by Anne Calder
Great Britain has a rich tradition in Solo Dance. Phillipa (Pippa) Towler-Green briefly outlined the British Solo Dance system.
“There are around eight solo dance qualifying events that make up the solo dance series each season. The events are held in different parts of the country and are open to anybody with the correct test standard for each category.
We have seven levels in our solo dance, beginner, juvenile, basic novice, intermediate novice, advanced novice, junior and senior. The top three skaters in each category from each series event qualify for the British Solo Dance Championships held at the beginning of July.
Age limits only apply to enter the Championships; this means more skaters can have the opportunity to compete during the series and gain experience.
Although the Solo Championships are held at a different time of year [July] to the couples Championships [November/December] the rules are based off the ISU couples rules [IJS], and there are not too many differences between the two.”
Pippa Towler-Green coaches at the Streatham ice rink in London, England alongside her mother, Diane Towler-Green, four-time World and European Ice Dance Champion with partner Bernard Ford (1966-1969), her twin sister, Candace (Candy) Towler-Green and Dance Coach Mathieu Geffré-Gardiner. The siblings are both former competitive ice dancers.
Towler-Green’s team takes an all-encompassing approach to training its athletes.
“We teach all of our pupils the basics of figure and dance,” Towler-Green explained. “We give them our advice on what we think would suit them best, and then it’s up to them to make the decision on their own path.”
“If we have pupils who are not interested in competing, we will still teach them the same things as those who are competing so they don’t miss out. A lot of the time we find this encourages them to give it a go because their enthusiasm grows from having something to work on.”
Towler-Green thinks it’s unfortunate that there aren’t enough boys for partners, but skaters shouldn’t have to miss an opportunity to compete and experience some of the same things as the couples do.
“That’s why we love solo dance. The skaters can compete, travel, make friends with their fellow athletes, and it gives them a chance to carry on doing what they love to do on the ice.”
“With the rules being so similar to the ISU couples rules, it gives us a chance to build their programs in a similar way to the couples, but be creative with the elements and choreography. There are a lot of lifts, spins etc. that we see multiple couples doing because they know it will get the correct level, but we don’t necessarily have those sources with the solos. We can be a bit more creative to fulfill the rules and guidelines.”
“I love working as a team on the programs with my mum, sister and our dance coach Mathieu. We all have different viewpoints and knowledge, but we can bring this together to create the programs with the skaters.”
Towler-Green thinks British solo dance has come a long way over the years, due in part to the number of British National Ice Dance Champions who learned their craft in solo dance. In addition, the British skating federation has been very helpful with a positive approach to Solo Ice Dance.
“Solo dance has definitely developed its own Identity in Great Britain,” Towler-Green recalled. “At first the attitude towards it was not so good. People would just say that it’s only solo dance, and the standard is so low that it doesn’t matter. That attitude has definitely changed for the better in the past few years. Ashlie Slatter, Atl Ongay-Perez, Lilah Fear, Sasha Fear, Joe Buckland and Olivia Smart just to name a few, have all been National Champions with their partners, but started off doing solo dance in Great Britain.”
“I think it became proof that it’s not just low-level skaters who compete in solo dance anymore. The solo dance series gave these skaters a purpose to continue skating, stay motivated and work on their skills while they were searching for a partner. “
“Also, the Great Britain Development squad also includes solo ice dance, which gives the skaters and coaches a chance to attend camps alongside the couples and learn the same things as them.”
“However, I don’t believe the solo dance series is just for people looking for partners, I have pupils who love to compete, but have no interest in having a partner and want to go on to coach one day. The solo dance series gives these skaters the chance to carry on with what they love, still do it to a good standard and learn the expertise to continue as a coach in the future.”
Unfortunately due to Covid-19, the 2020 British Solo Dance Series was canceled and the rinks were closed on March 20.
The federation made some allowances by extending the age limits by one year for next season. This will make sure some skaters don’t miss out on competing in their age category for the first time or from having to move up to a category they may not be ready for yet.
“It’s been so hard for everyone being off the ice for such a long time, and we still don’t have a date to return,” she noted. “I’ve never been off the ice this long in my life. Our skaters have been great and have kept up their training as much as they possibly can off the ice.”
“They have been doing their usual dance lessons. They have also significantly increased their offiice cardio, strength and conditioning and stretching classes to compensate for not being on the ice.”
On August 14, 2020, one month after our interview with Towler-Green, an announcement was made that brought a collective smile to the entire British skating world.
“We just received news this morning and all the Ice Rink’s in the UK can open tomorrow 15th August. Soooo happy now,“ read the email delivered to my inbox.
