by Anne Calder
Oona and Gage Brown were five and seven when they first stepped on the ice at a local Long Island skating rink. Their mother had registered them along with three older siblings in a homeschool group skating class. After attending their older sister’s first competition, the youngsters begged for lessons.
“Oona and I watched captivated from the stands,” Gage noted. “We knew that performing and competing was what we wanted to pursue.”
The youngsters initially did singles but were encouraged to try training together as a team. They were reluctant at first, but soon warmed up to the idea and began taking lessons in pair skating.
“Skating together made us more confident and comfortable performing,” Gage said.
The siblings also began training in ice dance. In 2016 they competed at the intermediate level and placed fourth at the Eastern Sectionals and twelfth at their first US Nationals. Team Brown then moved up to novice.
After placing fifth at the 2018 US Championships, they won the bronze medal in their international advanced novice debut at the Bavarian Open in Oberstdorf, Germany. The team reflected on how the experience affected the development of their life skills and future competitions.
Oona explained, “The international assignment to the Bavarian Open was the first time both of us had been outside of the US. It was also a higher level of competition than we were used to, and it inspired us.”
“We had to change a lot of our program before traveling to Germany [due to international program requirements],” Gage added. “This helped us learn to adapt to any environment and manage potentially stressful situations with ease. Also, it made us work harder to get more opportunities to compete and travel.”
Their work ethic paid off. The next two seasons, Team Brown received Junior Grand Prix assignments in Lithuania, Armenia, Russia and Italy.
In addition to competing internationally, they also improved their placements at US Nationals and in 2020 earned a trip to the World Junior Championships in Tallinn, Estonia where they finished tenth.
“Qualifying for Junior Worlds had been one of our goals since we started representing the US internationally. The experience was amazing, but nothing could compare to the satisfaction of reaching a goal,” Oona said.
The duo was very fortunate to have even competed at the event. Due to COVID-19, it was the last international competition held for over a year. The effect of the virus on the skating world differed by geographical location.
“Living in New York was very challenging at the start as it was one of the first states to lock down and one of the last ones to reopen,” Gage said. “This caused us to take four months off from skating
“Basically the whole world stopped, and while stressful at times, the break gave me time to focus on my hobbies,” Oona added. “I also had fun with off-ice dance classes that we attended over the summer.”
The ISU recognized that it would be too difficult for many skaters to properly prepare and/or learn new programs. In April 2020, the Council announced the Rhythm Dance for juniors and seniors would remain the same as the previous season.
Team Brown kept The Boy from Oz musical rhythm dance but choreographed a new free dance to Australian singer, Marlisa’s cover to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”.
While competitions including the JGP Series were canceled, they did compete at two virtual domestic events.
In September, athletes submitted videos of their Rhythm and Free Dances to the International Selection Pool (ISP) Points Challenge to be proctored by national and international judges plus ISU-level officials. The Browns placed second in the junior ice dance division and earned a bye to the 2021 national championships.
The USFS Toyota Championship Series was held virtually in December. Team Brown topped the junior leader board with a 94.00 winning score for their free dance.
Meanwhile, former USFS ice dancer and current international videographer, Jordan Cowan was contemplating recording skaters in a training exercise in New York City’s Bryant Park.
In a recent interview with IDC, Cowan reflected on the genesis of the video idea and the outdoor session itself.
“It’s been a tough year for internationally competitive skaters, and I want to showcase as many skating routines this year as possible. Oona and Gage Brown are New York natives, so I’ve watched them develop over the years, and I know their coaches, Joel Dear and Inese Bucevica very well, so they were the first people I asked.”
And so it came to be that Oona Brown & Gage Brown performed their “Nothing Else Matters” free dance outdoors on Fifth Avenue in the shadow of the New York Public Library on a crisp November morning?
“It was very early,” Cowan began. “We got there at 6:30 a.m., an hour and a half before the public session opened. I walked over from my [New York City] house, and Team Brown drove all the way in from Long Island.”
“It started dark and the sun rose during our session,” Cowan added. “Dealing with constantly changing light outside is difficult, but golden hour can’t be beat.”
“Joel came prepared. He had already adjusted the dancers’ routine ahead of time to the Park’s different ice dimensions,” Cowan noted. “They ran through each segment of their routines with the music first so I could get an idea of where to go before the full run-throughs.”
