Focus on Solo Dance: Athlete Perspective (Part III)

by Anne Calder

Today we introduce five more ice dancers in our Focus on Solo Dance series. These athletes are all alumni of the National Solo Dance Series.

Karina Manta is a former Solo Dance Series (SDS) gold medalist, US national and international ice dance competitor with partner Joe Johnson and Cirque de Soleil performer.

Manta put on her first pair of skates at age five and soon realized she had discovered a hiding place from the hot Arizona sun. She took lessons and skated singles until Naomi Lang (five-time U.S. National Ice Dance Champion with partner Peter Tchernyshev) arrived in the desert and began teaching at the Polar Ice rink in Gilbert where Manta skated.

“Naomi Lang held small intro-to-ice-dancing classes on Saturdays, and I immediately knew it was what I wanted to be doing, Ice dancing took my love of ballet and combined it with everything I enjoyed about skating. They are both such detail-oriented tasks,” Manta  explained in a 2016 IDC article.

Manta trained with Lang in the Solo Dance Series, which was just in its infancy and won the 2012 Novice Solo Ice Dance Championship. She then moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to briefly team up with Jonathan Thompson before beginning a six-year partnership with Joe Johnson.

After receiving a rousing standing ovation for their “Sweet Dreams” free dance at the 2019 U.S. National Championships, the duo stepped away from competitive ice dancing. In June, she and Johnson moved to Montreal to train and perform with Cirque du Soleil.

IDC reached out to Karina Manta about her Solo Dance journey. Her words tell the story best.

“When I was growing up in Arizona, there weren’t many opportunities to train as an ice dancer. Naomi Lang moved to Arizona when I was a teenager, and she introduced me to the discipline. 

I started taking dance lessons from Naomi alongside my singles training (and mostly just for fun), but I quickly realized that I had a passion for dance that extended beyond my interest in singles skating (I always preferred step-sequences to jumps!).  

Because of the Solo Dance Series, I was able to approach a side of skating I had never explored before. I met friends from the series who are still good friends of mine to this day, and I ended up finding my first partner at the Solo Dance Championships in 2012.

I’m really grateful for the opportunities that came as a result of my participation in the Solo Dance Series, and I love that the program makes our sport more accessible. It can be so hard to find partners–especially if you’re someone like me who got involved in ice dance at an older age– the Solo Dance Series allows so many more people to participate. 

Truly, I would not have had a career in ice dance if it were not for the Solo Dance program.”

Amber Benson lives in Mesa, Arizona and trained at the Chandler Ice Den. After skating freestyle for nine years, she switched to solo dance three years ago because jumping was causing so much pain to her body.

“Changing to solo dance was one of the best decisions I made,” Benson admitted. “Solo dance gave me the freedom to skate competitively without needing to jump.”

Benson competed at the 2018 Solo Dance Final finishing fifth on the intermediate level. The next year, she returned to the Final as a junior competitor.

A year ago she switched coaches and began working with Naomi Lang Strong.

“My first lesson with Naomi I was so scared knowing I had so many issues with my dances and skating that needed fixing,” Benson explained. “As soon as my skates touched the ice, she made me feel so welcome. I had never experienced such a positive coach. She pushed me to be the best I could be.”

While Benson loved competing, she was becoming anxious to move on with her career goal of becoming a police officer. She decided she would wind down her SDS experience with a final year in shadow dance.

Meanwhile, six months ago, she began playing hockey with her dad, uncle, cousins and brother.

“When I decided to slow down my figure skating, I started to play in the Puckheads Hockey League,” Benson said.  “Pretty much anyone can try and play. It’s competitive, but lots of fun. It’s the first sport I’ve done that I can kind of not take super seriously.”

On May 19, U.S. Figure Skating announced that the 2020 Solo Dance Series was canceled. Benson was devastated by the decision. This wasn’t how her final season was supposed to end.

“My heart aches because I didn’t get the opportunity to end the way I wanted,” Benson posted on social media. “I’m thankful for all the memories that skating has given me, and all the life lessons I have learned. Saying goodbye to the sport that has been my life for so long isn’t easy.”

After accepting the realization that competitive skating was behind her, knowing the ice rink wasn’t going away gave her comfort. She was ready to begin a new chapter in her young life as an accepted member of the Mesa Cadet Police Academy.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 delayed the opening of the program, but then in mid-July, Benson got the good news that for the first time ever it would be taught online.

Even though Benson is no longer involved with the Ice Den Solo Dance Team, she did have some advice for the younger members just beginning their skating careers.

