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Ice dancing is more than pairs figure skating without jumps

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. (How Hwee Young/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The twizzle spins back into focus Sunday night with the short program section of figure skating’s most misunderstood discipline.

This year, ice dancing features some of the most competitive story lines of the games, featuring an intense battle for the gold between two revolutionary teams and a three-way duel for bronze by American teams with distinctly differing styles. With Nathan Chen finishing fifth in the men’s competition, ice dance is the country’s best chance for a medal.

Ice dance is sometimes maligned by the casual viewer as a tamer version of pairs skating. No, jumps are not part of the competition and partners can’t lift each other with their arms fully extended above their heads. But ice dance is its own distinct challenge, a study of edges and angles.

If you watch the sport only once every four years, try to ignore the sequins and sparkle. Most of the magic will occur if you watch the skater’s feet. The best ice dancers skate close to one another on deep edges, made noticeable by how much they lean their bodies. They employ deep but fluid knee bends to generate speed and spend more time skating with all four of their arms connected, in a dance hold, as opposed to just two, known as an open hold.

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In the short dance, all teams must skate to a Latin rhythm, utilizing ballroom dance techniques to perform salsa, samba, bachata and/or meringue. Goodbye, Debussy; hello, “Despacito.” Among the required elements are sequences of fancy footwork, a lift lasting no more than seven seconds (the man can not lift the woman over his head) and the twizzle — fast, rotational spins that travel across the ice.

At some point during the program, every team must perform the same rhumba pattern. For a lot of the programs, the pattern will be easy to tell because it occurs when the music slows down. This particular pattern, which calls for the skaters’ free legs to remain at the same distance and angle as their partners as they smoothly skate through a series of challenging twists and turns, is notoriously difficult and even the top teams have had trouble mastering it.

Here’s what it looks like, between 1:26 and 1:47:

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir should look familiar: Their fluid, refined style won them the gold medal in 2010 and the silver medal in 2014. They returned to skating at the end of 2016 with new coaches and a more romantic style. They immediately picked up where the left off, winning a third world championship in 2017. What makes Virtue and Moir so distinct as skaters is their precision and athleticism — they will hit the deepest edges of the entire competition and perform the most complicated dance holds without losing speed.

The duo is stunningly versatile but is particularly strong in Latin dances, which require speed and passion. The beat of their short dance, amplified under a medley of classic rock tunes, is virtually the same rhythm they utilized in 2010 and 2011. (Note: The sultry sizzle they share on the ice is manufactured, and with more than 20 years skating together, they are more like siblings than lovers.)

If Virtue and Moir are to win gold, they must win this phase of the competition, significantly.

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Their biggest competitors, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, are masters of the second phase of the competition — the less regimented free skate — and will be difficult to beat in that portion. Papadakis and Cizeron are fluid, flexible and charismatic. While Virtue and Moir mimic the ballroom, the French have a floating, balletic quality that favors strong body lines and difficult poses that create picturesque images.

Here is their magical free dance from 2016:

That style doesn’t loan itself to the short dance, with its rigid technical requirements and frenzied Latin pace, but the two-time world champions have pushed themselves and perfected a fun and challenging program to the music of Ed Sheeran. (Yes, Ed Sheeran. And no, they are not dating either.)

The French will be well-served if they can stay within a point of the Canadians in the short dance, so they can strike in the free. Judges in ice dance prefer the fresh and the new, and the French might just win the short program as well because of it. If that’s the case, Virtue’s and Moir’s chance at gold will be slim.

The next cluster of skaters are three supremely talented Americans, who have scored within a half-point of each other in the past two competitions, but are distant competitors behind the top duos.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won the U.S. national championship, even though they did not win first place in either phase. They share the same coaches as the French and the Canadians. Under their guidance, Hubbell and Donohue have become a faster and stronger team. They also possess a palpable amount of sex appeal, which they use to create mature, enrapturing programs. (They used to date, but no longer.)

In this civil war for bronze, Hubbell and Donohue have the most momentum. This couple has a tell when they are nervous: It will be in the symmetry and speed of their twizzles. Sometimes, Donohue might even fall.

The most accomplished of the American teams are Alex and Maia Shibutani, nicknamed “the Shib Sibs.” If Hubbell and Donohue are the nightclub, the Shibutanis are the supper club. Their short dance is the most charming, most pure and most complex of the three American teams. The tale of how well they will do will be in their toes. When they get nervous, Maia tends to point her toe less and pay less attention where she is placing her free leg. That can cause trouble in the mandatory dance pattern, where such a mistake can be costly for the three-time world medalists.

The most acrobatic of the three Americans are Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Chock and Bates have the most interesting lifts of all the American teams, and their peace-loving free dance will most assuredly be a highlight of the competition. This first phase is a bit more of troublesome. They’ve fallen out of unison on twizzles in the past, and now tend to perform them slowly and cautiously. If they want to be in medal contention, their short program must display the confidence that has led them to two world medals. (Of the six, they are the only couple who are dating.)

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