Stepping out of the ballroom proved successful for the Canadian ice dancing team of Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.
The pair thrilled a hometown crowd and impressed the judges for the top score in the rhythm program during the opening day of the dance competition at the Skate Canada International figuring skating event Friday.
“For this we really wanted to make sure our program was a little bit more on the urban side,” said Gilles, who was born in the U.S. but has a Canadian mother and grandmother. “We felt we were doing a little bit more of the ballroom style. We really needed to change that up.”
The fast-paced performance to Elton John music earned a season-best 85.65 points.
“It’s been a scramble of a few weeks really trying to nail everything down and get it as smooth as possible,” said Poirier, of Ottawa. “We knew this was going to be our first performance in front of a live crowd in almost two years.
“What we really tried to do was manage our energy with the energy of the crowd behind us. I think we accomplished that really well. We were able to stay focused and deliver a really strong performance.”
Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri were second with 78.82 points while Spain’s Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz were third with 76.97.
Canadians Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha placed sixth with 71.87 points while Haley Sales and Nikolas Warmsteeker were eighth with 60.75.
Earlier, Keegan Messing shook off some nerves to post the best Canadian result in the men’s short program, finishing third.
“It’s a joy to be back on the Grand Prix circuit but boy did I forget about the pressure that comes with it,” said Messing, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but whose mother is from Edmonton. “Just to go out there to put down a clean skate. I was very thankful of that.
“I’m ready to push for the long (program) tomorrow.”
Organizers say about 600 tickets were sold for Friday’s competition at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre at the University of British Columbia.
Messing, competing in his first event of the season, was awarded a score of 93.28 points.
American Nathan Chen finished first with 106.72 points while countryman Jason Brown was second with 94.00.
Conrad Orzel of Toronto was ninth with 73.19 points while Roman Sadovsky, also of Toronto, was 10th with 72.94.
Chen, the three-time reigning world champion, is looking to overcome a third-place finish at last week’s Skate America in Las Vegas.
“Any time, both in practice and competition, when you don’t do well, I want immediately to get another opportunity to try,” said Chen. “I don’t know if it’s going to be successful or but I want that next opportunity.
“I’m thrilled I have this opportunity to try this again rather than wait three or four weeks.”
Messing, who finished third at the Canadian figure skating championships the last two years it was held, said the skaters could feel the energy of having people in the building.
“Having the crowd was incredible,” he said. “I almost forgot what it was like to skate with a crowd.
“They were pumping me up and getting me going. I felt like my feet were floating on the ice tonight.”
Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro were top Canadians, placing fourth, after the short program in the pairs competition with a score of 66.43 points. Canadians Vanessa James and Eric Radford were fifth with 65.02 points while Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland were seventh in the eight-pair field with 57.25 points.
The Chinese team of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han led with 78.94 points. Russia’s Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin were second with 69.46 points followed by Germany’s Minerva Fabinne Hase and Noland Seegert with 67.93.
Moore-Towers, from St. Catharines, Ont., said the pair will probably retire after the Olympics, making each competition bittersweet.
“We are trying to soak in every moment of skating with a crowd we can,” said Moore-Towers. “We were really attacking it we wanted it so badly. We needed to be a little bit more precise.”
Marinaro, from Sarina, Ont., said the pair have shut out media focus on James and Radford and focused on themselves.
“At the beginning of the year we gave them a little bit too much of our thought, a little bit too much of our attention,” he said. “Very quickly we realized that wasn’t a pass to success for us.
“At this point we’ve come to terms with where we are at and are just focusing solely on ourselves to give ourselves the best opportunity, we can to beat them.
“We definitely want to beat them.”
James said the pair continue to be on a learning curve.
Radford, a two-time world champion and three-time Olympic medallist from Balmertown, Ont., announced in April he was coming out of retirement to partner with James, who was born in Toronto but previously competed for France.
“We’re learning we still need mileage, we still need time and competition,” said James. “Everything is coming together but we still need time together in competition.
“We’re learning a lot about each other, how each other reacts in competition, what changes a little bit when we are under stress. Hopefully with some time we will get everything perfected for when it really counts.”
Russian skaters swept the top three spots in the women’s short program.
Kamila Valieva had the top score of 84.19, followed by Elizaveta Tuktamysheva with 81.24 and Alena Kostornaia with 75.58
Madeline Schizas of Oakville, Ont., was the top Canadian finishing ninth with 62.61 points. Emily Bausback of Vancouver was 10 with 59.53 points while Alison Schumacher of Tecumseh, Ont., was 11 with 55.47.