Ice Network

Davis, White mine Middle East for new free dance

Team to skate to 'My Fair Lady' for short, 'Scheherazade' for free
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Meryl Davis and Charlie White are setting out to create a program as iconic as their 2009-10 "Bollywood" original dance. -Getty Images

Meryl Davis and Charlie White's free dance this Olympic season has been one thousand and one nights in the making, and with a little bit of luck, it will lift them to the top of the podium in Sochi.

The world ice dance champions will perform to Nikoli Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the tale of a Persian sultan who has vowed to execute each of his wives after the first nuptial night. His bride Scheherazade weaves stories that keep the sultan entertained for 1,001 nights. Finally, he resolves to spare her life and make her queen.

The music long ago cast its own spell on the skaters and their coach, Marina Zoueva.

"Even as far back as four or six years ago, any time we heard it, we talked about how much we loved it," Davis, 26, said. "It gave us chills. Now, we feel like we can do it justice."

"Obviously, it's great music, and more than that, we always felt the connection," White, 25, said. "Marina felt it suited us perfectly. We considered using it last season, but it's just too perfect as an Olympic program."

Zoueva began planning the music cuts and visualizing lifts more than two years ago.

"They are just the images of Scheherazade; it suits them perfectly," she said. "You can see Meryl playing this part right away. If you imagine any ice dancers in the world skating to this music, you can see Meryl and Charlie would be the best at it."

In performing Scheherazade, Davis and White follow in the footsteps of Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert, their fellow five-time U.S. champions who interpreted the music at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, where they placed fourth. Later that season, they won their second of three world bronze medals. 

Blumberg, an ISU technical specialist, was on hand at last week's Champs Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., and also visited Davis and White at their training home in Canton, Mich.

"She was able to come to the rink several weeks ago," Davis said. "We were honored by her positive feedback."

In the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Davis and White turned to Indian dance instructor Anuja Rajendra to help lend authenticity to their popular "Bollywood" original dance. To capture the nuances and gestures unique to Persian cultural dance, they are working with Kendra Ray, a Detroit-based instructor and belly dance performer.

"There's a special sparkle that comes with Persian cultural dance," Davis said. "It's kind of the way the women have some mystery about them.

"We want to capture not only the choreography but the essence and style of the dance, so both of us -- and particularly me -- have been working with [Kendra]," Davis continued. "In the minds of some of us in the U.S., it might be hard to distinguish between Middle Eastern, belly and Persian dance, and this has helped us with the Persian dance specialty and cultural context."

For their short dance to quickstep and foxtrot rhythms, they're sticking a bit closer to home, with selections from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, including "I Could Have Danced All Night," "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time."

"Our approach is to try to capture the feeling Eliza Doolittle had when she sang 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' which is really the song the short dance is focused on," Davis said.

"As the ISU has said, the quickstep is all about champagne -- a bubbly, happy feeling, like the essence of 'I Could Have Danced All Night,'" White said.

The skaters studied the 1964 Audrey Hepburn-Rex Harrison movie but are not interpreting the story literally.

"Our characters very much interact in a way that resembles Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins, but we've taken some liberties," Davis said.

"I'm the guy who's there to be at the ball with her," White said.

Zoueva's goal with My Fair Lady was to give her skaters characters to play.

"They can explain the relationship between the man and woman," she said. "They have a whole concept for the short dance. From beginning to end, you can follow the story."

Davis and White's training partners and rivals, Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, debuted their short dance to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald jazz selections in Montreal earlier this month. As Zoueva explained, she took a completely different approach with the Canadians' program.

"They have a very jazzy foxtrot and quickstep, which is the new era for ballroom [dancing]," she said. "Meryl and Charlie are strictly classical ballroom."

The skaters, along with Zoueva and their other coaches, Johnny Johns and Oleg Epstein, have been hard at work in Canton designing new lifts.

"I think part of what makes each year exciting and different is coming up with new lifts," White said. "At a certain point, it becomes, 'How can we top the lifts we've done before?' "

"We started thinking about it over a year ago, which really helped us design lifts that are challenging but still match the program," he continued. "At this point, we're past the worry stage. Now it's just a matter of training and perfecting the programs."

Davis and White will debut their programs at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Sept. 11-15. There, they will face a strong field, including Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje (fifth in the world last season) and former European champions Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat of France. Their other training partners, U.S. bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, will also compete there, as will Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, and Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus.

White thinks he and Davis are primed and ready for the early start.

"Champs Camp is an invaluable opportunity to show the programs, and obviously we got good feedback," he said. "[The judges] feel that, for this point in the season, we're in a good place. Of course, there was some constructive critique, which we openly received, but most input was overwhelmingly positive.

"We feel great about these programs. There is no reason they cannot be just as special, if not more special, than our other great programs."