Helsinki, Finland

What has every rabid dance fan been waiting for this season? The ultimate showdown between six different teams that boast world and/or Grand Prix Final medals? Well, yes. But something else: the Finnstep! In Finland, no less!

The 2009 European Championships in Helsinki mark the first large-scale international Finnstep competition. Such an endearing and difficult dance is bound to bring some excitement to the compulsory dance event. Who will be able to handle the pressure of mastering a new dance and then skating two more programs? Will the teams who skated the Finnstep at their national championships have an advantage over the teams that had to settle for the Paso Doble or Viennese Waltz? Will Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin defend their title or will another team be crowned the best in European ice dance? These questions answered — and more — this week at the European Championships!

Domnina & Shabalin may have edged out Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto for the gold medal at Cup of China this season, but they fell to second twice in very important races. First, they were beaten at Cup of Russia by Russian teammates Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, and then they lost the Grand Prix Final title to world champions Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder by more than three points. In what was to be their comeback season after they missed the 2008 World Championships due to injury — and in a pre-Olympic year — Domnina & Shabalin have not looked completely solid. Shabalin is said to still be in recovery mode, and they do not look as sharp as they have in the past. They recently missed the Russian Championships, stating they needed time to rest and train in Pennsylvania.

Khokhlova & Novitski easily won their second Russian title, but their season has also been a mix of victories and losses. Their win over Domnina & Shabalin in an international event in Russia was critical, but they did have to settle for bronze, well behind them, at Cup of China. In mid-December, Khokhlova & Novitski withdrew from the Grand Prix Final, and while they are getting good marks for their programs, they are not generating the same volume of praise that they did last season. However, they do have one advantage: the Finnstep. (The Finnstep!) With a score of 38.09, they won that event at the Russian Championships and have had plenty of time to train it. In Tuesday’s compulsory event, the portion where Khokhlova & Novitski have never beaten Domnina & Shabalin, they will find out if this experience has made a difference. Ekaterina Rubleva & Ivan Shefer round out the Russian team, after finishing second at the Russian Championships. They were 13 th in Europe last year.

British champions Sinead Kerr & John Kerr are enjoying their most successful season yet. After breaking the top 10 for the first time at the 2008 World Championships, they arrived in the 2008-09 season with impressive programs that yielded them bronze medals at both Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard. After finishing fifth at the 2007 European Championships, the Kerrs dropped to sixth last year. They have a great chance to regain a place in the top five in 2009 and should even challenge for the podium. British teammates Christina Chitwood & Mark Hanretty will also be in Helsinki at their first European Championships. They qualified to skate at the European Championships based on their results in the autumn, but only finished fourth last week at the British Championships. The British teams also skated the Finnstep (The Finnstep!) at their national championships.

Another team that experienced a huge upswing in 2008 is Federica Faiella & Massimo Scali of Italy. Fourth at the 2008 European Championships, fifth at the World Championships, second at Trophée Eric Bompard, and first at NHK Trophy, they finally qualified for their first Grand Prix Final in December, where they placed fourth. They are probably expected to fight for the bronze medal, but if the top Russian teams falter, Faiella & Scali’s high-level elements could help them vault even higher.

Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte may be the second Italian team, but they are not just sitting around and waiting while Faiella & Scali have their turn. They posted solid scores at the Italian Championships behind Faiella & Scali and were fourth at both of their Grand Prix events this season. Cappellini & Lanotte were ranked seventh at the 2008 European Championships. Isabella Pajardi & Stefano Caruso, who won bronze at the Italian Championships, will be Italy’s third entry.

With the two-time European champions and reigning world champions Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder out because Delobel required shoulder surgery, France’s new first team is poised to fight for a spot on the podium. Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat bounced back after a rough competition at Skate Canada to finish a close second at NHK Trophy, where they actually won both the original and free dances. They have a great shot at moving up from 2008’s fifth-place European ranking. Pechalat & Bourzat won their first French national title in late December, but France was not one of the countries that gave its dancers an advance attempt at the Finnstep. In fact, the competition at the French Championships did not include a compulsory dance at all.

Pechalat & Bourzat will be joined by French teammates Pernelle Carron & Mathieu Jost, who were second to them at the national championships. Carron & Jost finished fifth at both of their Grand Prix assignments this season and were ninth at last year’s European Championships. Terra Findlay & Benoit Richaud earned their ticket to Helsinki at a skate-off early this month against Zoe Blanc & Pierre-Loup Bouquet. Findlay & Richaud won a bronze medal on the Junior Grand Prix this fall in their second season as a team.

Other contenders for the top ten include veterans Kristin Fraser & Igor Lukanin of Azerbaijan, competing in their eighth European Championship in nine years. Their best result was seventh in 2007. Israel’s Alexandra Zaretski & Roman Zaretski will compete at the European Championships for the fourth consecutive year. They were eighth in 2008, when they finished in the top ten for the first time. 2009 will be the third trip to this event for Katherine Copely & Deividas Stagniunas of Lithuania. After finishing 18 th in 2007 and 12 th in the 2008, they are on the rise. It is also the third trip for Ukrainians Anna Zadorozhniuk & Sergei Verbillo, who were 10 th in 2007 and 11 th in 2008.

The new pairing of Nora Hoffman & Maxim Zavozin could also figure into the top ten, but it is difficult to say. After an autumn plagued by illness and injury, they finally made their competitive debut at the Hungarian Championships, but have yet to test the international waters.

Most expect the top two spots to be occupied by the Russian teams of Domnina & Shabalin and Khokhlova & Novitski, but this season, the duel can go either way. If both teams skate at their abilities, it will be difficult for the other teams to challenge them; but if either stumbles, numerous teams are ready to step up. The rankings here will give the teams an idea of what each of them needs to do to be ready for the World Championships in March.