DETROIT — In a city built on automotive muscle, inside an arena named for a world heavyweight champion, fantasies draped in chiffon and Swarovski crystals took flight Friday.
The fact that Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena is hosting Skate America, the first event of the international Grand Prix season, may sound like a punch line. But it’s entirely fitting to Meryl Davis and Charlie White, ice dancing’s most artful practitioners at the moment, the two-time defending world champions and top contenders for gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Reared in Detroit’s suburbs, they trained as youngsters at the Skating Club of Detroit and are now based at a rink in nearby Canton, where their Russian-born coach and choreographer, Marina Zueva, is producing champion ice-dancers much like Henry Ford’s automotive assembly line produced Model T’s a century ago.
To Davis and White, their Detroit heritage is nothing to apologize for; it’s at the heart of their competitive drive and determination.
“Being from Detroit, we can definitely feel that — that work ethic, that willingness to put yourself all-in to whatever you’re doing, whether it’s the auto industry or starting something new,” said Davis, 26, who is from West Bloomfield. “While ice dancing is an artistic sport, it certainly has its nitty-gritty moments. Training isn’t all lipstick and sparkles every day.”
Those Detroit roots were in their favor for Davis and White in Friday’s ice dancing short program, as they took a commanding lead (75.70 points) toward their fourth Skate America title in a row. Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte were second (69.88), followed by American siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani (61.26).
It was the first time Davis and White had competed in their home town in more than a decade, an overdue change for their parents and friends who’ve grown accustomed to cheering them on in front of wide-screen TVs or via Internet streams from venues several time zones away.
What they witnessed was the first of two programs that Davis and White hope will earn them gold in Sochi, following their silver-medal finish in their 2010 Olympic debut at Vancouver. They have performed them just once in competition, at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City in September, and have devoted the weeks since to polishing the footwork and fine-tuning the lifts.
Set to music from “My Fair Lady,” their short program was a bubbly, whimsical variation on a quick step, with Davis resplendent in a flowing pink gown and White in formal coat and tails.
The free skate they’ll perform Saturday, set to “Scheherazade” by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, has been crafted with the Sochi audience in mind — an homage, of sorts, to the Olympic host’s cultural heritage.
“We feel this is the right moment,” White said of the piece. “We have grown into skaters who can make the most of this special music, and we’re excited to tell the story of Scheherazade.”
In interviews, Davis and White take turns fielding questions, amplifying one another’s replies rather than tripping over them, unusually adept at the give-and-take of successful partnerships.
Their on-ice partnership has lasted longer than the average U.S. marriage, dating to when they were 8 and 9 (Davis is older by nine months).
Asked the secret behind their teamwork, they offer no pat reply, citing instead a litany of factors that includes supportive parents, a shared loved of figure skating and similar work ethic and goals.
“We’re always on the same page,” White said. “Even if there is any argument about any little thing, we know we’re trying to get to the same place, so it’s always resolved really easily. We complement each other really well, even though personality-wise we can be different. We’re lucky to have found each other.”
But they owe their biggest debt to Zueva, a former ice dancer who left Russia in 1991 and, since 2001, has helped turn Canton’s Arctic Edge Arena into an incubator of champions in the discipline. The rink is also the home base of Davis and White’s chief rivals, reigning Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, who train under Zueva, as well, but aren’t competing at Skate America. Also based at the Canton rink are the Shibutanis, the second-ranked U.S. ice dance duo and fellow pupils of Zueva.
“She’s a genius,” White said of Zueva. “What really sets her apart is her ability to recognize in each team what makes them special and bring it out show that in their programs.”
Adds Davis: “One of the most wonderful things she has been able to teach us is really about moving an audience. At the end of the day, we can do all of our technical elements and skate our programs. But it’s really about connecting with the audience and having that emotional impact.”
Note: Jason Brown, the 18 year-old American named as a replacement for injured Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, was a surprising second (83.78 points) following his ode to Prince in Friday’s men’s short program. Pennsylvania’s Adam Rippon was third (80.26), while U.S. Champion Max Aaron, who fell on his opening quad Salchow, was sixth (75.91). Japan’s Tatsuki Machida took a commanding lead (91.80).