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Classic look could lift Belbin-Agosto to 1st title

By Nancy Armour Published: March 16, 2008
Classical music has never been Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's thing.

The ice dancers are, after all, hip and energetic 20-somethings, and they like music that reflects their personalities. Classical music … doesn't.

"We always felt classical music didn't suit our style, didn't highlight our strengths,” Belbin said. "If anything, it would highlight our weaknesses.”

But the Americans have come around this season. And it just might be the thing that wins them their first title at the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin Tuesday in Goteburg, Sweden.

Already one of the favorites, Belbin and Agosto's chances of winning the United States' first world dance title got better Wednesday when Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the European and Grand Prix champions, withdrew after he aggravated a knee injury.

"This is the most prepared we've ever been heading in to any world championships. And it's also the best year we've felt as far our package goes, with our programs,” Belbin said. "We have, in our opinion, a great shot at the gold medal, moreso than any year in the past. We're really looking forward to capitalizing on all the preparation that we've put in to this event.”

Belbin and Agosto are the most successful dance team the United States has ever had, and the Olympic silver medalists seem to break new ground every season. But when coach Igor Shpilband suggested they consider a classical piece for this year's free dance, they worried it might be too much of a stretch.

They turned down some Bach he suggested. When he came back with Chopin, though, they agreed to try it, and the flowing, romantic program has turned out to be the perfect showcase for their skills. It highlights their chemistry, expression and speed, their traditional strengths. But it's also allowed them to show a maturity and depth of emotion that they didn't have three or four years ago.

"(Shpilband) felt if we could do a really good job with this style, it would really help our growth,” Belbin said. "There's no way to be a top team and say, `I shouldn't do this style because it will show my weaknesses.' You should have no weaknesses. So I think in the end, it was so beneficial for us to challenge ourselves with this program. To learn how to skate strong and yet soft. To do more subtle facial expressions and choreography and still show a very competitive, strong program.”

Crowds have loved it — they got a standing ovation at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January — and judges have been impressed, too. In addition to winning the free dance portion of the competition at both of their Grand Prix events, Belbin and Agosto won it by more than six points at the U.S. championships.

The only time they finished second was at the Grand Prix final, where their opening serpentine lift failed to earn the highest marks for difficulty.

The couple has also been putting in extra work on their compulsories, their weakest area. They skipped last month's Four Continents championships in South Korea so Belbin could rest her knee, which she'd injured before the holidays, and the break gave them time to polish every part of their performances.

They'll need it. While the competition for gold won't be quite as stiff without Domnina and Shabalin, Belbin and Agosto still have to contend with France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, last year's European champions.

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