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Linichuk shrugs off Domnina, Shabalin controversies

"We just say thank you for the huge attention"

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance OD is offensive to some.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance OD is offensive to some. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/17/2010) - Judging from her grey cashmere sweaters and crocodile Kelly bag, Natalia Linichuk is quite the shopper.

Even so, the veteran coach -- who has had a hand in training more Olympic and World ice dance medalists than anyone else -- isn't buying any of the controversies swirling around her top team, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia.

"What can you do?" she shrugged. "Is normal, in professional life; somebody likes something, somebody doesn't like something."

Linichuk, who won the 1980 Olympic gold with her husband and coaching partner Gennadi Karponossov, has played defense ever since the European Championships in Estonia last month, when leaders of Australia's Aboriginal community expressed displeasure with Domnina and Shabalin's Aboriginal-inspired original dance.

Some object to non-Aboriginal people co-opting the community's cultural objects; others say aspects of the OD -- particularly the skaters' costumes -- are poorly researched.

Many more, including some non-Aborigines, complain the entire routine is just plain poor taste.

The rather bizarre story, replete with colorful photos of the Domnina and Shabalin in brown flesh-toned bodysuits adorned with white paint markings and green leaves, made the media rounds, appearing everywhere from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal to AOL and Yahoo.

At the compulsory dance draw this morning -- where world champions Domnina and Shabalin drew to compete the Tango Romantica 18th, and training mates Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the world silver medalists, drew to skate 20th -- the glamorous Russian coach said she didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"You know, I did [the Aboriginal dance] because I thought it was a very interesting idea," she said. "All the teams [skating] here doing folk dances transfer the rules from the floor, to the ice.

"For example, in the Flamenco, [on the floor] you do not dance in a together position [a hold]. But on the ice, you have to dance together with each other."

Linichuk said her team is untroubled by the controversy.

"It is the opposite; how can I say in English -- they say, 'Thank you very much, for paying so much attention,'" she said. "It is a huge attention."

Then, she dug into her bag to pull out some color photos of Aboriginal dancers, wearing markings and leaves similar to those sported by Domnina and Shabalin.

"Here, see? Is the same," she said. "We adapt, everyone adapts. Some dances, the girls need long skirts, but that could be dangerous for skating, with all the steps and elements you must do. So they wear short skirts."

There have also been whispers -- the ice dance world whispers a lot -- that Linichuk breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Tango Romantica was selected in a blind draw as the compulsory dance here. (Domnina and Shabalin built a large lead in the Tango Romantica to win Europeans despite losing both the original and free dance to Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali).

The other CD possibility, the Golden Waltz, requires deeper knee bends and more difficult steps from the male partner, and might have posed a greater challenge to Shabalin's oft-injured and surgically repaired knees.

This, too, Linichuk tossed aside with a wave of a manicured hand.

"For all high level teams, it doesn't matter what kind of [compulsory] dance," she said. "It doesn't matter which they do." Finally, the Russians' free dance, to "Requiem for a Dream," has several moves with Shabalin grabbing on to his partner's belt as an aide in lifting.

Since ISU ice dance rules include limits on both props and assisted lifts, this, too, was a mini-controversy in Estonia, though overshadowed by the Aboriginal uproar.

"The rules don't say nothing about this," Linichuk protested. "Maybe in the future, the rules will. It is not a prop, it is a belt. We do not break rules."

Despite Linichuk's seeming nonchalance, it is thought the Russians have changed their OD costumes, and may have made adjustments to their free dance as well. Are there any surprises in store?

"No surprises, just watch the competition," the coach said with yet another shrug.