By JERÉ LONGMAN
CANTON, Mich. — Olympic ice dancing is widely appealing to audiences, but it has been frequently mocked as a dubious competition, fraught with predetermined outcomes, almost impossible to judge objectively. An existential question lurks: Is rumba really a sport?
Yet as the United States figure skating championships begin Thursday in Boston, and the Winter Games follow next month in Sochi, Russia, skating’s flamboyant hybrid will move from the fringes to center stage and seek to sustain its brittle legitimacy.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White of suburban Detroit, the reigning Olympic silver medalists in ice dancing, are the lone Americans favored to win gold in Sochi in the four traditional skating events. They are also expected to buttress medal hopes for the United States in a new team event. No Americans have won Olympic gold in ice dancing.
The chief rivals of Davis and White also happen to be their training partners, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, the 2010 Olympic gold medalists. The couples share a rink, an esteemed coach in Marina Zueva of Russia, lofty credentials as two-time world champions and even reserved parking at the Arctic Edge Ice Arena west of Detroit.
In an event where everything is judged, where every hint of bias is parsed, does it mean anything that Zueva’s parking spot is closer to Virtue and Moir than to White and Davis?
“I hope not,” White said, laughing, after a recent practice.
The ascendancy of Davis and White comes at a desperate time for figure skating in the United States. Although skating has long been the centerpiece of the Winter Games — and American television coverage — it is a much diminished sport in this country two decades after the knee-whacking of Nancy Kerrigan by associates of Tonya Harding brought soaring ratings and felonious appeal.
No American man or pairs team is expected to challenge for an Olympic medal. Ashley Wagner, the reigning American women’s champion, said she would have to be nearly flawless to reach the podium in Sochi. A shutout in men’s and women’s singles skating would be the first for the United States since 1936.
Thus ice dancing moves to the forefront of expectation. It last made big headlines in the United States for all the wrong reasons — a scandal involving vote trading by judges that discredited the dance and pairs competitions at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The familiar 6.0 scoring system was later scrapped. Its replacement, designed to curtail collusion and reward performance over reputation, seemed to gain some validity at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics despite lingering flaws. Virtue and Moir and Davis and White prevailed over the Russian favorites, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who were hobbled by injury and roundly criticized for a kind of minstrel-show tribute to Australian aboriginals.
“The system we have in place does reward performance the day of,” Moir said at Skate Canada in October. “That’s what makes our sport so much more credible.”
Olympic ice dancing also now carries the reality-television, celebrity-culture appeal of shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” programs that have turned the salsa, tango and fox trot into somewhat quantifiable competitions.
So popular are Davis and White in the rearranged world of figure skating that they have endorsements with Ralph Lauren, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Kellogg’s, AT&T and Airweave, a Japanese mattress company — a list perhaps unprecedented for American ice dancers.
It is no secret that figure skating is infused with competitive ego, ostentation and intrigue that has sometimes turned sport into soap opera.
Weeks before the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the eventual gold and silver medalists in ice dancing from Russia were involved in blade-slashing incidents. A slice was left in the forearm of the champion Pasha Grishuk and a rip in the costume of her partner, Yevgeny Platov.
So outsiders are naturally curious about the working relationship — and potential tension — between Virtue and Moir and Davis and White.
They have split victories in the last four world championships and share not only a coach but identical and conflicting Olympic aspirations. Still, similar training arrangements exist in relative harmony in other Olympic sports like track and field and swimming. Both dance couples say that Zueva, their coach, has used her choreographic brilliance to showcase their distinct but equally compelling dance styles without displaying any favoritism.
“She’s very professional,” Moir said. “It seems like a situation that is a little odd from the outside, but we know Marina pushes us both evenly. Sometimes, the doubts creep up in your mind, but we’re very honest with each other. We’re very open.”
Zueva said she relied on the maturity and intelligence of her skaters to make the training situation workable. Olympic ice dancing, unlike the 100-meter sprint, does not involve eight competitors simultaneously dashing for the finish. Instead, one couple takes the ice at a time, left to perform its singular interpretations of music, artistry and sport.
“I focus each team not to compete against each other, to do the best they can,” said Zueva, 57, who also choreographed gold medal performances in 1988 and 1994 for the great Russian pairs team of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov. “I create the program, and it’s like a child for me. I do as much as I can for both of them.”
The American and Canadian couples have presented a narrow but clear choice for judges who favor a particular style of dance. Virtue, 24, and Moir, 26, are classic ballroom types whose unison and lyricism and emotional connection project a convincing illusion of romance. Davis, 27, and White, 26, have had a more athletic appeal with their speed and lifts and smiling ebullience.
