If you tune into figure skating every four years, you have been missing the most epic rivalry in all of winter sports. And the only real chance for Americans to win a gold medal in figure skating.
Yes, it takes place in ice dance. But don’t turn your back on it yet. This is a battle of the border, between the United States’ Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. It’s been brewing for ages, and some of the analysis of the rivalry have been a bit oversimplified.
We’re going to take you through the narrative of this rivalry, aided with some videos that highlight some of its most awesome moments. It is the story of a changing sport, athleticism and young love. Let’s all thank YouTube for this chance to educate the public. And let’s thank Presidents’ Day for allowing us to have enough time to watch all these videos.
Even though the two couples train under the same coach in the same rink, they have extraordinarily different styles and sensibilities. We’re going to start with some exhibition performances of the couple’s doing their own thing to highlight it. Canada’s Virtue and Moir are romantic team with pointed toes, extraordinarily detailed performances. Their body lines are often in synch and well extended. They are perfectionists. They are so good they even make Rihanna songs tolerable:
Davis and White are more rugged, dramatic and possess a reckless abandon on the ice. They lack the detail of the Canadians, but they are typically faster and more athletic. Here they are:
Virtue and Moir had their breakout moment at the 2008 World Championships, with an exquisite long program. They won this section of the program but came in second overall. People were immediately enamored with their technically daring lifts, and their intimacy. Ice dancing had seen nothing like this:
Back in the United States, Davis and White had been pushing the technical aspect of the sport. They had fast spins, deep edges and good speed. But quite simply, they were ice dancers with big tricks but not enough dancing.
But in 2009, they wooed the world with this crowd pleasing performance of Samson and Delilah. It was still a little sloppy and they spent the year being ranked fourth in the world. The Canadians were ranked third. Here’s Davis and White’s performance to Samson and Delilah:
By the 2010 Olympics, the two couples had surged to the top of the ice dancing world. The older couples could not compete with their speed and their power. During the Olympics, each team had to plan a performance to traditional folk music. Davis and White became YouTube sensations with this Bollywood piece:
But the Canadians still outdid them. They performed to a flamenco, with more intricate footsteps and a distinctive Spanish flavor.
To top it off, the Canadians wowed us with this performances at the Olympics. It is widely considered the most iconic free dance since “Bolero,” by Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean:
Davis and White had a memorable program, too, but at this point, everyone agreed that the Canadians were going to join in the list of the greatest skaters. The Americans risked being also-rans.
Then, things changed. Davis and White got some help when the International Skating Union eliminated the first of three parts in traditional ice dancing competitions, the compulsory dance. The compulsory dance required that every skater do the same steps to the same rhythm at the same time. It was a snoozer for casual fans, but it favored the Canadians. Virtue and Moir shined in this type of competition because it rewarded everything their precision and attention to detail, while it punished the Americans’ free spirited style.
Davis and White also began playing the game a little better, capturing a bit of that deep, sensual connection that had eluded them. In 2011, Davis and White’s long program was to a sexy tango. With this piece, they won their first world championships. It was the first time any American ice dancing team was considered the best in the world:
A word about the free dance, sometimes known as the long program: There are two basic schools of performing it. Sometimes, they are pure dances, like the tango above. Other times, they tell a story.
Even after Davis and White won the World Championships, there were doubts that they were truly the better team. The Canadians spent most of the year on the sidelines, nursing an injury.
In 2012, both teams were healthy again. Davis and White’s free dance was to a pure waltz to Strauss’ Die Fiedermaus. But the charming Canadians outskated them at the World Championships, telling the story of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in “A Funny Face”:
The pure waltz was probably the wrong move for the American couple; it was more like a compulsory dance, always their weak spot. So they went back to passionate, dramatic performances that tell a story. They became even more athletic, improving their speed and the difficulty in lifts.
In 2013, they conjured another masterpiece to Notre Dame de Paris:
The Canadians answered them with a dramatic piece of their own, with a performance to that tried, true figure skating standby Bizet’s “Carmen.” Early performances of this program received mixed reviews at best. It was a lot more aggressive than their traditional lovey-dovey syle. By the time of the showdown at the World Championships, the performance came together in an intriguing and tense fashion, evidenced by Scott Moir’s scream at the beginning of the program:
Still, it was not enough to catch the Americans. The Canadians had a stumble in the first phase of the competition, and were unable to make up the difference in this program.
The World Championship count: Two for the Americans and two for the Canadians.
Some of the television analysts have noted the Americans have been dominating the Canadians over the past two years. Those analysts are wrong. The Canadians always pick up speed throughout the course of a year, peaking when it matters. The previous competitions are not predicates for how they will perform during the most important competition in four years.
This year, both teams will skate to music that accentuates their strengths. Davis and White are performing a dramatic piece that tells the story of Scheherazade, the Persian legend of a bride who saved her own life by enthralling the king with interesting narrative (You know, in Disney’s Aladdin when the Genie sings, “Ali Baba had forty thieves, and Scherherazade had a thousand tales?” This is what he was talking about).
Virtue and Moir will skate a performance telling the tale of the ups and downs of their partnership. Yes, that sounds lame. But it is beautiful.
It’s going to be sad when these two teams retire. They have raised the bar of ice dance and provided unforgettable moments on the ice. Monday’s free dance should be another.
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