TRAVERSE CITY — The Traverse City Figure Skating Club was rooting for one of its own Tuesday night when NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” aired the first of its Las Vegas auditions.
Traverse City native and professional figure skater Joel Dear appeared briefly on the episode with his group, Aerial Ice, as they advanced to the live show rounds in New York City. The Los Angeles-based group is the first to skate on the show and the first skating act to combine adagio, dance, theater and circus aerial arts into one exciting performance.
“I think what they’re doing is bringing a whole new aspect of skating that people aren’t used to seeing,” said Laurent Masse, director of the Traverse City Figure Skating Club, where he coached Dear for about three years. “It’s exciting for skating and great for the sport that they’re on the show and successful.”
Dear began to skate at 12 during recesses at Living God Christian School in Traverse City. Fearing he might get hurt on the nearby frozen ponds, his mother enrolled him in group skating lessons at the club.
Dear went on to train in Indianapolis with an Olympics skating coach, completing his last year at Traverse City West Senior High by way of distance learning. Over the next several years he moved and competed with two different ice dance partners, medaling twice in national competition.
After competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2008, he decided to attend circus school in San Francisco to learn aerial arts.
“From the time I went to aerial school I planned on doing it with my skating, but it’s so difficult,” said Dear, whose main apparatus is the aerial hoop. “The things you do in flying — you step on an apparatus or use your feet to climb things — we can’t do because of our sharp blades. And then there’s the extra weight of the skates.”
While working on separate projects, he and friends from a Holiday on Ice show decided to form their own company called Aerial Ice. The company of six includes former U.S. bronze medalists Kim Navarro and Bret Bommentre.
“In this act everyone performs together,” said Dear, adding that in shows like Theater on Ice, skaters usually perform in solos or duets. “We have all principal-level skaters but we’re all performing in a very small space, flying, doing pairs tricks and dance tricks all at once. It’s a different way to go about this.”
Dear said the project got started in March, shortly before the company auditioned in April for a new season of “America’s Got Talent.” The week they learned they were accepted for the Los Angeles auditions, they got together and hammered out an act.
“I don’t think as skaters we dreamed that big,” said Dear, who is currently working on an ice show in Sun Valley, Idaho. “We didn’t think it’s something they’d want on the show because skating is already on TV. Once we got to talking, we thought this is something we could bring that’s new, that nobody has ever seen before. We showcase skating in a new way, bringing skating and acrobatics and drama. It’s new to the field.”
The group’s audition aired July 9 and 14 and produced a standing ovation from the audience and judges, who called the act both “unique” and “scary.”
“We were all on stage together and the surface was very small — we’re talking the size of someone’s living room,” Dear said. “On the show, when the guy is holding the girl by her legs and swinging her, the girl’s head is over the edge of the stage. Plus we were skating on synthetic ice. It’s like pushing through honey and peanut butter. It doesn’t give the same grip.”
“It was interesting because they had those buzzers going, and those Xs are so loud. You can hear them through the whole building. Backstage you’re hearing people getting buzzed and we were going, ‘Oh, no, I hope they’re not in a bad mood.’ Then we came out and right at the end it was like fireworks. It was amazing. There was a full standing ovation and the judges were standing.”
Dear’s father, Jerry Dear, isn’t surprised.
“His first coach said, ‘You’re getting a late start, so don’t expect too much,’” said Jerry Dear, of Traverse City. “It was discouraging. But it only lasted a minute.”
“It was totally expected of Joel because of his creativity and because he’s such a professional and he’s a great, great skater and chorographer,” said Heidi Masse, a skating coach and ice show and basic skills director for the Traverse City Figure Skating Club. “I think his act is great for ‘America’s Got Talent’ because it’s something everybody would buy tickets to see.”
Aerial Ice competes next on the live show rounds at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Dear said the skaters have agreements with their respective ice shows that allow them to take time off to perform on the show.
“We’re hoping that we can continue on in this competition and that we can win,” he said, referring to the $1 million prize. “For right now it’s just a really amazing experience. In the past 10 years I think skating has kind of been overlooked a bit and were hoping that this, especially in an Olympics year, can kind of excite people about skating again.”