In a sport increasingly dominated by gravity-defying jumps and spins, a growing number of Japanese fans are turning their attention to steps, lifts and twizzles.

At March’s world championships in Saitama and this week’s World Team Trophy event at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, the ice dance competition — despite often early scheduling — has been a massive draw for Japan’s notoriously dedicated figure skating fans, who are eager for a chance to watch former men’s singles world No. 1 Daisuke Takahashi perform with “KanaDai” partner Kana Muramoto.

To some, it’s an opportunity even more precious than getting to see recent Olympic medalists Shoma Uno or Kaori Sakamoto.

“Japanese fans and audience(s), who follow him for many years, believe (in) his talent and support him,” Takahashi’s Russian coach Marina Zoueva said at Saitama Super Arena on March 25. “(They) love the skating, love the sport, (they) understand and love the art. Because (Takahashi’s skating) was not just a sport, it was real art.”

Takahashi, who in 2007 became the first male Asian skater to take silver in the world championships at the same Tokyo venue, already boasts one of Japanese skating’s most glittering careers, including the country’s first Olympic men’s singles medal at Vancouver 2010 and gold at that year’s world championships in Turin, Italy.

After retiring from competition in 2014, he returned to the ice in 2018 and finished an inspiring second at the national championships, only to later announce that 2019 would be his last year as a singles skater before switching to ice dance.

Takahashi and Muramoto, who previously paired with Chris Reed between 2015 and 2018, have steadily improved — despite the start of their partnership coinciding with the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, limiting their ability to train and compete.

“At the start I struggled with the technical and performance aspects,” Takahashi said of his early days with Muramoto before they relocated their training base to Florida. “Now I’m slowly improving on the technical side.”

Those improvements have been reflected by their results: After finishing third at the 2020 NHK Trophy and earning silver medals in two straight national championships, KanaDai placed second at the 2022 Four Continents, winning the national title in December and improving from 16th at last year’s world championships to 11th in 2023.

“(He’s shown) more self-confidence and a lot more stability in the elements,” Zoueva said. “Every year we have a new element. We don’t keep any lifts. We change, they improve. Finally, it (turns into) a very stable and strong performance.”

A boistrous crowd showed up to support Daisuke Takahashi and Kana Muramoto during the World Team Trophy on Thursday afternoon. | KYODO
A boisterous crowd showed up to support Daisuke Takahashi and Kana Muramoto during the World Team Trophy on Thursday afternoon. | KYODO

In Thursday’s World Team Trophy opener, Takahashi and Muramoto took fourth place in the rhythm dance, scoring 78.38 with their “Conga Is Gonna Get You” program and securing nine points for Team Japan in front of a boisterous crowd that one figure skating official speaking to Tokyo Sports dubbed “the KanaDai effect.”

“Just as our strength was starting to flag in the second half, the cheers from the crowd gave us power and thanks to them we were able to skate through to the end,” Muramoto said.

One day later, their free dance to “Phantom of the Opera” — the same music Takahashi set his long program to in the 2006-07 season — drew rapturous applause, with the pair scoring a personal-best 116.63 points.

At 37 years old — an age well beyond the point at which most skaters have transitioned to ice shows or coaching — Takahashi seems to have found a second wind, embracing a form of skating that rewards his knack for showmanship and artistry.

That in turn has brought newfound attention to a discipline that has emphatically embraced its roots in ballroom dancing, even as the singles and pairs disciplines have steered toward an increased emphasis on technical ability.

“To see a skater like Daisuke, who has always been known throughout his career as a performer, it’s so nice to see that even he can see what the magic of ice dance is,” Canadian ice dancer Paul Poirrier said. “It’s something we’ve known our whole lives, and I think people in our ice dance world know (too).

“I think the more people who are introduced to ice dance and can really see the magic of it, the happier we are.”

While Takahashi is still taking his career one season at a time — he would be just short of 40 years old at the 2026 Winter Games in Milan-Cortina — Zoueva already sees the influence his conversion is having on Japanese skating, even as the country holds world titles in the men’s singles, women’s singles and pairs disciplines.

“There are lots of new young teams, more coaches ... and the federation is starting to focus more on ice dance,” Zoueva said. “The ice dance (community) is growing in Japan.

“Right now in the world, Japan is the strongest team, and that includes ice dance. It just needs a little more time to make them champions. The top (ice dance teams), they skate more than 10 years (together). Three years is not enough time.”