IceNetwork article: Ballroom perspective

A ballroom perspective on top U.S. ice dancers

Champion Elena Grinenko offers her thoughts
By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com

With the top three U.S. senior ice dance teams getting in their final practices before heading to Chinese Taipei for the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, we decided to ask a world renowned ballroom expert to check out their free dances and give some comments. Russian-born Elena Grinenko is an avid skating fan.
"When they got the new judging system, I felt people kind of lost the personality, especially singles skaters," she says. "They're more running after those points doing certain moves to perfection and don't care about the rest of the stuff in between."

The good news -- she found the top three U.S. ice dance teams filled with personality and performance quality.

"All three were fabulous," she says.

Grinenko (www.elenagrinenko.com) grew up studying ballet and folk dance as well as ballroom. She was an internationally acclaimed Latin dancer, originally representing Russia and winning the national championship and international titles. After moving to the United States, she found further success, winning "rising star" competitions. In 2002, she partnered future Dancing with the Stars bad boy Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Then in 2005, she teamed up with another DWTS pro, Tony Dovolani, and together they became U.S. and world American Rhythm champions. Today, Grinenko runs Grinya's Entertainment (www.grinyasentertainment.com), a ballroom booking agency that books ballroom dancers for events.

"As a dancer, I'm not as much looking into the ice dancers' bootwork because I really don't know anything about it, but I look at the whole picture," Grinenko says. "It was very beautiful to watch."

Although the program of gold medalists and three-time U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White was described as "a collection of tangos," Grinenko notes that the style throughout the program was Argentine tango. There were obviously variations in the tempo.

"Argentine tango is very different than ballroom tango," Grinenko says. Ballroom tango has two different styles, international, which is danced in closed hold, and American smooth, which allows the couple to separate for character interpretation. "Argentine tango is much closer. In a way, I find it much sexier. Originally, Argentine tango was a Latin dance. Now it's in the classical department.

"What was impressive is the difficulty of their routine," she adds. "The routine keeps you on your toes. It's fast and it's tricky and so together. That was unbelievable. I was very impressed with their dancing."

Ballroom dancing is all about leg action and footwork, which are interconnected, so Grinenko's only critique is that a couple of times Davis did not fully extend her leg. She realizes that might not be possible given the speed and technique required for skating.

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's interpretation of the foxtrot and quickstep were spot-on.

"They're young. I love young people because they skate or dance fearlessly," Grinenko says. "What I particularly liked are Maia's hands. They were so soft and so feminine and, in a way, so effortless. Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein's "Cabaret" program also received high praise.

"What was great about them is how they actually portrayed the characters of it -- emotionally and facial expressions and how they matched their choreography to the music, which was very lovely," Grinenko says. "They were maybe not as fast as the other two couples, but they definitely have a unique interpretation of the musicality."

What Grinenko was a bit stunned to learn is that all three couples have the same coaches, Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.

"For me, that's even more impressive," says Grinenko, who is also a respected coach and judge. "In our industry, you can see some people train with a certain coach. You can recognize it in couples. I never would think that watching these ice dancers. The styles were very, very different. Choreography was dramatically different. That is a fabulous job. All the power to them.

"I believe that's what a coach should be. They should make couples have their own style, their own musicality and their own character expression. As a coach myself, I find that is one of the most difficult jobs to do -- to help couples find their identity and follow that versus trying to be perfect. When you go too much in technique and nailing it, sometimes people lose their personalities."

Grinenko has worked with some young ice dancers in ballroom training and would embrace the chance to do it more.

"It would be cool to coach someone for style or dance or help out with the choreography," she says.

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