Ben Agosto is a man who needs little introduction for figure skating fans. During his 12 years competing with partner Tanith Belbin [now Tanith White] (1998-2010), Agosto amassed a pile of medals and played a pivotal role in bringing the United States into the top echelon of the ice dance world.
In 2002, Belbin and Agosto won the World Junior Championships; three years later, they followed up with a silver medal in seniors at the 2005 World Championships. At the 2006 Torino Olympics, Belbin and Agosto became the first U.S. ice dancers to medal at the Olympics in 30 years, winning silver again. The duo went on to win three more World medals and many Grand Prix titles. Their success paved the way for the celebrated U.S. ice dance teams that have followed them, including this year’s newly crowned World champions, Madison Chock and Evan Bates.
But all this fame rests lightly on Ben Agosto’s shoulders. Long known for his charm and ready smile, Agosto is friendly and approachable off the ice. The native Chicagoan now lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, choreographer and consultant Katherine Hill. Often working together, the couple bring their talents and experience to many different areas of figure skating, including coaching, choreography, event production, and film work.
Agosto has also pursued a career in skating commentary and analysis, and has commentated on many Grand Prix competitions. In January, he joined Terry Gannon and Johnny Weir in the NBC booth for the senior ice dance event at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Agosto also delighted ice dance fans this season by offering live-tweeted commentary on Twitter.
At the 2023 ISU Four Continents Championships in February, Agosto hosted post-competition interviews with skaters and produced the opening ceremonies with Hill. He also found a few minutes to chat with me in Colorado Springs, sharing his thoughts on the role of skating commentators; the current state of ice dance; the pros and cons of pattern dances in the rhythm dance event; and news about his other projects in skating.
Q: Ben, can you talk about your commentating career? You’ve done ice dance commentary on TV and livestreams, and you’ve returned to it this year, and have been doing a bit more. You also had a presence on Twitter this season, offering event commentary there.
Agosto: Right after I was done competing, I needed a little bit of space from the sport. There were a couple of years when I really didn’t want to watch very much. But then I started to realize how exciting it is to be on the other side. I was always on the ice before. It’s exciting when you’re not on the ice and you’re watching what everybody is doing. And especially, to see how the sport has evolved since 2010, which was my last competitive year.
I went through the ISU technical specialist training for ice dance. That was really eye-opening, to [see] how much scrutiny is placed on the edges. I feel like there’s a need for the audience to be able to understand the rules. They’re very complicated now. Especially with ice dance, everything is so subtle. The difference between 1st and 5th place can be as little as a couple of edges that were wobbly, instead of being really smooth.
A big goal of mine, in my commentary, is to help people understand why couples are receiving the scores they are. Because everybody looks good. At this level, everybody’s incredible. So what is separating them? We had a lot of falls the other night [in the Four Continents rhythm dance]. But usually it’s not as simple as, Well, they fell, or didn’t fall. There’s a lot of detail that has been a real challenge to convey, in a way that’s understandable but also doesn’t take a year to get through. [Smiles]
I used to really enjoy it when I had the chance to work [onscreen] with Tanith. [Note: In the past, Agosto and his former partner sometimes joined forces in the telecast booth for TV coverage on the Olympic Channel or other NBC networks.] Tanith was starting to get into that play-by-play role, and I was doing the analyst role. It was right back into our normal banter. That was really fun, when we had those opportunities.
This year, the commentary I’ve been doing on Twitter has been fun, because I can think about what I want to say before I write it. Whereas, when you’re doing commentary live, you just have to say it. You have to come up with a phrase right in the moment. The Twitter [commentary] has been really helpful to practice coalescing my thoughts in a more streamlined and very concise way, because you don’t have many characters on Twitter. That’s been great practice.
And, being up in the booth with Terry Gannon and Johnny Weir at this year’s U.S. Championships was very exciting. I’ve known Johnny for a long time. We used to tour together. We were actually roommates one year during Champions on Ice–many, many moons ago. We’ve always had a nice friendship, and it was really easy to get back into that comfortable vibe, playing off of each other. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to do more of that.
Q: Would you be interested in commentating for the ISU YouTube livestreams?
