Ice Network

What makes Canadian, French dancers stand apart?

Contemporary Papadakis, Cizeron contrast sharply with classic Virtue, Moir
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Ice dance fans may not be able to reach a consensus on which team they prefer, but they do agree on one thing: The Olympic gold medal will be won by either Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France (left) or Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. -Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - Any judged sport is subjective, and figure skating fans are well-known for passionately disputing the merits of Olympic and world title decisions for years, even decades. But men have their quadruple jumps, ladies their triple-triple combinations, pairs their throws. In ice dance, a slightly flawed turn or the opinions of a few judges on which team showed better skating skills can be the difference between making and missing the podium.

Nearly everyone, though, agrees on one thing: Barring disaster, Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France will place first and second in PyeongChang. A debate rages over the order.

The youthful French couple won two world crowns (2015, '16) with their fresh, contemporary style, before 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir returned to competition last season and wrested away the Grand Prix Final and world titles. But the French turned the tables at the Grand Prix Final in December, soundly defeating the Canadians in both phases of the competition.

"Those two teams have established themselves as the best of the best and the elite of elite," said two-time world medalist Evan Bates, competing here with partner Madison Chock. "You see it every competition. They have separated themselves from the rest of us."

Almost every time one of these couples competes, world scoring records are broken. What sets them apart?

"The Canadians, I think it's their dance together, the way they can interpret the music and the dance," said Marie-France Dubreuil, who trains both teams in Montreal. "They are fiery; that is their strength. The French, it's their floating quality. They are good interpreters, but it's their effortless, floating quality that sets them apart."

Until this season's Grand Prix Final, where the French came out on top in both technical element and program component scores in the short dance and free dance, Virtue and Moir were generally considered technically superior, particularly in the area of step sequences. Not surprisingly, Dubreuil does not agree.

"Technically, they start from an even field," she said.

Five-time U.S. ice dance champion Tanith Belbin White, who survived the carnage of Torino to win a silver medal with Agosto, brushed aside the results of the Grand Prix Final.

"Winning is not less likely for Tessa and Scott," Belbin White said. "Both teams are the best in the world at what they do. In terms of skating skills, it's an even playing field. A lot comes down to connection, how they express themselves on ice artistically."

The key difference in the couples, Belbin White thinks, is how they approach their material: The Canadians explore what ice dance aficionados call "the man-woman" relationship, while the French aim for more ethereal artistry.

"Tessa and Scott have more character-driven programs. They're the best of the best at manipulating, completely, the male and female roles," Belbin said. "The stories they tell are very accessible to audiences, easy to connect with.

"Gabby and Guillaume's artistry comes from such a deep place; it can be more abstract but no less emotional. As I think Guillaume has said in interviews, they don't go for male and female juxtaposition -- they try to be one unit, not only technically but artistically."

U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who train alongside both teams, won't venture an opinion on which couple holds the advantage. But Hubbell says the improvement in the French team, who left Lyon, France, with coach Romain Hagenhauer in July 2014 to join forces with Dubreuil and Lauzon, has been dramatic.

"We trained for a little while with [Papadakis and Cizeron] in Detroit, when they visited (during the 2011-12 season)," Hubbell said. "They were a little bit of a mess, they made a lot of mistakes, but those moments they really skated together, they had special chemistry and glide.

"For me, they have the kind of skating I want to see in ice dance. It's power and also elegant; their lines are gorgeous. They've done a lot of work in Montreal on precision, what it take to win points and not make mistakes."

Hubbell does not discount Virtue and Moir's chances, saying no couple sells their material as well as the Canadians.

"Tessa and Scott are kind of that quintessential 'old Hollywood' team," Hubbell said. "Seeing them train, they don't compare themselves (to other teams), so it lets them be 100 percent committed to whatever it is they chose to do. ... We see them compete. They have a lot of little bobbles this season -- they're not always perfect -- but they make you believe they're perfect because they are so committed to their performance."

Nathalie Péchalat, a two-time European champion with Fabian Bourzat, trained with Papadakis and Cizeron during the younger team's formative years in Lyon. In her mind, the teams are equivalent technically but with completely opposite styles.

"Gabriella and Guillaume, we don't think it's sport when we watch them," Péchalat said. "Every element, it melts into the choreography, and we just see art. We forget about the blades, and they are just flying around."

"About Tessa and Scott, we can feel a little bit more sport, more acrobatic lifts," she continued. "We can see the work. They think about it and work a lot to make it different."

Virtue and Moir have already tested the competition air twice at Gangneung Ice Arena, leading Canada to victory in the team event while Papadakis and Cizeron remained in Montreal, training with Haguenauer. A harsh technical panel gave them (and other teams) lower-than-expected levels in short dance step sequences, something Dubreuil vowed to study and correct.

"Comparing them technically, in their non-touching step sequence, you can say Tessa and Scott have the edge over the French, and maybe that's all it takes in the short dance," Belbin White said. "Then the free dance is a whole new ballgame."

Pechalat will not venture a guess as to who will stand atop the podium.

"Everything I've watched since the beginning of the season, no one can say one of the teams has a big advantage," she said. "It is very hard to judge them, to say which team is the best."

Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, who won four U.S. silver medals (2004-07) behind Belbin and Agosto, seem to hold slightly opposing views on which team will come out on top.

"I think that Tessa and Scott, they have so much experience," Gregory said. "This is their third Olympics, and after [the 2014 Games], they did a lot of professional shows. They grew as artists and skaters, and probably also as individuals, and it shows when they skate. Having that experience behind them is really going to help them."

Petukhov places a high premium on Papadakis and Cizeron's youth and lyricism.

"From a personal point of view, I would like to see ice dance moving and evolving, and I would definitely pick the French over the Canadians," he said. "Ice dancers should become more like dancers, that's me talking personally. [The French] inspire younger skaters to be dancers, not just ice dancers. But I really like both teams."