World champs Domnina-Shabalin lead ice dance

It takes two to tango, and Friday night the best at the Olympics

were world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin.

The couple won the compulsory dance, an exercise – some say it’s

monotonous – to repetitive music that began the ice dancing

competition.

For the tango romantica – not to be confused with the teasingly

seductive tango by men’s silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko – the

Russians earned 43.76 points. Their program was highly expressive

and was rewarded by especially high marks for interpretation.

Their lead is 1.02 points over Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott

Moir, who were third at last year’s worlds. Rarely are there upsets

in compulsory dance, which often means a Russian couple in first

place. Either a Russian or Soviet dance team has won all but two

gold medals since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1976.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, winners of the last two U.S.

championships, were third with 41.47 points, followed by 2006

Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto – who would

like to say “good riddance” to compulsories.

To be fair, the rest of the competition could have plenty of

excitement, and some controversy, in Sunday’s original dance and

Monday’s free dance. And it figures to be much more unpredictable

than the identical patterns required in compulsories.

“We skated our best tango of the season and we are very

optimistic about the future,” said Shabalin, who sported a

ponytail for the tango.

The future, it appears, is a tangle with the Canadians and

Americans.

“Every competition, every worlds, it’s this close,” Moir said.

“You can’t win the competition, but you can lose it (in

compulsories).”

Friday night was mostly a snoozefest, enlivened mainly by the

crowd’s reaction to Virtue and Moir’s emotion-packed performance

that concluded the evening. Their defiant dance had the fans

clapping in unison long before they finished, and they remained in

character for 15 seconds before breaking into wide smiles and

taking deep bows to all four sides of the Pacific Coliseum, even

saluting the fans in the cheap seats.

“As I said to Tessa, we’ve been training for this moment all

our lives. It’s really quite special for us,” Moir said.

The ice – and the arena itself – could get hot Sunday night.

While costumes were a non-issue (if you can believe it) for the

compulsories, Domnina and Shabalin have been criticized for their

original dance outfits.

Some Australian Aboriginal leaders have accused them of

offensive cultural theft, with fakey steps and gaudy costumes. The

music includes a didgeridoo riff, and Domnina and Shabalin wear

brown-toned costumes adorned with leaves and white Aboriginal-style

markings.

In the original dance, couples can create any kind of dance that

falls within an assigned theme. This year’s theme is

country/folk.

Before getting to the good stuff, however, everyone – skaters

and fans alike – had to endure the compulsories.

“It’s three points higher than our personal best for that dance

this year,” White said following a performance highlighted by deep

edges and tight tango holds that emphasized the arrogance the tango

romantica requires. “It’s very satisfying knowing how much work we

put into it.”

That work, including lessons earlier this month with Elena

Tchaikovskaya, a creator of the tango romantica, paid off for Davis

and White and Virtue and Moir. Both couples train together in

Detroit.

“With the compulsory dance, it’s really how you approach it

that makes the difference,” Davis said. “We were really confident

coming in knowing we knew how she wanted the dance to be

performed.”

Belbin and Agosto, five-time U.S. champions and second last year

at worlds, were happy to move up from sixth in Turin four years

ago.

France’s Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008

world champions, came in sixth just 4 1/2 months after she gave

birth to a son.