LOS ANGELES -- Bring on the bulls!
Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin did matadors everywhere proud with a sharp and aggressive paso doble Tuesday, winning the compulsory dance to take the early lead at the world figure skating championships. They scored 40.77, putting them more than a point ahead of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.
Belbin and Agosto, skating for the first time since Agosto injured his back in December, scored 39.65. Reigning world silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are third with 39.37 points. The original dance is Thursday, the free dance on Friday.
"The paso doble, I like it very much," Shabalin said. "I've liked it since I was a child."
It sure showed.
While other couples try to grab the attention of the audience -- and the judges -- with flashy introductory steps that don't even count, the Russians were able to captivate the entire building with one, smoldering look. Somewhere in Spain, there's a bull cowering from the heat of his gaze.
Every couple does the exact same pattern, but Domnina and Shabalin stood out for their commanding edge control and expressions. They had beautiful extensions and deep knee bends, and they gave meaning to every movement. His hand motions not only were in perfect time with the music, they were done with such crispness it looked as if he could have cut something.
Even her black dress was perfectly suited, making her look like a cape to his bullfighter.
And if his knee was giving him problems, he didn't show it. They withdrew from the European championships after he aggravated the knee injury that forced them out of last year's world championships.
"It's OK," Shabalin said. "It's getting better."
Belbin and Agosto had to drop out of the Grand Prix final after he herniated a disk in his back, and Belbin said the paso doble was the perfect dance for their return.
"This is a great dance to start the competition off because we're fighting," she said. "We had to fight these last few months to get through Ben's injury, we had to fight last season. ... It's only the beginning. We want even more for the original dance and the free dance."
It's a far better start than last year's worlds, when Belbin's fall in the opening moments of compulsories wound up costing them a medal. They finished fourth, the first time they failed to medal since 2004, and a few weeks later announced they were leaving longtime coach Igor Shpilband to train with Olympic gold medalists Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov.
Belbin and Agosto said the move has made them stronger skaters -- even with Agosto's injury -- and they're eager to show that at worlds.
"We had to make sure we really put out a strong performance, we've been working so hard these last few months," Agosto said. "It was a good way to start the competition. Now it's an all-out dogfight."
It sure will be. Virtue and Moir, who missed most of the season because she had surgery in September to relieve the pressure from compartment syndrome in both of her shins, are just .28 points behind.
This being ice dance, it wouldn't be a competition without some controversy, and that came courtesy of Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The two are in fourth place after a stirring performance, more than 1½ points behind the Canadians. The audience thought they should have been higher, booing when Davis and White's marks were posted.