SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The on-ice samba step might have been the giveaway.
As the sibling ice dance team of Alex and Maia Shibutani came off the ice following an attention-getting 72.61 score in their short program Friday afternoon at HP Pavilion, there seemed something vaguely familiar about what they had done, the way they had moved on the ice.
The kind of thing one might see on, say ... "Dancing with the Stars."
Turns out, it was not a coincidence. The Shibutanis have been working with "Dancing with the Stars" professional Corky Ballas on their choreography since last year's world championships, in which they finished third in just their first season as senior skaters.
Ballas is the reality show's most senior dancer. He has been partnered with Cloris Leachman and Florence Henderson in two different seasons on the show. He also recently appeared in a commercial with "Modern Family" star Sofia Vergara.
His son is fellow show professional Mark Ballas, and Corky Ballas taught the popular Houghs -- Julianne and Derek -- everything they know. (Mark Ballas partnered with Kristi Yamaguchi to win the DWTS title in 2008.) The Shibutani siblings got in touch with Corky Ballas through their agent, using the Yamaguchi connection, and headed to Los Angeles to begin working with him after the worlds last summer.
"But we are the first skaters he's worked with in a while," Alex, 20, said. "Obviously with his background, his son, Mark, and Derek and Julianne, we were honored to work with him. He's such a fun guy to work with. It was an intensive boot camp-style Latin training with him. He's kept up with our performances. He thought we could use a breath of fresh air."
Alex said he and his sister were looking to "attack" this program; it was a crowd favorite Friday for its speed, precision and fun, and it won over the judges. The Shibutanis held the lead until Meryl Davis and Charlie White took the ice. The current world champs, who have also won the past four U.S. titles, turned their own Latin short skate into the highest score ever recorded for a short dance (76.89). Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue sit in third at 57.56.
The Shibutanis (or "The Shibs" as they are known around skating circles) train on the same ice with Davis and White in Canton, Mich., under coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva. They are almost literally training in the shadow of the best ice dancers in the world and trying to break out of that shadow.
"Marina and Igor told us, 'Don't hold back on anything,'" Alex said. "We needed to see what's working and what isn't working, so when we go home, we can make the necessary adjustments. We want to peak at the right time."
The coaches had high praise for the Shibutanis' performance.
"It was awesome, awesome," Zueva said. "All the changes worked really well. Most Latin dance movement is very sharp off ice, but it totally disappears on the floor because the surface is different. [Ballas] found them the best movement on ice."
They worked with Ballas again in Detroit after the ISU Grand Prix Final, where they finished fifth. Alex said they have gotten "really comfortable" with the Latin style, a break from their usual, more classical style.
"The new program is much more exciting and a much stronger vehicle for us," Alex said.
"We just thought it was a good change for us," Maia, 17, said. "Latin has been a challenge for everyone, but I think it's been a challenge that we've embraced. We are having a lot of fun, and the steps in this revised program are a lot more challenging, but we are enjoying it."
The team also changed up music and costumes. The costumes were created by Randall Designs, which does costumes for -- you guessed it -- "Dancing with the Stars."
The siblings wouldn't directly say whether they thought they needed this kind of change to increase their competitive edge and pull them closer to their heavily favored training mates.
"I feel like Marina and Igor do such a great job with all their teams," Maia said. "We all have different styles and our own programs. They are really able to help find what you are good at and highlight that. It's a great training environment."
Alex said he and his sister made the change for the "long term."
"At the rate that we are improving, we felt like it was the right time," Alex said. "It really was the perfect time for us to make an adjustment."