Davis, White lead Virtue, Moir by fair marginAmericans continue dominance over rivals; Ilinykh, Katsalapov sit third
They could have ice danced all night Sunday at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and the Iceberg Skating Palace crowd of more than 10,000 would have begged for more.
From elegant foxtrots to sparkling quicksteps and quirky Charlestons, the cream of international ice dance glided, whirled and twizzled their way into the audience's hearts and judges' leaderboard. As expected, two short dances stood apart: that of U.S. world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Canadian Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
When the last level had been decided and the final grade of execution entered, Davis and White led by 2.56 points. Both teams scored appreciatively higher than in the team short dance just days ago, and the Americans set a new record short dance score of 78.89 points.
"We were in the moment enjoying it," White, 26, said. "I don't think either one of us was thinking about pushing it. We were enjoying our company; it was really special for us."
"Excellent is a word to describe it," Davis, 27, said. "I felt like I was in a dream. Everything is coming together."
Both teams are coached by Marina Zoueva in Canton, Mich., and, as always, she selected material tailor-made to their different strengths. Davis and White are master storytellers on a grand scale, and Virtue and Moir are intimate performers with a deep connection to each other on the ice.
Davis and White's short dance to selections from My Fair Lady was classical musical theatre, charming and light, presenting a joyous scene of newfound love. Virtue and Moir's jazzy Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald medley gave off vibes of a speakeasy and a couple grabbing a few drinks and a dance.
The nod went to the Americans, who are now a free dance away from winning the first-ever U.S. ice dance Olympic gold. Nine judges graded them slightly higher in both execution and program components; the technical panel assigned Level 4's for all of their elements, including both sections of their Finnstep pattern dance.
"This program is so hard, and Marina has done such a great job preparing us, physically, mentally and emotionally," White said. "We can really focus on the performance and letting the skating go for itself."
Zoueva thinks Sunday's routine was the best Davis and White ever performed.
"They just fly," she said. "You can see they are strong, but you can also see they are so light, flowing. You didn't see any moment where it was forced."
Virtue and Moir's short dance looked as liquid and easy as Ella Fitzgerald's voice sounded in "Dream a Little Dream." They happily awaited their scores in the kiss and cry, and when 76.33 points appeared, looked disappointed. Moir shrugged.
"Our mindset was right; we just tried to do our job and stay in the moment," Moir said. "As we sat in the kiss and cry and waited for the marks, we looked at each other and said it really didn't matter. That was the feeling we wanted."
The Canadians received a Level 3 for the first section of the Finnstep, which cost them a point.
"We have to look at the tapes," Moir said. "I was surprised. I thought our levels were better than in the team competition, so I have to really see it."
The Finnstep, a pattern dance based on Finnish champions Susanna Rahkamo and Pettri Kokko's original set pattern dance of the 1994-95 season, includes two sections where all the couples must execute the same steps and holds. The technical panel determines levels using six key points: Level 4 is the most valuable.
"Finnstep is where you make it or break it," Moir said. "It's worth a lot of points. I think that was the strongest we've skated it, for sure."
Zoueva agreed, adding that she did not know why the Canadians did not gain a Level 4.
"They did it the best they've ever done; it was truly dance, with expression and joy," Zoueva said. "I didn't see any moment where I was uncomfortable. Callers and technical specialists, they have different views; they can zoom in [with replay]. In my view, Tessa and Scott's short dance was perfect from beginning to end."
Moir acknowledged it will be difficult to overtake Davis and White, whose free dance to Scheherazade is considered one of their finest ever.
"We feel like we can make it up, because there are a lot more elements in the free program," he said. "It's doable, but we know they will bring a great skate tomorrow. We train with them every day. We think we're up to it and we just can't wait to get out there."
This season, a popular guessing game is "Who will win bronze in Sochi?" There was no clear leader heading into these Games, although many thought competing on Russian soil would give 2013 European champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev an edge.
A Russian team does sit in third -- not Bobrova and Soloviev but their younger teammates, Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, who skated a sophisticated Charleston and slow foxtrot to a medley including "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen."
The European silver medalists' program was clean and fast, closing with a challenging three-part twizzle sequence and exceptionally fast rotational lift. It earned 73.04 points, by far their personal best.
The crowd roared for the Russians. Reporters asked Ilinykh and Katsalapov if the support was distracting.
"Thank God we had very good training and another performance in the team event," Katsalapov said. "We tried out our free dance and noticed the audience was giving good support to Russians. When we started to skate, the audience calmed down."
Two-time French European champions Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat strutted their stuff in Bob Fosse-inspired style to tunes from Chicago. Their sexy style and mature assurance earned 72.78, a new personal best and just 0.26 out of medal position.
Bobrova and Soloviev, who defeated the French by a point in the team short dance, are fifth with 69.97 points. Their quickstep and slow foxtrot routine to "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" was speedy and entertaining, but they did not have the polish of the other top teams. Bobrova, in particular, wobbled a bit on the twizzles.
European champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, and Canadian silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje both skated to music from 42nd Street and placed sixth and seventh, respectively.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates brought a touch of old-time Hollywood glamour to their short dance to "No Business Like Show Business," which featured close holds and ended with a sensational rotational lift. The U.S. silver medalists sit eighth with 65.46.
"It felt amazing to perform that dance," Bates said. "We were just so in the moment, and we worked so hard to get to this point."
"It is so exciting, it is almost a magical moment," Chock said. "It felt solid, but we need to see the levels."
Skating to a Michael Bublé medley, U.S. bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani showed clean elegance and the finest three-part twizzles of the evening. They scored 64.47 points for ninth place.
"I think we believe we're a top team, and we've shown that in the practices," Alex said. "It's been a long journey [with] ups and downs.
"We're so lucky to be here," he added. "Now, we're just enjoying the entire experience."