Virtue and Moir on pace for ice dance gold after rousing original dance

Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir react after performing their original dance. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ivan Sekretarev)

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had struggled with what folk motif to pick for their original dance program, wanting something Canadian for the home ice but just not finding the right fit.

They settled on a fiery Spanish flamenco routine, and blazed right to the top of medal contention at the Winter Olympics on Sunday.

Canada's first gold in ice dancing drew closer with each passionate clap of their hands, stomp of the skate and swish of Virtue's scarlet red skirt.

"As we found this 'Farrucas' music for the flamenco, we put it on and did an old footwork and loved it," said Virtue, a native of London, Ont. "The power, just the rhythm, everything, it brought a certain energy out of us and I think we really connected to it."

Virtue and Moir, from Ilderton, Ont., were second after Friday's compulsory dance, but scored 68.41 for the original program, giving them a total of 111.15 points and a first-place ranking. They will skate the free dance on Monday and find out if it leads them to the top of the podium.

It was an emotional day for the Canadian skaters, who learned first thing in the morning that the mother of teammate Joannie Rochette had died suddenly overnight. Rochette plans to compete in the women's competition, which starts Tuesday.

Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White were in second place with 108.55 points while Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia sat third at 106.60.

Virtue wore a dazzling dress with black-sequined cut-out bodice and flowing satin skirt, while Moir had on the typical Flamenco dancer's outfit of ruffled white shirt, vest and pants. They sailed to the guitar song "Farrucas," and executed an astonishingly clean performance that they had worked on with flamenco dancers Christina Scott and Luis Montero.

The pair acknowledged what the jubilant crowd and TV audience at home had likely been thinking - they were relaxed and energized. They have not been ruffled by the nerves that have caused other young Canadians, such as skater Patrick Chan, to falter at their first Olympics.

Even more remarkable is that the 20-year-old Virtue underwent surgery to relieve chronic pain in her shins that kept her out of most of last season. Moir, in her absence, trained through the fall with hockey sticks and a sandbag while she underwent rehab.

Bring on the free dance, they said.

"This free dance is our program, we love it, we love to skate every second of it...," the 22-year-old Moir said of the romantic routine to Mahler's "Fifth Symphony."

"We're just going to go out there and enjoy it and enjoy skating together. We're so pumped about (Monday). It almost feels like we want to be back on the ice. We wish we had six more segments to go to have as many chances as possible."

Davis and White, good friends and training partners of the Canadians in Canton, Mich., put on an energetic yet elegant tribute to Bollywood, Davis sporting a modified Sari, White in a beige sequined Salwar Kameez. Their routine has been embraced in India where it's gone viral.

"I think friendly rivalry is a perfect way to describe it," White said of their relationship with Virtue and Moir. "We train with them, we see them every day, we're best buds. It's awesome."

By contrast, reigning world champions Domnina and Shabalin, went with the same oddly comical routine that caused an outcry from Australian Aboriginal leaders when they skated it at last month's European championships.

The Russians wore a slightly toned-down version of the dark nylon body suits they donned previously, but still had cartoonish loincloths, leaves, and faux body paint. At points, a grinning Shabalin grabbed the ponytail of Domnina as they clapped and bopped across the ice to music that included riffs from a didgeridoo.

Domnina and Shabalin were called out for distasteful cultural theft by both Aboriginal leaders in Australia and First Nations leaders in B.C., but tried to make amends by consulting with both groups after the fact.

"Everybody here is nervous about this performance, of course we were nervous a little bit with all these stories, but it was OK because when we chose this music, it was very fair and friendly and we didn't want to offend anybody, we just really liked this unique culture," Shabalin told reporters.

Vanessa Crone of Aurora, Ont., and Paul Poirier of Unionville, Ont., were 17th with a combined score of 79.31. They also skated a Flamenco-inspired routine.

"There were just a few moments where we felt slightly off balance, but all in all it was a very solid performance for us, we felt very relaxed," said Poirier. "We really enjoyed it and projected it, so we're really satisfied, we couldn't ask for anything more."

No North American team has captured Olympic gold in ice dancing, but the emergence of several young duos in Canada and the U.S., including Virtue and Moir, could change the landscape.

Original dance is where, well, the original comes out. The audience is treated to a spectacle of theatrical-style costumes, and more creative moves than the rigid and soon-to-be extinct compulsory dance.

In the original program, a general theme is given to the couples as a guide for the type of rhythm and style they should be aiming for. On Sunday, it was country or folk music from around the world.