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Bollywood scores blockbuster in Spokane

Davis, White step out to 1.62-point lead over Belbin, Agosto

Meryl Davis and Charlie White have held off five-time U.S. Champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto through the compulsory and original dance rounds.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White have held off five-time U.S. Champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto through the compulsory and original dance rounds. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2010) - Meryl Davis and Charlie White's Bollywood-style original dance has already conquered Moscow, Tokyo and all points on YouTube.

Now, it's a blockbuster in Spokane, bringing the crowd to its feet and earning the team their highest-ever score for an original dance.

"For us it's very important to go to the Olympics as the top team," White, 23, said. "You earn a lot of international respect and obviously the momentum and the confidence boast going in would be very important."

The defending U.S. champions built on their surprise win in the Golden Waltz, opening up a 1.62-point lead on Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the reigning Olympic and world silver medalists they have yet to defeat in competition.

They earned 68.11 points, far higher than they scored at Russia's Rostelecom Cup or Japan's NHK Trophy and more than four points higher than their previous best at a U.S. Championship.

Master technicians, Davis and White hardly wavered on any of their intricate turns and steps, displaying the dance's stylized arm movements and expressions to near perfection. Their only noticeable flaw was slight unison trouble on a lightning-fast twizzle sequence.

"There was that small bobble, but other than that technically speaking it was very strong," White said. "Obviously, we're looking forward to go back and work on it more."

The dance is the brainchild of Marina Zoueva, who coaches the couple in Canton, Mich., with Igor Shpilband.

As Zoueva tells it, she was shopping in Spain early last spring and spied a vibrantly colored Indian-inspired Hermes scarf. Immediately, she thought those colors, and an Indian folk dance, would suit the exotically elegant Davis.

"Charlie and I were definitely open to it, and we went to a couple of specialists who helped us understand what to do," Davis, 23, said.

"They broke it down, we worked off the ice, and they helped us explore all the areas of Indian dance. We really didn't know anything about Indian culture going in. It was very important for us to do research to do the theme justice, and know that we were not going to do anything to offend anyone or do something that was completely off base."

Belbin and Agosto also had a solid outing, performing their high-energy Moldavian folk dance with precision and flair.

They had a nerve-wracking six-minute warm-up; Belbin fell entering a twizzle, then sat down at the entrance, removed her red boot covers and adjusted her skate laces.

"I think I was just a little over-excited," Belbin said. "We're really excited to be here. This program has a lot of interaction with the audience, which I got a little carried away with."

While element levels were similar for the two teams, Belbin and Agosto scored a shade lower on both the judges' grades of execution, and program components. The five-time U.S. champions earned 66.89 points, and take 111.91 points into the free dance.

"This was better than at Skate America, and we're really excited about that," Agosto said. "Each day that we get on the ice we're going to improve on something."

Belbin stressed that should she and Agosto place second here to Davis and White, it would not hurt their chances for Olympic gold.

"I don't feel like we've come here to prove ourselves, to say that we must be U.S. champions in order to have confidence to go into the Olympics," she said.

"We don't need that. We know what we are doing is good, is strong, and we will hold our own with the top contenders at the Olympics regardless of the outcome here."

In the battle for the third and final U.S. Olympic dance spot, Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates gained the advantage with a crisp, speedy rendition of their country-western OD to a Dixie Chicks medley.

The 2008 world junior champions earned 59.60 points for 96.96 overall, and stand 1.76 ahead of fourth-place finishers Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre.

"I thought it was really good, high energy," Yaroslava Nechaeva, who coaches the team in Ann Arbor, Mich., with Yuri Chesnitchenko, said. "All of the elements were clean, and that's what we were hoping for."

"That was a big relief to get that under our belts," Bates said. "There's still the free dance tomorrow, though, so we can't get too far ahead of ourselves."

Navarro and Bommentre performed a spirited program to Afro-Brazilian rhythms, capturing the crowd and gaining some of their highest program component scores ever. They earned 57.60 points, for a total of 96.96 overall.

"I'm incredibly happy," Robbie Kaine, the team's coach, said. "They put it out there and handled the pressure. The twizzles were beautiful, and that's the first time they've gotten Level 3 on the step sequences."

Like Davis and White, the U.S. bronze medalists carefully researched their chosen folk dance.

"It's from Brazil, but it reflects on Africa. It has an Afro-Brazilian focus," Navarro said. "A dance choreographer, Jeannine Osayande [of the Dunya Performing Arts Company], did the stops and the arm movements, and Renee Roca choreographed the skating parts."

Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein's Afro-Cuban OD was fifth with 54.87 points, and they climbed from sixth to fifth overall with 88.99. Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell are sixth with 88.49.