by Melanie Hoyt

When the top teams in the world are all so talented, sometimes ice dance has to come down to a numbers game. This was certainly apparent than in the free dance, the final stage of dance competition at the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships in Göteborg, Sweden. Viewers practically need a calculator and a copy of the ISU rulebook in order to distinguish the top teams, as fractions of points become the difference between placements.

With a margin of 4.14 points, Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder won their first world medal –- a gold. After three consecutive years of being within a few points of the podium, the French champions likely considered their victory a blowout. However, for comparison’s sake, the men’s event was also a blowout, but in that discipline, champion Jeff Buttle’s margin was over three times as large. Scores tend to be much closer in ice dance: the top five teams all broke 200 points, often considered a benchmark for excellence in the dance event.

“We really gave our best,” Delobel said. “We had so much pressure, so it was not easy, but I think we performed well. It was the last of the season, and maybe the best one.”

Delobel & Schoenfelder’s free dance to music from The Piano is all about telling a story. In fact, taking a cue from the movie’s plot, they communicate with the audience and judges through sign language as they dance. This creative addition, along with their maturity and connection, likely gave them the edge, as they won the PCS battle with 51.39. Their element levels were solid –- all Level 4s, save for a Level 3 on the spin –- and their lowest GOEs were just two 0s with the majority +2s. Their free dance score of 104.96 was the second highest of the season -– but only for about 15 minutes. Although they captured the title, Delobel & Schoenfelder ultimately lost the free dance to Canada’s Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir.

Leaping from the junior world podium to the senior world podium in two years is virtually unheard of, especially in ice dance, but that is exactly what Virtue & Moir did, winning the silver medal this week with a total score of 208.80. Their emotional program to music from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg bested Delobel & Schoenfelder’s free dance mark by .28, scoring 105.28. When the rising stars from Canada saw their marks, their surprise and delight was obvious.

“We are just thrilled, just can’t be more excited,” Virtue said.

“What a great week for us!” Moir added. “We are lucky to have each other … and love what we are doing.”

The judges could not deny their technical content, giving mostly +2 and +3 GOEs to their elements, totaling a TES score of 54.69, the highest of the competition. Like Delobel & Schoenfelder, they also received a Level 4 on all elements but one. While opinions varied slightly on their PCS score, with one judge giving them a 6.75 on Linking Footwork/Movement and another rating them a 9.50 on Interpretation/Timing, the majority of components marks fell between 7.75 and 8.50.

Despite a somewhat tentative free dance to “Night on Bald Mountain” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that only ranked fifth of the night, Russian champions Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski hung on for the bronze medal, with a total score of 203.26.

“We had hoped to fight for a medal, but it was more like a dream,” Khokhlova said after the results were official. “It was enough for the bronze, which is great!”

Without the reckless abandon that usually characterizes this dance, Khokhlova & Novitski lost some of the edge that helped them defeat Delobel & Schoenfelder’s free dance in the fall. The bronze medalists jumped five places from last year, and besides a Level 3 circular step sequence that earned a slight negative overall GOE because of Novitski’s stumbling, they scored a majority of +2s. Although their PCS marks were in the 8s and rate fourth best, their TES was only sixth best, meaning that they “only” scored 99.29 in the free dance. When breaking 100 in the FD is usually a requirement to claim a medal, the Russians were lucky that their lead going into the free dance helped them stay on the podium.

Heading into this competition, a medal seemed almost a sure bet for U.S. champions Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto. Unfortunately, the Americans were reminded that nothing in sport is certain. In an inspired performance, Belbin & Agosto nearly managed to overcome a fall in the compulsory dance to sneak onto the podium, but the bronze medal eluded them by only .26 points.

“It’s been an interesting week,” Agosto said. “I’m not going to lie, it was pretty difficult to come back after the fall. It (the fall) was shocking.”

Skating last and given the task of following the magical performance of training mates Virtue & Moir, Belbin & Agosto proved that they are seasoned competitors and gave their free dance to music by Chopin everything that they had. With 53.75 in TES and 49.54 in PCS, their free dance score of 103.29 was the third-best mark of the night. Three judges thought that they were worthy of breaking the 9.00 barrier in some of the components, but it was not enough to continue their streak of world medals that existed for three seasons.