“Enjoy skating. As figure skaters, we tend to get over our head and forget we’re supposed to love what we are doing. A couple of years ago I was so focused on medaling that I wasn’t enjoying skating. I needed to find my love for skating again. So I started skating for myself and not only did I find my love for skating again, but it was the best season of my life.”

Benson then reflected on the lessons she had learned during her years competing in the SDS.

“Solo dance has taught me to never give up. Just because skating can be hard and stressful at times, if you push through and work hard, it can also be very rewarding.”

“My next phase in life will be challenging. Skating has taught me that I am strong. Just because I wear sparkly figure skating dresses doesn’t mean I can’t be a police officer.”

Katie Tetzloff competed in the 2017, 2018, and 2019 Solo Dance Series and Finals. She trained in Hartford, Connecticut with Svetlana Kulikova.

“I participated in three solo dance series and qualified for the Final each time in Senior Combined, placing sixth, fifth and fifth,” explained Tetzloff. “I was planning to also compete international patterns this year (2020), but the series got canceled due to COVID-19.“

Tetzloff began ice dance when she was four and also skated freestyle until she was 14 at which time she switched completely to dance.

Even though Tetzloff could perform her freestyle jumps in practice, her nerves took over during competitions, and she felt she didn’t perform as well as she could.

“[Freestyle competitions] were always frustrating and disappointing, but in dance, I never had those same nerves. I actually like competing dance more than practice, and find that I perform better with an audience,” she revealed.

Tetzloff had a few partners when she was younger, and even competed at the U.S. junior nationals, but the partnerships ended.

“I would have loved to compete more with a partner at a higher level, but I’m glad that solo dance exists so that I could continue pushing myself in the discipline I love and still be able to compete in a sport that I am passionate about,” Tetsloff said.

“I love dancing with a partner, but one thing that is great about solo dance is you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s skating but your own,” Tetzloff pointed out.

“Before I competed in solo dance I felt because I didn’t find success with a partner, I didn’t have much to show for my dedication to ice dance – in that sense the Solo Dance Series makes my years of skating and training seem more “worth it” because I was able to succeed in solo dance,” Tetzloff added.

Tetzloff began her Solo Dance Series skating when 6.0 was the scoring system. In 2018, SDS adopted the International Judging System (IJS), which had been used by the other disciplines since 2004.

“I think that the introduction of a modified IJS in solo dance as of two years ago really helped the discipline a lot,” she applauded. “I hope that they continue to expand on this system and keep training tech panels and judges on its use in solo dance.”

The 2020 season was going to be Tetzloff’s last season. Right now, she’s not sure if she’ll compete again next year due to the cancelation of this year’s events. Whatever road she chooses, she has lots of memories from her years in the sport. Tetzloff shared one in particular that stands out.

“I think my happiest solo dance memory was at the 2019 Atlanta Open. I was super stoked to have achieved both key points / featured steps in the Tango Romantica portion of the rhythm dance. I was the only skater to do so. This was exciting because I had worked really hard on those steps and did not receive credit for them at the first two competitions that year.”

“My free dance was also very meaningful to me personally, so every time that I got to perform, it was really special. On top of that, I ended up winning, which was icing on the cake for that competition!”

“Looking back, I am very proud of what I have accomplished, and how the Solo Dance Series made me a stronger skater.”

Maxwell Gart is a former solo dancer, and the first partner for Molly Cesanek and Avonley Nguyen, who were previously highlighted in the IDC Focus on Solo Dance: Athlete Perspective (Part II).

Gart began skating when he was three-years-old. Seven years later his coaches, Svetlana Kulikova and Mathew Gates, encouraged him to add ice dancing to his freestyle resume to improve his edges and musicality.

“I spent a year learning and training the competition pattern dances and went on to compete at the 2012 Solo Dance Series Nationals at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There I met the talented Molly Cesanek who turned out would be my first ice dance partner,” Gart said.

“I’ll never forget qualifying for and competing at Solo Dance Nationals. The camaraderie and support from all of the skaters allows for everyone to enjoy the incredible experience and compete at their best.”

“I remember running up to Molly after she had won the silver medal in the Pre-Bronze Solo Compulsory Dance Final to congratulate her; about a year later, we were competing together to win silver in Juvenile Dance at the pre-Olympic U.S. Nationals in Boston, Massachusetts.

Gart began solo dance as an avenue to improve his freestyle; but partnered dance became his true passion. He did, however, continue to compete freestyle along with ice dance, qualifying for the U.S. Nationals for two consecutive years in both disciplines.

“I’ll never forget winning the 2015 Eastern Sectionals in both ice dance and freestyle.”