Lilah Fear is the three-time British Ice Dance Champion with her partner Lewis Gibson and trains at the Ice Academy of Montreal, Canada with Romain Haguenauer and Patrice Lauzon. She skated solo dance for seven years taking lessons first from Bo Zahorski and then from Vince Kyle, Jennifer Clements and Daniel Smith.
Fear grew up in Notting Hill in London and started her weekly “learn to skate” lessons at Queens. It was there that she was introduced to solo dance and competed from the age of eight until getting her first partner at fifteen. She did free skate too, but fell in love with ice dance.”
“In my first solo dance competition, I remember coming in dead last but loving every minute of being out on the ice,” Fear said.
As her love for the sport continued to grow, Fear climbed the ranks of solo ice dance attending six championships, winning silver at her final two national events.
Queens is a small ice pad, so Fear often trained in Streatham, an Olympic sized rink and also the home base of the Towler-Green team.
“My coaches aligned well with the Towler-Green group, and we always felt welcomed,” Fear added. “Over the years in solo dance and now with partners, my sister Sasha and I have also benefited from the expertise and creativity of Pippa, Candy, and Diane Towler-Green.”
Fear was very appreciative of the well-established solo dance circuit in the UK.
“There are not a lot of boys that ice dance, so finding a partner was challenging,” Fear said. “Solo dance allowed me to develop my compulsory dances and also to be creative with the free dances,” she noted. “I learned the technical side of the sport through the various elements from turns, to spins and choreo movements and found it translated well when I found a partner.”
“It was definitely an adjustment learning to skate with a partner, and I continue to learn this part of the sport with Lewis [Gibson] now. However, the performance element of solo dancing translates well, and it all contributes to the overall journey and development of a skater.”
Solo dance also gave Fear the opportunity to travel, allowing her to see other parts of the UK and make wonderful friends and memories over those seven years.
“I made friends for life through solo dance,” Fear said. “We met up all over the UK at various competitions, and it was fun to see the amazing programs done by my competitors.”
“The competitions were always great fun, and I remember skating at Alexandra Palace, Streatham, Bracknell, Lee Valley, Slough, Bradford, Deeside, Murrayfield and Aberdeen, “ said Fear. “These events led to qualifying for the British Solo Dance Championships, which was always a very exciting event.”
“After the competitions it was fun seeing the pandas in Edinburg Zoo, walking along the beaches in Aberdeen and sharing birthday cupcakes with friends after the Streatham competition.”
Fear and Gibson qualified to represent Great Britain at the 2020 World Championships, which were scheduled for March in their adopted hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was canceled.
“I did stay in Montreal during the lockdown so Lewis and I could isolate together,” said Fear. “We were lucky that our school, the Ice Academy of Montreal, organized a lot of daily classes for us, keeping us busy, positive and helping us continue to develop off the ice.”
“We are now back on the ice in Canada, for which we are grateful, while hoping everyone is continuing to stay safe and well.”
Christopher Davis is an American ice dance competitor who began his skating journey in Evanston, Illinois. He now represents Bulgaria with partner Mina Zdravkova. The team trains in London, England with two-time British Ice Dance Champions Marika Humphreys-Baranova & Vitaliy Baranov.
Angelina Giordano & Christopher Davis won the 2010 US Junior Championships in the juvenile category. After the partnership ended, Davis started in solo dance while searching for a new partner.
“My primary coach at the time, Christopher Hyland, encouraged me to enter the Solo Dance Series as a way to continue competing and an opportunity to work on my basic skills. After the dissolution of my partnership and a string of unsuccessful try-outs, solo dance was an appealing avenue to rediscover my joy in skating and feel motivated to compete again.”
Davis competed In the Solo Dance Series for two years from 2012 to 2014. At his final competition, he won the international level free dance pewter medal at the 2014 Solo Dance Final in Colorado Springs.
Davis reflected on how solo dance helped make him a better partner.
“My experience in solo dance helped my basic skating skills, power and expression. I personally found that within a partnership sometimes the emotional aspects of a performance can become too internalized or projected solely between the two partners.”
“Solo dance afforded me the opportunity to experiment with more external projection and expression. I feel there is an inherent vulnerability to solo dance; you are alone out there and need to convey a story and touch people without any of the acrobatic lifts, flips, whips, and tricks of partner dance and without any of the jumps allowed in singles. With no one to share the ice, the responsibility and burden of the storytelling falls completely on you.”
“I think solo dance helped me become less inhibited and more comfortable taking risks. It gave me a foundation to communicate my own identity on the ice in an authentic way.”
“Even now, in our partnership, our coaches frequently make Mina and I do sections of our programs solo to ensure we are independently strong.”