“This competition was a big mind game for us,” Belbin said. “It was good for [us] to get out a good performance.”

Italian champions Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali were stuck near the bottom of the top ten at the World Championships for four years, finishing ninth in 2004, 2005, and 2007, and eighth in 2006. This year, things were different. With a surge of momentum this season and three strong performances, they leapt to fifth place this year, and they were the final team to break 200 points, scoring 201.91 overall. Their fourth-place free dance, with 101.21 points, was the highest-placing dance to earn Level 4 on all elements. They received no negative GOEs and a majority of +2s, and their TES score of 53.84 was actually the second highest in the event.

“We knew that we have high levels,” Scali said, “so we have tried to work a lot on the interpretation.”

Their interpretation of “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl featured Faiella representing a butterfly and helped them secure the high PCS score that has eluded them in the past.

Last year, Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White finished seventh in their debut at the senior World Championships; this year, they moved up one place. Three of the elements in their sixth-place free dance were given level three –- the spin and both step sequences. They made up the difference in GOE, though, earning primarily +1s and +2s en route to a TES score of 51.19, the fifth-best of the night. With strong components in the 7.00-8.00 range, Davis & White’s free dance to “Eleanor Rigby” and “Eleanor’s Dream” was worth 96.03 points.

“It was definitely our best free skate this year,” White said. “It’s great to do it.”

Dropping a spot to seventh place in the free dance and overall were France’s Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat. It was a close battle for sixth place, and their total score of 190.51 was less than a point behind Davis & White. With only one level three element, the French team had a higher base value than the Americans, but their GOEs were almost all +1s. With 95.02 points, their innovative free dance was only 1.01 behind Davis & White. Near the end of the dance, Bourzat missed one of Pechalat’s sleeves because it was torn, resulting in a few awkward moments during their “Insanity”-themed choreography, but overall they gave a good performance.

“Fabian is injured, so he has to rest three weeks,” Pechalat said, “and then we’ll do some shows with our friends. After that, we’re looking forward to the next season and the next World Championships.”

Although they may not have completely won over the judges, British champions Sinead & John Kerr certainly won the crowd. Their alien-inspired dance to “Gravity of Love” by Enigma was creative and exciting, and they took the audience with them on their exploration of a new planet.

“I felt the program went really well,” Sinead said. “I felt that the crowd really got behind it and really helped. We need to concentrate on our elements, but we also want to express the program as much as we can.”

With all positive GOEs besides eight base marks, the Kerrs performed this dance better than they have all season. Their peak at worlds resulted in a solid free dance score of 93.60, ranking them eighth in the free dance and overall. Because of their strong effort, Great Britain will send two dance teams to the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles.

Another sibling team placed just behind the Kerrs. Alexandra & Roman Zaretski also earned two places for Israel in next year’s World Championships. Skating to “Let My People Go” and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the Zaretskis earned primarily base marks and +1s for GOEs, and most of their components marks fell between 6.50 and 7.25. Although their free dance score of 88.60 was ranked tenth, the Israelis held on to ninth overall.

Italians Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte’s emotional free dance to La Traviata was not without problems, but the young Italian team performed with maturity beyond their years and drew the crowd into their dance. Despite two deductions –- one for Cappellini’s freak stumble on transition steps and one for an extended lift — Cappellini & Lanotte received a majority of +1s for GOEs. Like their teammates, Faiella & Scali, they also received all Level 4s for their elements. Their ninth-place free dance meant that they finished in 10th overall, just .18 behind the Zaretskis.

In an event that came down to the numbers, once the final results were posted, a few more calculations had to be made. Based on the placements in Göteborg, only France and the United States will send three teams to Los Angeles next year. Although they each had a team on the podium, both Russia and Canada lost a spot based on the placement of their second team, so they will send two teams next time around. Italy will retain two entries, while Great Britain and Israel will both add a second berth.