“A few people were walking and jogging around Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning and anyone who could hear the music playing stopped by,” added the videographer. “A few people stayed the entire time and applauded everything. Team Brown kept the energy up like they were competing for a full house.”
“The siblings were more than capable of doing the entire routine in one take, so that’s what we did. Not only that, they performed their full Rhythm Dance program [yet to be posted] in the same hour.”
“Oona and Gage are exceptional skaters, and Joel [Dear] and Inese [Bucevica] are fantastically meticulous coaches,” Cowan said. “They’re a dream team.”
The videographer confessed that they never anticipated the social media response that was generated, including the over 50,000 hits on a 2019 Team Brown original article posted on ice-dance.com.
“We didn’t expect the video to go super viral,” Cowan continued. “Joel saw it as a training opportunity for them. I just did my best to capture it on camera and make it as accessible online as possible
Oona commented on the opportunity. “This was our first time skating at Bryant Park, which added to the amazing experience.”
“We’re incredibly grateful for the support that has come with the huge response,” Gage said. “Jordan is such a talented videographer/cinematographer, which definitely aided in the appeal of our program. We can’t wait for more opportunities such as this!”
Team Brown’s next adventure was in January at the 2021 National Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. The virtual event was competed in a bubble before cardboard cutouts in lieu of a live audience.
The team placed second and ordinarily would have punched a ticket to the World Junior Championships in Harbin, China, but that was not in the cards for 2021.
“We were both so thankful that Nationals [actually] took place, especially with such uncertain times,” Oona noted.
“Getting to compete in person again was great, especially as our last [live] competition had been ten months previous,” Gage added.
The large block of training time after the National Championships usually allotted to prepare for Junior Worlds was diverted to other projects this year.
“We have used this time to expand our skating skills; the time also allows us to be extra prepared for our upcoming season,” Oona explained. “We have been spending a lot of time improvising both on and off the ice. This helps our choreography process as well as our creativity and flow.”
“We are putting a lot of effort into our choreography process; the extra time definitely helps since we have two programs to create instead of last year’s one,” noted Gage. “We’ve also been touching up our technical skills as well as developing new elements and transitions to hopefully improve on our component mark.”
In spite of the amazing reaction received after the Bryant Park video was released, Team Brown has opted to perform their very popular free dance “Nothing Else Matters” strictly at show appearances this season.
“Our coaches and us feel that to move on and create a new program gives us more opportunities to grow both creatively and allows us to incorporate more skills,” Oona said.
“We feel growth, change and adaptability are important and learning a new program (or two) helps exercise this every year,” Gage added.
The team has also elected not to include the previously mandated Character Step Sequence in their new free dance program.
“Despite how well we performed it, we would like to continue growing as a team with new elements and be able to showcase new materials,” Gage explained.
“Our goals for the upcoming season are to win the title at the 2022 Nationals, as well as to make the podium for all of our JGP assignments. To achieve these goals, I will be working on every detail, both separately and with Gage,” Oona declared.
“We plan on achieving our goals with lots of hard work, training and perfecting the little details. We are also hoping to expand our repertoire of lifts and elements for the coming season,” added Gage.
The Brown siblings have another positive going for them as they aim to accomplish more feats on the ice.
They come from a very musical family. Gage has played the electric bass for about nine years. He sings and plays in a band he started with his two older brothers. He also plays the bagpipes and has participated in several Irish marching bands with Oona, who is a snare drummer.
“Music has definitely helped us with our rhythm-perception and timing” Oona said. “We have found these abilities are crucial, especially in our discipline. These skills are hard to teach so the fact we were always surrounded by music has definitely given us a boost that we are grateful for.”
The Brown siblings are multitalented. Their resumes stretch across a wide spectrum from music to athletics. So what other challenge would Oona Brown and Gage Brown be doing at this time in their young lives if they were not training as ice dancers?
Oona: “I would be focused on my running at a competitive level. I would probably still be playing soccer since I had to give that up for skating.”
Gage: “I would be playing soccer. I’m also a youth competitive soccer referee. Without skating, I would pursue being a professional referee as my career.”
Team Brown has its collective eyes on the prize for the 2021-2022 season. They know what they want, and they are determined to attain it.