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Monday, February 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Two to tangle: Chaos reigns in flub-filled ice dance competition

Seattle Times staff columnist

TURIN, Italy — Ice dance, its practitioners will tell you, is an art form that mirrors every facet of the miracle of a man and a woman coming together to become one.

The courtship. The union. The poetic symmetry.

The complete and unmitigated contempt when your partner drops you like a sack of dog chow in front of half a billion people at the Olympics.

Just ask Barbara Fusar Poli of Italy, the designated dumpee Sunday night at the Palavela. She and partner Maurizio Margaglio, medal contenders skating before 6,095 flag-waving, hometown fans, were nearing the end of a stellar routine in the original dance when sequins became tangled and — bonk — down she went.

A frame-by-frame view is quite revealing: When Fusar Poli starts to fall, she loops her arm around her partner's neck, pulling him downward, perhaps to break her fall — or perhaps with clear malice and forethought, as if to say: If I'm going down, dude, you're coming with me.

Seconds later, the Italians, bronze medalists in Salt Lake City, scrambled to their feet, finished their routine and stood at center ice, preparing to paste on those cheesecake smiles and bow to the crowd.

Except Barbara wasn't quite ready to make happy yet. She was glowering at Maurizio with that special look reserved for guys who forget anniversaries, back the car over mothers-in-law, or misplace the kids at the airport.

For what seemed like an eternity, she stood there at center ice, glowering first at the ground, then at him, her eyes boring holes into his skull and out the other side.

Moments later, the traditional kiss-and-cry area was morphed to a spit-and-snit zone as he looked to the scoreboard to see their score sink from first place to seventh. She refused to look at him, staring in the opposite direction at the floor.

The crowd, watching all this on a mega-screen, did a collective pucker and waited for the first blows.

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Yikes. Ever hear of the Olympic truce, kids?

The only good news for these two was that they were far from alone in flubbing Sunday's original dance program, in which America's Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who neither fell down nor wound up in the couples-counseling penalty box, vaulted from sixth to second — mostly over the bodies of fallen competitors.

Like those of Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, the other top Italian pair. They, too, had cha-cha-samba'd their way to a near-perfect routine when the rhinestones came unriveted.

We go to the replay: In this instance, Faiella, perhaps slipping on a spot of Vaseline dropped by one of the dozens of men with bare chests and John Tesh haircuts on the ice before her, falls — and proceeds to tackle her partner from behind, dragging him to the ground like an offensive lineman beat on a pass rush.

Or consider Canada's Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, who were doing one of those holy-cow moves where he holds her by the knee and she clings to his arm as he swings her wildly around his body like a discus when, inexplicably, they both broke the clasp. She fell to the ice with a splat audible in the cheap seats, landing on a hip and proving barely able to stand.

Her partner carried her out of the building.

It was carnage at a level not seen in the Palavela at any other time in the Olympics — which is saying something, given that they race short track on the same ice.

You're not supposed to fall in ice dance. It's supposed to be less about athleticism than its evil cousin, figure skating — a fact that has given rise to the sport's enduring bad rap: Ice dancers are skaters who can't land a jump.

That's never been completely true and certainly isn't now, as evidenced by Belbin and Agosto, who are supposed to make skeptical Americans suddenly care about this Vegas floor show masquerading as sport.

Most people likely have heard by now that Belbin, thanks to a literal emergency act of Congress (motto: New Orleans can wait), was able to legally emigrate from Canada to the U.S. just in time to compete in the Olympics.

But she apparently left in such a hurry that she had no time to bring much clothing along.

Like most of the female ice dancers, Belbin, who has the looks of a runway model, skates the saucy "Latin combination" approximately 57 percent naked. Ice dancing — and we're not going thumbs-up or thumbs-down on this, just passing it along — involves a lot of bare skin. And make no mistake: It's not that faux-flesh-colored sheer fabric that the figure skaters wear. It's the real thing, goose bumps and all.

Much already has been made about the eccentric attire of ice dancers, so we're not going there, except to point out that the new costume hue of choice — particularly among the American cha-cha artistes — is traffic-cone orange.

Ice-dancing insiders say this is to attract the attention of judges. Which is understandable, because clearly, without those flaming, Coast-Guard-orange bodices, most of these toned, half-naked, gyrating female skaters probably would be completely overlooked by male judges fascinated by the symmetry of the Olympic rings painted on the wall across the way.

We'll find out for sure tonight, when the event final, the free dance, will tie together all the loose ends:

Will the leaders, Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia, avoid that killer Vaseline spot?

Will Belbin and Agosto bare enough of their souls — or perhaps their tushies — to grab a medal for the U.S.?

Will the International Olympic Committee need to page Dr. Phil to the kiss-and-cry to talk down the Italians?

Get ready to rumba.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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