Davis is an avid cheerleader for solo dance. While many of his reasons are quite personal, others illustrate for him how the discipline encourages more inclusive participation.
“The Solo Dance Series was a brief, but important period of my skating career. It was during my time of solo dancing that I realized how important passion and joy are to a career in skating.”
“Solo reminded me how much I love the freedom of gliding and the adrenaline of competing, I was contemplating retirement from skating during that period, and solo dance helped me reevaluate my priorities and goals.”
“I also personally love solo dance as a welcoming discipline for a diverse group of skaters. I have seen seasoned elite competitors, amazing young hopefuls, adult athletes, and special/disabled athletes find joy and success in solo dance.”
“Solo dance is one of the least classist disciplines in skating; The financial burden placed on the families of skaters pursuing partnerships is immense, and I think that the solo dance series opens up our sport to a more diverse socioeconomic subset of the population.
“Holding events all over the country creates local exposure, engagement, and participation. Comparatively, partnered couples don’t have as many local competition opportunities and frequently need to travel to expensive/remote locations. This adds significantly to costs of flights, hotels, and rental cars, and can effectively lock out some athletes.”
“For me, any program or discipline that encourages more people to participate in our sport should be celebrated.”
Back at the 2014 National Solo Dance Championships, Davis and Jessica Williams blogged from the event for ice-dance.com. In his closing statement, Davis made a brave prediction.
“As USFS continues to improve the solo dance program, implementing IJS and catching up with other federations will be key. Combined with the great coaching and great Series format USFS offers, adding IJS would position the US as the leading force in solo ice dance.”
It took four more years, but in 2018, the Solo Dance Series adopted the International Judging System (IJS) after using the old 6.0 scoring system for its previous seven years.
Davis recently again expressed his thoughts on the judging system.
“I’m thrilled that solo dance is now judged with IJS, even if I personally can’t benefit from it. I respect the difficulty of adopting IJS, and think USFS has been smart in holding many solo dance competitions in conjunction with free skating events where the hardware and software are already being utilized. This also brings greater awareness to solo dance and grants it a sort of parity and legitimacy as a discipline.”
IDC asked Davis if coaching solo dance was in the future.
“Unfortunately, not yet,” Davis said. “Mina and I completed our level 2 coaching certification last year, but Covid-19 has delayed our plans. We both look forward to coaching in the near future, including solo dance.”
The British ice rinks were closed on March 20 and reopened August 15.
SHOULD SOLO DANCERS NEED A PASSPORT AND GO INTERNATIONAL
There has been a recent initiative to encourage International Solo Dance. Some of those involved in the discipline shared their thoughts on the subject.
John Millier (USFS Solo Dance Chairman): I am working with a group of officials from approximately seven different countries in an effort to align our rules so that we can have international events. That has been a goal of mine since the beginning. This year we made the first step toward that by forming our international group.
Pippa Towler-Green (Coach – Great Britain): I think it would be a great idea to have some sort of International series for the Solo Dancers. We all know there are so many skaters who will unfortunately not be able to find a partner, but why should they not have the opportunity to compete at an International event. The Solo dancers work just as hard as the couples, dedicate themselves to their training on and off the ice, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have some of the same opportunities as the couples get.
There will be more cost involved, but I think most parents are willing to do this to see their children gain experience.
Each country has its own version of Solo Dance rules but if the rules could try to stay as close to the ISU couples rules as much a possible, I think that would have a really positive affect. The skaters, coaches, judges and officials would all be familiar with the rules, and it might also help to change the attitude towards Solo Dance that the solos can keep up with the couples.
Logan Giuletti-Schmitt (Coach – USA): Eventually I’d like to see international events. I know there are several other countries with growing solo dance programs, so there’s no reason why this can’t happen in the future.
Kristin Fraser-Lukanin (Coach – USA/AZE): Of course, I would like to see the Solo Dance Series become International. With so many countries currently running a similar program, why not push our skaters to the max. Being a solo sport it is sometimes hard to prove the worth of our skaters to schools (Universities) and businesses; taking solo dance international would certainly help to make that change by allowing athletes to include their accomplishments on their resumes and possibly opening up a whole new world of opportunity.
Katie Tetzloff (Athlete – USA): I can’t wait to see how Solo Dance continues to grow and flourish in the future. Now that there are solo dance competitions in multiple countries around the world, I hope that someday it is considered equal to the other skating disciplines that have the opportunity to compete internationally. Solo Dance athletes work just as hard and are just as talented as other skaters.
The next article in the IDC Solo Dance Series will include interviews with a few more coaches.