How much do you really know about the sport of ice dance? I think in the U.S. it’s primarily thought of as, “Oh, that’s where they all wear really awful costumes and nobody jumps.” The truth is, there are no jumps, some of the costumes are tacky and in the past, judging has been exceedingly corrupt. So why on earth should you watch? Ask the Europeans. If you attend a figure skating competition overseas, ice dance is a headlining event. It is quite literally, ballroom dance taken from the floor and put directly onto the ice.
Believe it or not, ice dance is actually the most difficult of all skating disciplines. There are no explosive jumps but the partners skate intertwined in each others’ arms more often than not. The arm holds are very complicated and the close proximiny alone makes it very easy for someone to get spiked, sliced – or to lose a finger completely. Pair skaters do the really big overhead lifts that look incredibly hard and always garner a huge audience response. It is awesome to see live, as I have on many occasions. Dance lifts are different and believe it or not, they are a hell of a lot harder. The man cannot lift his arms above his shoulders while lifting the woman, for starters. When pair skaters do a lift it takes a moment of brute force to get her up and then centrifical force takes over and holds the woman there. She’s nearly weightless if a lift is rotational. It’s all about a burst of strength while the woman finds her center point of balance and holds it. In ice dance is all about the transitions. The man’s job of lifting requires incredible strength because there is nothing helping him to keep her airborne. Think of holding a small child at the armpits directly out in front of you. How long does it take before you need to put them down? Now add 100 pounds, extra speed and an awkward position for both partners. Extremely difficult yet it is always so smooth that it looks simplistic.
I won’t even try to explain the over-abundance of gaudy costumes. Dance can often resemble either Halloween or Mardi Gras depending on the color combos. What I will tell you is that it is often representative of the athletes’ home country. In other words, if it’s festive in Albanian culture, that’s what the Albanians are going to skate in, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to ice dance since the last Olympic Games is a brand new judging system. One that makes fixed placements pretty much an impossibility. Each phase of the competition has required elements. The skaters get scored on how well each of those elements is executed. It’s a points system. The judges enter points for each element and the computer tallies it. But not all of the judges’ scores will count. The computer throws out random scores so they cannot premeditate a winning team. As a fan of ice dance for over a decade and as someone that spent years covering the sport in depth, this thrills me to no end.
There are three different phases to each and every Olympic Dance competition. If you watched the coverage last Friday night then you saw the Compulsory Dance. This is the portion that will truly bore most people to tears. Each season a couple trains three set compulsories and before each event the judges choose one of the three to be contested. This time around the Ravensberg Waltz was selected. What ensues is 24 couples who use the same exact piece of music and identical waltz steps for most of the dance. The only room for creativity is in the very beginning and at the end. Those brief seconds the teams can show a bit of uniqueness, otherwise it is all about comparing one team against another. A trained eye watches this dance very closely. Judges watch for preciseness in the steps, deep, soft knees, symmetry, considerable speed and effortless flow.
Next up is the Original Dance (seen Sunday evening for most of you). something that is a whole lot more entertaining for us and fun for the dancers. This year’s set dance is “Latin Rhythms” and the skaters can choose their own music and choreography. This is where their personalities start to shine. Latin Rhythms includes, Rhumba, Samba, Mambo, Cha Cha, Salsa, and many couples will do a few different tempos to show off their versatility.
What do the judges look for? Well, dance spins are all about timing. If a spin is off, it simply doesn’t happen at all. A good spin should have a smooth entry and skaters should transition to one foot really quickly. Rotation should be fast and the body lines should always be excellent. In other words, if they blow it everyone can tell.
Footwork sequences may be done side to side but most often the partners are intertwined in one another’s arms. That takes complete control and they have to be really aware of timing and the others body position at all times. A good sequence speeds down the ice, balance is never shaky, both dancers should be completely confident of the steps. Simply put, it should look so easy that you want to get up and try it yourself.
Dance lifts are also included in the Original Dance. Judges watch for flowing entries, seamless transitions from one position to another and then a gentle exit. Every position needs to be fully extended. Think of it as a moving photograph – if you kept freeze-framing the lift it should always look stunning.
The last part of a dance competition is what is known as the Free Dance. That is precisely what it sounds like, each team can pick whatever music to suit whatever dance they choose. Choreography is completely up to them. This is always the best part because you’ll see everything from Interpretive Dance to Ballroom to Ballet over the course of a few hours. Each dance is filled with choreography, spins, footwork and dance lifts and it should show the team at its very best.
So, now that you have an idea of the sport itself, who should you watch for? Well, there are a lot of great teams and because of the scoring system now any of the top 6 teams after the compulsories can EASILY win the gold medal. Less than 2 full points separate those teams and when the Original Dance is skated, standings often completely flip. Leading after the Compulsory Dance was the Italian team of
Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margalio.
A home country advantage? Not at all. They lucked out because the Waltz that was skated places the difficult footwork on the woman and Fusar-Poli has always been much stronger than her partner in this area. What Margalio is, is an excellent partner so this worked well for them in the first dance. Reigning World Champions, Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov
are an extremely close second. This couple (trained by her husband Alexandr Zhulin, a former World Chapion and twice olympic Medalist himself) is favored to win here. They are strong, dramatic and are trained with an old Bolshi feel.
Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon
represent Canada and have been around for a very long time. They are a very athletic team with powerful lifts and great speed. To offset that they often choose very romantic styles as their free dance. Watch for them because they just might land on the podium. The young American team of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto
have gotten a lot of press coming into these games. They are about ten years younger than most of the other competitors and have been medaling at Internationals for the last 2 years. They are currently ranked second in the world and in all honesty, they may be the U.S.’s best hope for a medal in all of the skating events. Yes, they are that good and if you miss them you really might regret it.
Now that you’ve had a crash course in the art of ice dance, be sure to tune in! Even though you may have missed both the Compulsory and Original Dances, the Free Dance still airs Monday night. It’s always the best part!