by Anne Calder | Photos by Daphne Backman

Editor’s note:  With the U.S. Championships taking place this week, we though it was the perfect time to post Anne’s check in with the junior and senior ice dancers at November’s U.S Championship Series event in Alpharetta. As of this posting, Oona and Gage Brown have withdrawn from the event and Isabella Flores announced on Instagram that she and partner Dimitry Tsarevski will also not be competing.

Ice dance has undergone a lot of changes during the past few years. In 2019 the National Qualifying System  (NQS) was introduced. In November, athletes competed at the first Ice Dance Final in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

All the Junior and Senior teams without byes competed together for the remaining US Nationals spots. Juvenile, Intermediate and Novice (JIN) teams vied for the nine positions at each level for the National High-Performance Development Team and an invitation to the inaugural Camp. 

In January 2020, North Carolina hosted both the Championships in Greensboro followed by the Camp in Charlotte. We were all excited about attending Worlds in Montreal, Canada in March. No one thought it would be 18 months before the IDC group would attend another event together.

When the pandemic with all its debilitating effects crippled the world, the skating community held strong and adapted to the multitude of changes in the sport. In the 2021 summer, we began attending events again including   the Dallas Cannon Classic and the Lake Placid Ice Dance International in Norwood, Massachusetts.

The USFS Championship Series replaced the NQS for the 2021-2022 season with competitions scheduled for eight locations Oct. 4 – Nov. 20. Athletes could compete at up to two events in the location of their choice. 

Ice dance qualifying was assigned to the first and last competitions in Blaine, Minnesota October 4-8 and Alpharetta, Georgia November 17-20. 

IDC chose to attend the Georgia site. We arrived on the first day of competition late in the afternoon, but just in time to see the Novice pattern dances. Lots of hugging and a few tears – first time seeing Melanie (Heaney),  since Greensboro back in January 2020. 

The next day was jam packed with the JIN’s Free Dances, followed by the Junior and Senior Rhythm Dances.

Joshua Soto with partner Mila Guberman. Photo by Slava Uchitel

At the Cooler Arena many skaters waited with heavy hearts. Joshua Soto and partner Mila Guberman were supposed to compete in the Junior Rhythm Dance. On November 6, Soto tragically lost his life. Slava Uchitel, Joshua’s coach at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, held the athlete’s photo during a moment of silence and remembrance.

The pattern for the juniors was Blues; the seniors were assigned Midnight Blues. Both levels had to do “Street Dance Rhythms”. The majority chose hip-hop.

Isabella Flores & Dimitry Tsarevski topped the Junior leader board with 65.07 points. They danced to “Oh What a Night for Dancing” by Barry White and “Perm” by Bruno Mars.

An audience favorite was Juniors Kristina Bland & Matthew Sperry’s finger snapping, foot stomping  “Proud Mary” by Tina Turner. Bland described their performance, “We have fun – keep on smiling – just selling it.”

In seniors, all eyes were on the 2020 World Junior Champion Avonley Nguyen and her new partner, Grigory Smirnov.  They earned 66.56 points for their first place performance to a Backstreet Boys medley.  Smirnov is the 2016 Youth Olympic Games gold medalist with his former Russian partner.

Junior Madeline Freeman, Atlanta FSC, who trains with partner Christian Bennett in Leesburg, Virginia, was back skating at her former home rink. Senior Riona Harris, Georgia FSC, trains in Duluth, 20 miles northeast of Atlanta. The cheering audience showed great support for their local athletes.

The next day the Junior and Senior Free Dances closed their qualifying event. It was the last opportunity to catch up with the athletes and discuss their programs and training strategies for the six weeks prior to Nationals.

Rebecca Kersher and Davis Ortonward opened the session with selections from the Aladdin soundtrack. “We think we performed it well,” Kersher said. “We got the most out of it we could.”

Olivia Dietrich and Eduard Pylpenko, who train in Rockville, Maryland with Dmytri Ilin chose “Spanish Castle Tango”, by Del Castillo, “Gulumcan” by Mehmet Cemal Yisilcay, and “El Loco” by Carlos Villalobos, Jr. for their music. “It’s been fun getting to do a new type of dance,” Dietrich said. “It’s forced us to step out of our comfort zone a little and given us confidence to do a Flamenco.”

Romy Malcolm and Noah Larfornara had fun doing their program to “Everybody Hurts” and “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. According to Malcolm, “It was the best skate we’ve done in competition.” As far as training in the next 5-6 weeks, she continued, “We can make things a little more interesting by adding some movements.”

Madeline Freeman and Christian Bennett skated to selections from Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango album. “In our first year together, it was a great way to cap the season,” noted Bennett.” It’s really cool to see how a program could grow in such a short time.”

Siblings Caroline and Brendan Mullen train with the WISA coaches at the ION FSC in Leesburg, Virginia. This season the team has focused on portraying the theme of their program to “Arrival of the Birds” by Cinematic Orchestra and “The Untold”. They’ve concentrated on their flow, speed, lines and upper body movement.

Texas based Vanessa Pham and Jonathan Rogers were disappointed with their combination spin in their Moonlight Sonata program. Coach Roman Zaretzky was very encouraging. “It’s okay, we’ll go home, get some rest, and prepare for Nationals.”

Kristina Bland and Matthew Sperry are first year teammates. He explained their Free Dance. “Kristina is a statue, and I’m a sculptor. I fall in love with the statue because it’s so beautiful. I bring it to life, and we dance together until she must return to being a statue again.” A medley from the Child of Light album by Coeur de pirate navigates the program theme from early love through the dramatic transition back to a statue.

