Canadians lead in ice dance

  • Associated Press
  • Sunday, February 21, 2010 11:00pm
  • SportsSports

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — See ya, stuffy old world of ice dancing. Sizzle is in.

Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the original dance Sunday at the Olympics with a sultry, fiery flamenco number that reduced the uproar over the Russians’ Aboriginal routine to background noise and bumped the reigning world champions out of first place. With 111.15 points, Virtue and Moir lead Americans and training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White by 2.6 points going into Monday night’s free dance.

Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, whose Aboriginal-themed routine caused an uproar and made them the focus of all the attention coming into Vancouver, dropped to third, a hefty 4.55 points behind the leaders. Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are fourth.

“We do like our chances,” Moir said. “Meryl and Charlie and us, we’re part of the new ice dance system, and that’s the way it should be.”

The big winner at these Vancouver Games could be skating’s much-maligned judging system.

Russia is normally a powerhouse in skating yet Evan Lysacek beat the heavily favored Evgeni Plushenko for the men’s title, a result that still has the Russians upset. And they won’t be any happier with two North American teams — yes, North American — leading a discipline the Russians have owned.

Since dance became an Olympic sport in 1976, Russian or Soviet couples have won all but two of the gold medals. But international skating officials have insisted changes to the judging system have made it more transparent and less political.

Half the intrigue of ice dance is all the off-ice drama, and Domnina and Shabalin were the clear winners coming into these games. The theme for this year’s original dance is country/folk, and the Russians angered folks from Australia to Canada with their Aboriginal-themed routine and costumes. Some Australian Aboriginal leaders called it offensive cultural theft, with inauthentic steps and gaudy costumes. Canada’s Four Host First Nations expressed concern, too, and actually met with Domnina and Shabalin after they arrived last week.

But as the standings showed, this is an athletic competition not “Project Runway.”

Virtue and Moir’s flamenco was so hot the ice could have melted beneath their blades. It had all the crisp, staccato movements of classic flamenco, including stomps of his feet, sharp snaps of her fingers and come-hither stares that could leave one weak in the knees. They had great speed throughout, and their lifts showed balance and strength.

As for their costumes — classic. Her dress, with its ruby-red skirt and lacy black bodice, was gorgeous. Made for a good prop, too, as she flipped it around to the beat of the music.

When they finished, they both screamed “Yes!” and the audience erupted.

“We’re not going to start thinking about the gold medal now. It’s not about that,” Moir said. “It’s so much more fun to just go out there and nail it like we have been. When you’re in this rink — that moment we’ll never forget for the rest of our life. I didn’t think a piece of metal around my neck is going to make it any better.”

Davis and White’s Bollywood-style dance is a feast for the senses, packed with so many interesting body movements and complicated steps that one almost doesn’t know where to look. Make no mistake, though, the two-time U.S. champions did more than just look pretty.

They were so fast they practically sprinted across the ice, yet they stayed in character throughout and never once lost the playful facial expressions that transported the audience to a wedding in Mumbai. And for anyone who questions whether ice dance is a sport, just watch their twizzles — spinning turns — that they paired with arm and hand movements. Know how hard it is to pat your stomach and rub your head at the same time? It’s like that. Only on skates. And about 10 times harder.

“It was an emotionally charged program,” said White, a former hockey player who got a boost just before their performance when he heard the United States had upset Canada.

“It’s one of those performances where you come out feeling greater than going in.”

Despite all the furor, Domnina and Shabalin’s costumes weren’t their biggest problem. Though their dance was energetic and entertaining, it wasn’t nearly as technically difficult as those by the Canadians or Americans. And with no recognizable melody, it was hard to find the dance beneath the slapstick routine. The music was heavy on drums, didgeridoo riffs and vocal sound effects — think screams and grunts. Not the kind of sound fans can immediately identify.

“Our intention when we chose this music was to be very fair and friendly,” Shabalin said. “We didn’t want to offend anyone.”

Domnina and Shabalin made slight alterations to their costumes between last month’s European championships and Vancouver. The color of their bodysuits is now more beige than brown. Some of the white markings they had on their legs and arms were removed or toned down.

But he was still dressed in a loin cloth, and both were covered with leaves.

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