’s just a remark. But I think it’s really good that we’re able to jump from style to style. Honestly, it wasn’t challenging at all. Because we did this style [classical/orchestral] all our junior years, and people tend to forget that. When we skated seniors, we didn’t skate to classical music, and we didn’t do that style. But we did it in juniors. So it was really good to finally come back to this style.
Lajoie: We won Junior Worlds with a classical piece [Warsaw Concerto]. Everyone is like, Oh, it’s a new style for you. But no. I think it’s our favorite style, actually.
Q: Outside of your competitions this year, you also did a gorgeous video of your long program, or pieces of it, with videographer Jordan Cowan from On Ice Perspectives. The video was filmed outside at night, in the Old Port area of Montreal, with a ferris wheel, La Grande Roue, in the background. What was that experience like?
Lagha: It was very pleasant, because the ice was really good quality. We didn’t expect this. The shape of the ice was really large, and also long, so we had more space than usual. It was just a little bit cold. [Smiles]
Lajoie: Yes, in a dress, and at -20 C. But it was so worth it. It was really like a great gift. We had the ice only for us, and it was at night. It was a one-time experience. You don’t usually have that chance, to have that kind of ice just for yourself. So it was pretty nice.
Q: Whose idea was it to stage and produce the video?
Lagha: I think it was Jordan Cowan. Or Jamal, Romain’s husband? So yes, we had the opportunity. And we said sure.
[Note: Jamal Othman is a former competitive skater from Switzerland, who now lives in Montreal with husband Romain Hagenauer. Jordan Cowan of On Ice Perspectives is a former competitive ice dancer.]
Q: So Four Continents is your last event this season. I’m sad that you will not be at Worlds.
Lagha: Us, too. I think that, even though we didn’t officially qualify for Worlds …. In my mind, we did. Because we did everything possible this year. I don’t know about Marjorie, but for me, it was really something that I wanted to do this year [going to Worlds].
Lagha: And we knew that it was something not easy to do. Because, with [only] two teams going– It’s the big league. The fact that we were close at Nationals, and that we won the free dance, and that we had two podium finishes in Grand Prixs, as the third Canadian couple, and two wins in Challenger Series … What more could we have done? Nothing. So, in my mind, we qualified. As much as the other teams.
Lajoie: And yes, they deserve it [i.e., the other teams]. It’s more that it’s like the little piece that is missing to have had the perfect season. But at the same time, it’s not our decision. We had no control, and we did everything we could. I don’t think we could have had better results, or even [better] skating. We don’t control it, so it’s like we have to accept it. And it’s okay. You know? Next year. [Smiles.]
Q: Yes, next year. Speaking of next season, what are your thoughts on the proposed 1980s theme for the rhythm dance?
Lagha: I’m actually really happy. I think it’s cool.
Lajoie: Yes. I thought you would say that. [Looks at Lagha.]
Lagha: I want to do Michael Jackson. I’m really going to try to convince Romain. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. [Lajoie laughs.]
Q: But why not? Why wouldn’t it happen?
Lagha: Oh, no. It’s Romain. He all the time refuses what I propose. And yes, I feel like he’s going to say, “Oh, it has been done before, blah blah blah.” [Both laugh.]
Lajoie: Yes, that’s true, he may say that. We’ll see, but I think it’s going to be interesting. Fun, actually. Different.
Q: Yes, it’ll be different. What about having a compulsory pattern in the rhythm dance? How did you feel about not having a pattern this season? Would you like to see the pattern back next season?
Lagha: I think that it’s a lot more fun for us, the skaters [i.e., not having a compulsory pattern]. But I think it’s not good for the development, because you learn how to skate by doing pattern dances. It really helps with improving your skating skills. Yes, I think we’re going to have it next year, but it’s going to be different. I don’t understand anything. Usually, I don’t check this. The coach tells me what to do, and I do. We’ll see what’s going to happen. But this year, it was fun [not having the pattern].
Lajoie: Yes, it was fun. And it was good for us, I think, because last season, we often had bad levels in the pattern dance. So it was a lot more fun to replace it [and have] the choreo step [choreographic rhythm sequence].
Lagha: Yes, the choreo step is really cool in the short [rhythm] dance.
Lajoie: I think for the people who are watching, it’s fun [for them] to see different stuff. Because in the pattern dance, everyone does the same, and they [the audience] don’t understand the difference. So with the choreo step, for them, it’s just more fun to watch. That’s what I think.
Q: The choreographic sequences are becoming such a big part of ice dance, both in terms of setting the mood and scoring-wise, too. Do you ever feel pressure to really put out something amazing during those elements?
Lagha: No, no, no. You just have fun. You have fun and enjoy yourself, and the scores come with that. That’s not the moment to be nervous; that’s the moment to enjoy and relax. Because you have nothing [to worry about]. You don’t have to focus on feet [steps]. It’s only performance.
Lajoie: Which is very fun.
Q: What are you both interested in, off the ice? What are your lives like outside of skating?
