VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Sizzle beats buzz.
Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the original dance Sunday with a sultry, fiery flamenco number that reduced the uproar over the Russians’ aboriginal routine to background noise. Virtue and Moir, medalists at the last two world championships, scored 68.41 points to edge Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. With 111.15 points overall, Virtue and Moir lead Davis and White – their training partners – by 2.60 points going into Monday night’s free dance.
Reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the focus of all the attention before the OD and leaders after the compulsory dance, dropped to third. Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are fourth.
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.
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, they 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.
The Americans were clearly superior to the Russians, but this is ice dance and results haven’t always reflected what was done on the ice.
In fact, 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, a result that still has the Russians upset. And now two North American teams – yes, North American – lead 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.
Though Domnina and Shabalin’s dance was energetic and entertaining, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as those by the Canadians or Americans. The biggest flaw was that it had no recognizable melody, making it 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.
Domnina and Shabalin did tone down their costumes. The color of their bodysuits is now more beigey 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.
“We changed it a little bit, made it more authentic and less theatrical,” Shabalin said, crediting coach Natalia Linichuk. “Natalia had a lot of discussions with people who know a lot about the culture. We did big research when we chose this music, and after all this, we did deeper research.”