Madeleine Gans and Jim Wang train in Novi, Michigan. The duo partnered in July, so every skate is a learning process. Wang said that they are learning to skate with each other and trying to improve. The music is “I Hear a Symphony” by Cody Fry and “Bloodstream” by Tokio Myers. 

Isabella Flores and Dimitry Tsarevski train with Elena Dostatni in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Their music included “Nuvole Blanche” by Ludovico Einaudi and “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson. “We put out what we had prepared to perform,” Flores said. “We will be putting in a lot of work during this next month to polish our programs and give them added depth. We are trying to build upon the story within the music and reflect it as we skate.”

Helena Carhart and Volodymyr Horovyi train in Estero, Florida with Marina Zoueva and Ilya Tkachenko. Their music is “The Cheek of Night” and “Forbidden Love” by Abel Korzeniowski. “We’ve really been working with our connection with the judges and each other,” Carhart said. “I think we really accomplished that.”

Angela Ling & Caleb Wein danced to “April” by the Lumineers and “Can’t Pretend” by Tom Odell. The team wants to make changes in the Free Dance transitions. “That will be our priority,” Wein said. They’ll probably be heading to Michigan to work with Charlie White, their choreographer. “I don’t think [RD Choreographer] Greg Zuerlein wants to work with transitions,” laughed the duo. 

Elliana and Ethan Peal train in Nashville, Tennessee with their father, former ice dancer, Rob Peal. After their opening pose, their music to “Rise Up” by Andra Day, “Unsteady” by x Ambassadors and ”Follow You” by Imagine Dragons began skipping. They switched to a DVD., but then it began playing at a slower than normal speed. “We’re not sure what happened,” Ethan said “but it definitely hurt our score.”

Leah Neset and Artem Markelov are coached by Elena Dostatni in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Joel Dear choreographed the program to “My Immortal” by Evanescence and “In the End” by Linkin Park (Tommie Profitt version). At their JGP in Krasnoyarsk, RUS, Markelov’s parents travelled 2400 miles from Volzhsky, RUS to see their son compete for the US for the first time. He moved to Colorado alone in 2020 at age 16.

All the Alpharetta Juniors will compete at the US National Championships. Two more teams will join them.

Oona Brown & Gage Brown earned a bye with their JGPF placement. Their music is “Exogenesis: Symphony, Part 1: Overture” and “I Belong to You (+Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix) by Muse.

Jenna Hauer & Benjamin Starr qualified at the Blaine, Minnesota Championship Series event. Their music choice includes selections from the Crimson Peak soundtrack: “Edith’s Theme”, “Credits” and “Allerdale Hall.”

During a brief intermission, the Junior medalists received their awards: Flores & Tsarevski (gold), Carhart & Horovyi (silver), Lang & Wein (bronze) and Neset & Markelov (pewter).

Meanwhile, the first group of Seniors began warming up their Free Dances. 

Cayla Cottrell and Uladzislau Palkhouski began the final session. The Estero, Florida based team skated to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.

Riona Harris and Tyler Vollmer skated to selections composed by David Hirschfelder for the Dressmaker film soundtrack. “This is my first time competing in ice dance,” Harris said. “I really enjoyed it and felt into the program.”

Cara Murphy and Josh Levitt were very happy with their performance to a medley from Ghost, The Musical Soundtrack. “This is a whole new world for us,” a teary Murphy said. “We’ve been working on skating faster and staying over our feet,” added Levitt. “The judges have been after us all season to be faster, faster.  We definitely achieved that. It made a really big difference in our skating.”

Koncius & Shchepetov skate their free dance in Alpharetta.

Raffaella Koncius and Alexei Shchepetov danced to Amelie selections. Koncius moved to Florida from California and Shchepetov from Philadelphia in July to train together with Marina Zoueva. “This season is just a get together – a building block for us,”  Shchepetov said. “Right now we’re setting the foundation, putting our names out there, and showing what we can do.” 

Based at the Skating Club of Boston, Klara Kowar and TJ Carey are coached by former ice dance, Michael Bramante. The new team danced to “Somewhere in Time” and “Song for the Little Sparrow.” “We had a setback earlier in the season with an injury that kept us out of the first qualifier,” Carey explained. “We’re happy to have come here and put out two programs we’re proud of.”

Avonley Nguyen and Grigory Smirnov performed to “Dusk to Dawn” by ZAYN featuring Sia. The team trains in Novi, Michigan with Igor Shpilband. Maxwell Gart, Nguyen’s first partner and with whom she won the intermediate silver medal at the 2016 US Championships, congratulated them in the Kiss & Cry.

The final team to compete was Livvy Shilling and Ryan O’Donnell. The Novi, Michigan based duo, danced to selections from the Funny Girl soundtrack. New partners, Shilling and O’Donnell made their competitive debut at the LPIDI in Norwood, Massachusetts back in mid August, where they skated their Rhythm Dance.

The senior medalists included: Nguyen & Smirnov (gold), Koncius & Shchepetov. (silver), Shilling & O’Donnell, (bronze), Cottrell & Palkhouski (pewter) The podium teams plus Murphy and Levitt qualified for the 2022 US National Championships.

The following senior teams had previously received byes:

Emily Bratti & Ian Somerville, Christina Carreira & Anthony Ponomarenko, Molly Cesanek & Yehor Yehorov, Madison Chock & Evan Bates, Caroline Green & Michael Parsons, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, Lorraine McNamara & Anton Spiridonov, Eva Pate & Logan Bye, and Katrina Wolfkostin and Jeffrey Chen.

Fifteen junior and 15 Senior teams will compete in Nashville, Tennessee January 3-9. Three senior teams will be selected to represent the US at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China February 4-20, 2022.