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

With U.S. snowboarding legend Shaun White — now retired — in attendance, the ice dancers started their competition in Capital Indoor Stadium on Feb. 12. The outcome of the Beijing team figure skating competition, as well as the medal ceremony are still in doubt. Kamila Valieva (15 years old), who was the star of Russia’s gold-medal winning Russian skateboarding team tested positive for banned substances. However, they continued with their third and final round of skating. 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 was born in Las Vegas and trains in Michigan with Igor Shpilband. (Davis & Smolkin placed 14th.
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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.”

This competition saw the anticipated confrontation between Gabriella Papadakis (reigning Olympic silver medalist) and Guillaume Cizeron (from France), and Katsalapov and Victoria Sinitsina (Russian world champions). 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.

Cizeron, Papadakis, won the rhythm dance and became the world’s best with 90.83 points. They were the only teams to surpass 90. The team holds the record for the highest overall scores, as well as the free and rhythm dances. Sinitsina, Katsalapov came in second place, 1.98 points ahead of Zachary Donohue and Madison Hubbell. Third was 87.13. The U.S.’s other team, Madison Chock and Evan Bates is just behind them.

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. Seven Russian teams won gold in ice dancing at the Olympics seven times out of 12 occasions. 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.

Each season the International Skating Union determines the music for each competition. All competitors must learn a particular style of rhythm dancing. 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.

Cizeron and Papadakis were in complete sync for almost the whole program. They earned 9.96 points out of 10 for their interpretations and timing. 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.”

Russians responded with a simple routine that emphasized blues and funk. The Russians’ twizzle sequence received a 9.74 and the highest score for program components, which was used to interpret the music, was 9.75. They finished second to the French, with two of the top U.S. team still to be completed. “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. Highlight of the program was the curve lift. Chock is lifted by Bates, who maintains an S curve in the ice and flips his head around to his back. Then, he balances on his leg. One partner in ice dance cannot lift another person’s shoulders, as opposed to in pairs. Their lift was slightly less than the Russians’, as they performed a rotational lift while their partners were spinning on the ice. The judges also gave their steps slightly lower scores than their U.S. counterparts. “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. After scoring higher in the group event, they closed the evening with Janet Jackson’s rousing performance. 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. The program component scores of the couple, who worked alongside a Jackson dancer, were 9.36/10. Asked about which parts of the program they performed best, Donohue said, “the beginning, the middle, the end.”

Kaitlin Baker and JeanLuc Baker from the United States are also in 11.Th place. The Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM) is where all three couples from the United States train together with Papadakis, Cizeron and Cizeron. It’s a competitive atmosphere that motivates them all.

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. As they were seated in Kiss and Cry with their respective teams, the outfit changes required quick, fashion-worthy wardrobe changes. Six of the eight competing teams were represented by the trio in the second session.

Montreal will likely bring back at least one medal from Beijing, given the number of teams participating and their high level. The final will determine the winners of the rhythm dance competition. They will then move onto the free dance final scheduled for February 14th at Capital Indoor Stadium.


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