Article & photos by Anne Calder
Pictured: Manners with Lorraine McNamara & Anton Spiridonov
Elena Novak and Alexei Kiliakov opened the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy in 2003. Seventeen years later, the directors, coaches and dancers relocated from Maryland to the ION International Training Center in Leesburg, Virginia. The group is now called the ION-Wheaton Ice Skating Academy
In September 2020, the ISU Ice Dance Committee announced that “Street Dance Rhythms” (such as hip-hop, disco, swing, krump, popping, funk, etc.) would be the required Rhythm Dance for 2021-2022.
The parent of one of WISA’s ice dancers at the time wanted a street dance instructor for additional coaching of her daughter. The search led to the discovery and eventual hiring of hip-hop dancer extraordinaire, Jimmie Manners.
Recently at the 2021 LPIDI held at the Skating Club of Boston, Manners shared his story with IDC.
“I get DMs all the time requesting me to come to a studio and teach a class,” Manners said. “I didn’t know the lady. She was asking about ice-skating, so I thought she had the wrong person. I just brushed off the request. Then Elena Novak contacted me and also mentioned working with ice skaters and would love to talk with me. Again, I still wasn’t sure it was a real thing.”
“Her last email said she knew I was busy, but could I recommend someone in LA. That told me she was looking for someone with a certain caliber, and she was serious. We spoke, and she explained the situation. What really piqued my interest was the Rhythm Dance allowing hip-hop and street dances this year. It finally made sense.”
Jimmie Manners arrived at WISA with a diversified resume that had its genesis with his first steps at nine months.
Once Jimmie Manners began walking, his feet rarely stopped moving. His mother recognized his budding talent and put him in a ballet class when he was three years old. His father wanted him to also do Martial Arts. Since the youngster watched MA movies with his dad and Mikhail Baryshnikov with his mother, he told his parents that he wanted to be a Ballet Ninja.
His whole life starting in kindergarten at the Thomas G. Pullen Arts Magnet School in Harlem was dancing throughout the year plus academics during school time. His mother started an African Dance Company at the school so she could be there with him. He also danced weekends and in the summer in the Harlem Dance Theatre residency program.
Manner’s activities became even more intense during his high school years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The day began at 8:30 in the morning with four hours of dance, followed by academics until 4:30. The second week of school they began rehearsals that lasted another 2-3 hours. Then they would go home, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.
In ninth grade he also had a role in the HBO series The Wire under the name Jimmie Jelani Manners.
Manners received a full scholarship to the Philadelphia University of the Arts. Dance was his life. He always knew that’s what he wanted to do; he just wasn’t sure how anymore. In college he realized his goals were changing. He no longer wanted to be boxed-in to just the world of ballet.
He had gotten booked for the movie Step-Up, but as a scholarship student, he wasn’t allowed to take time off from school. He was a little dejected especially when the movie came out, and he saw his friends dancing, and one even get to perform with Janet Jackson afterwards.
In his second year of college, a teacher pulled him aside and told him he could go into the dance world immediately. He just needed to make a decision. Did he want to stay and get a Fine Arts’ degree or leave with a certificate and start performing right away. He knew he wanted to perform immediately.
Manners had a plan…
He’d been in college for two years, and was bored. He wanted to be a force to be reckoned with in the commercial industry. He had scheduled an audition in New York City with a hip-hop company called Rhapsody, and he also had a job as a fitness trainer in Philadelphia. If he got into the company, he was going to leave school. He was going to try to get hired to an agency and start booking movies and TV shows.
While Manners never had any formal hip-hop training, it was the culture he grew up in. It was a part of him. He also knew he could always draw on all his dance skills. He strongly believes that if you can do ballet and modern, you can most likely accomplish anything because ballet teaches ultimate body control, and modern teaches ultimate muscle control.
He was invited to join the Rhapsody Company and in 2006 began commuting by train almost daily to New York City for rehearsals, while still continuing to work as a fitness trainer in Philadelphia.
He was dancing and getting trained in hip-hop and loved it. It seems crazy now, but at the beginning, he didn’t even own a pair of sweat pants. He was dancing in these cool boot-cut jeans until the instructor asked someone to take him out to buy some.
Represented by Bloc Talent Agency, Manners did his very first audition for hip-hop dance choreographer Luther Brown. He also acted in the film Step Up 2: The Streets and taught and choreographed at the Broadway Dance Center before making the move to Los Angeles.
In California, his extensive career in the commercial world of dance included videos with many iconic artists and also performing for two years in Jennifer Lopez’s Las Vegas residency, All I Have.
