Focus on Solo Dance: The Wrap Up

by Anne Calder | Photo by John Higgins

The final chapter in the IDC Series: A Perspective on Solo Dance reviews the 2020 season, and how the coaches and athletes coped with all its ups and downs. It also delves into a bit of trivia and posts ways to improve the sport.

The Solo Dance Series opened its 10th season in February 2020 with the second annual International Camp in Allen, Texas. The event was again hosted by the Dallas Figure Skating Club and was attended by eighty solo dance enthusiasts. Several of the participants explained their roles in the Camp.

Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, Coach: The Camp was fantastic! It has given solo dancers a tremendous opportunity to work with elite coaches and officials from all over the country and receive lots of information that helps them throughout the season.

This year coaches Joel Dear, Ken Foster, Kristin Fraser-Lukanin, Nick Traxler and I combined for on-ice classes that included edge quality, body movement, pattern dance featured steps, twizzles, spins and edge elements.

Officials John and Holly Cole, John Millier, Julia Rey and Carol Wooley taught seminars on GOE, IJS rules, pattern dance featured steps, intro to judging and the future of solo dance.

Serge Onik taught off-ice dance and Melissa Vriner, a conditioning trainer, did a warm-up and cool down class. Peter Zapalo, USFS Director of Sports Science and Medicine, lead athlete development and creating successful skater seminars. Coach Kristin Fraser-Lukanin taught a mental toughness class.

The weekend camp ended with critiques for all the participants by their assigned judges and technical specialists.

It was all-encompassing and an absolute success. I hope it continues to gain in popularity. There’s no question that everyone in attendance had a huge advantage from the beginning of the season. 

John Millier, U.S. Figure Skating Solo Dance Chairman:  We had a large number of returning skaters, which was great to see. Also, there was a clarification of the new rules, which is huge for everyone at the start of a new season.

The skaters got a lot out of the One-on-One sessions. One tech panel official and one judge were assigned to work with each skater and their coach. We had four skaters on the ice at a time with the officials by the boards.

The skater showed either elements or parts of their programs or a pattern dance; the officials gave feedback on what they saw from both a judging and technical point of view. The focus of the session was up to the skater/coach.

It was a great way for them to see both how they would be evaluated [at a competition] and also to work on improvements in real-time with the officials.

For the parents, we did an introduction to judging, an overview of the judging system and how to become a judge. There was also a seminar called Developing the Successful Young Dance Athlete. All were very well received. The parents also got to watch the on-ice classes. 

We also had a skater from Japan along with her coach, who planned on taking part in the series prior to its cancelation.

Kristin Fraser-Lukanin, Coach: The class I taught in Dallas was named Mental Toughness, and I loved the experience. I was able to teach the skaters about the power of the mind, meditation, visualization and breath. I helped them see the value in embracing their nervous energy and turning it into power and expression.

In addition, I was able to take skaters to the camp, and they found the information and experience extremely valuable. They loved the attention from the Dallas Figure Skating Club, USFS, and the specialists and officials.

Serge Onik, Dance Instructor: I was there for the entire weekend, so we had a full 3-4 days of dance. It was a mix of group classes and private lessons.

During the group class we did a mix of exercises ranging in movement and rhythm focuses, with the idea that the drills will allow the movement to translate to the ice smoothly. Then we would learn a small choreography that would put all the drills together with new vocabulary to train those abilities as well. 

Katrina Shalin, Coach: We had a couple of dancers attend the solo dance camp this season. They enjoyed getting to know all of the other dancers and took a lot of value in all the on and off-ice classes that were held.

It is run very similar to the Chesapeake dance camp for partnered dancers, so there was a lot of information for both the coaches and skaters to attain from the camp. Having the one-on-one was very helpful for us as well, to get that initial feedback from the judges before the skaters began their competitive season. 

The Solo Dance Committee left camp energized by all the enthusiasm and very excited to build on the successful 2019 season.

According to the USFS website, “In 2019, 450 athletes had participated in 29 events across the country with 218 qualifying for the Final held in Provo, Utah.”

Excitement was in the air as the dancers took selfies, hugged one another and planned reunions at competitions. The opening event in Stamford, Connecticut was less than three weeks away. The First Annual Southern Connecticut Dance Competition was held March 5-7. Anna Sophia O’Brien and Katie Tetzloff, previously highlighted in the IDC Series, competed at the event.

