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Technique, not judges, keeping Canadian tandem from top

Dec. 1, 1999
By Sandra Loosemore
SportsLine Sports Writer

In ice dance, sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more things stay the same. This season, there have been some major shakeups in the international dance hierarchy, but there are also the same old complaints that Canadian dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz are getting jobbed by crooked judging politics.

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With reigning world champions Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov out for the fall, and possibly the entire season, because of Krylova's back injury, it would have been entirely expected for the French team Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, second at Worlds, to win everything in sight, and for Bourne and Kraatz, bronze medalists last season, to position themselves to move up a notch in the rankings.

Instead, it has been the Italian couple of Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio who has set the ice dance world abuzz on the Grand Prix circuit this fall. Although they were ranked only fifth at Worlds last spring, already this season they've not only defeated the fourth-ranked team Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh at Skate America and Bourne-Kraatz at Cup of Russia, but also took some first-place ordinals from Anissina and Peizerat in the original dance at Trophee Lalique.

Is this political judging, or a reflection of what is really happening on the ice? The signs point in the latter direction. Fusar-Poli and Margaglio have made obvious improvements in their speed and level of difficulty since last season. At Skate America, they tore up the ice with an energetic free dance while Lobacheva and Averbukh's dance looked under-rehearsed and under-whelming. The Italians' victory there was unexpected, but not especially controversial. And at Trophee Lalique, Anissina and Peizerat's original dance was so generally criticized that they have decided to scrap it and come up with a new one.

Meanwhile, Bourne and Kraatz still seem to be playing catch-up after losing a significant amount of training time earlier this year because Bourne had a serious knee injury that required surgery. This caused them to get a late start in working on their programs for the new season. They did win Nation's Cup against a comparatively weak field, but even there their skating seemed sluggish and sloppy compared to their best performances from previous years. At Cup of Russia last weekend, they narrowly lost all three phases of the competition to Fusar-Poli and Margaglio.

In the past, when the Canadians have been unable to move up in the world rankings, their apologists have complained that the tendency for teams to retain the same relative rankings from competition to competition and year to year is evidence that dance judging must be crooked. On the other hand, when movement in the rankings has occurred but it has been other teams who were moving up against the Canadians, the apologists have reacted with shock and complaints that the dance judging must be crooked because their favorites were getting beaten by teams who were lower-ranked on paper. It can't possibly work both ways.

This is, in fact, the third time that Bourne and Kraatz have been "passed" by a lower-ranked team since 1995. The first instance was Krylova and Ovsiannikov in 1996, and the second was Anissina and Peizerat in 1998. By this time, the continued complaining about alleged judging conspiracies is wearing awfully thin.

It doesn't help matters any that Kraatz has come off like a sore loser in a post-competition interview, claiming that the Italians have "absolutely no potential" and that "the only way they could beat anybody was if the other skaters had knots in their feet."

Rather than being the result of any elaborate anti-Canadian conspiracy, it seems much more probable that the explanation is the obvious one: The other teams have been getting better, and the Canadians have not. And rather than portraying themselves as perennial victims of bad judging and off-the-ice politics, Bourne and Kraatz would be better off reassessing what they need to do on the ice to gain more respect from the judges.

While many fans are under the impression that the judging in dance is based more on opinion and stylistic preferences than in singles or pairs, dance is in fact the most highly technical of the skating disciplines. Dancers and dance judges are trained to pay attention to details of fundamental stroking technique that skaters in other disciplines, much less casual fans, don't even think about.

Moreover, because these fundamentals so permeate the entire discipline of ice dance, and because dancers rarely do high-risk elements like the triple jumps that singles skaters do, it is not that surprising that dancers who have the best technique -- and the programs best-constructed to show off their technique -- consistently do better in competition than dancers with weaker fundamentals or weaker programs.

France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat could dominate this season with an improved routine. 
France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat could dominate this season with an improved routine.(Allsport) 

It seems that Bourne and Kraatz have been handicapped perhaps as much or more by their program choices and choreography than by the limitations of their technique. Their Riverdance free dance from 1988, although wildly popular with fans, had most of its footwork executed in side-by-side position. This is intrinsically less difficult than dancing in a face-to-face hold, or with changing holds, and therefore receives less credit from the judges.

They've also had a history of choosing to do original dances that were in some way "lighter" than what their competitors were doing: a Continental tango rather than an Argentine tango, an Irish slip jig rather than a traditional waltz, a social-type Latin dance rather than a stylized ballroom one. While "light" is a perfectly legitimate stylistic choice when considering figure skating as entertainment or art, as a form of athletic competition the judges are rewarding skating that's fast, energetic and hard-edged.

Ironically, Bourne and Kraatz might also be being hurt by the very rule changes their previous complaints helped to inspire. In the wake of the allegations about "bloc judging" costing the Canadians a medal at the Nagano Olympics, the ISU added a number of required elements to the original dance and free dance. This is intended to make it easier for the judges -- and fans -- to make direct comparisons on specific technical skills.

This season, for example, the Latin combination original dance must contain two dance lifts, a circular step sequence skated in face-to-face holds, a straight-line step sequence where the skaters must execute synchronized twizzles and other mirror or matching steps without touching, and a dance spin in a side-by-side hold.

The straight-line step sequence seems to be giving the dancers a surprising amount of difficulty, as a number of the top teams have been having trouble maintaining unison, speed, and complexity of steps all at the same time. Quite a number of the dancers have also seemed to be strangely clueless about how to incorporate an extended sequence of side-by-side skating into a dance and still make it appear as if they are dancing with one another.

This was one of the problems cited with Anissina and Peizerat's original dance at Trophee Lalique, for instance. At Nations Cup, Bourne and Kraatz were also criticized for being too slow through this section of their dance, so they re-choreographed it to sacrifice complexity for speed -- a strategy that seems to have backfired in Russia.

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