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Davis, White in fine form for Greensboro

Keeping eyes on first-ever U.S. world ice dance gold

Meryl Davis and Charlie White hope their Argentine Tango free dance will lead them to a first-ever U.S. world ice dance title in March.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White hope their Argentine Tango free dance will lead them to a first-ever U.S. world ice dance title in March. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/12/2011) - Their coaches said this post-Olympic year would not be easy, and for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, it hasn't been.

Despite an off-season shortened by participation in theStars on Ice tour and other shows, the Olympic and world silver medalists changed their original short dance from the delicate Amelie to operatic Waltzes from Puccini and Verdi. And, in a departure from their usual story-driven programs, they chose a sophisticated Argentine Tango for their free dance.

"Our programs have been works in progress, much more so than in the past, particularly the last two seasons," Davis, 24, said. "We were so used to getting ready early that starting the Grand Prix season cold at NHK Trophy [in October] was tough. We really weren't ready."

"We're very lucky to have the coaches we do; Marina [Zoueva] and Igor [Shpilband] really help us prepare, and when things aren't going well they help us to not stress out too much," White, 23, said.

"That's really key. A lot of figure skating is sort of stress management, because we have the programs, we have the coaching, everything is in place, we just have to keep our eyes on the prize and not worry too much."

The Olympic and world silver medalists cannot be accused of taking anything for granted. After winning their second straight Grand Prix title in Beijing in December, they returned to their rink in Canton, Mich., to tinker with their Argentine Tango free dance, the vehicle they hope will lead them to a first-ever U.S. world ice dance title in March.

"We're still making lots of improvements; we're definitely not sitting back," Davis said. "The Tango doesn't necessarily play to our strengths. We've made changes not only to the choreography, but also in the way we're performing it. It's challenging, but it's also incredibly exciting and rewarding to try to bring our skating to a new level."

Alterations made to the program to date have paid off. After winning NHK and Skate America despite a few slips and trips, the skaters rose to the occasion in Beijing, skating two clean routines and gaining higher element levels and scores.

"We felt really good; it was a big improvement over Skate America, which in turn had been, we thought, a big improvement over Japan," White said. "We're confident we're on course for a couple of more really good competitions.

"The Tango, it's a bit more of a mature program in terms of what we hope to accomplish, not to say [last season's free dance] Phantom was immature. There are more subtleties in it. It's very easy to get caught up in the stereotypical emotions of a Tango; we still want to portray a relationship, not just a dance. That's really what we're focusing on right now, the relationship aspect and making sure it's understandable to the judges and audience."

With Zoueva and Shpilband, they've also made some technical changes that will be debuted in Greensboro.

"There are sort of four music sections [to Il Postino and Forever Tango] in our free dance; since the Grand Prix Final, we changed the second piece of music, the section where our circular step sequence goes," White said. "It's a little more dramatic, a little less cheerful. It was something we had been considering and with the feedback from the judges [in Beijing] we decided to take it in a different direction."

Filtering constructive criticism is a keystone of the strategy that's let them -- and their training partners, Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir -- rise to the top of ice dance in record breaking time. Under the International Judging System (IJS), even top ice dance teams cannot get too comfortable.

"This year, in particular, it wasn't hard for us not to get complacent, just because of the challenges we had to face," White said. "Getting a late start because of touring, and just trying to recover from the Olympics, that's not something that you can control but it was something we hadn't experienced before.

"You have to get up each morning and work through things. We've certainly found that it's the case that [technical] callers get harder as the year goes on. In Beijing, for the Tango, we got all Level 4's except for a Level 3 for our diagonal step sequence. That was big. If you can limit it to one Level 3, you've done a good job."

White said they've grown progressively fonder of their short dance, which includes two sequences of the difficult Golden Waltz.

"We're basically very comfortable with it; initially obviously we were skating to completely different music. Once we made the switch to what we're skating to now, it sort of took on a life of its own, so that was nice. Of course, having said that, we're still trying to improve every little detail, but it's really the free dance we're concentrating on heading in to nationals."

In Greensboro, where Davis and White are expected to win a third consecutive title, the main competition will likely come from training mates Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, who won two medals in their first season on the senior Grand Prix; and Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein, also two-time Grand Prix medalists this season.

As for the world championships this March, Davis and White hope and expect the Olympic champions -- who missed the Grand Prix season after Virtue underwent her second surgery in three years for chronic exertional compartment syndrome -- to re-enter the competitive fray.

"We're fortunate enough to be able to train with them, so we definitely have our eyes on our closest competitors," White said. "Obviously it's a tough season when you have surgeries during the Grand Prix and you're trying to come back for nationals. But this isn't the first time they've done it. They have experience, they're Olympic champions, they have no reason to get all worried or upset.

"They are just fantastically talented. They motivate us. They're always a threat, no matter what kind of shape they are in. They're skating has always spoken for itself. You cannot discredit what they bring. We want to be ready for them, we want to be ready for anyone who comes up and skates really well."

Whether Virtue and Moir's fitness allows them to return in time for worlds or not will make little difference in how the top Americans approach the competition.

"It's nice to have them back training and skating next to us. We can push them, they can push us, but their presence at competitions doesn't change the way we approach events," Davis said.

Still, said White, he'd welcome his training partners back.

"The key is to focus on ourselves, but at the same time it is very motivating when they are there."

Decisions, Decisions

Music and steps aren't the only things that have changed about Davis and White's free dance; they've also shown different sets of costumes.

"We had to use old costumes at Skate America, because the [initial set] of costumes we had made [and worn at NHK] didn't turn out the way we expected," Davis said. "So we had another set made for the Grand Prix Final, and as it turned out, we liked the older set better. So now we have several sets and I have no idea which we will use in Greensboro."