Lajoie: Well, for me … I know I’m not technically “old” yet, but my off-ice is really focused on staying healthy. Because we want to skate for a little while yet, and I see a lot of older people [skaters] who have a lot of injuries. So, I’m really focusing on training that just keeps me far from injuries, while making sure that it’s not overtraining. By not getting injured, I can skate and stay healthy, and it’s really worth it. I haven’t been injured for a while.
Q: So you do a lot of recovery work?
Lajoie: Yes, recovery, and a lot of stretching and strengthening. But not strengthening for nothing [i.e., no reason]. I focus on postures–
Lagha: It’s like Pilates and Essentrics.
Lajoie: Yes. And gym, a bit, but not too much.
Lagha: Off the ice, I’m at university. I’m at Concordia University in contemporary dance [Bachelor of Fine Arts program]. And I’ve practiced my piano a lot recently, because I want to do a competition this summer.
[Note: Lagha has been playing piano competitively since 2011.]
Q: It’s really cool that you are serious about piano. How do you think that translates into your skating?
Lagha: I feel like it helps me enjoy [skating] more. Not like I understand more [musical] accents than other people, no. But maybe enjoy it more. I feel like it doesn’t help physically, but it helps mentally, just [understanding] this classical approach. And actually, I think it helps my general ability to handle stress. Because, in skating, I realized how to handle my stress. Now I can do that in piano. For me, I’m more nervous when I go to a piano competition.
Lajoie: I didn’t know that. Wow! Okay! Because skating is so stressful.
Lagha: So imagine how nervous I get for a piano competition.
Lajoie: Maybe because you’re alone [when competing in piano]?
Lagha: No, it’s because I’m at a good level [in piano], but I’m not–
Lajoie: –As confident?
Lagha: Exactly. Not as confident [as in skating].
Q: You also mentioned yesterday in the mixed zone that competing is a little stressful for both of you.
Lagha: Yes, it’s very stressful.
Q: As you’ve gotten older and competed more in skating, have you discovered techniques for handling that pressure?
Lajoie: Yes. I think we’re more conscious of–I don’t know–that people are watching. It’s more external. When I was younger, I just didn’t care. I just went skating and loved it. Now, there’s more specific objectives, like: Okay, we want to podium in an international, so we need to skate clean. There’s that little pressure. And maybe because we’re more confident, and we know we can do it, it would be too bad [disappointing] if we don’t do it in competition. For me, it’s more like a mental game than when I was younger. It wasn’t like I didn’t care as much [back then]. But it was no big deal, you know?
Q: Do you feel the weight of expectations? People expecting things from you?
Lajoie: Yes. And we care a lot. We want to do good. I always think, for me, my stress is good. I want to be stressed. It’s not fun, but if I’m not stressed, I don’t perform as well.
Lagha: It makes you more alert.
Lajoie: Yes, it makes you alert, and you perform. That’s the little sparkle that you don’t have in practice, that makes competition even better.
Lagha: And special.
Lajoie: So I embrace my stress. It’s not fun … but I perform better.
Lagha: It’s not fun to compete sometimes. When we’re not having a good moment. When you’re able to detach from that [stress] and really mean the performance with your partner, then it’s better. But when you skate and it’s a constant mental battle in your mind … You have those negative thoughts, but you have to push them away. It’s something that the public doesn’t see, what’s going on in the mind of the skater. There’s a lot going on in there.
Lajoie: It’s so mental. I feel like skating is very mental.
Lagha: Because it’s four minutes only. When you make a mistake, if you play soccer or hockey, you have your teammates, and you have some time to recover from the mistake. But on the ice ….
Q: If you make a mistake in the program, how hard is it to continue?
Lagha: It’s not hard to continue it. But it’s hard to–
Lajoie: Stay connected.
Lagha: Yes, stay connected and stay in the performance. Because in ice dance, compared to freestyle … In singles, some people fall, but they can still win the competition. But in ice dance, of course, if you fall, you don’t win the competition. And for us, it’s not even falling. It’s like a little stumble. The margin for mistakes is so small; that’s what makes it so stressful. Because you can do, like, two wrong edges, and you stumble, and that’s it: The performance is destroyed. Well, it’s not destroyed, but people disconnect. And if you want to have a really good skate, the main point is that people stay connected all the time in the performance.
Q: When you say people, you mean the audience?
Lagha: Yes. The audience, the judges, and the technical panel.
Q: Zak, you mentioned in the mixed zone that you have a definite idea of what you would like to improve for next season. What are some of the things you plan to work on during the off-season?
Lagha: I think skating skills. We improved a lot this year, but there’s a lot of stuff that we can improve [further]. By skating skills, I mean basic fundamentals. So that’s one thing. I think the connection [between us] has improved a lot–a lot– this season. But we can still do more. And performance. External performance, as well. The elements are fine. I always say you can practice your elements to make them better, but you’re always going to be limited by your skating skills. That’s why you need to improve the skating skills. Then after, the elements are automatically going to be better. So it’s going to be important to work on this [skating skills] in this off-season. That’s what I think. After this competition, we’re going to try to prepare even earlier [than last season]. To be ready.