Agosto: Yes. Actually, I had that opportunity last year. It was for the World feed for the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. I talked through every single skater, in every discipline. It was a marathon. I have a great appreciation now for everyone who does that in each Grand Prix event; they do an amazing job. It’s challenging. Once I got into it, it was kind of fun, because there was nobody else [commentating] to step on their toes. I could say whatever I wanted, and [introduce] each segment and announce the skaters. It was a great learning space, to learn the different roles [in broadcasting].
In the NBC booth, it felt quite comfortable because Terry Gannon is such an incredible pro. He was very welcoming, took on a mentoring role, and made me feel right at home. And Johnny was very kind, saying: “This is dance, this is your booth, I’m just here to add a little spice to it.” So I could just sit and get into the role of analyst, and let the thoughts come. Which is still not easy, but it was really enjoyable.
When I was doing the World feed [the previous year], I was trying to do Terry’s role, and my role, and Johnny’s role.
Q: I have a question about commentary. I assume that you personally know most of the ice dancers. How do you commentate on their performances in a way that’s fair, but also respectful of them as people? Is there ever a concern that it will affect your personal relationship with them?
Agosto: Well, as time goes by, I know less and less of them closely. But it’s certainly something that is important. I think my general philosophy is to always be kind, regardless of who it is. Because what everybody is doing is really hard. I have so much respect for the time and effort that everybody puts into their training to be prepared, to go to these competitions. When it doesn’t go right, that’s already difficult for them.
So I think number 1 is to be kind. And then, to call out when something’s not what it should be, or as good as it should be. If I can stay with those two pillars in mind–to be critical and informative, but also kind–then I think it’s okay. That’s the guiding light. If my friends skate poorly, they know they skated poorly. They wouldn’t want me saying that it was an amazing performance, anyway.
Q: Skaters get a lot of feedback from judges and coaches and officials. Since they’re so used to getting all that feedback/criticism, I sometimes wonder if it makes it harder or easier to hear negative commentary in a more public forum, such as TV or print journalism. What’s your take on that?
Agosto: Well, as a judged sport, figure skating is a very judgmental sport. And, unfortunately, I think skaters get too much criticism, on things that are either not in their control, or necessarily relevant. There’s always so much discussion about the way people look, and their size. And those things have nothing to do with how good their skating is, or the elements or the content of their programs, or how innovative or interesting or difficult it is. So, I think, unfortunately, skaters are used to that.
It goes right back to being kind. The critique should be on the skating. Either the technique or quality or content. How did their execution match what the rules are requiring, and will they be able to earn the levels they’re going for? Not things like, Do I like their hair?
I once was told by a judge that my head was too small for my body. I was like, What am I supposed to do with that? l was a little kid. This was not helpful, in that moment. So yes, I think skaters are used to it [criticism]. And obviously, being in a public forum, it makes it potentially more impactful, in a negative way. That’s always something in my mind.
Q: Since you’ve been commentating on, and following, the sport for the past few years, what are your general thoughts on the direction where figure skating is headed right now? Do you like what you’re seeing?
Agosto: That’s a tough question. When we look at figure skating, in general … The sport is struggling to maintain its grip on people’s imaginations. It feels like it’s becoming less and less visible. Being in the sport, it’s hard to see this. I think the sport really needs to continue to try to connect with, and expand, the audience. I think the rules are very complicated. So that may alienate some people. They watch and are like, I don’t know if that was good. They see a score and are like, I don’t know if the score was good.
Obviously, there were problems with the 6.0 [judging system] because it was hard to have accountability and to make sure that skaters were being rewarded appropriately for what they performed. I think there’s a lot of work for us in the sport to continue to make people excited about skating. Commentary is part of that. I live here in Colorado Springs, and any time people come to visit, one of the things I recommend is going to the Olympic Museum, which is right here. It opened two years ago, and it’s fabulous. You walk through the whole museum, and then the final thing is a theater where they show a film, just talking about Olympic history, and these great [Olympic] moments. You just get goosebumps; it’s incredible. The way that those moments are called by those announcers [helps] make them memorable.
Q: It does add to the experience.
Agosto: That’s something my wife has been saying to me: When you’re commentating, you have the ability to make this moment really special for the audience. That’s how they are going to remember it. Usually the skating is incredible, regardless. But when there’s that moment … Terry Gannon does an amazing job of helping the audience understand the gravity of the moment, how special this is, how important. And I think, the less opportunities that the audience has to experience that, the harder it is for them to connect to the sport and the athletes. So I think we have to try to keep putting it out there.
