Focus on Solo Dance: Athlete Perspective (Part II)

by Anne Calder

Today we introduce three young ice dancers who competed at the 2019 Solo Dance Final in Provo, Utah. Two also skated at the 2019 inaugural USFS Ice Dance Final with their partners. In June, two formed a new partnership and will next compete in novice on the national level.

Anna Sophia O’Brien trains at the Montclair State Arena in Little Falls, NJ with Kristin Fraser-Lukanin and Igor Lukanin. She represents the North Jersey Figure Skating Club and currently skates solo and partner ice dance.

O’Brien began skating when she was seven with basic Learn to Skate. After taking a group ice dance class with her coach, she liked skating with a partner so much that she teamed up with Steven Wei.

Many of Fraser-Lukanin’s couple dance students also take part in solo dance to improve their skills.

“Competing in solo free dance really helped me grow because I alone was responsible for the outcome of each performance. It helped me become stronger in my patterns and my performances,” O’Brien said.

“My solo free dance last year challenged me to learn some new elements that aren’t in my free dance with my partner,” O’Brien revealed. “I love the feeling of finally being able to do a new skill.”

By adding the Solo Dance Series (SDS) to her couples’ training and competitive agenda, O’Brien participated in more challenges during the season.

“I love solo dance because it allows me to skate more as an ice dancer,” O’Brien said.  “There are definitely more events for solo dance, which allows me to be in a competitive setting more often. I just love skating, and the more I get to do it, the happier I am.”

O’Brien was very happy in 2019; she spent a lot of time competing in both solo and partner ice dance.

Her whirlwind year began the third week in January 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Anna Sophia O’Brien & Steven Wei made their U.S. National Championships debut and finished sixth in the juvenile division.

Two months later in March and continuing through to September, O’Brien participated in the entire 2019 Solo Dance Series. After competing at seven Eastern Section events and one outside her section, she qualified for the 2019 SDS Final in Provo, Utah.

Once the solo dance season ended, O’Brien and Wei returned to partner competition and in October won the Intermediate level 2020 Pacific Coast Sectional Ice Dance Challenge. The placement qualified them for the inaugural 2020 Ice Dance Final held in Hyannis, Massachusetts in November.

In January 2020, a full year after beginning her competitive tour, the duo attended the National High-Performance Development Team Camp in Charlotte, North Carolina following the 2020 U.S. Championships.

“It was a great feeling last year to experience successes that were the result of the hours of training that I put in each day both last year and all the years before,” O’Brien said enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 forced all New Jersey rinks to shut down in March; O’Brien was off-ice for over three months. During that time she took daily conditioning, stretch, and a variety of dance classes.

Meanwhile, on May 19, U.S. Figure Skating canceled the entire 2020 Solo Dance Series. When the arena opened back up on July 7, the duo chose to concentrate on couples dance, but they had restrictions.

“Steven and I skate two hours a day, five days a week on the same ice,” O’Brien explained.  “We can’t practice lifts and spins and basically everything because we aren’t allowed to have any contact with each other.”

“We work on patterns, but it’s not the same because normally we go through the patterns together.”

“It’s just so different right now. Solo dance is done only about an hour a week because of the limited ice.”

“We are starting to work on the dances for the virtual Solo Dance Kickoff in the fall, so that’s fun! I just can’t wait for everything to go back to normal,” O’Brien said.

With all the uncertainty in the skating world, Anna Sophia O’Brien has one definite in her future.

“Solo and couple dance have their own special qualities, so I’m planning on continuing to do both.”

Lucas Appel began his figure skating journey seven years ago. He knew that he wanted to compete, but his jumping skills weren’t strong enough for freestyle.

He found the Solo Dance Series when he was 13 and fell in love! He won the Juvenile Combined and Bronze Pattern Dance events in September at his first SDS Final the same year.”

“It was the first year of the IJS scoring in Solo Dance,” Appel said. “I was very happy to see what the judges thought of me on the protocol sheets, and what I could improve on over time.”

