Ice Network

Davis, White seek help in perfecting Persian dance

Belly dancer Kendra Ray lends authenticity to 'Scheherazade' program
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Kendra Ray (right) has trained Meryl Davis and Charlie White in the ways of Persian dance. -icenetwork

This season, Meryl Davis and Charlie White don't want to simply skate their free dance. They want to weave a story worthy of Scheherazade, the young bride of a murderous Sultan whose stories so captivate her husband each night, he can't bear to execute her the next morning.

When the world ice dance champions debut their program to Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic masterpiece in Salt Lake City on Saturday, their trademark precision and power will be on display, presented to full advantage by Marina Zoueva's choreography. With the help of Kendra Ray, they will also tap into some of the mystery and nuance of Persian dance. 

Ray, a longtime student and practitioner of Middle Eastern dancing who performs at Arab-American cultural events throughout Michigan, began working with the team early this summer. Zoueva had long planned Scheherazade for the team's second Olympic season, so when the choice was finalized this spring, the skaters sought out an expert who could advise on Scheherazade's cultural context.

"As a trained belly dancer, I have been influenced by many, many Middle Eastern cultures, so first we had to decide which we were going for," Ray said. "It was my suggestion to stick with the Persian version, because it is the oldest and most widely known."

In this style, hand motions, hip undulations and facial expressions are emphasized. Working with Davis, Ray touched on these but kept the focus on character development.

"When you look at the storyline, there is this journey of emotions," she said. "Here is this woman who is literally risking her life to try to influence this king not to kill her. That's a pretty heavy role to play."

Ray, who has worked extensively with film and music video performers, was impressed with Davis' nimble intellect.

"We got into the aesthetic that is Persian dance but did it in a way that's natural, because she is playing a character expressing herself in a way that is her first language," she said. "Meryl absorbs things and analyzes them and processes them, all within an instant. Some people will just nod and smile and do enough to get by. Not Meryl."

As for White, he's given the unsympathetic task of portraying a king so betrayed by his first wife's infidelity that he has killed all the women who followed.

"The biggest thing for Charlie was to really be clear in the emotional delivery," Ray said. "He has to be a tough guy and put on a good poker face. If he even gave Meryl's character the privilege of eye contact, it should be noticeable. He is this murderous king whose heart is only now being touched by this woman."

Ray visited Davis and White's home rink, the Arctic Edge in Canton, Mich., where she watched practices and then added subtle touches to make the characters more authentic.

"Of course, it's ice dance, so when you see the program, you don't think, 'Oh wow, that's straight Persian dancing,'" Ray said. "What I did was study the choreography, help highlight certain movements and add a bit of nuance to Marina's already amazing program, so it's a modern interpretation of a Persian form."

"Both Meryl and Charlie are so receptive to feedback," she continued. "They're so adaptable, to the point where they almost make it look too easy. It's a mark of their professionalism and their class and their respect for not only the art of what they are doing but for those who are trying to help them. ... To top it off, they are warm and kind hearted."

On Friday, Davis and White will debut their short dance, choreographed by Zoueva to Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. It features two sequences of the Finnstep, a challenging pattern dance based on a charming program created by Finnish ice dancers Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko in the 1990s.

"It's a fun and fast dance; you have to be quick on your feet, which is something Charlie and I like to think is one of our specialties," Davis said at U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp in late August.

"It's a matter of getting the timing and feel for it," White said. "I wouldn't say anything is too, too tricky."

Beyond the steps, they're looking forward to capturing the essence of the musical.

"It's been a piece Marina suggested for us for a couple of years," Davis said. "She wanted us to have a story and [play] characters who relate to the music instead of [doing] typical ballroom."

"The songs ("I Could Have Danced All Night" and "With a Little Bit of Luck") are recognizable and, obviously, there is singing," White said. "Meryl does such a great job of interpreting that, it sort of makes the program become more alive."

The five-time U.S. champions are joined in Salt Lake City by Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, who skated impressive programs at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in July, including a free dance choreographed by coach Igor Shpilband to Spartacus. Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, sixth here last season, will show their free dance to An American in Paris.

Davis and White's training partners, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, had hoped to compete here but withdrew after Alex tweaked his neck in practice. They are replaced by another Canton team, Alissandra Aronow and Collin Brubaker, eighth at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

The biggest competition for the U.S. teams will undoubtedly come from Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, the three-time Canadian silver medalists who placed fifth at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.