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Chock, Bates take lead over Shibutanis in short

U.S. silver medalists put own spin on classic rhythm; Russians third
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Filling the shoes of Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not be easy this season, but Madison Chock and Evan Bates got off to a strong start at Skate America for Team USA, compiling 68.96 points in their first-place, 'Don Quixote' short dance. -Getty Images

Round one of the Windy City ice dance showdown went to Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who lead longtime rivals Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani by a healthy 4.82 points after Friday night's short dance at 2014 Skate America.

The two teams vying to succeed Meryl Davis and Charlie White as U.S. champions opened their seasons with nearly identical scores at their respective Challenger Series events, and both have improved their short dances since then. But at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, Chock and Bates' higher-rated elements -- together with a minor mistake by the Shibutanis on their usually pristine twizzle sequence -- combined to wield a knockdown blow.

Skating with speed and confidence, Chock and Bates showed a surprisingly light-hearted paso doble, with Chock shooting Bates flirtatious glances and selling the choreography with impressive flair.

The U.S. silver medalists, who opened their season with a second-place finish at the Nebelhorn Trophy, gained impressive levels from the technical panel, including three Level 4's and two Level 3's. They earned a personal-best 68.96 points.

"The paso is a very strong and serious dance, and ours obviously has a different look," Chock said. "We wanted to put our own spin on it. We don't want to be intense; we want to suck people in and be a bit more mysterious."

"We're not trying to do an angry paso," Bates said, adding, "We improved our score from Nebelhorn, which is really how we evaluate ourselves."

Intense drilling from coach Igor Shpilband, who trains the couple in Novi, Michigan, helped the skaters improve their two paso doble sections to Level 4 and 3, up from the Level 2's they got at Nebelhorn.

"We worked on showing all of the key points, the edges and foot point, to the (technical) panel in a very clear way," Bates said.

The Shibutanis took an opposite tack in their approach to the short dance, performing a subtle, tension-filled paso in close holds that built effectively to a dramatic close with a unique rotational lift.

They lost ground when both sections of their paso doble steps gained just Level 2 from the technical panel. And despite their three-part twizzle sequence earning Level 4, Alex came out of the first sequence early, costing the team some Grade of Execution (GOE) points. Still, they earned 64.14 points, a significant improvement over their winning score at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy earlier this month.

"This performance was a little disappointing for us," Maia said. "We felt we really improved from Slovenia (Nepela Trophy), but at the same time we had a mistake on the twizzles at the beginning, and it was costly."

"I think it was a weird, fluky thing," Alex said. "Normally, we don't worry about twizzles at all. We feel our twizzles are some of best in world, and we have no stress going into them."  

In addition to their Canton, Michigan, coaching team headed by Marina Zoueva and including Massimo Scali, Oleg Epstein and Johnny Johns, the siblings worked with ballroom expert Corky Ballas to perfect their paso doble form.

"We, and our coaching team, strive for authenticity with our movements, costuming and style, and we work to bring that authenticity from the floor to the ice," Alex said. "We're happy we found a program with a lot of room to grow. There is an intensity to it we've really developed throughout the course of our career."

Just 1.23 points separate the next three couples.

Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin considered withdrawing after Stepanova crashed into the boards during practice Thursday. When X-rays at a local hospital showed no major damage, the 2013 world junior champions decided to compete.

The tall, well-matched team performed a fiery paso doble in classic style. The program's most notable element, twizzles done in a unuqie close-to-the-ice position with extended legs, proved costly when it gained just Level 1 from the technical panel. The young Russians sit in third with 56.37 points.

"We don't know what went wrong," Bukin said. "We are very disappointed with the Level 1. It's really too bad."

Stepanova, who held an ice pack to her left knee in the mixed zone, will have another exam when she returns home to Moscow.

"I feel much better. I'm not in any pain," she said. "The X-rays didn't find anything wrong, so perhaps it isn't serious."

Slovakians Federica Testa and Lukáš Csölley skated a clean, technically difficult program, earning high levels and gaining 55.63 points, good for fourth place.

Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, seventh in the U.S. last season, did a dramatic take on paso doble and flamenco rhythms, with McManus whipping her skirt and McManus adding hand claps. Their program included a fine rotational lift, and they sit in fifth with 55.14 points, a new personal best.

"We took all the feedback we got at our first two events and punched it in for Skate America, and it really worked for us," McManus said. "We're very happy with it."