by Anne Calder | Photos by Daphne Backman and Robin Ritoss
In 2011, USFS officially introduced the National Solo Dance Series. NSDS adopted the International Judging System (IJS) in 2018 which added structure to the discipline and more closely mirrored couple dance. ISU element changes were also replicated in solo dance beginning with the addition of the Choreographic Movements in 2019. The same year its name was changed to the current Solo Dance Series (SDS).
Solo dancers compete in three areas: Patterns, Shadow Dance and Combined Dance.
Ice dancers Brooke Tufts and Lucas Appel have alternated as the Senior Solo Combined Dance gold medalists at the last three Finals. Brooke in 2021, Lucas in 2022, Brooke in 2023. Who will emerge in 2024?
“Sometimes you need defeat in order to make you a stronger skater.” – Lucas Appel, This Week in Skating podcast
Let’s meet Brook and Lucas…
Brooke Tufts was born 20 years ago in Morristown, NJ and trains at Montclair State University with Kristin Fraser and Igor Lukanin. She drives 40 minutes to the rink everyday from her home in a small New Jersey suburb. Brooke’s younger brother plays shortstop on his high school baseball team and is committed to play ball at Longwood College in Virginia.
“I grew up skating freestyle beginning back when I was three-years-old,” Tufts said. “I don’t remember a day without being in an ice rink – I was there more than I was home. I switched to ice dance when I was 14 due to a serious spinal injury.
“The Doctor basically told me I couldn’t skate anymore – I couldn’t jump anymore,” shared Tufts. “I didn’t listen to my Doctor and instead switched to ice dance. I didn’t want to do Solo. I thought it was for girls who really couldn’t skate – who were more recreational – who didn’t want to or couldn’t jump. It was a great outlet for them, but I wanted a partner.
“As time went on, my coaches and I realized trying to find a partner was very difficult. They gave me an extra push to compete solo. It was the best decision we made for my skating.”
In 2019, Tufts placed fifth in Junior Combined Solo at her first Dance Final. Unfortunately, the 2020 Series was canceled due to Covid-19. She won the 2021 Senior Combined when it resumed post pandemic and also in 2023.
Lucas Appel was born in Brooklyn, NY and lived in New Jersey prior to moving to Florida with his family. His younger sister, Olivia who trains in Colorado Springs has qualified for the 2024 Midwestern Sectional Championships in Novice Women’s Singles. Lucas is coached at the International Skating Academy in Estero, FL by Marina Zoueva, Johnny Johns, Ilya Tkachenko and Yelena Sokolova. Steven Belanger, his first Lake Worth, FL Coach assists in his training.
“I started skating at the Palm Beach Skate Zone in Florida at age eight after watching my sister perform in an exhibition,” he said. “I was always interested in performing and dancing, but not on ice. In the exhibition I saw two male skaters perform to Beetlejuice and Pirates of the Caribbean. Afterwards I asked my mom to sign me up for classes.”
When the Appel siblings approached the Juvenile competitive level, Lucas thought he was not the best jumper, especially compared to his sister. He didn’t feel prepared to give freestyle performances for which he would be proud.
“I considered hanging up my competitive skates and focusing my attention to the current arts school I was attending, but my coach at the time, Steven Belanger recommended I try Solo Dance. I had no expectations going into it, but after my first competition, I knew this was for me.”
That was 2018, and he won the Juvenile Combined and Bronze Pattern Dance events at his Solo Dance Final debut.
He then began skating with Audrey-Kate Johnson at the intermediate level while simultaneously competing in Solo.
At the September 2019 SDS Final in Provo, UT, the Floridian won gold in Novice Solo Combined and Pre-Silver Pattern. Two months later he and his partner won Intermediate pewter at the inaugural USFS Final in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
“It was a crazy 2019-2020 season,” noted Appel. “I started competing in April and didn’t stop until November.”
During the Covid-19 forced cancelation of the 2020 SDS and lower level ice dance competitions, he moved up to Junior Solo and to Novice Team Dance with new partner, Anabelle Larson. In March 2021, they won gold at the USFS Virtual Championships and qualified for the National Development Team.
