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World champs Domnina-Shabalin lead ice dance

Scrapping the compulsories is one idea Olympic ice dancers won't step around.

Three of the top four couples in Friday night's compulsory dance supported eliminating the first of three parts of the event. Only Russia's world champions, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, spoke in favor of keeping compulsories.

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Judging by how they flowed through the tango romantica and grabbed a 1.02-point lead over Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who can blame them for supporting what some call a monotonous exercise to repetitive music.

"I think that's a bad idea," Shabalin said.

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But it's one that's gaining momentum.

"I'm a big fan of cutting out the compulsory dance," Moir said. "I feel like our dance, our competition, our event is moving in a very positive direction with the new (judging) system ... and we don't think the compulsory dance has really adjusted in the past 15 years."

Both American couples, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, also have had enough of compulsories, considered a foundation of the sport - no matter how dull they might be.

"If this is the last time we perform compulsory dances, awesome," Belbin said. "That would be great. Good riddance."

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The Russians' tango romantica earned 43.76 points for a highly expressive program that also gave them high marks for interpretation.

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.

Davis and White, winners of the last two U.S. championships, were third with 41.47 points, followed by 2006 Olympic silver medalists Belbin and Agosto.

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.

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"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 heat up 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.

Domnina and Shabalin met with members of Canada's Four Host First Nations after they arrived Monday. The group had also expressed concerns about the Russians' OD, but the meeting went so well the group even gave the ice dancers traditional blankets, which the couple wore after their performance Friday night.

And not just because the red, black and white pattern matched their outfits.

"They said it should cover our hearts and keep us from any bad things, so we were very pleased with that," Shabalin said. "We hope we will become friends, so that's why we wore them today. We are open, we are open to friendship."

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 ... 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. And even happier they likely won't ever do another compulsory dance.

"I'd love to be able to just skate," Belbin said.

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.

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