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A Finn step to oblivion

Future of new compulsory dance rests with ISU

The Finnstep, inspired by Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko, has already led to a sell-out crowd for the compulsories at Europeans in Helsinki.
The Finnstep, inspired by Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko, has already led to a sell-out crowd for the compulsories at Europeans in Helsinki. (Getty Images)

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By Alexandra Stevenson, special to icenetwork.com
(07/30/2008) - Bob Horen, member of the International Skating Union (ISU) Ice Dance Committee, is determined to do the right thing by the Finnstep. But it's a hard sell.

Wednesday, when the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, the largest annual ice dance event in the world, got underway in Lake Placid, N.Y., Horen presented a well-planned seminar on the Finnstep, the latest addition to the list of compulsory dances, and almost certainly the last.

A similar informal seminar was conducted in this same Herb Brooks Arena when the Midnight Blues was introduced, but that was before the fate of compulsories looked so uncertain.

Ann Greenthal, the Veteran Chair of almost two decades of Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, made sure to include the Finnstep in her smorgasbord of events, which has attracted over 300 skaters to this Adirondack village. The event covers all levels, from pre-juvenile to senior, and all categories, including open, solo and shadow.

There is hardly an ice dancer of note who has not competed in this event at some time in their career. New partnerships, like that of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto in 1998, come to Lake Placid to test their skills. Cast-offs wipe off their tears and smile through the solo events, showcasing their talents hoping to attract a new partner.

This is the world's first competition for the Finnstep, which is expected to sink down into ice dance history as the last compulsory ever devised.

Only four couples, including Charlotte Maxwell and Nick Traxler from the Stars FSC of Texas, who ranked seventh in the U.S. last year, showed enough interest in the exercise to enter this competition.

Despite her mother's illness and an exhausting journey to Lake Placid, which involved a delayed flight and missed connection, the 18-year-old Maxwell refused to withdraw. Her and her partner's performance was exceptionally light and upbeat.

You could easily imagine the couple twirling away in an old-fashioned ballroom. However, the great difficulty in this dance is the speed at which it must be executed. They started slightly off beat and, because of the quickness of the steps, found it was extremely difficulty to get back on time.

"It's fun -- challenging but fun," Maxwell said.

"It's really fast," added her partner, the 6'1" Traxler. "We've been doing it since last spring. It's something new, and that makes it interesting."

The exercise was adapted from Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko's Quickstep, which helped the Finnish husband-and-wife team win the 1995 European title.

Their hometown, the Finnish capital of Helsinki, bid successfully to host this season's European championships, hoping that the Finnstep would be the compulsory. It is the first compulsory ever devised by Finnish skaters.

This portion of the event has already sold out, which is in stark contrast to the norm. Generally, compulsories attract no audience whatsoever because all the competitors execute identical steps and repeat patterns to a limited number of pieces of music chosen by the ISU.

Horen explained why the Finnstep was not included in the Grand Prix Series: "The series is used to qualify skaters for the Final. Including the Finnstep, along with the Viennese Waltz (devised in 1934) and the Paso Doble (first performed in 1938), would have put the competitors at the events with the Finnstep at a disadvantage."

It will also not be used at the U.S. or Canadian national championships in January.

At the Grand Prix Final in December, the ISU will hold a draw to decide which one of these three compulsories -- the Finnstep, Viennese Waltz and Paso Doble -- will be used at the 2009 European Championships and the 2009 Four Continent Championships in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The compulsory for the world championships, to be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, March 22-29, 2009, will then be chosen at the European championships from the two that were not selected.

Almost every skater is waiting to learn about the draw, including Belbin and Agosto, the five-time U.S. champions. "Everyone knows compulsories are not our favorite," said Belbin. "We don't want to waste time learning a new compulsory if we are not going to use it. We'll wait and see."

Horen said the Finnstep will not be in the mix for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has "requested" that for the 2014 Olympics ice dancing be formatted with only two events, in line with the singles and pairs competitions.

Just how the ISU will handle the IOC stipulation has not been decided. "This definitely does not necessarily mean that compulsories are dead," Horen said.

The ISU Ice Dance Committee, trying to save some form of compulsories, is mulling over a hybrid compromise in which competitors skate once around the rink with a set of steps from a compulsory and then continue for a specified time to present an original to the same rhythm.

But coaches say the logistics of the warm-up would not work.

Carol Long, from Scarboro, Ontario, who is shepherding a flock of Canadian competitors around Lake Placid, including the extremely promising fourth-ranked Canadian team, Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier, said, "The coaches do not want the compulsories to go. True, some of them are old-fashioned, but they are essential for teaching basic technique.

"The Golden Waltz is like a masters degree in compulsories. But the Finnstep is problematic. With all those toe pick steps, can you imagine in the world championships? The ice would be pitted with holes. I don't think that's practical."

"The whole thing is a shame," said Bernard Ford, British four-time world champion who coached in the United States and is now based in Canada. "The Finnstep is a fun dance, but the right hand of the International Skating Union doesn't know what the left hand is doing. They expect coaches to spend time and money learning to teach it when they know that it is a waste since they are about to get rid of compulsories altogether."