VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It takes two to tango, and Friday night the best at the Olympics were world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin.
The couple won the compulsory dance, an exercise — some say it's monotonous — to repetitive music that began the ice dancing competition.
For the tango romantica — not to be confused with the teasingly seductive tango by men's silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko — the Russians earned 43.76 points. Their program was highly expressive and was rewarded by especially high marks for interpretation.
Their lead is 1.02 points over Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who were third at last year's worlds. Rarely are there upsets in compulsory dance, which often means a Russian couple in first place. Either a Russian or Soviet dance team has won all but two gold medals since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1976.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White, winners of the last two U.S. championships, were third with 41.47 points, followed by 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto — who would like to say "good riddance" to compulsories.
To be fair, the rest of the competition could have plenty of excitement, and some controversy, in Sunday's original dance and Monday's free dance. And it figures to be much more unpredictable than the identical patterns required in compulsories.
"We skated our best tango of the season and we are very optimistic about the future," said Shabalin, who sported a ponytail for the tango.
The future, it appears, is a tangle with the Canadians and Americans.
"Every competition, every worlds, it's this close," Moir said. "You can't win the competition, but you can lose it (in compulsories)."
Friday night was mostly a snoozefest, enlivened mainly by the crowd's reaction to Virtue and Moir's emotion-packed performance that concluded the evening. Their defiant dance had the fans clapping in unison long before they finished, and they remained in character for 15 seconds before breaking into wide smiles and taking deep bows to all four sides of the Pacific Coliseum, even saluting the fans in the cheap seats.
"As I said to Tessa, we've been training for this moment all our lives. It's really quite special for us," Moir said.
The ice — and the arena itself — could get hot Sunday night. While costumes were a non-issue (if you can believe it) for the compulsories, Domnina and Shabalin have been criticized for their original dance outfits.
Some Australian Aboriginal leaders have accused them of offensive cultural theft, with fakey steps and gaudy costumes. The music includes a didgeridoo riff, and Domnina and Shabalin wear brown-toned costumes adorned with leaves and white Aboriginal-style markings.
In the original dance, couples can create any kind of dance that falls within an assigned theme. This year's theme is country/folk.
Before getting to the good stuff, however, everyone — skaters and fans alike — had to endure the compulsories.
"It's three points higher than our personal best for that dance this year," White said following a performance highlighted by deep edges and tight tango holds that emphasized the arrogance the tango romantica requires. "It's very satisfying knowing how much work we put into it."
That work, including lessons earlier this month with Elena Tchaikovskaya, a creator of the tango romantica, paid off for Davis and White and Virtue and Moir. Both couples train together in Detroit.
"With the compulsory dance, it's really how you approach it that makes the difference," Davis said. "We were really confident coming in knowing we knew how she wanted the dance to be performed."
Belbin and Agosto, five-time U.S. champions and second last year at worlds, were happy to move up from sixth in Turin four years ago.
France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the 2008 world champions, came in sixth just 4 1/2 months after she gave birth to a son.