He credits the advice given to him for winning the Novice Combined and Pre Silver Pattern Dance events the following year at the 2019 SDS Final in Provo, Utah.

In 2019, Appel also competed in his first year of couples dance. He and partner, Audrey-Kate Johnson won the intermediate pewter at the first Ice Dance Final in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

“After the 2019 Solo Dance Series Final in September, I knew that going forward competitively, I wanted to put all my time and energy into couples ice dance,” Appel remembered. “Focusing on couples dance full time was going to get me my dream of being a Team USA ice dancer in the next few years.” 

“Throughout the 2019-2020 season, I was doing both solo and couples dance. It was very tiring, but in the end, it was worth it to come out of the season with three national medals.”

Appel was also aware that the skills he had learned while training and competing in the Solo Dance Series were actually stepping-stones to becoming a better partner.

“On the ice, I learned that you needed to work hard by yourself and work on your certain weaknesses to be a great partner,” Appel said. “Off the ice, I learned that you needed to be a stronger person physically and mentally to support yourself and your partner to make you and her comfortable.”

Due to Covid-19, the rinks in Florida had no available ice April 1-May 15. During that time, he did cardio and bodyweight training. Since opening, he’s been skating with his new partner, Anabelle Larson.

“In June, Anabelle and I did a tryout at the Hertz Ice Arena in Estero, Florida with Marina Zoueva, Johnny Johns, Ilya Tkachenko, and Alper Ucar,” he explained. “After the tryout, Marina Zoueva said that we were a good match for each other.”

“Since we both came from solo dance I believe that helped us develop stronger as individuals to make us a strong team,” pointed out Appel. “From the first moment, I knew it could be something great.”

“If there will be a season, Anabelle and I will compete in the novice couples dance event, and Anabelle will be competing in the senior solo combined event next season.” 

Anabelle Larson was two-years-old when she started skating at the Palm Beach Florida Skate Zone where her parents used to teach skating. Currently 14, she trains both solo and partner dance at Marina Zoueva’s International Skating Academy in Estero, Florida.

Steve Belanger, Larson’s coach when she was ten, suggested she should start competing in dance. He thought she would do very well in the Solo Dance Series even though at the time she was doing singles.

“The second year of competing in solo ice dance, I qualified and won the 2017 National Solo Dance Final in the Juvenile Combined event,” Larson said.  “It was at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was a real thrill for me to have my dad’s former coach, Janet Champion, in the stands cheering me on.”

In Larson’s third SDS year, she won silver at the 2018 Final in the intermediate combined event in Hyannis, Massachusetts. She also skated her final singles competitive skate at the juvenile ladies level.

“A turning point in my skating career happened in 2019 when my grandmother moved from California to Estero, Florida so I could go and train with Marina Zoueva, Johnny Johns and their team of coaches at the Hertz Arena in Estero,” Larson explained appreciatively.

“I wasn’t surprised when I learned the 2020 SDS was canceled, but at first I felt sad and angry,” Larson said. “I had put in a lot of hard work in my solo dances and was ready to compete. At the same time I knew in my heart it was the right decision to keep everyone safe.”

In June 2020, Zoueva suggested a partner try-out between Larson and childhood friend and fellow solo dancer, Lucas Appel. The outcome was a success. Both were definitely stronger because of their solo dance backgrounds.

“It’s great to have a partner who has the same goals as me,” Larson gushed. “We both want to be on Team USA and proudly represent the U.S. internationally.”

“After the Hertz Arena opened back up, and I was able to resume skating, I felt relieved,” Larson admitted. “Lucas and I currently train 3-4 hours daily and attend off-ice ballet/modern dance classes. With the 2020 SDS season canceled, we will be mostly training in partner dance.”

At the time, Larson is focusing on the partner dance with Lucas, but is excited and considering being part of the recently announced virtual Fall Solo Dance Kickoff. She is discussing the possibilities of participation with Zoueva and her team.

Larson wants to personally thank U.S. Figure Skating for implementing the Solo Dance Series. Otherwise, she says she would have quit skating three years ago.

The final group of solo dancers will be posted next Tuesday.