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PopWatch on Ice: Ice dancing competition to have more tension than a night of Tango Romantica

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Ice dancing got underway Friday night in Vancouver with the U.S. hoping one of its two top teams will end the Russian domination of the sport and bring America its first gold medal in the discipline. If you tuned in for the compulsory dance — in which each couple skated the same Tango Romantica so they could be judged on technique head-to-head — you may have thought you were watching a costume contest (the quality of skating seemed so similar) until you caught a glimpse of Russia’s reigning world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin (pictured, left). They had the fire in their eyes the moment their blades touched the ice. (Watch.) She looked like a sexy flight attendant who’d convinced her airline to model its red uniforms after Celine Dion’s infamous backwards white tuxedo jacket, but they were smokin’. They had the sharpest movements from head-to-toe, and unlike so many of the couples, the way they looked at one another told a story throughout the number — not just when the pairs were allowed a few seconds of creativity at the beginning and the end of the program. If I had to watch one tango again, it would be theirs, so I’m fine with them being in first place going into Sunday night’s original dance. Nice move wearing the blankets they received from Canada’s First Nations in the kiss and cry area, by the way. (Watch their controversial “aboriginal” original dance you’ve heard so much about after the jump.)

Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the last to skate, finished their tango in second place — much to the delight of the home crowd who, as NBC commentator Tracy Wilson noted, were the first ever to clap along to the music on compulsory night. (Watch.) That provided the evening’s best exchange between Wilson and Tom Hammond. Hammond: “Well, they know it by heart now.” Wilson: “And you’ll be singing it all night, trust me.” True. I sang it when I made my dramatic exit from the living room thinking yet again that Canadians are the nicest people on the planet. U.S. Champion Meryl Davis rolled her eyes a bit backstage when she and partner Charlie White got bumped down to third — which, fingers crossed, means the drama surrounding this ice dancing competition will grow as intense as the Plushenko-Lysecek cold war. (It would be oddly poetic if America’s friendly neighbor to the North was the one that spoiled our dream of gold, no? Especially since Virtue and Moir train in Michigan with Davis and White, pictured right.) Personally, I thought the Canadian pair was a bit more refined in the tango than the University of Michigan students, who are known more for their raw energy. (Watch Davis and White’s tango.) Plus, Virtue’s dress had a classy faux “maybe I could wear this again” vibe that I appreciated, even if its length was a little distracting after all the short sequined numbers we’d witnessed. Davis and White, who’ve skated together for 13 years, had a wonderful flow across the ice but I didn’t feel any heat between them. (And I know they can muster it: Watch their exhibition skate to David Cook’s “Billie Jean” cover.) They’re stronger in the original and free dances, so they’re still in the hunt for gold. (The compulsory dance is only about 20 percent of the final score.)

America’s Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, silver medalists in Torino, sit in fourth. (Watch.) Despite rooming with Johnny Weir, the tassels on her costume were just a coincidence. She chose to rock them with an aggressive almost violent look on her face throughout the tango, but I don’t think it translated as well as Domnina’s. It kept me at arm’s length, and I never got sucked into the performance or found it sensual until the very last second.

What did you think of the romantic tangos? Were you as grateful as I was that NBC only showed us ONE of the four brother-sister pairs? I realize Great Britain’s Sinead Kerr and John Kerr (8th) needed to get a little sultry at the end to stay true to the dance, but it made me uncomfortable. And did you find yourself having to check your emotions when told that 15-year-old American Allison Reed had become a citizen of Georgia (without ever having visited the country) so she could partner with Otar Japardize? Wilson explained how difficult it is for someone in a country like Georgia to find a partner, and how passionate Reed is about skating, and they are beautifully matched down there in 20th place. Reed’s older siblings, Cathy Reed and Chris Reed (18th), skate for Japan. (According to their NBC bios, they were born there). If you’re okay with foreign athletes coming to the U.S. for opportunities, you have to support the reverse, right?

More PopWatch on Ice:

Men’s recap: Lysacek defeats Plushenko in cold war

Men’s recap: Villains, heroes, and fashion victims in the men’s short programs

Pairs’ recap: Shen and Zhao win pairs gold following collective gasp

Pairs’ recap: Good music, bad costumes, and questionable scoring in the pairs’ short programs

Scott Hamilton: The 5 most memorable Olympic figure skating falls

Scott Hamilton: The 5 times I was a little too excited in the broadcast booth

Scott Hamilton: The 5 programs I would have skated

Photo credit: Russia: Saeed Khan/Getty Images; USA: Yuri Kadobnov/Getty Images