Both couples say they are pushed by the daily presence of the other.
And for Sochi, each couple has borrowed something from its chief rivals, if indirectly. Virtue and Moir have sought more speed and power, and Davis and White have enhanced the theatricality of their skating — storytelling and believability in portraying a drama or a love story.
Before Vancouver, Davis worked with a mime. For Sochi, she and White consulted Derek Hough, a dancer and choreographer from “Dancing With the Stars,” to hone their light and elegant short dance, a fox trot and quickstep to music from “My Fair Lady.”
In the free dance, Davis hired a Persian dancer to help her assume the role of Scheherazade, the sultan’s wife whose enchanting and unending stories quell her husband’s peculiar habit of marrying a new wife each day and having the previous one executed.
At the Vancouver Games, the Canadians defeated the Americans as Virtue skated with excruciating pain in her shins from a lingering overuse injury. (After Virtue had surgery for the injury in 2008, Moir sometimes skated with a hockey stick fitted with a sandbag to simulate his absent partner.) But a newfound completeness brought victories by Davis and White over Virtue and Moir at the 2013 world championships and again last month at the Grand Prix Final, an important Olympic tuneup in Japan.
“In Vancouver, Charlie and I were happy to look up at Tessa and Scott and say, ‘You very much deserved that top podium,’ ” Davis said.
“Now I think the biggest difference between the teams is our artistic eyes and artistic inclinations. It’s what we desire to accomplish on the ice compared with four years ago, which was a difference in the style of actual skating.”
If music and costumes are an integral part of a skating performance, so is physical appearance. There is no mistaking White, with his mop of blond hair, or Davis, with wide-set eyes that give her a distinct and transfixing beauty. Her ethereal look has provided an indeterminate ethnicity, allowing Davis to seamlessly inhabit various roles from a Bollywood dancer to Scheherazade.
“Quite often,” White said jokingly, “people will comment on that, and I’m like: ‘Well, what about me? Are you saying I’m not a unique beauty?’ ” More seriously, White added: “What makes us stand out is not just our skating ability but our physical features. It’s definitely played a part in the uniqueness of our programs. We do a lot of exotic themes, and part of that has to be based on the girl. She’s such a component of whether that’s going to be believable when you hear the music.
“Ethnically ambiguous. That’s a big thing nowadays. You want that.”
“I have no labels,” she said.
As a young girl, Davis said, she was self-conscious about being named Meryl — “I wanted to be a Cathy or an Amy; you just want to fit in” — and about her unique features before learning to appreciate her individuality as she grew into adulthood.
“People oftentimes can’t figure out where I’m from,” said Davis, who is of English, Irish, Scottish and German ancestry. “They ask what my ethnic background is. I take it as a compliment. I don’t know if it’s always intended as a compliment, but I always take it as one.”
The couple began skating together 18 years ago, when Davis was 9 and White was 8. Looking into a boy’s eyes and holding her gaze was a challenge for a shy girl, Davis said. White had some ice dancing experience and joked that he was annoyed to instruct a newcomer with rudimentary routines.
“I was like, I’m so far ahead of that; that is so two months ago,” White said.
Success came with an immediacy and a normalcy that is uncommon in figure skating, where athletes often move great distances to train and change partners as if they were costumes.
Davis and White lived at home through high school and were fortunate to have mothers who encouraged but did not overly stage-manage them. White also played travel hockey and the violin, while Davis concentrated on her studies to overcome her struggles with dyslexia. Both are taking a year off from the University of Michigan, where Davis studies cultural anthropology and White majors in political science.
Jacqui White, Charlie’s mother, said that she read sports biographies to her son when he was younger, including one about Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic skating champion. It was revealing, she said, how much Boitano appreciated that his mother let his sport be his own passion.
“She dropped him at the rink and picked him up,” Jacqui White said. “Other than that, she didn’t say, ‘What jumps did you practice?’ She left him alone. That struck a chord; I didn’t do that, but it was something to aim for. I’m not like Honey Boo Boo’s mom, but I’m not saintlike like Brian Boitano’s mom.”
Jacqui White still lives 10 minutes from Cheryl Davis, Meryl’s mother, outside Detroit. They travel to competitions together and are known simply as the Moms. They plan to be in Sochi, where their children will elevate a daily training rivalry into a high-stakes Olympic competition.
“We complement each other, like Charlie and Meryl do,” Jacqui White said of Cheryl Davis. “I can see up close, but not far away. She can see far but not up close. I read the maps, she reads the road signs.
“Between the two of us, we have perfect vision. I have 20 and she has 20.”