Focus on Solo Dance: Athlete Perspective (Part I)

by Anne Calder

IDC interviewed several ice dancers with various amounts of experience in Solo Dance. Participation in the discipline served to bolster their involvement in a wide range of new challenges.

Today we introduce you to three of those dancers, who began their ice dancing careers in the National Solo Dance Series. In January, these same three dancers competed with their partners at the 2020 US National Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Avonley Nguyen won the 2020 World Junior ice dance title with former partner Vadym Kolesnik. She began solo dance when she was eleven. Her coach at the Ashburn Ice House in Virginia suggested it as a way to improve her freestyle component marks and musicality. Vitaliy Shalin was her first ice dance coach.

“I started in preliminary patterns (the only event I was qualified/tested to compete in) and loved it right away,” Nguyen said. “Many people considered the pattern music playlist to be dated, but I found it to be interesting and enjoyable. It was unlike anything I had been exposed to before. I gave silly names to each piece of pattern music like Cowgirl Blues and Spacey Waltz to my favorite Dutch Waltz song.”

“Solo dance allowed me to compete and perform before I skated with my first partner. The experience of skating a program at competitions is invaluable and something we can’t simulate.”

Nguyen also learned that while the solo elements (twizzles, step sequence, pattern) may be similar to elements in partnered dance – they are really different to practice.

“That’s what makes both disciplines so wonderful and satisfying to do,” a jubilant Nguyen noted.

That’s also why the 2020 U.S. ice dance champion competed in both disciplines at the same time.

Some of her fondest memories of that time were from her first Solo Dance Nationals.

“At the end of the competition, the organizers allowed us to have an on-ice party complete with cake and skating games. I never had more fun at a skating event! I made up my mind at that moment that I would continue solo dance the following year so that I could come back for the after event skating party!”

Once Nguyen left her familiar Virginia surroundings to train in partner dance, she had to make some serious adjustments.

“The hardest part about doing partner dance was having to move away from home to train. That’s not something that solo dance or any kind of dance could have helped me to prepare for.”

Molly Cesanek is currently a senior Team USA ice dancer with partner Yegor Yegorov. The team trains at the Ion International Training Center in Leesburg, Virgina with Alexei Kiliakov and Elena Novak. She also competed in the Solo Dance Series for several seasons.

Cesanek wore ballerina slippers before she laced up skating boots. On the ice, however, freestyle was her only option because she was just too shy to hold her coach’s hand to test ice dance patterns.

However, she still dreamt about twirling and dancing on the ice. When she learned about the Solo Dance Series, she knew it was the best combination of dance and skating without a partner.

“Solo dance was the perfect way for me to begin ice dancing and be exposed to competing and the atmosphere in the Ice Dance World,” Cesanek said. “It wasn’t IJS yet, but the elements and routines solo dancers were able to create and execute were greatly similar to partner ice dancing.”

“My first year of solo dance allowed me to not only dive into the technique and art of ice dancing, but also be a part of a community and sport that provided me with such abundant purpose and motivation.”

Cesanek remembers making some incredible friends, including a boy who would eventually become her first partner, Maxwell Gart. As each competition passed, the idea of skating with a partner became less and less intimidating.

“By the 2013 Solo Dance Series Championships in Colorado Springs, I told my mom that I wouldn’t mind skating with a partner if he was a really nice boy like Max,” she revealed.

So after her first solo dance year, the shy ballerina gave partner dancing a try. Molly Cesanek & Maxwell Gart won the juvenile level silver medal in their national debut at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston.

“I continued solo dancing for a few years after beginning partner dance because of the significant growth I underwent that first season,” Cesanek said. “It was such a joy, and I grew tremendously in my strength in ice dancing.”

“At the beginning of my skating, my parents didn’t push me into something I was not ready to do. Instead, they guided me into overcoming my shyness by my own personal growth,” Cesanek recalled.

“Solo dance was a blessing. It gave me the opportunity to ice dance and helped me develop into the ice dancer I am today. I wouldn’t be on Team USA without beginning my ice dance career in solo dance.” 

Eva Pate started solo dance when she was 12. Seven years later, she partnered with Logan Bye, won the inaugural Ice Dance Final, and qualified for the 2020 US Nationals.

Pate’s coach, Janet Wene encouraged her to sign up for the Solo Dance Series; she made it to the Championships in her first year. At the next two Championships, she won three medals.

“In 2015 at a test session at my home rink in Strongsville, Ohio, a judge personally recommended that I be seen by Olympic Coach Marina Zueva,” Pate revealed.

That year Pate moved to Canton, Michigan to train with Zueva, She also competed through the highest levels in the combined dance and pattern tracks of the NSDS, medalling four more times through the 2018 season. Pate also learned partner dance and seriously began looking for a partner.

In 2018, the National Solo Dance Series (NSDS) adopted the International Judging System for scoring after using 6.0 since the beginning of the Series. Pate got to compete under IJS in her final year in the NSDS.

“I absolutely loved when the Solo Dance Series changed to IJS scoring.  It gave me so much more understanding of what the judges liked, didn’t like, and how to better my program.  I got to see my technical score and got so much feedback based on my results.”

Pate’s one year experience with IJS plus the seven years competing in solo dance served as an excellent preparation for her move to partner dance.

“Solo dance made me a stronger skater and gave me a lot of confidence in myself. When you compete solo, you have no one else to rely on but yourself.”

In early 2019, Pate moved to Novi, Michigan to train with Igor Shpilband. In June she partnered with Logan Bye to compete on the senior level. In November, they were first at the Ice Dance Final in Hyannis, Massachusetts and qualified for the 2020 Championships in Greensboro, NC.

During the pandemic shut down in Michigan, Pate & Bye worked on off-ice skills with their coaches.

“In mid-May, when my Strongsville, Ohio rink opened up, Logan and I trained on the ice there. All of the Novi teams and coaches came to train with us for a week,” Pate noted. “It was so much fun to share with everyone the city and rink where I grew up. We all returned to Michigan for more off ice training.”

Pate made a lot of friends traveling and competing all over the country with solo dance.

“When I competed this year with Logan in Greensboro at Nationals, I checked my phone as soon as we got off the ice after our free dance,” Pate revealed.  “I received so many text messages from the other solo dancers and parents congratulating me. I was so touched to read all their kinds texts.”

“Solo dance opened up a lot of doors, and it’s the reason I am where I am today.”