by Anne Calder | Photo by Melanie Heaney
Today IDC is launching a Solo Dance article series, which will include an overview of the program, Q&As with coaches and dancers, and a look to its future.
Skating fans who watch national, international, and Olympic competitions are familiar with the four disciplines competed at these events: men/ladies singles, pairs and ice dance.
The Solo Dance Series also gives skaters the opportunity to lace up their boots and compete in ice dancing, but without a partner.
THE GENESIS OF THE SOLO DANCE SERIES
A decade ago, John LeFevre and Janna Blanter from the Broadmoor Skating Club had an idea to make a national competition for solo dance – The National Solo Dance Championship pilot was launched in Colorado Springs in 2009.
In the second year of the national event, the new Chair of the USFS Program Development Committee, Mary-Elizabeth Wightman, suggested it might grow more if there were a series of competitions leading up to and also qualifying dancers for a Final.
“The thinking behind the Series was to give solo dance some exposure to skaters who might not have known they could dance without a partner, make it fun and give them goals other than testing,” Wightman explained. “Further, since ice dance can only really help overall skating, it was a chance to entice skaters to try it.”
John Millier, the USFS Dance Committee Chair at the time, echoed Wightman’s thoughts. “We saw this as a great opportunity to not only keep skaters interested in Ice Dance, but to keep more kids on the ice in general.
Wightman turned to Millier for input on how to run the series in terms of content. Since the first year was pattern dance only, she thought they should add some kind of solo free dance to make it more fun for the skaters. It turns out the Dance Committee was already walking down that path.
“I came up with the idea for a solo free dance and at the same time, short dance, now the rhythm dance,” Millier reflected. “I wrote all the rules for the requirements of the free dance and created tests that now reside in the rulebook.”
Millier created the solo dance rules with a goal of eventually adopting the International Judging System (IJS) already in use by the USFS disciplines since 2004.
USFS BREATHES LIFE INTO NSDS
The National Solo Dance Series (NSDS) was officially introduced by USFS in January 2011. Its name was changed to the Solo Dance Series (SDS) for the 2019-2020 season.
The Series was promoted as a fun, nationwide competitive program that allowed solo skaters to compete in ice dance rather than in freestyle.
The Series was open to individual skaters within the Eastern, Midwestern, or Pacific Coast sections. Skaters who competed in at least two events within their section would accumulate points based on their placement. The points would then determine the qualifiers for the National Solo Dance Championship then later called Final.
From the beginning, NSDS had to overcome several challenges. First, it needed to derail its identity as freestyle without jumps. However, its use of the old rank-based 6.0 scoring system was probably its biggest nemesis.
In 2004, the singles, pairs and couple ice dance disciplines had switched to the point-based International Judging System. IJS assigned a base value to all the elements and the judges evaluated the skater’s execution. Afterward, a protocol with the marks was posted and available for the skater and coach for analysis.
“Skaters who were already familiar with IJS, expected some kind of direct feedback in SNDS as it pertained to their results,” pointed out Millier. “Without a protocol to look at, it became confusing how the sport was being evaluated.”
“In addition,” he continued, “We were finding many partnered skaters who were looking for a new partner would not turn to solo skaters because they lacked a basic understanding and skill set of the elements that would be required of them.”
IJS could address those needs for Solo Dance by providing feedback with the protocol plus demonstrating how the elements and skills required in couple dance would be judged.
The National Solo Dance Series adopted the International Judging System in 2018. Millier had prepared the program for this day from the beginning.
“It was always the goal; we had to wait for the timing to be just right to move it to the new scoring system. It really helped in setting it apart from free skating programs with no jumps.”
At the 2019 Final, Millier felt justified when he saw officials clearly identify it as an ice dance event.
“It took many years to get to that point; I’m pretty excited about the progress we’ve made,” he added.
IJS ADVOCATES – A COACH / A SKATER
The Solo Dance community endorsed IJS as fairer and more objective.
