By Alessandra Prentice
(Reuters) - Reigning Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have worked with circus acrobats and ballroom dancers to boost their title defence at February's Sochi Games in a sport they believe has evolved significantly in the past four years.
Competition promises to be stiff at February's Games where long-term American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White will do their utmost to relieve the Canadians of their Olympic crown, having already reclaimed the ice dance title at the figure skating world championships last year.
Virtue and Moir say they have stepped up their game, working on lifts with performers from Cirque Du Soleil, known for their elaborate high-wire shows, and consulting with ballroom aficionados to perfect their frame and dance positions.
"The rules are very different ... we hope that the sport has evolved enough that it's moving forward and that you need to bring a different brand of skating to win," Moir told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The pair, who have skated together since 1997, ended 34 years of European domination four years ago when they won the Olympic ice dance gold medal in Vancouver with a stirring performance to Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Since then they have worked on beefing up their stripped-down, classical style to ensure they retain their place at the top of the Olympic podium next month.
"The classical music, the pure skating lines, the elegant movements - those are things that have come naturally to us over the course of our careers. We've taken that theme and taken it to a new level with added power and strength and drama," Virtue said.
Virtue and Moir and Davis and White have utterly dominated the ice dance scene over the last four years providing a massive roadblock for anyone trying to skate their way to the top.
The Canadian duo have enjoyed huge success in particular, winning medals at six successive world championships dating back to 2008, including two golds, three silvers and one bronze in addition to their Olympic laurels.
However the Americans, who share a coach and practice rink in Detroit with Virtue and Moir, have had the upper hand at the latest round of competitions, finishing in first place at the Grand Prix finals, Four Continents and the latest world championships in March.
Virtue and Moir said they had progressively honed their performances over the past season and are proud of the programme they will present in Sochi next month.
"It's been a really lovely programme to develop over the course of the season and the nuances are starting to come to life, the contrasts between the various seasons and the different changes of music," Virtue said.
"We want to show different sides to ourselves, we want to challenge ourselves and not ... keep putting out the same material. This year is special."
(Additional reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)