SOCHI, Russia — They have trained together for 17 years. And for much of that time, under the rules of ice dance, they’ve not been allowed to stray farther than two arms’ length from each other.
But on Sunday at the Sochi Olympics, Meryl Davis and Charlie White took the ice with the exuberance of a couple intoxicated by the sight of one another — he in tuxedo tails, she in jeweled pink chiffon — and swept the Iceberg Skating Palace audience along with them.
Apart from sweetness and sheer delight, no range of emotion was required to conjure the ballroom scene from “My Fair Lady” through their light-as-air quickstep and fox-trot. And judges gobbled it up like cotton candy, rewarding the six-time U.S. champions with a record score for a short dance, 78.89 points, which amounted to a handsome yet not insurmountable lead entering Monday’s free skate.
Davis and White, the silver medalists at the 2010 Vancouver Games, are seeking to become the first Americans to win Olympic gold in ice dance, a discipline that was added to the Winter Games in 1976 and has been dominated by skaters from Russia and former Soviet states.
Defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada fell short of their season-best marks for their short dance to “Dream a Little Dream.” Their score of 76.33 placed them second, 2.56 points in arrears to Davis and White, their chief rivals and training partners.
Russia’s Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov prevailed in the scramble for third place (73.04 points).
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As has been the case since Vancouver, Michigan natives Davis and White and Canadians Virtue and Moir proved themselves athletes on a higher plane than the rest of the ice-dance world.
They have swapped world championships the past four years, with the Americans winning the 2011 and 2013 titles and the Canadians winning in 2010 and 2012. And one couple or the other has claimed gold at 18 of the past 20 international competitions of consequence.
But on Sunday, Davis and White separated themselves in the eyes of judges, who gave them the highest marks for the technical elements of their dance, as well as the highest marks for all five elements that constitute the more subjective “component score,” such as interpretation, choreography and performance.
“Having been together 17 years plays a huge part in how comfortable we are up there on the ice and in big moments,” said White, 26. “We’ve been through so much together, in life and in competition. And when we took the ice out there, we felt calm being out there together.”
In many respects, ice dance is both sport and theater, demanding athletic skill and acting chops. Through music, costume, makeup and manner, couples create characters and enact a narrative — albeit on figure skates and within fairly strict rules.
No jumps or throws are allowed in ice dance, unlike pairs skating. Routines are meant to simulate ballroom dancing, rather than acrobatics. The skaters must remain no more than two arms’ length apart and execute their spins in tandem. Lifts are permitted, but none can involve hoisting a skater over the head. And couples are judged on the precision of their footwork, as well as their interpretive skills.
Apart from the overt storytelling, there is a deeper level of myth-making afoot in ice dance: Conveying the impression that the dance requires no effort at all despite its technical rigor and pinpoint timing.
In this regard, Davis and White sparkled Sunday night.
“Excellent is a word to described it,” Davis, 27, said after coming off the ice. “I felt like I was in a dream.”
The Canadians skated 18th among the 24 duos, staging an up-tempo dance that included an impressive rotational lift. Moir pumped his fist multiple times at the conclusion, thrilled with the performance. But when the final scores were parsed, judges had quibbles with one of their required dance steps, known as the finnstep. Their score was more than a full point below their season’s best.
Neither took issue with the scoring afterward, implying that what mattered more was the way they felt about the performance.
And Moir was bullish about the deficit they’ll have to make up in Monday’s free skate to successfully defend their Olympic title.
“We feel like we can make it up,” Moir said. “There are a lot more elements in a free program. It’s doable. We know [Davis and White] are going to bring a great skate tomorrow. We train with them. So it’s a task. But we can’t wait to get back at it tomorrow.”
White was so elated that his smile, which stretched from one ear to the other, was mistaken for a grimace.
“We were just in a zone,” he said. “We love skating. We’re not thinking. We’re letting it flow.”
The top 20 couples advance to Monday’s free skate, which will determine the medalists. All three American duos made the cut with ease. U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates stand eighth (65.46), while siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, the U.S. bronze medalists, are ninth (64.47).