“Initially, Elena and Alexei brought me in to work strictly with the hip-hop,” Manners noted. “The first session was off-ice and by the second week the team had started formulating the rhythm dance programs. That’s when they learned my background was based in ballet and modern dance.”
Novak envisioned his extensive classical training benefitting her skaters and widening their exposure to new styles and methods.
While the Free Dances were already structured, she now wanted him to help make a few of them better – in particular Lorraine McNamara & Anton Spiridonov’s Phantom of the Opera Choreographic Step Sequence.
“I literally choreographed the whole thing again to give it some dynamo – make it more boisterous and reflect the music,” he revealed. “We wanted it to be deep and continue the story. We got in the studio and then on the ice. It’s one of my favorite moments of all the groups. It’s so deep, and they do it so well.”
“I also worked with them on their performance, with their arms and using their bodies to their full potential, making sure the movements are full, sharp, strong tension, so we can feel it in the audience. They are not only competing, but also making it a performance. That’s what sticks in your mind – it’s been a great process.”
At first, Spiridonov was tentative about working with Manners. “Honestly, I was a bit afraid. I didn’t know what to expect before I met Jimmie, but within the first 60 seconds, when we started choreographing our routines, I knew it was going to be amazing. Then it kept on progressing and accelerating, and I’ve loved every moment of it.”
“The team of Molly [Cesanek] and Yehor [Yehorov] have a very distinctive way of moving,” Manners pointed out. “When I choreograph I like to highlight the artist and not just put my moves on people.”
“With them I tried to keep it as similar to the way they move because I love how they organically move together. I also wanted to show the contrast between the softness and sharpness and high and low holds in the program.
“That was the biggest thing I helped them with – kind of the dynamics and texture of their movement and musicality – like assigning each movement – each crossover – each thing a specific part of the music so it would connect with the audience more – connect with the judges more and get those points for being on that music.”
“For the rhythm dance, I gave them a crash course because we didn’t have much time,” Manners said. “I made sure to give them the foundations, so whatever choreography I did give to them, it was familiar to their bodies. They’ve embraced it, and they look great.”
Cesanek & Yehorov shared their thoughts on working with the new choreographer.
“Jimmie Manners choreographed all our hip-hop,” Cesanek explained. “We had never done hip-hop before, so learning from him gave us the opportunity to say that we can do hip-hop now. We’re still learning.”
“It’s definitely out of our comfort zone,” Yehorov added. “We’re really excited because we put hip-hop/blues together, which pushed us to do something new that people hadn’t done before.”
“For some of the rhythm dances, I came up with the music; some of it was collaboration,” Manners said.
“Caroline [Green] and Michael [Parsons] kind of had an idea what they wanted to do. Once I saw they were going the Janet Jackson route I said that’s perfect. We can do an ode to Rhythm Nation. We did have a Janet dance for the blues section, but it didn’t flow well, so we chose “Never Going to Get It”. I felt that was a great mesh.
Asked if he was having fun in this new environment, Jimmie Manners roared out one of his contagious laughs.
“I’m loving the process because it’s similar to my industry. I’m a very intense choreographer and teacher with energy. They match it because they’re very serious about it. They want to do their very best. They’re open to learning new things; they’re open to moving in different ways.”
“I have a lot of unorthodox techniques and ideas that come. They’ve been embracing, and they’ve grown. You can see that with all of them. I’ve also learned how to choreograph within the rules, within the guidelines. It’s pushed me to do things differently.”
“When WISA spoke about the next Olympics, I made a goal within myself to try to bring some change – bring a new level of artistry to figure skating, and I’ve been choreographing with that in mind. I’ve been trying to do things and encourage them to move in ways that may be more difficult for them and also do something no one has ever seen.”
Jimmie Manners is now a full-time ION-WISA coach after accepting Novak and Kiliakov’s invitation to join their team. He has transitioned into his third industry – ballet – commercial dance – figure skating.
“As I considered the offer, I felt I’d accomplished all the goals I had set for myself many times over. This is something I wanted to do. I’m happy and very glad Elena kept pursuing me.”
“He started off as our choreographer, and now he’s become a full part of our team,” Green said. “He’s a really good asset for what’s going on at ION. We’re really excited to work with him – to take his knowledge of dance and his professional career and apply it to ours.”
- Before ION he didn’t know ice dance existed – just pairs, so he asked when do we get to do the jumps.
- He doesn’t own a pair of skates – on the ice with the skaters, he wears his super furry Uggs.
- The only time he’s ever ice skated was at Rockefeller Center – that lasted only a brief moment.
- He gives credit to his “awesome” mother for all his successes.