Alina Ponomarova, (U.S. national and international ice dance coach and choreographer) shared her observations of the effect IJS has had on solo dance from the perspective of a coach.
“I think that implementing IJS in solo dance played a crucial role in its growth. When we had the 6.0 system, so many times it was hard to understand where a skater’s placement came from and to explain it to them. It was discouraging for skaters who worked very hard, but after the performance didn’t know what they can do to improve.”
“Now with the IJS protocols, skaters can see what areas they have to work on, and it is more motivating. With the adoption of the IJS system, the quality of skating has improved tremendously and become more competitive. As in many sports, the implementation of this system has taken Solo Dance to a higher level.”
Solo dancer, Emily Chang also voiced strong support for IJS in her 2018 blog for ice-dance.com.
“Personally, I was very happy and excited to have IJS implemented as the official scoring system for solo dance. I believe the old 6.0 judging system was extremely subjective and difficult for judges to properly evaluate skaters, especially those competing in a large group.
“Judges simply had to rank each skater relative to others in order of who they thought was the best overall performer without giving credit for those who executed certain difficult elements well. Often judges were unable to distinguish the best skater after watching 10+ performances in one group.”
“There were also many competitions where a skater would come in first place overall, yet have one judge that voted him/her tenth and another who voted him/her fourth. This wide range of scores just didn’t make sense, resulting in anger and confusion among the competitors.”
“Fortunately, IJS helped clear these discrepancies because each element is now given a certain numerical value where judges reward or deduct points depending on the grade of execution.”
SOLO DANCE FOLLOWS THE LEADER
The adoption of IJS scoring by NSDS brought a structure to solo dance that more closely mirrored couple dance. According to Millier, it should continue as SDS evolves.
“We always watch to see what changes the ISU makes to calling specifications for elements; we make similar changes if they work for solo skaters.”
“We try to keep them as close as possible to make it easier for our technical panels. It’s very difficult if you use different rules for the very same element from couple to solo dance.”
One example of solo dance replicating a popular couple dance element was the introduction of choreographic movements to solo dance.
“In the 2019 season, the choreographic character step, which has been a big hit with skaters and officials, replaced the choreographic stop,” Millier explained. “It’s often the highlight of the program.”
“This season  we added the Choreographic Sliding Movement using ISU rules. However, we have yet to see them now that our season has sadly been wiped out due to the pandemic.”
“The UK uses the Choreographic Spinning Movement, but since we are trying to limit the number of elements that may be more iconic to singles skating, we are holding off adding that,” Miller noted. “We may vary on a few rules if we feel it’s best for our skaters here in the States.”
ON THE HORIZON
John Millier, the current USFS Solo Dance Chairman, has guided the Series since its inception a decade ago. He continues to have a vision for its role on both the national and international stages.
“Domestically we’d like to see this 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 U.S. Figure Skating. This is exactly how Theater on Ice and Showcase came to be.”
“On a broader scale, I am working with a group of officials from approximately seven different countries in an effort to align our rules so we can have international events. That has been a goal of mine since the beginning as well, and this year we made the first step towards that by forming our international working group.”
“I have looked at the new ISU rules, and there are several that will absolutely work for us. I think the skaters and coaches will be very happy about some of them.”
As for the judging system, Miller foresees no scoring changes in the near future.
“At some point as we add more levels to elements and the technical score becomes more and more important, we will have to look at the balance between the components and technical score, but that is still a year or two off. We are always updating calling specifications, but that doesn’t directly change the overall scoring system.”
A POSITIVE GRADE
“Solo dance competitions have become increasingly competitive among skaters. The Solo Dance Series created by USFS has satisfied a great interest and continues to develop at a good pace,” Alina Ponomarova said.
“The popularity and high number of skaters involved has continued to be a huge strength of the program,” John Millier concluded.
The second article in the Solo Dance series will include interviews with some of the young coaches who are developing programs across the United States.