The Denver Invitational was scheduled for the next weekend (March 12-15) in Centennial, Colorado. Unfortunately, the competition was called off at the end of the first day due to Covid-19 precautions,

Across the USA, rinks closed and coaches designed creative off-ice strengthening and dance programs for their students. Some skaters developed their own conditioning exercises, often done outdoors, while others took to online stretching and Pilates classes.

By mid-May many of the rinks began to cautiously reopen. Bit by bit, the skaters were resuming their on-ice training. For many who had not seen the inside of a cold ice rink for months, the swooshing sound when “blade meets ice” was exhilarating.

On May 19, the close-knit solo dance community was stunned when the USFS announced that the entire 2020 Solo Dance Series was canceled.

Coach Naomi Lang Strong posted on her Facebook page, “So, the solo dance season is canceled. I’m so sad for my skaters; they worked so hard…I wanted to cry. For some of them, it was their last season, their Last Hurrah before moving on to adult life. Our passions were taken away.”

“BUT after a couple of hours of pondering and being sad, I realized I’m now excited to not dwell on what we did, but dwell on what we will do next! It’s going to be ok! Time for new programs, new ideas, be creative, we all have to keep on keeping on!”

Coach Logan Giulietti-Schmitt anticipated that his training program would be a lot different. He brought IDC up to speed in July.

“Fortunately, the Dallas Figure Skating Club is still conducting test sessions so we’ve turned our focus towards testing pattern dance and free dance as well as working on fundamentals for next year.” Giulietti-Schmitt said.

“However, the Solo Dance Committee identified that many skaters won’t even have the opportunity to test and knew it was necessary to create a new event for skaters to work toward. Through collaboration with officials and coaches, including myself, we came up with the Solo Dance Fall Kickoff that will give skaters something new to work on and get excited for before next season.”

On July 14, John Millier, Solo Dance Chairman emailed officials, coaches and athletes announcing a virtual experience in the fall to provide skaters the opportunity to showcase their programs and get feedback on them.

There will be two separate events: Combined – one solo pattern and one solo free dance (Junior through Senior); and Variation Pattern Dance – either one pattern of a dance or a half pattern depending on the level and then creating new steps for the second half of the dance. (Preliminary through International).

The Variation Pattern Dance will be easier to critique on video than the traditional Pattern Dance.

Skaters will record their programs and submit videos to U.S. Figure Skating for review by technical officials and judges. They will receive a score just like an actual competition, except it will not be posted publicly in a competition format. The event is meant to help skaters and coaches know where they stand going into next year.

“Several of my skaters will participate,” Giulietti-Schmitt said. “It will give them motivation to work on their programs again, as well as something new to work on with the Variation dance.”

Coach Katrina Shalin added, “We have a handful of kids prepping for the Kickoff. We are training the programs as if they were going to compete, and then we will plan a couple of days where the ice is empty so they can put their outfits on and run their routine like at a competition.”

“My students are excited about the Variation Pattern Dance,” said Coach Annette Schaefer.

Coaches and athletes love the Solo Dance Series for a potpourri of reasons.

Anna Sophia O’Brien: I love Solo Dance because it allows me to skate more often as an ice dancer.

Layla Karnes: Each time I returned to the Solo Dance Series, it was like coming home to family.

Amber Benson: In solo dance every girl or boy is so positive. It’s so fun to hear where everyone comes from and their back-story. The amount of girls I’ve met is crazy!

Anabelle Larson: I love the whole process of solo dance, including meeting and supporting my competitors, butterflies you get before you warm up, traveling, skating my heart out and waiting for the results.

Lucas Appel: The best thing I love about Solo Dance is the camaraderie of all the athletes. Everyone is so supportive of each other.

Chris Obzansky, Coach: It’s such a great opportunity for kids. At my first competition, I was so impressed by the encouragement and support the solo dancers showed each other. One of my skaters was so nervous to compete, but all the girls cheered her on and gave her hugs after the competition. It was a great reminder of the positive influence skating could have on people’s lives.

While doing research for the Series, IDC uncovered some interesting trivia about the coaches and dancers.