“Doing both disciplines at the same time was a lot of fun and helped improve my skating skills across all fields,” Appel recently told IDC. “A disadvantage with this competitive plan is that it takes so much time and is a lot to have on your plate at one time. If you can handle all these events and perform them to the best of your ability, then all power is up to you! For me…those days of doing two or more events is done.”
Appel explained his thoughts on what was the biggest difference between the two disciplines. “When you’re with a partner, it’s two different people and two different work ethics. In solo dance, you know you can push yourself to the limit because you know what the limits are.”
At the 2023 Dallas Classic, IDC asked Appel if he might return to couple ice dance. He responded, “I love doing Solo Dance, but if someone pops up, and it’s the right time and place I’m not opposed to it, but I do prefer Solo. I feel I got started in ice dance because of Solo, and it’s just carried me through – and I just love it.”
Let’s ask Brooke and Lucas…
What is the thought process in choosing your program music and choreography? Is it what you like or what you think will score better with the judges and audience?
Brooke: When my coaches and I first start the process for new music, we think about what will work best for me as a skater, and what we think the judges will like. If a skater doesn’t like their music, no matter how amazing the choreography is, it won’t be the best program it could be. Taking what the skater likes and what the judges like can be tricky at times, but we always find a way to make it work.
Lucas: The music selection process is always very tricky. You want to skate to something that will please the masses, while most importantly bringing you joy to perform. I always choose my music by asking if I would enjoy skating to this for an entire year. I want to skate to pieces of music I feel connected to. After selecting the music, the choreography process is always trial and error by trying new things that will be unexpected to the audience, whilst also trying to navigate the signature moves that always stick out in your performances. With choreography I do the same way as I do for music selections… Would I enjoy doing this for a full year?
My coaches are great at always innovating and changing my routines based on what the feedback is after each competition. For choreography, my coaches and I do what we think fits the best, but we listen to the judges and their critiques of what needs to be improved.
What is your favorite position to skate at competitions?
Brooke: In figure skating it’s typical that the top 5-6 skaters will be in the final warmup at larger events, but I truly think it doesn’t matter what your start order is in a group. Growing up I always preferred being towards the end of the group so then I could see the final result quicker but, as I got older I’ve realized it does not matter when I skate. What matters is the impression I leave on the judges. I go into every event preparing to have a great skate. From that point on, it’s up to the judges.
Lucas: This season I skated in every position imaginable! I skated first after my warmup at the Dallas Classic, right in the middle of the pack at my first competition of the season, and dead last at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships! I am used to it all! I prefer two different ways to go out to compete. For the Rhythm Dance I typically like to skate earlier in the group. I like to get the first routine done and out of the way to get my feel for the competition. For the Free Dance I typically like skating later in the event as I feel more comfortable after already performing the Rhythm Dance. When I skated last in Lake Placid, I felt calm and collected beforehand. Though… I do not like skating first after the warmup, as I like to have some time to rest.
When Solo Dance adopted the IJS scoring system, it brought structure that more closely mirrored couple dance. Which added Choreographic Movements are your favorites. How else has the IJS system helped Solo Dance?
Brooke: Choreographic Movements in couples dance are extremely creative, so when it was brought over to solo dance it was really interesting to see each skater’s creative twist. My favorite Choreographic element would be the Choreographic step sequence or the Choreographic sliding move. It’s a little hard to pick between both elements. The Choreographic step sequence can make a program, because there are no requirements besides going board to board. You can make the choreography as different and creative as you would like. It is really the perfect opportunity to show the theme of your program. The choreographic sliding movement can be difficult without a partner, but I think it’s so cool to see what people can create by themselves.
Lucas: In 2018, when the IJS system was first introduced, it was the first year I ever competed in Solo Dance at the Juvenile level. This was such a big draw for me to do Solo Dance as I was excited to get a detailed score and feedback and what I can look forward to improving on. The IJS aspect being added to Solo Dance is my favorite addition to the sport, and it has helped Solo Dance. I feel many more people are attracted to the idea of achieving a score and getting detailed feedback on how to improve technically and component wise.
