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Grinenko shows ice dancers the moves

Dance champion choreographs for the world's top teams

Elena Grinenko has tutored 2011 world ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
Elena Grinenko has tutored 2011 world ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White. (courtesy of Elena Grinenko)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(07/07/2011) - It's usually not my style to insert myself into an article, but it's impossible for me to explain how Dancing with the Stars alum and former U.S. and world American Rhythm champion Elena Grinenko came to choreograph for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani without explaining my role in it.

I've been acquainted with Elena since 2007, when I wrote an article about the athletes who had competed on Dancing with the Stars as told by their dance partners. She had danced with retired NBA star Clyde Drexler in season four. I interviewed her again the following year when Kristi Yamaguchi competed on the show and in 2009 for an article about ballroom dancing as relationship therapy.

After the 2011 U.S. figure skating championships, I got the idea to have Elena watch the top three senior ice dance teams and give her comments from a ballroom perspective.

Shortly after the article was published on icenetwork.com, I introduced her to Igor Shpilband. He subsequently contacted her to ask if she would be interested in working with ice dancers. She said a definitive yes.

"I was quite honest about it. I said I never worked with figure skaters before, but I definitely would like to get involved because it sounds like an interesting job," says Grinenko, who danced professionally with Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Tony Dovolani and now runs a booking agency for ballroom dancers, Grinya's Entertainment.

The first time she went to Detroit, she worked with Davis and White focusing on choreography for their Latin short dance. They hadn't yet chosen their music, so they played with different pieces of music before putting the whole program together.

During the trip, she met Marina Zoueva. Shortly after Grinenko returned home to Los Angeles, Zoueva called and asked her come back and work with some of the other teams. Before accepting, Grinenko made sure that was alright with Davis and White, who gave her the okay. On her second visit to Detroit, she worked with all of Shpilband and Zoueva's teams. She's since been back for a third visit.

"It's very exciting and it's amazing how your work can transfer to ice," Grinenko says. "It's actually even more amazing to see certain things they can do on ice way better than they do it on the floor."

So far, the experience has been a thrill for Grinenko, who grew up in Moscow (she became a U.S. citizen in 2008) and watched a great deal of figure skating on television with her mother. She intently watched the 2010 Olympic Winter Games on TV, and when she was doing research on the couples she'd be working with, she realized how much she'd enjoyed their Olympic performances.

Although she worked with all the couples on the dance floor, much of the actual choreography was done right on the ice. Rather than mapping out a program only to find out certain moves weren't viable, they took the creative process onto the rink.

"It's faster to digest what is working and what is not," Grinenko says. "I've taught since I [was] 15 years old, and I have a very good sense of what's working and what's not. I thought it would be actually a harder transition for me to try to do it on ice and see what works and what doesn't, but it went pretty smoothly."

For Davis and White, she even choreographed hand gestures to go with the required steps in the compulsory rumba to make it more authentic.

"Obviously, we did completely different steps when it's allowed to do it," Grinenko says. "When we touched rumba part, it was pretty much all about upper body.

"They're such amazing athletes," she adds. "They pick up on it so quick. It was very exciting to see how fast they catch onto it. Pretty amazing."

She showed Virtue and Moir a YouTube video of Latin dancers Maxim Kozhevnikov and Yulia Zagoryuchenko (who no longer dance together) performing to the music Virtue and Moir used for last season's free dance. Seeing pros utilize the music gave the Olympic gold medalists insight into how to have more Latin flavor.

One aspect of Latin dancing that requires a bit of creative interpretation is hip action. Proper hip action is one of the hardest elements of Latin dance to master, but skaters aren't really able to do it while moving.

"We did a combination of this is how it should be, now show me how you would be able to do that on ice," says Grinenko. The teams achieved a happy compromise.

"Everybody liked it, so I'm super excited," she says. "I can't wait to see all of them skate."

Grinenko looks forward to seeing her work in action at Skate America. With Davis and White scheduled for Cup of Russia, Grinenko's mother is counting the days until she gets to meet them and especially Zoueva.

"My mom remembers Marina very well from when she taught Gordeeva and Grinkov," says Grinenko. "That was my mom's favorite skating team. When she heard Marina's name she screamed.

"Charlie and Meryl are skating in Moscow in November," she adds. "My mom already getting ready to meet Marina."

To learn more about Elena Grinenko, you can visit her website.