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Belbin, Agosto dance to early lead

Defending champs lead Davis, White by just 1.27 points

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's hard work paid off. They lead after the compulsory dance.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's hard work paid off. They lead after the compulsory dance. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2008) - The "back-to-basics" training approach Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto have talked about all season continued to pay dividends today, as the couple jumped out to a 1.27-point lead with a speedy, fast-stepping Yankee Polka at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"We felt we did it very well," the 23-year-old Belbin said. "It's a good start."

"We think we've made a step forward this year with the compulsory dances," added her 26-year-old partner. "We have put the time in. There is really no other way to improve them but to work on basic skating skills."

For the four-time defending champions and the rest of the 13-team field, the Yankee Polka can be summed up neatly: it's round and round and smile, smile, smile.

The dance, a sprightly American export, is seeing a lot of action these days; it was also the compulsory at the Canadian championships last week and at the European championships earlier this week.

This morning, Xcel Energy Center workers in the facility's labyrinth-like ground floor have had to contend with high-energy couples hopping around to a silent 120 beats per minute, the speed of the dance.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who train alongside Belbin and Agosto in Canton, Mich., were the most dangerous this morning; they were so absorbed in their kicks and steps that they almost whirled into a group of security guards on a break.

The couple, who won the bronze medal at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Championships, placed second with 40.59 points.

"That dance just takes so much energy," the 20-year-old White said. "As always, we've been training hard, and we knew we were going to nationals to try and do well."

The young team, who have skated together an astounding 11 years, fared better than Belbin and Agosto in the total element score, earning 21.12 points to 20.94. When the program components were added in, the defending champions came out ahead with 41.86 points total.

"It's nice to know the judges are seeing what we've done and are giving us the scores," White said.

Igor Shpilband, who trains the top two teams, liked what he saw today.

"It was generally good," he said. "Maybe one of Tanith and Ben's sequences didn't have as much energies as the others, but there was no mistake. And it's a great dance for Meryl and Charlie; they skate it so close together and just keep attacking."

The übercoach, who has nearly single-handedly put American ice dancing on the map over the last decade, feels that his top couple may fare better in the compulsory at the upcoming 2008 World Championships.

"The Yankee Polka is not Tanith and Ben's best dance," he said. "It's always hard for couples with long legs, because the steps are so quick.

"At worlds, they will compete either the Austrian Waltz or the Tango. Both of those are good dances for Tanith and Ben."

Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre are third with 35.38 points, well off the leaders. 2007 U.S. junior champs Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates sit fourth with 34.00 points, while Jennifer Wester and Daniil Barantsev are fifth with 30.46 points.