The drama that is the original dance

February, 21, 2010
02/21/10
3:24
AM ET

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Sunday could be it for the Battle of the Baubles, a.k.a. the second phase of ice dancing competition formally known as original dance.

The International Skating Union, under pressure from Olympic officials to pare ice dance down from three to two events, will most likely merge this portion of the discipline with the compulsory event -- or kill compulsories altogether -- in an altered format before the next Winter Games roll around.

Some will not mourn those changes. The compulsories, in which every team performs identical steps to the same piece of music, are the sport's last throwback to the soporific days of school figures. And the OD, as insiders call it, has produced some over-the-top programs this season -- including the Aboriginal number that has resulted in an overdose of lousy publicity for reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia.

A few native Australian leaders objected to the program on the grounds of authenticity, while some more casual spectators took one look at the mock-body paint and cloth leaves clinging to the costumes and pulled the bad taste fire alarm.

But those critiques, whether political or aesthetic, won't necessarily be fatal to the Russians' gold-medal chances. They won the European Championships with that arrow in their quiver, and have a small lead on one of the most competitive fields ever after the compulsories. As they awaited their score, they cuddled colorful blankets presented to them by representatives of Canada's Aboriginal people, the First Nations, whom they met with last week. It was unclear who called the summit.

There have been conflicting reports about whether Domnina and Shabalin might have tweaked their costumes. The international couple of mystery and their coaches have remained mum on the subject. That should add another element of suspense to an event that NBC has chosen to include in its live broadcast package -- trumping the United States-Canada hockey game, which will be shown on MSNBC.

In the same way that fashion snark can overshadow Academy Award-nominated films on Oscar night, ice dance is prone to periodic hullabaloos over music and costuming. This season's pre-assigned tempo, the folk dance, lent itself to routines from sublime to silly, but the issues the programs have raised are far from new.

Retired ice dancer Jerod Swallow, now the managing director of the Detroit Skating Club, harkened back to the brother-sister team of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay, who were born in Canada but competed for France in the late '80s and early '90s.

The infamous "jungle" program the Duchesnays performed in the 1988 Olympics -- choreographed by ice dance icon Christopher Dean, who was later briefly married to Isabelle -- featured long stretches of syncopated percussion and other exotic mood music reminiscent of filler for '70s cop shows. Their costumes were tame compared to Domnina and Shabalin's wild-thing getups and the athleticism in the program was fantastic, but the judges turned up their noses at it and the Duchesnays finished eighth in Calgary. Still, Swallow called the program "brilliant" and a breakthrough moment for the often maligned discipline.

During the 30-year dry spell between 1976, when U.S. ice dancers Colleen O'Connor and James Millns won an Olympic bronze medal, and 2006, when Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto captured silver, Swallow and his partner Elizabeth Punsalan were among the discipline's few lonely standard-bearers in the United States. They are married and have a six-year-old son.

Swallow said it was extremely satisfying to look at ice dancing's new world order, in which three North American teams -- Belbin/Agosto, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir -- have a shot at a medal. Thanks in part to recent successes and the popularity of reality dance shows on television, Swallow said there is far more talent in the U.S. junior ranks than there used to be, ensuring a pipeline for future Olympics, although he worries some fundamental skills could be lost if compulsories are eliminated.

The new scoring system has leavened the once notorious geopolitical bias in judging in ice dance -- which was one piece of the scandal involving Russian and French judges at the 2002 Games -- and made it more of a meritocracy than it was when Punsalan and Swallow competed.

But there's still lobbying, to be sure, starting long before teams become world class. Swallow said he thinks that's fine and even necessary as long as it's aboveground.

"There was a lot of perseverance by our athletes and coaches to really support and drive home and sell the point that we are able to compete," Swallow said. "We weren't doing a good enough job of selling it to the world."

The flip side of the more quantitative judging is that teams have less room to be creative, he said. "I would have felt too restricted under this system," Swallow said.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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