What are you anticipating about the addition of International Solo Dance?
Brooke: It will be amazing to get to know solo dancers from other countries. I’m hoping that even more skaters will be interested in solo dance when it’s officially international. It also opens up opportunities for smaller countries. We will see many skaters from all over the world. Being able to say I am on Team USA for solo ice dance would be a long awaited dream, and I’m excited to see how far this dream can go.
Lucas: I am so incredibly excited for the International Solo Dance scene! I was a member of Team USA in couples Ice Dance so I am hoping and anticipating that once Solo Dance is on the international scale it can, at least in the short term, open up international assignments! I would love to be assigned to a few international events representing Team USA such as Bavarian Open or Egna Dance Trophy. Long Term I hope to see Solo Dance at a World and Olympic level!
What words of advice would you give a youngster considering Solo Dance?
Brooke: I say to anyone who is just starting in solo dance, be creative. In freestyle and pairs you are focused on jumps and crazy amazing lifts. In couples there is so much creativity, but you also have a partner to help. In solo, it is open to many options and different variations of elements you can perform, so don’t be afraid in practice to fall all over the place trying to be creative because you never know what your full creative potential is until you try.
Lucas: I would advise a youngster now considering Solo Dance to trust the process. It is a very long and winding road, but the people, places, and things you will experience being a member of this community is so rewarding! If you told a thirteen-year-old me that I would be a Senior U.S. Champion and Senior National Silver Medalist, my mind would be blown! I would also tell the person to have fun! That is the most important part about skating! Enjoy and live in the moment!
What has been your favorite Solo Dance experience?
Brooke:This is a hard question since I have had so many great solo dance experiences, but I would say my favorites have been my 2021 and 2023 season. Yes, of course because I won both Nationals they were great experiences, but in 2021 I really wasn’t going into it with much expectation. It was only my second season competing in solo dance due to Covid, but I truly changed as a skater in that season. Seeing how much I had improved and matured is great to look back on.
2023 was a bit of a tough season. I had gotten patella tendinitis, and I couldn’t properly train for about two months. Three weeks before nationals I got bronchitis. Knowing the support system I had to push me through all of the ups and downs really kept me going, and that’s why its one of the favorite experiences.
Lucas: My favorite Solo Dance experience is tied. My first one is winning the 2022 U.S. Senior Title and the second is taking home the gold at the 2023 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. The 2022 Solo Dance Championships were such an amazing core memory to create! That season was jam packed with so many talented skaters that my goal was to be able to just medal at Nationals. To let alone win and break a National record with my score was such a dream come true! To know all my work that season paid off was truly something special!
The other Solo Dance experience that was incredibly meaningful to me was when I won in Lake Placid this past year. To compete in such a historic site for the first time and perform in front of so many of my friends and have such an amazing support system there was truly special!
Let’s discuss skating rivalries…
Over the years skating fans have taken sides in many rivalries including the “Battle of the Brians”, Michelle (Kwan) vs Tara (Lipinski) and Johnnie (Weir) vs Evan (Lysacek). Recently, USA’s Nathan Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu’s race to be the first to complete a 4 Axel in competition captured the excitement of international fans.
There is great camaraderie in the Solo Dance Community, but it’s also a competitive sport. Your past two seasons’ scores have been extremely close. You’ve also swapped the gold medals. Fans are beginning to call it a “rivalry”. What are your thoughts?Brooke: I think the “rivalry” has brought so many new viewers to solo dance which is exactly what the sport needed. Not many people knew about solo dance, and people never really watched it or wanted to learn more about it. Now with this “rivalry” seeing people want to watch and be more involved with the sport is amazing.
Lucas: Brooke and I are very hard working and talented skaters. It’s great to have healthy, friendly competition and someone constantly pushing you to be better! It’s fantastic to have a win, but having a loss pushes me. I go back to practice and work even harder.
How does this “rivalry” personally affect your preparation as a competitor, both long term and on the day of the event?
