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French Lead and U.S. in Medal Position After Rhythm Dance at Beijing Olympics

7 minute read

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With U.S. snowboarding legend Shaun White — now retired — in attendance, the ice dancers started their competition in Capital Indoor Stadium on Feb. 12. While the medal ceremony, and potentially the outcome of the team figure skating event, held earlier in Beijing, still hangs in the balance after the star of the gold medal winning Russian skating team, 15 year old Kamila Valieva, tested positive for a banned substance, the third of the five skating disciplines forged on. Adding to the intrigue, Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, stood by the boards to watch her daughter, Diana Davis, compete with her partner Gleb Smolkin for the Russian Olympic Committee in the event. Davis, born in Las Vegas, trains with Igor Shpilband in Michigan. (Davis and Smolkin finished 14th.)

In addressing the swirling controversy over the doping violation and how it’s affecting the team, Russian Olympic Committee ice dancer Nikita Katsalapov said “It’s bad for everyone because such a situation around sports is really bad, but I hope everything will be good around Kamila and around our team.”

The competition featured the anticipated face-off between the reigning Olympic silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron from France, and the Russian world champions, Victoria Sinitsina and Katsalapov. Sinitsina and Katsalapov won the last time the two teams competed, back in 2020 at the European championships, but haven’t competed head-to-head since then, because the French did not compete last year due to COVID-19.

Papadakis and Cizeron won the rhythm dance, and set a world record with a total of 90.83 points, the only team to break 90 in the event. They hold the records for highest scores in the rhythm dance, free dance and overall score. Sinitsina and Katsalapov finished second, just 1.98 points behind, with the Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue rounding out third with 87.13 points. Just behind them is the other U.S. team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

The placements could shift, after the free program finals on Feb. 14, but it’s clear that the stranglehold that eastern European teams have held on ice dance is loosening. In the 12 times that ice dance has been competed at the Olympics, Russian teams have won gold seven times. But the last time was in 2006, and Sinitsina and Katsalapov, the current world champions, are hoping to bring home the country’s first gold in three Olympics.

The International Skating Union sets the rhythm dance each season, which serves as a type of compulsory dance for the competition in which all athletes have to perform a specific dance style. This season, it’s street style, a broad category that the 23 teams interpreted with everything from hip hop to blues.

“One of the biggest challenges in that style is to bring everything up, and floating, and not grounded to the ice,” says Sam Chouinard, a hip hop dancer who choreographed a handful of the programs for skaters from the Ice Academy of Montreal, where the top medal contenders, including Papadakis and Cizeron and the U.S. teams, train. “Hip hop is not just a style of music but it’s a culture. I wanted to make sure the athletes understood that style, where it comes from, so their performances can be as legit as possible.”

Papadakis and Cizeron chose waacking, Chouinard told TIME before the Games, in part to recognize Cizeron’s decision in 2020 to publicly discuss his coming out. “Waacking was invented by the gay community, the queer community, so we decided to dive into this,” says Chouinard. “We wanted to bring something from this LGBTQ community to showcase to the world.” Chouinard brought in a specialist who had trained with the original creators of the style to deepen Papadakis and Cizeron’s understanding of the movements and style, and translate it onto the ice.

That extra attention showed, as Papadakis and Cizeron were in perfect synchrony for nearly the entire program, and earned a 9.96 out of 10 points for interpretation and timing to the music. The forte of the Montreal teams, the twizzles — rapid side-by-side turns on the ice that have to be executed in unison, earned the highest marks of the evening on that element from the judges, a 10.16. “It was amazing; it was kind of an out of body experience,” Cizeron said after they competed. “We enjoyed every second.” Papadakis added, “This is really a program we love so much, so we’re super happy to perform it here.”

The Russians answered with a clean routine highlighting blues and funk styles. Their twizzle sequence earned a 9.74, and their highest program components score, for interpretation of the music, was 9.75. That put them in second behind the French with the two top U.S. teams still to go. “We were really thinking of every edge we do, and sometimes you think it’s clean but sometimes in the review [from the judges] it’s not clean at all,” said Katsalapov.

In the last group, U.S.’s Madison Chock and Evan Bates skated blues and hip hop, set to Billie Eilish. The highlight of their program was a curve lift in which Bates maintains an S curve on the ice while lifting Chock, who flips from his front around his shoulders to the back and then balances on his leg. In ice dance, unlike in pairs, one partner cannot assist the other in a lift by raising their arms above the shoulders. The judges scored their lift slightly lower than that of the Russians, who performed a rotational lift, while both partners are spinning on the ice and their step sequences received slightly lower scores than those of their U.S. teammates. “We have some mixed feelings about that performance,” Bates said. “Mostly it was really good, but I think we had one small mistake that probably cost us some points on an important element. But it’s not over yet; we have a great free dance to look forward to.”

Hubbell and Donohue, who beat Sinitsina and Katsalapov in the rhythm dance during the team event, couldn’t quite repeat that feat. They closed out the night, with an appropriately rousing program to Janet Jackson that led to another personal best after they scored higher than they did in the team event. Wearing costumes that Hubbell’s mother, a professional seamstress, made, the couple skated a fast, powerful routine to some of Jackson’s biggest hits, but finished just behind the Russians. Having worked with a dancer who toured with Jackson showed in their program components scores, which started at 9.36 out of 10. Asked about which parts of the program they performed best, Donohue said, “the beginning, the middle, the end.”

The other U.S. team, of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are in 11th place. All three U.S. couples train, alongside Papadakis and Cizeron, at the Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM), and the competitive environment is clearly motivating for all of them.

In fact, I.AM’s coaches, Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer, had a busy evening with 11 teams competing — half of the entire field of 23 couples in the competition. The trio simply parked themselves by the boards ad alternated duties preparing and welcoming back their conveyer belt of skaters — representing a United Nations of countries, from Armenia, China, Canada, Spain and the U.S. — as they came on and off the ice. It also required quick wardrobe changes, worthy of models at Fashion Week, as they sat with their teams in the Kiss and Cry, hopefully wearing the right country jacket. In the second set of skaters to compete, the trio had six of the eight teams in that session.

With so many teams competing, and at the highest level, the Montreal is likely to bring home at least one, if not two medals from Beijing. That will be determined when the top 20 finishers from the rhythm dance move on to the free dance final, scheduled for Feb. 14 at Capital Indoor Stadium.

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