The athletes are working incredibly hard to do their part. Every year, there’s these [ISU] meetings about what the rules are for next year. Especially for ice dance, they send out a whole encyclopedia of new rules. As coaches, we have to go through and try to figure it out. We’ll see what comes out of those meetings. Hopefully it will be pushing the sport in the direction that keeps it entertaining, keeps it accessible. They talk about the remote control … we want people to keep watching. We don’t want people to change the channel when it’s on.
Q: Considering the need to keep people’s interest, what’s your thought on the proposed 1980s theme for next year’s rhythm dance?
Agosto: An 80s theme–I was kind of chuckling. It could either be a rhythm, or it could be your Halloween party theme. [Smiles] I think the audience will really enjoy it. I know I’ll enjoy it; I love 80s music. A lot of the skaters will have a great time. It’ll be interesting to see what the content of the required elements ends up being. To see if that will help push it in the direction of people being like, Yes, this is great.
I think the danger is that everyone could start to look too similar. That being said, I missed the pattern dance in the rhythm dance this year, because I like the opportunity to differentiate the couples when they do the same thing. Just for that one moment [in the rhythm dance]. The rest of the time, they do their own thing. Hopefully, we’ll continue to have opportunities to differentiate everyone’s skating skills.
The 80s costumes could be fun. Maybe people will go for big hairstyles–since I was just talking about things that aren’t relevant. [Laughs] But they are relevant to people’s enjoyment of watching it–just creating the characters, coming up with the themes. There’s tons of music to choose from. I think it’ll be fun.
Q: Would you support bringing the compulsory pattern back into the rhythm dance? It’s unclear what’s going to happen next season.
Agosto: Yes, it is unclear. I would support the pattern dance being brought back. But I enjoyed the [choreographic] rhythm sequence this past season. I thought that was great. Pattern dances take a lot of time to train. So I think functionally, for everybody’s daily training, it was maybe nicer to not have the pattern dance. It takes a pretty big chunk of the program. When you’re choreographing, it’s like this [part] is taken already [for the pattern], and then how do you work around that? That’s a challenge, to create a cohesive, interesting piece that works with the pattern dance.
I think my traditionalist side just misses the standalone pattern dance as it used to be [i.e., the compulsory dances]. But, that’s a thing of the past. I don’t think that’s what people want to be watching. I’m excited to see what they decide on. I know there’s lots of things being discussed.
Q: I think ice dance fans are also really interested to hear the decision. It seems like the rhythm dance requirements will come out sooner this season than was the case last season.
Agosto: That would be nice. Obviously, it’s hard. They’re mandated with writing rules, but it’s hard to make sure it’s all pushing the sport in the right direction. Everybody has their own idea of what that is.
Q: In addition to your commentary work, can you talk about your other projects? You just produced the Four Continents opening ceremonies with your wife. How did that go?
Agosto: It was fun. This was our first event that we really produced. We’ve been doing a lot of choreography work together. Last year, we worked on a film, which is hopefully going to come out sometime this year on Apple TV+. We’re not allowed to say what it is; we’re still under non-disclosure [agreements]. But that was an incredible experience, taking skating completely out of what we normally do. I’m really excited for it to come out. We worked on Cirque du Soleil together [“Axel” show], and we choreographed for Battle of the Blades [Canadian skating show]. It’s been really fun to have all these cool projects. We also coach; we have four ice dance couples right now that we’re coaching. Also, Katherine choreographed Amber Glenn’s short program this season.
So we’ve been staying busy. It’s fun to put on different hats. Then you don’t burn out on any one of them. All the choreography work feels like it gives us more that we can bring to our students. Different perspectives and ideas on what is the goal of a program. It’s not just to do the required elements, and it’s not just to entertain the audience. How do you put it all together, and make it exciting?
Q: With all of these projects, are you also doing work as a technical specialist?
Agosto: No, I haven’t had time. It was really helpful to learn everything. When I went through the schooling [for it], I was looking forward to being on a panel and being like, Hey, I’m in the position to help make sure everyone is awarded the points that they’ve earned. But, with scheduling, I was just not able to make it all happen. We’ll see if that’s something I come back to over the next few years. But right now, I’ve got a pretty full plate.
You can follow Ben Agosto on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Ben_Agosto.