Brooke: I’ve always been a competitive person so having the extra little kick to work a little harder everyday in practice is extremely helpful to me. On the day of the event it’s exciting to see the people that come in to watch both of us perform. I would say the “rivalry” is nothing but a motivator for me.
Lucas: This “rivalry” between Brooke and myself affects my preparation as a competitor long term as it pushes me in practice to be better. As we both are very strong skaters, sometimes it can come down to the smallest details that will determine who will win or come in second. Long term it prepares me in practice to always keep going and pushing to be better and stronger. On the day of the event it affects me by trying to deliver what I do in practice on the competition ice and seeing if what my coaches and I are doing pays off.
“Rivalry” in sport is an excellent motivator for individual and team participants. Social media, however, has allowed enthusiastic fans to generate good and bad vibes toward the skating community. Does this atmosphere ever affect you as an athlete?
Brooke: I always tell other skaters that whatever is happening off the ice to leave it there, and I keep the same mentality for myself. Once I step onto the ice whatever is going on, on social media or in my personal life stays off the ice. People on social media are open to have their own opinions and whether they are good or bad, I know that the work I have put in as an athlete has paid off, and that’s truly all that matters. Besides, every good figure skating competition has fans who support one skater more than the other. It only makes for a good competition.
Lucas: The fan atmosphere of having a “rivalry” in sport is a double-edged sword. I love the support I have gotten over the past two Senior years and everyone is continuing their support towards me and my skating career! It means the world to me that my skating can make a connection with fans and other members of the skating community!
Although, with the good comes the bad as well. I tend to steer away from online forums and blogs, but unfortunately sometimes you see negative comments. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it is up to the person leaving the comment whether they want it to be hurtful or constructive. Unfortunately, we cannot control what people think or post. The fan atmosphere is great when people are supportive of certain skaters and create support in the sport, but it is important to know for all fans of any sport out there… it is never okay to demean some one or their work.
How would you tell the Brooke / Lucas story from your perspective?
Brooke: In any sport you need something or someone to push you. Personally, I know that if Lucas and I did not compete against each other I wouldn’t be the skater I am. The Brooke and Lucas story is a story the solo dance world needed. We are both great skaters that I believe strive for the same goals. Always wanting to beat our own scores, put on the best performances, improve at every competition and most of the time, we are both successful at this. I think that younger skaters look up to us and see what they could do in the future, and that pushes us to do more each season. What Lucas and I have accomplished as athletes is amazing and being able to see the younger generations of skaters grow and try to accomplish the same things as us is truly heartwarming.
Lucas: To tell the skating audience the Brooke and Lucas story, I would describe it as an interesting battle. We have very different skating styles and training. One thing we both know how to do well is perform and tell a story. It is always interesting to see the concepts and ideas we come up with for programs and choreography. Our story of being competitors is interesting as we bring different qualities to the table and at some competitions, it comes down to what the judges panel wants to see that day.
Let’s check in with Brooke and Lucas after Nationals…
The 2023 SDS has ended and won’t begin again until the February 2024 Camp in Allen, Texas. What will you be doing during the break in addition to preparing for the next season?
Brooke: Since the 2023 season has ended, I had a nice two week vacation after nationals. During my break I got a phone call from Doug Webster, the Director of Ice Dance International asking me if I would join him and the company to perform my Riverdance for a few shows in Maine, New Hampshire, and the Dick Button Festival of Artistic Skating in Boston. It was truly an amazing experience getting to travel and perform with such fantastic skaters.
Now I am back home preparing for the new season. My coaches and I already had new music picked before nationals so choreography started right away, and I am excited to share them in the next few months.
Lucas: To prepare for the 2024 season, I will be working on two new routines and will continue to work on the notes I received from officials and judges last competition season. I will continue to work on what will need improvement, such as my pacing throughout programs, but I will also work to improve and maintain the quality of my skating which was highly rewarded last season.
Unfortunately, Lucas won’t be in Bloomington, Minnesota for his sister’s Sectional skate, but will be joining his family the following week in Colorado Springs for a Thanksgiving celebration. His training won’t skip a beat since he plans to skate at the World Arena while in Colorado.