Dan (Pieter) Cutcher and Lynette Mynatt waltz across the ice, conjuring up images of Astaire and Rogers with blades.
Their movements seem so effortless that the casual observer is tempted to don skates, grab a partner and tango across the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center in Newbury Park.
Mynatt, 41, and Cutcher, in his 50s, both residents of Ventura County, have each earned gold medals in ice dancing from the U. S. Figure Skating Assn.--she in 1976 and he in 1989.
Ice dancing, which combines ballroom dancing and figure skating, originated in Europe more than 100 years ago. But it wasn't until the sport was included in the 1976 Olympics that it found worldwide recognition.
Although they use the same jumps and spins as figure skaters, ice dancers always skate in pairs and are required to dance to ballroom rhythms.
To earn their gold medals, which are awarded based on individual achievement and not as part of a competition against other skaters, Mynatt and Cutcher had to perform two dozen compulsory set dances before a panel of judges from the skating association.
Cutcher almost didn't make it to his gold-medal trial.
"Five days before I was to skate for my gold medal, Lynette had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery," he said. Although he found a substitute partner, he was held up in getting to the arena when it was time to do the required Viennese waltz. "I was so late to the test the judges had already started to leave. I almost didn't even compete that day." Nevertheless, he passed on the first try.
The dances that Cutcher and Mynatt perform are comparable to those skated in national competitions, but there are no cheering crowds and the rewards for their efforts are individual-merit medals, not national or international titles.
"You are skating at the same level of competency as any competitor," Mynatt said. "My satisfaction is contained in the fact that I am doing something as well as I can for the amount of time I have to put into it."
Cutcher and Mynatt, who each hold full-time jobs, have just four to five hours a week to devote to skating, compared with the eight hours a day that younger, competitive skaters practice.
Cutcher is a former librarian who works as a computer-use trainer; Mynatt is co-owner of a contract engineering firm.
Younger skaters "have the time, energy and support to train year-round," said Cutcher, who is divorced. "They don't have families to maintain."
Cutcher grew up in a suburb of Detroit and started skating while very young. His first memory is of dangling between two siblings who held him by his arms while the blades of his skates barely touched the ice.
He also loved to dance and, during his adolescence, he found his terpsichorean abilities made him very popular with girls. He discovered ice dancing in 1978 at a now-defunct rink in Santa Barbara.
Mynatt grew up in Southern California, where she began figure skating at age 9 and ice dancing at 16. By the time she entered college, she had become a serious ice dancer, entering--and winning--competitions and then teaching for several years.
About 1 1/2 years ago, Cutcher's coach at the time, former national champion Peter Betts, introduced Cutcher to Mynatt. Betts, who had coached Mynatt when she was a young girl, remembers her as "hard-working and with a good attitude."
Cutcher, Betts said, was "strong on the ice, very light and effortless. He has a great style, a wonderful style."
Though as a pair they have chosen to skate their way up the association's ranks by earning individual medals for their ability, rather than by vying for titles, Cutcher and Mynatt have competed locally. Cutcher manages to find time to enter local competitions a few times a year.
"My experience is that the preparation for even local competition provides such superior technical results," he said, "that competing on any level is valuable in itself."
But competition skating is very costly. Top competitors can spend up to $20,000 a year on lessons, transportation, doctor bills for minor strains, private rink rental, costumes and skates.
Custom skates run $600 to $700, and each skater needs at least two pairs. The skates last about two years unless, of course, the foot is still growing. Competitors need three different outfits, one for each of the three types of tests, plus a second set in case a zipper gets stuck or a seam rips.
"I have known families who have sold their homes," Mynatt said. "People do lots of things to support the skating habit."
But neither the hard work nor the expense has deterred Cutcher or Mynatt, who are looking forward to achieving international-level medals by performing a set of compulsory dances comparable to those expected of Olympic contenders.
They will take these tests when their coach, Peter Dalby--a former national ice-dancing champion--says they are ready and when qualified judges are available, probably within the next couple of months.
"They are doing pretty well. They skate at a very good standard," Dalby said. "But they will have to work very hard to make it at the international level because the standards are very high."
And what if they don't make it? Or, for that matter, what if they do? Cutcher and Mynatt will never have the fancy titles that come with national or international competitions.
"For ice dancers, getting there is half the fun," Cutcher said. "As with any work of art, it can never be so perfect it can't be improved."
The Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center in Newbury Park holds beginning classes in ice dancing from 1 to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays. The rink is at 510 N. Ventu Park Road. For information, call 498-6669.