SAN JOSE, Calif. - There was a time — not all that long ago, in fact — when ice dance was considered little more than an excuse to run to the concession stands or check out the vendors on the concourse at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Look what a world title and a couple of Olympic silver medals will do.
With the women still struggling to find a star who can captivate the public like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen once did, ice dance has emerged as the Americans' main event. Ice dancers have been responsible for nine of the 15 world and Olympic medals won by Americans since 2006, including a gold-bronze finish by Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Maia and Alex Shibutani at last year's worlds.
Davis and White's title was the first by an American dance team.
"It's been building for a long time," White said. "It's just so nice to get the recognition. Obviously ice dancers have been putting in work for years and years, and now it's our time to shine. We don't want to let anyone down. We hope to make everyone take notice that, there's some good singles skating and some good pairs skating, but ice dance is still going to be the event to watch."
The senior competition begins Thursday at the HP Pavilion with short programs for both the women and pairs. The ice dance and men's competitions begin Friday.
Under figure skating's 6.0 judging system, cracking the top 10 was about the best a U.S. dance team could hope for. The sport was dominated by Eastern Europeans, and results were so predictable the joke was that medals had already been awarded before the competition even started. But the move to a computer-based judging system shook up the stodgy old order, and no one has benefited more than the Americans.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were the first to crack the barrier, giving the United States its first dance medal in 20 years with their silver at the 2005 world championships. Their silver in Turin the following year was only the second Olympic medal for a U.S. dance team.
Young skaters took note of Belbin and Agosto's success, and the U.S. depth in dance now rivals that of any other discipline. Of the 14 dance teams competing at nationals, six have a skater who has been on the podium at worlds, junior worlds, the Grand Prix final or the junior Grand Prix final.
"We're the first world champions, but we've got layers," White said. "It's a deep field, and it's just really exciting for all of us."
Takes a little of the pressure off the singles and pairs skaters, too.
The U.S. women, long the gold standard in figure skating, are in an epic drought. They came home empty-handed from Vancouver, only the second time since 1952 they've failed to win at least one medal. That other oh-fer? It came in 1964, three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash. They haven't won a medal at the world championships since 2006 and will have only two spots at worlds for the fourth year in a row.
The men are down to two spots at worlds, too, and it took a guy who hasn't skated in two years to create some buzz.
"Every sport has its ups and downs. The main reason U.S. figure skating is really struggling is because we don't have that one big star. We don't have a Michelle or Sasha," said Ashley Wagner, an alternate for this year's Grand Prix final after winning the bronze medal at Skate Canada. "We need to make the athletes more relatable to the public. People would be more interested in skating if they could put a personality behind the name. Everyone felt they knew Michelle. You could depend on her; you knew every time she went out there you were going to see something beautiful.
"We just need to get that combination of consistency and personality back."
Wagner would gladly be that person, and she and Mirai Nagasu are expected to provide the biggest challenge to defending champion Alissa Czisny.
Two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott is the heavy favourite in the men's field, having rebounded from the poor showing at last year's nationals that cost him a spot on the world team. Pairs is anyone's guess after last year's champions, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, split up a week after their promising finish at the world championships. Coughlin is now skating with Vancouver Olympian Caydee Denney.
Which brings it back to dance.
Davis and White are, no surprise, considered a lock to win their fourth straight U.S. title. They haven't lost a competition since finishing second at the 2010 world championships, and the only couple in the world that comes close to them is Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
That doesn't mean Davis and White plan to coast, however.
Far from it. Their "Die Fledermaus" free dance has an elegance and sophistication they couldn't have pulled off a few years ago, and they have spent the last month fine-tuning the exquisite little details that have set them apart.
"One of our main goals this year is just be proud of what we're putting on the ice. Every second, every moment, every element we're executing," Davis said. "I think Charlie and I really take pride in the fact we would really like to evolve and continue to grow. As long as we're on the competitive circuit, we don't plan on settling on what we have going for us."