Figure skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin set pace

By Pritha Sarkar

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin passionately swayed to the beats of Tango Romantica on Friday to take the lead in possibly the last compulsory dance at the Olympics.

While skaters were divided about the merits of the snooze-inducing compulsory dance, which faces the axe as it is the least popular of all figure skating events, no one could grumble about the way the Russian world champions performed with their deft footwork and precise holds to score 43.76 points.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir raised temperatures, and decibel levels, at the Pacific Coliseum with their seductive hip action to lie second with 42.74, while Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White finished third with 41.47.

With only 6.74 points separating the top eight couples in the three-part competition, the rankings could easily change under the accumulative-points scoring system following Sunday's original dance.

While officials plan to ditch the compulsory dance as it has always been deemed as the one figure skating event which sends fans to sleep, since it does not contain any wow factor elements such as lifts, competitors were divided on the dance's merit.

"I'm a big fan of cutting it out," Moir said.

Shabalin disagreed.

"The difference between free and original dance is time," he said. "But in the compulsory dance everyone shows the class of their skating in the same steps. I think it's a bad idea (to ditch it)."

VARIOUS TRICKS

With everyone carving the same standardized S shaped-steps into the ice and with the pre-determined music starting to sound like a lullaby as it was played over and over again, the couples tried various tricks to keep fans and judges awake.

Those lacking the elements to score highly in the competition -- where skating skills, timing, performance and interpretation are evaluated -- tried to snatch the spotlight with an array of garish pink and orange outfits.

Others such as former world champion Isabelle Delobel acted as if she was getting ready for a romantic evening out by combing her hair and putting on make-up while her partner Olivier Schoenfelder slipped into his jacket before the music started to blare out of the loudspeakers.

"We tried to do something different before the dance and not just do the dance," said Delobel, who earned 37.99 to lie sixth.

Domnina took center stage wearing a back-to-front red evening jacket, complete with a sparkling necklace stitched on to the plunging neckline of the outfit, but it was her and Shabalin's dazzling footwork that impressed the judges.

Virtue and Moir have been carrying the expectation of 34 million Canadians on their shoulders and responded to all the hype by burning a hole into the ice with their steamy tango.

The cheering crowd clapped throughout the performance which they ended with a passionate smooch.

"There was a couple of moments where we could barely hear the music. I think it's so great to hear the crowd pushing us through the final mile," said Moir.

"This is our Olympic Games and we're here to do well."

(Additional reporting by Sonia Oxley; editing by Ed Osmond)