Gart stood on the podium four straight years at the U.S. Championships in ice dance beginning with a juvenile silver medal debut in 2014 with Molly Cesanek. The duo won bronze as intermediates in 2015. Gart and Avonley Nguyen were the 2016 intermediate silver medalists, followed by novice silver with Katarina Del Camp in 2017. He and Del Camp competed in juniors for the next two seasons.

“I certainly found that solo dance teaches skills necessary for partnered dancers such as edges, body lines, musicality, and emotion; this is displayed clearly by the successes of Molly Cesanek, Avonley Nguyen, and me as Team USA competitors,” Gart explained.

“More recently, cheering on Avonley when she won the Junior World Championships in ice dance gives further affirmation of the accomplishments of previous solo dancers.”

“Despite only competing solo dance for one season, I definitely found it to be helpful,” Gart said.  “I also feel that solo ice dancing in the US allows for skaters to participate in the ice dance community, where previously they would not have been able to, due to the lack of male partners. Over the years, watching the solo dance division develop has truly become its own competitive entity whether one wants to choose to partner or not.

Gart’s most recent solo dance memory was from a different perspective. Along with his coach, Svetlana Kulikova, he put his first solo dance student, Julia Coggins, on the ice.

“It is incredible how different the competition experience is when you are on the other side of the boards, from the coach’s perspective,” he said proudly.

Layla Karnes competed in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 Solo Dance Series and Finals plus several competitions between partners. She is a four-time U.S. National Championships competitor in partnered ice dance at the juvenile, intermediate, novice, and junior level.

Karnes explained. “I was already ankle-deep in SDS when I began dancing with my first partner in 2015 and completed the Series with two national titles. While training in Chicago, I returned to solo dance between my novice and junior partners to strengthen my power, skating skills and to learn several international patterns.”

“I loved the opportunity to really “learn” and “perform” the samba and cha-cha as patterns as well as to incorporate Tango Romantica into a rhythm dance.”

Karnes believes that solo dance absolutely helped prepare her for dancing with a partner and moreover for developing her as a person.

“Solo dance taught me the importance of knowing and training the patterns (which I love with a passion) as well as highlighting my strengths and weakness on ice in the most obvious way. “

“In solo dance, you are accountable for your performance – your expression, edges, and energy. In a sense, solo dance helped me own my future role as the female half in partner dance – and it validated that partnering made dance complete – at least for me.”

“Solo dance allowed me to figure out who I was as a person, dancer, and skater – all skills that I was able to use once I entered partner dance.”

In addition to assisting in her physical and personal growth, there were many other aspects of the Solo Dance Series that Karnes loved, including travel, camaraderie, and social activities.

“I loved the road-trips that I took to different rinks around the country and the opportunity to meet other skaters, coaches, and skating clubs.”

The Solo Dance Nationals also hold a special place in Karnes’ memories.

At my first SDS Nationals in 2013, I loved the thrill of staying up late [first] to watch the medal ceremony where Ben Agosto and my coach, Russ Witherby presented the medals, followed by the on-ice party with all the competitors and THE huge cake.”

“Then again, in 2014, reconnecting with friends from all over the country, such as Molly C, Megan F, Jenna H and Sarah Z.”

“Most certainly my happiest experience was the Solo Dance Final in 2015, performing in the same event with Molly Cesanek. We both had such different, but amazing free dances that year, and it was an honor to stand on the podium next to such an inspiring role model and friend.”

“I will never forget my free dance in that competition – it was such a magical and emotional program for me – one that allowed me to skate “real” and “raw” for the audience and myself.”

Like all the athletes, coaches, choreographers etc. in the skating world, Karnes had to make adjustments to her schedule during the pandemic.

“When the rinks first closed in Illinois, I stayed there for about a month, hoping that the rinks would re-open. I was fortunate enough to be able to continue working on various off-ice skills and, it was during that time, that I was introduced to the virtual possibilities of lessons. And wow!”

“I am actually a little bit sad that it took a pandemic to demonstrate to me how effective virtual classes can actually be! I will forever be thankful for Igor Lukanin allowing me to join his Krigor Studio. Through his offerings, I took, and still take, virtual classes with many greats.”

“I also took many dance classes with Randi Strong, Serge Onik, and the Joffrey Ballet and Ballroom Divisions.”

“These virtual classes helped keep me focused and ready for that much longed for return-to-ice! While my partner, Kenan Slevira is injured, I’m temporarily training in Idaho with some amazing coaches under the watchful eyes of Judy Blumberg.”

The IDC Focus on Solo Dance Series turns its attention next to International programs and dancers.