Ice dancing has always had a bit of a credibility problem. And at the Vancouver Games, it didn't earn any more respect when the Germans showed up in Hawaiian luau threads and the Russians dressed as Australian Aborigines. How can these people expect to be taken seriously? Where's the athleticism? Where's the sport? Is this anything that can be called Olympic? If ice dancing really wants to enjoy a boost, skating officials should take a few lessons from TV and from Dancing with the Stars.
After years of suffering the same fate, ballroom dancing is enjoying a renaissance of popularity, thanks to the ABC hit which has avatars in almost every part of the world. Celebrities are clamoring to compete on the show and learning that dancing a tango or a waltz can actually be fun. (And, this being show biz, it is a plus that the brutal training schedule is a great way to drop a few pounds.) Just think of ice dancing as ballroom dancing but navigating through a frozen dance floor on blades. Why shouldn't it benefit from the popularity of DWTS?
"Absolutely," says Tony Dovolani, one of the professional ballroom dancers on Dancing with the Stars, who has partnered with model and wrestler Stacy Keibler and soap-opera star Susan Lucci. "I see a huge transition in ice dancing coming from [the influence of] ballroom dancing. Even the outfits, the arm styling, the way they carry themselves are more ballroom-like."
Skaters have long turned to ballroom-dance lessons to learn about carriage, posture and how to best present themselves to an audience of tens of thousands in ice arenas. But until actors and supermodels and athletes took to the dance floor in made-for-television competitions, ballroom had the mothball aroma of a quaint, bygone era, when learning to waltz was part of one's social education, like etiquette classes and lessons in table manners. So take the ingredients of DWTS, the waltz and tango and rumba, put quarter-inch blades on the dancers, and get them moving at a much quicker clip. That's what is giving the sport its growing Dancing with the Starslike power. Take it from a winner. "We've been saying it all year," says Meryl Davis, who with Charlie White won the Olympic silver medal in ice dancing for the U.S. "Ice dance is right up there with them."
"I was always kind of on the fence about ice dancing," admits Shawn Johnson, a four-time medalist at the Beijing Games in 2008 in gymnastics and a winner of Dancing with the Stars. "I never really watched it before. But having gone through Dancing with the Stars, it gives me a new appreciation for how hard they work for it," she says. And as a former competitor, she couldn't help but play armchair judge after watching the second of the three ice-dancing events in Vancouver. "Having been criticized on Dancing, I could see the different mistakes," she says.
According to those who have judged it, ice dancing is actually more technically demanding than the other skating disciplines. What the judges or, under the new scoring system, the technical panel are looking for are precision in things such as the way the man holds his partner, how many turns the skaters complete and which edges they glide on when going into and coming out of moves. Ice dancers are also more constrained by rules as to how many steps they can take in between elements and how many seconds the man must hold his partner in lifts. Ballroom dancing, says Johnson, who won her season of DWTS in 2009, is also harder than it looks. "You don't get an appreciation of it just by watching it," she says. "But if you actually get into it and do it, it's rigorous, hard, and takes a lot of training and dedication. As soon as you do it, you're like, 'Wow.' " (The appeal does indeed cut both ways. On Feb. 19, Cheryl Burke, a two-time Dancing champion, tweeted Evan Lysacek, the newly crowned Olympic men's figure-skating champion: "You're truly amazing!! How awesome would it be if you did DWTS? You would be great!")
Now the Olympics have given ice dancing additional luster in the North American market. On Monday, Feb. 22, for the first time since 1976, when the event was introduced in the Games, the Russians did not finish on top; they won the bronze, signaling a shift in the geocenter of the sport. Canadian pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir took the gold, while Davis and White took the silver. (Both pairs have benefited from the Russian legacy, having being trained by Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, two Russian coaches who have established a mecca of ice-dancing expertise at the Arctic Figure Skating Club in Canton, Mich.)
What set the Canadian pair apart, says Dovolani, was their ability to connect to each other and express emotion. For that, he looks not at the skates, where the ice-dancing judges train their attention, but at the upper body. "I always watch their posture, their connection, and who leads and who follows," he says. "Even if it is a very technical sport, [the judges] are still human beings ... and they are emotionally affected whether they like it or not."
For him, the goal in any dancing, whether it is in a ballroom or on ice, should be to tell a compelling story. "The priority is definitely the chemistry, the actual bringing the dance to life," he says. "If it's the tango, I want to see the drama and the passion. If it's the rumba, I want to see the love. If it's the waltz, I want to see the flow." There was quite a bit of that passion on the ice at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum, which bodes well for ice dancing's popularity at future Games. All the competitors need now is a panel of judges like Carrie Ann, Len and Bruno to shake things up a bit.