Five-ring Circus

Ice, Ice Dancers

The twizzle, the kickpants, the loincloths.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Also enjoy this Magnum Photos gallery on ice skating.

Russia’s Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin 

Thumbs across the nation got a good workout last night: MSNBC featured the U.S.-Canada hockey match—a “tremendously tremendous” contest, one play-by-play man raved—and NBC aired ice dancing, and you could only dream that CNBC might have aired both at once in split screen. The U.S. prevailed at the hockey rink, but Canadian fans weathered this humbling defeat with class, applying the salve of Molson to their psychic wounds as many an NBC announcer opined. Bob Costas was alone, I think, in putting a word in for Labatt Blue.

Meanwhile, we were all meant to grow intoxicated with the ballroom pomp of the ice dancers’ original-dance programs. NBC had promoted the broadcast with promos pumping Lady Gaga and wooing fans of Dancing With the Stars, and though this sell was appropriate to the sport’s tone, it did nothing to advance the idea that we should take the thing seriously. All Olympics athletes are entertainers, but ice dancers, with their big grins and broad gestures, seem so indebted to a hammy vaudeville tradition that it’s difficult to give them proper respect. Also, it’s a challenge not to giggle at a sport that so frequently obliges analysts to use the word twizzle.

The theme of Sunday night’s program was folk dancing. Leading off, the French team of Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder presented a cancan opener. Delobel wore a pink-trimmed choker, a strapless merry widow, and a pair of frilly pink kickpants that she was extraordinarily intent on airing out. All in all, she resembled a Pigalle strumpet out of a Postimpressionist painting, thus leaving us to conclude that Schoenfelder, in his newsboy cap and pink cravat, was her procurer.

Then came the brother-sister team of Sinead and John Kerr, representing Great Britain, who did a Western number. He sported a straw hat, she Daisy Dukes and an acre of midriff. I began to think that the scoring system favored teams who looked just a bit sleazy—an idea cemented on seeing the Old West routine of France’s Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat. It is well worth the effort of clicking through NBC’s rate-the-costumes slide show to get a load of her fringed yellow underwear and his rawhide chaps.

But before Péchalat and Bourzat could mosey over to the frontier saloon, we had to bear witness to the horrendously horrendous stylings of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. Wearing their “Aboriginal-inspired” costumes in previous competitions, the Russian duo generated quite a bit of controversy. In response, Domnina and Shabalin have toned things down—foregoing tribal face paint, for instance, and trusting that their red loincloths, green palm fronds, and pendulous white belts will suffice to make a strong impression. Up in the booth, Tom Hammond had a question for Tracy Wilson about the get-ups: “Aside from looking ridiculous, does it affect the judges?” That’d be a no, with Domnina and Shabalin receiving high marks. Their Aboriginal-ish music sounded like a tape of Bobby McFerrin trying to fight his way out of a didgeridoo. Or perhaps Na’vi beat-boxing.

Soon the news came into the booth that Canada’s hockey team had fallen. Wilson, who hails from Quebec, predicted that the defeat would occasion a lot of “navel-gazing” among her compatriots. “Navel-gazing?” queried Hammond. I understood his tone to indicate polite skepticism, as if he found the term either imprecise or excessive. Wilson, however, interpreted the remark as a request for clarification and elaborated accordingly: “A lotta deep, deep searching aboot the meaning of your existence.”

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