  • Coach Katrina (Reyes) Shalin competed at both the U.S. and Australian Championships. She was born in Australia and had dual citizenship.
  • Former solo dancer Amber Benson skates in the Puckheads Hockey League in Chandler, Arizona.
  • Coach Giulietti-Schmitt added to his international resume when he recently passed the Tea-Time Foxtrot.
  • Former solo dancer Maxwell Gart is attending classes in Atlanta as a Georgia Tech freshman.
  • Former solo dancer Lilah Fear was born in Connecticut (USA) of two Canadian parents and raised in England. She represents Great Britain with her Scotland-born partner and trains in Montreal, Canada
  • The team of Dean Copely and Tim McKernan won gold in Senior Shadow Dance at the 2018 Solo Dance Final. Both are former US ice dance competitors with their respective partners. Shadow Dance is two skaters (lady/man, two ladies, two men) skating a pattern dance side by side without connecting.
  • Coach Naomi Lang (Strong) is the first Native American woman to participate in the Winter Olympic Games (2002). From her father’s heritage she is a member of the Karuk Tribe of California. 
  • Former solo dancer Karina Manta performed in the Cirque du Soleil ice skating show, Axel, for a year prior to the pandemic shutdown in March 2020.
  • Dance Instructor Serge Onik grew up in New Jersey, where he attended a performing arts cultural program for Russian-speaking American children. He was taught history, language, songs, and poems. The group put on plays, acted, sang and danced. Everyone was given time on the stage.

    At age twelve, Onik began serious training in dance – focusing on ballroom. At 23, he went to AMDA [American Musical and Dramatic Academy] in New York City for their Dance/Musical Theatre Program.

    Five years ago Onik became friends with Meryl Davis when she partnered with his long-time dance coach, Maks Chmerkovskiy to win “Dancing with the Stars”. She introduced him to USFS officials, coaches and skaters, which led to his involvement with the Dance Camps.

  • Serge Onik also competed on So You Think You Can Dance.

The Solo Dance Series was due to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2020. The discipline has grown immensely since it was launched by USFS back in 2011. However, new ideas are always percolating in the minds of those who visualize further development of the Series.

John Millier, U.S. Figure Skating Solo Dance Chairman: We’d like to see the SDS become part of the Dance Committee and have set rules in the rulebook so it is no longer a program, but instead a permanent discipline within USFS. This is exactly how Theater on Ice and Showcase came to be.

Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, Coach: We should create the same qualifying structure as the other disciplines. Until this happens, it will never be viewed as an equivalent. There should be continued opportunities for skaters to attend more competitions, seminars and camps so that skaters can feel included, accepted and encouraged.

Solo Dance will continue to gain in popularity because it’s such a great avenue for skaters who enjoy many aspects of the sport. Whether someone is looking for a partner, loves to perform, enjoys the intricacy of dance, wants to try something new or just wants to improve their skating skills, Solo Dance is a good option for many individuals.

While it’s unfortunate that last season was canceled due to the pandemic, hopefully, everyone involved will continue to find new and unique ways to keep skaters engaged, interested and progressing. The creation of the Fall Kickoff is just one example of how skating will have to be flexible and imaginative while supporting its athletes and looking toward to the future.

Katie Tetzloff, Competitor: I hope they continue to expand on the International Judging System for scoring and keep training the tech panels and judges on its use in solo dance.

Chris Obzansky, Coach: I think a few more camps and clinics would be good for the kids during the off-season. There is a lot of downtime in the off-season, and a lot of kids lose interest during that time. There needs to be more ways to keep them involved during the off-season. 

Annette Schaefer, Coach: We need to spread awareness of the opportunities that can stem from a solo dance career. Some of my solo dancers have gone on to coach, compete collegiately in Solo Dance and Synchronized skating and perform all over the world with Disney on Ice.

Pippa Towler-Green, Coach: The attitude of “Solo dancers are not as good as those who skate as a couple” needs to change. Many national and international competitors learn their craft in Solo Ice Dance.

The idea for the IDC Focus on Solo Dance Series germinated from one interview with one athlete. Amber Benson of Mesa, Arizona was the catalyst for the Series. She had a unique story to tell – solo dancer retires to pursue a dream of joining the police cadet academy.

For eight weeks officials, coaches, and solo dancers, past and current, added to the original narrative by sharing their stories and memories. We learned the integral role the U.S. and British solo programs have played in the development of skaters. It was a journey well taken!