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Canton ice dancers use non-traditional methods

Davis and White hope special training will give them an edge

Meryl Davis and Charlie White show off their first Four Continents gold medal.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White show off their first Four Continents gold medal. (Getty Images)

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By J. Barry Mittan, special to icenetwork.com
(08/24/2009) - U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are looking for a little something extra this season to vault them onto the podium at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

The ice dancing event at the upcoming Olympics promises to be one of the closest in history. Fewer than six points separated the top four teams at the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships and three of those teams had been slowed by injuries during the year. This year's gold medal could be decided by a tenth of a point.

With the technical side of the sport already being pushed to the limits allowed by the Code of Points, every couple is looking for that one little thing that will make the color of their medal gold and not silver or bronze.

With so much riding on the Olympics, Davis and White have added new dimensions to their training to try to get an edge on their rivals.

Each of their dances requires a bit of special training. Their original dance is a traditional folk dance from India, a concept that sprang to coach Marina Zoueva's mind when she was shopping in a Hermes store in Madrid and saw a display of new scarves.

"There was a display of big Indian scarves that looked very colorful," Zoueva said. "I immediately saw Meryl in an Indian costume with the red dot on her forehead. The costume for Meryl would be amazing."

"I knew the Indian dances had very intricate arm and hand movements that could talk," Zoueva added. "Everything means something. It's not necessary for the audience to know the meaning of the movements but it keeps their interest."

The dancers found Anuja Rajendra, founder of BollyFit, Fitness through (Indian) Dance, to teach them the right moves and find authentic music for their original dance.

"It's a very different, unique style of dance," Davis stated. "There's a stark contrast between Indian folk dancing and Mideastern dances."

"Anuja's helped explain the subtleties of the Indian folk dancing," White continued. "We're really concentrating on doing authentic Indian folk."

"We listened to lots of music together and Meryl and Charlie were drawn to the riveting beats in the selections we chose," Rajendra noted. "The middle section incorporates music from a classic Bollywood movie, Devdas. In the movie, the heroine lights a candle when her love leaves to study abroad. She keeps it burning for the rest of her life, through reunion and heartache as a symbol of her love."

"One type of folk Indian dance is the candle dance, where dancers hold lit candles in the palms of their hands and do beautiful dances," Rajendra explained. "The arms swirl to intricate footwork."

"I thought it would be beautiful for Meryl to depict love by holding an imaginary candle throughout the sequence," Rajendra elaborated. "Her movements have to make the audience believe that she is holding a real candle that's a symbol of her love, all of this while ice dancing."

"Meryl and Charlie are strong dancers and skaters and they were up to it," Rajendra continued. "Their attitude was 'show us everything, even if it's difficult and we're up to the challenge'. It is a delight to work with them as a pair as they are like sponges, ready to soak it in and apply. And it is an honor to adapt Indian dance to the ice and share it with the world in a way that hasn't been done before."

"We started going to her studio in May," Davis said. "We started learning all the movements on the floor and then worked with Anuja to apply them to our choreography. We've learned a lot of traditional Indian dance positions."

"The last two months Anuja's been coming to the rink to watch us on ice and ensure that our movements are authentic," White noted. "A lot of the moves don't translate well to the ice because there's too much stomping."

"Footwork and expressions are key in Indian dancing," Rajendra added. " Many people are jumping on the Bollywood bandwagon these days, which is understandable as it's so fun, but true Indian dancing incorporates a little twinkle in the eye, an innocence and playfulness in one move that can juxtaposition with a swagger, a little attitude in the next step."

"Unfortunately, not many of the western dancers these days bring that element to life," Rajendra stated. "Meryl and Charlie naturally twinkle from within and I am confident that after our work together they can bring this element to their performance."

"We were unsure of what to expect when we started," Davis added. "It's been a lot of fun learning all the movements, but very high energy."

For their free dance, another intriguing part of their training comes into play. That is where the dancers enjoy the tutelage of professional mime and physical actor Michael Lee, a student of the great Marcel Marceau, undeniably history's greatest master of the craft.

Although mimes are often the butt of jokes by those unfamiliar with the art form, the techniques used by mimes can often be applied to the ice to great effect.

Lee was first invited to work with dancers at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena by 2006 Olympic dance silver medalist Benjamin Agosto three years ago.

"I started helping Tanith [Belbin] and Ben out with a small section in their dance and then things snowballed," Lee stated. "Now I work with about ten couples."

"I start working with the skaters on controlling their breathing and matching it to their moves, then with projecting their emotions to improve their stage presence on ice," he continued. "Most women tend to project from their shoulders up while men project from their chests and stick their chins out."

"Dancers tend to overcompensate to try and show expression," Lee noted. "The women in particular are often too melodramatic."

"Since ice dancing involves projecting over 360 degrees," Lee said, "I'm teaching the skaters how to involve their whole bodies in projecting. The dances are much richer when they're balanced."

"When they take my teaching to heart, that's when the big leap is made," Lee continued. "When it starts to click, their whole on ice persona gets better."

"Charlie's a natural performer," Lee explained, "but he didn't have the techniques that would really make his performances stand out."

For the Phantom of the Opera free dance, the ability to project the emotions of the character will be crucial. White, with his curly golden locks, simply could not look more different than the disfigured phantom.

"My most well known facet is this mop on top of my head," White laughed. "I'm not going to dye my hair just for this dance."

"I believe I can make the character believable without changing my appearance," he explained.

Davis, with her long brown hair, can easily look the part of the ingénue, but she still must play the part. "There are a lot of things to express for both of us," White noted. "There's the mystery when they meet, then his efforts to get Christine to love him. When he reveals his face at the end, there's raw emotion -- anger and fear."

"We started working with Michael two years ago, but we've really worked a lot more with him this year," Davis noted. "He's really helped us in making sure our moves are coming across to the audience."

Davis and White are also hoping that help from these non-traditional sources will help them gain a spot on the podium in Vancouver.