UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
Olympics

Ice dancing rivals skating their finest as the final free skate looms

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

Meryl Davis (left) and Charlie White are in a strong position as the final free skate approaches on Monday.

SOCHI - On some levels, the idea of ice dance as a competition makes as much sense as trying to quantify an aroma or a sunset. How do you compare one viscerally appealing performance with another and reduce them to numbers? Perhaps it is just better to appreciate what may be the last days when two of the most lyrical and pleasing couples will take the ice in a competitive arena.

After the short dance, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White have a lead of 2.66 points – significant, but not decisive – over their Canadian rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The U.S. couple set a world record 78.89 points, skating as they have while going undefeated for the past two years. The Olympic champion Canadians, who seem to have slipped recently in the eyes of the judges, brought some emotional moxie to a program that, number aside, was much livelier and better than the one they showed in the team competition last week. Then, Davis and White were judged an even three points better.

“It was for me a dream night,” said Marina Zueva, the Russian who coaches both couples at the same rink in Michigan. “I saw both dance teams at their best, and it was wonderful.”

That may seem like a coach’s soft sell, especially for an event in which it is so difficult to mark the differences between very good and great. But consider that in major competitions over the past four years, including the 2010 Olympics won by Virtue and Moir, the two couples have been first and second with what has usually been a sizeable gap in the standings down to third. On Sunday, Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov stood third, 3.29 points back of Virtue and Moir – close, but almost an afterthought given the expected preeminence of the top North American teams. This sets up one final free skate Monday night that could be a contrast in styles between the free flowing and speedy Davis and White and the dramatic and sultry Canadians.

The athletic and speedy Davis and White seem born for Broadway and their short dance, a fox trot and quick step performed to My Fair Lady, is a near perfect fit for them. Indeed, as the song says, they could have danced all night. “They fly. They just fly,” said Zueva “It was a strong performance but at the same time very flowing. You see how strong they are, but at no time do you see they are forcing it.” White knew he and Davis lived up to the occasion. “It felt awesome,” he said “When we were going out, we said, ‘let’s do it for each other.’”

For Monday’s free dance, Davis and White will skate to Scheherazade, a program based on the story of 1001 Arabian Nights. It is a dance that heeds Zueva’s call for what she described as a “more erotic” program from her Broadway duo.

The U.S. couple received slightly higher marks for both their elements – in essence, a technical score – and each portion of their component score based on five categories: skating skills, transitions/linking footwork/movement, performance/execution, choreography/composition and interpretation/timing. The salient difference between the couples came down to one level distinction for which the U.S. couple received a top score of four and the Canadians earned three of a possible four. “I will watch video later,” Zueva said, “but I didn’t see any flaw in either program.”

Virtue and Moir skated convincingly to music from both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, taking each note of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" to heart. After the program, Moir lifted Virtue off her feet, rightfully pleased by the performance that was a notch up from the team competition when the Canadians won silver and the U.S. took bronze. “That’s more like it,” Moir said afterwards. “That’s the skate we’ve been having in practices . . . I think it’s the strongest we’ve skated [that program] for sure.”

Moir confessed to being antsy after the seven-day wait from the end the team competition, which debuted here at the Games, and the short dance on Sunday. “To be honest, I’ve been twiddling my thumbs,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be as long as it’s been. I wouldn’t want to be a family member of mine these last couple of days.”

The wait didn’t hurt their skating. Both skaters said their strong practices relaxed them before the performance. As the couple waited for their music to start, Virtue took time to spot her brothers in the stands. Moir began winking at a section of fans near center ice, drawing several hoots from people in the section. Since the couple stood facing apart from each other as the program began, the noises momentarily distracted Virtue. “I didn’t understand what that was at the start,” she said. “I thought maybe I had something on my face.”

Just as Ali and Frazier helped define their primes by the strength of their competition, it has been easier to appreciate the achievements of the two couples by the level of competition that each has faced. What’s more, they cross paths each day of training at the Arctic Edge Skating Club in Canton, Mich. “Maybe it’s ramped up in the media because it’s what everyone is talking about,” Virtue said of the rivalry. “Interestingly, this is where it sort of dies for us because it’s easy for us to get into our zone, unlike at home where we see Meryl and Charlie every day. Here it’s easy to forget about because we have so much focus on our own jobs.”

Both couples have said this will be their last competitive season, though they have left their appearance at worlds next month up in the air. On Monday, an era will step aside, but the last night of stepping is sure to be good.