Get Ready for Dirty Dancing

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Israelís Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky demonstrate an original move in ice dancing

Some of the most sought-after tickets at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney were for the women's beach volleyball. Nice as it would be to believe that all those — predominantly male — spectators were interested in was the skill and athleticism of the players, there was a slight suspicion that the ladies' abbreviated costumes may have added to the attraction. Anna Kournikova has amply demonstrated that winning isn't everything. Or, indeed, anything. The tennis player who has never won a singles title is known more for underwear ads than on-court abilities. Sex and sport have become a heady mix.

Now ice dancing has joined the ranks of sports attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. The interesting arrangements of bodies performed by some couples have become rather too explicit, or as they have been dubbed in skating circles, "gynaecological," prompting a senior American judge, Nancy Meiss, to expostulate: "If I want a young man waving his partner's assets in my face, I can rent a porn video. The males are acting like pimps."

Alarmed by the exotic trend, the International Skating Union felt moved to issue Communication No. 1115, "following many complaints," telling skaters to cut out "undignified poses/positions" such as sustained upside-down splits. The problem for ice dancers has always been that they are not allowed to lift their partners above head height, and before the start of last season the ISU had sought to expand the repertoire with an encouragement to skaters to develop more "original" movements. Some of the lifts turned out to be rather more interesting than the ISU anticipated. Now the organization is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, suggesting that the trouble lies with camera angles. "You have cameras on all sides of the rink," points out the ISU's Aline Bussat, "and if a cameraman sees something at an unfortunate angle and gets an unfortunate shot, that doesn't mean that the skaters are performing an undignified lift."

One achievement of the directive was to ginger up interest in the sport. Cameras were out in force at the European Skating Championships in Lausanne in January, watching out for potential rule infringements as well reveling in the scantier costumes. Women skaters' dresses have become ever more slight, with the acreage of flesh-colored fabric far exceeding the traditional sequins. And then there are knickers, or more specifically, the amount of fabric in the crotch area. European women skaters tend to be less careful than their American counterparts. U.S. champion Michelle Kwan's costumes have very concealing 10-cm gussets, while some of the European stars' undergarments are a skimpy 3 cm wide. Bryan Morris, editor of Ice Link magazine, sees no difference between skaters' costumes and those in other sports. "There's as much exposure in other sports such as synchronized swimming and gymnastics," he says. But then again, in other sports men and women don't perform together. And that is where the problem lies — to create a dynamic and romantic program of moves without taking it over into salaciousness.

Even solo performers have provoked consternation with novel choreography. Flamboyant Russian men's champion Yevgeny Plushenko's free program at the Skate Canada contest in November included sexy gyrations that some observers have called "scandalous," and provoked a Canadian official to grumble: "He was wiggling his all, three foot away from the judging panel . . . That's not sport."

Ice dancing officials would much prefer the sport to grab headlines with outstanding performances. But as Keith Horton, general secretary of Britain's National Ice Skating Association, admits: "It's been great publicity. It's given us the exposure, which has to be good for the sport." The last time ice dancing made news was back in 1984 when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean scored 12 perfect six marks out of a possible 18 with their performance of Bolero at the Sarajevo Olympics. Torvill and Dean transformed the sport from a mere imitation of fairly staid ballroom dancing techniques done on ice, and took it in an altogether more artistic direction. Dean's choreography opened the way for other couples to experiment.

The inclination to innovate, producing new lifts and spins, has largely been accepted by the sport's administrators. Says Morris: "There is a difference between movements which are suggestive — and we all know what we are talking about — and movements which are trying to be innovative and athletic." Horton believes that the sport has to move forward and continue to innovate, and can do that without infringing the technical aspects. "All sport evolves, and you look to do something different," he says. "Athletes should always be pushing at boundaries."

In the same way that ballroom dancing, which is currently rebranding itself as Dancesport and applying to be included in the Olympic Games, is today less Fred-and-Ginger and more Britney Spears, ice dancing is looking to attract a wider sports audience — but not one that turns up in dirty raincoats.