Goose Bumps And Bruises

Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin
American ice dancing duo Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin win the silver medal. (Matt Dunham - AP)

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By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TURIN, Italy -- If you didn't appreciate ice dancing after all the stunts, scenes and crashes of these Olympics, you never will. First, skaters dropped their partners like waiters drop trays. Then came the high-wire medal performances: Roman Kostomarov of Russia skimmed across the ice on one skate while carrying Tatiana Navka on his knee, while American Ben Agosto twined Tanith Belbin around by her ankle. Ice dancing, as it turns out, is a dramatic sport, and a dangerous one. It can even involve murder, if your partner is Italian.

You could be pardoned for looking at their getups, and thinking, yeah, right, ice dancers are athletes -- if Dick Cheney is chasing them. But once you moved past the superficialities, the lion tamer costumes and bared chests and cakey stage makeup, the ice dancers at the Palavela arena delivered one of the most breathtakingly eventful events of the Turin Games. They enlivened what has been a fairly cheerless and unexciting Olympics, and set the stage for what is usually the most anticipated event of all, the women's competition.

Only a stubborn killjoy didn't leap and shout with applause at all of the action. For one thing, there was always the chance that the Italian diva Barbara Fusar Poli would take off her skate and stab Maurizio Margaglio in the heart with it.

A few days ago, I wrote a defense of figure skating as a sport, because it's basically gymnastics performed on a pair of butcher knives. The same is true of ice dancing; it requires unbelievable timing, perfect coordination and staggering athleticism, while balancing on sharpened blades slightly more than an eighth-inch wide. The original dance portion, when numerous couples fell, left audiences both aghast and uproarious, but it also demonstrated the degree of difficulty in the sport. While it may look easy, thanks to the waving fabric, it's actually really, really hard to suspend a woman in midair with one arm, while whirling on blades at 30 miles an hour.

Frankly, it was hard to see why more of them didn't fall down. Watching Navka and Kostomarov in their gold medal program, it was as if they contorted themselves into impossible positions, and said, "Let's see if we can get up from this." Their winning routine to Bizet's "Carmen" was a blur of twisting feet, spiraling and illusory maneuvers.

Silver medalists Belbin and Agosto did a flamenco number of such feigned ease that at times she seemed to be draped on his wrist. It ended with Belbin's ankle resting on Agosto's shoulder while he whirled her around like a music box doll. And the Ukrainian bronze medalists, Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov, may have executed the most gasp-evoking move of the competition when she went into a death spiral and laid her cheek on his moving skate.

"The original dance -- the whole event -- proved anything can happen, so we're glad we could keep it together as well as we did," Belbin said.

The costuming disguised all these feats and made them look effortless. In fact, ice dancing is every bit as difficult as pairs skating, and in some instances maybe more so. It's a mistake to think that, just because jumps, lifts above the shoulder and throws are forbidden in dance, it's easier. It's just a different set of athletic problems. The skaters have to skate more closely together and more in union, which is more dangerous. And the lifts are agonizing.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, gold medalists four years ago in Salt Lake City, have worked with the legendary ice dancing choreographer Christopher Dean, and say that their programs with him are among the most difficult things they have ever skated. Pelletier points out that it's actually more difficult to hold a lift at your midsection than to raise a partner all the way above the head and lock the position.

"Take away all the beads and the bull[expletive] and it's an incredibly difficult sport," Pelletier said.

The Italians demonstrated his point, in their own dramatic fashion. Fusar Poli and Margaglio were moments from the end of their original dance Sunday night when she slipped from his arms as they moved into a spin and sprawled on the ice. Fusar Poli was clearly seething as they finished. Margaglio held his pose, chest gleaming, hips thrust forward, but Fusar Poli shot him a look of such prolonged, cold fury that it could only be called a maloccio, a word that should be uttered in quick hushed tones meaning "evil eye." It was a sinister Italian death stare that suggested it was better to be garroted than receive such a look, especially from a woman. It was a look that suggested she was tired of dragging around this man like a sack of polenta.

How the Italians would skate after such a scene was as suspenseful as the competition for the gold medal. As it happened, they recovered to skate cleanly for sixth place, and had a scene of emotional reconciliation afterwards. The sideshow threatened to transform the event into something else entirely, part opera and part farce.

But then, that's part of the charm of ice dancing: It's masque, theatre and sport, all in one event.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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