Solo Dancing in the Arizona Desert

by Anne Calder | Photo by MeLanie Heaney

Naomi Lang is the Directer of Solo Dance at the Ice Den in Chandler, Arizona. Between 1998-2003,  Lang and partner, Peter Tchernyshev were five-time U.S. National Champions, two-time Four Continents gold medalists, five-time World and 2002 Olympic competitors.

Lang currently lives in Gilbert, Arizona with her five children and husband, Jeffrey Strong. She is enrolled as a member of the Karuk Tribe of California and is the first female Native American athlete to compete in the Olympic Winter Games.   

When Lang moved to the Arizona desert over a decade ago, there was no ice dance program in the Valley of the Sun. She held small intro-to-ice-dancing classes on Saturdays at the Gilbert Polar Ice Rink. An early student was Karina Manta, the 2012 Novice Solo Dance Champion prior to heading to Colorado Springs, CO and her eventual partnership with Joe Johnson.

In 2016, Lang moved to the Chandler facility to begin working with freestyle skaters and doing choreography.

“Once I got to know the coaches, I suggested that some of their skaters who had a nice line or a good look for ice dancing try the discipline,” Lang explained. “I was fortunate the coaches let me work with their students. Once they saw results and the skating improved immensely by doing ice dance, I got more and more interested skaters.

“In my first two years, five skaters participated in lower level Solo Dance. Now, eight years later, there are 22 in preliminary to senior plus International pattern.”

“The interest has grown because we have so much success. It starts with technique and basic skating for everybody. If someone comes in from freestyle junior level, I take them all the way back to preliminary ice dance and start them from the beginning to get them where they need to be technically for ice dance. We show them the ropes for basic skating because it’s way different.”

So what has been the source of Lang’s new solo dancers? 

“It’s like a little bit of everything,” Lang said. “It’s from the little girls seeing the older ones skating on their session and thinking it’s beautiful and wanting to do the same,  to people coming in for choreography from out of state. That happens a lot. We even have one girl who travels back and forth from Bozeman, Montana.”

According to Lang, when she first got involved with Solo Dance there weren’t many opportunities for athletes in the discipline. They had to “stay the course” and hope eventually a partner would come along.

“Now the dancers’ mindsets are focused on doing it by themselves. They can get their solo gold medal and don’t need to go the partner route,” she pointed out. “As of late 2022, we have International Solo Dance. It’s really exciting.”

The International competitions for this season haven’t been announced yet, but once they do, Lang and her team will be involved.

The greater Phoenix area claims the only Solo Dance programs in Arizona.

“Our rink in Chandler hosts the biggest one,” Lang noted. “There are also some lower level skaters starting up with Todd Gilles [2005 U.S. Junior Ice Dance Champion with Trina Pratt] at the Scottsdale Ice Den, which is great. We just don’t have the coaches. There’s just Todd and maybe one person in Peoria – just no coaches.”

Lang claims adapting to Solo from Partner Dance wasn’t a difficult transition for her.

“Most things are pretty much the same,” she said. “We still have spins and twizzle sequences. They are trying to mirror partner dance. Whatever they are doing, Solo Dance will do too, which keeps the level super high.”

Lang remembered seeing skating on television when she was young. Athletes no longer have an abundance of competitions and shows to watch and be inspired by the sport’s champions.

“Now we have a lot of camps where we all get together and learn the new Solo Dance rules. The dancers watch each other skate and see what they want to improve. 

“They sometimes bring in higher level skaters. In February at the 5th Annual Solo Dance Camp in Allen, Texas, Lucas Appel, reigning  US Solo Dance Champion demonstrated his amazing speed and incredible edges. He made a great impression on the participants. He’s a good champion for them to look up to.”

Lang has high accolades for the Chandler Ice Den personnel and also the very supportive parents.

“I’m just super blessed to be working at such a great facility that supports us and is behind Solo Dance 100 percent. We are able to have a team. The rink gives us our own ice dance sessions since it’s hard to fill out patterns with so many freestyle skaters on the ice. They do take care of us. I’m so fortunate in that respect.

“They just feed into the other programs – like our Synchro program is huge now. Many of our athletes participate in both programs. We have 11 Synchro Teams and counting…”

“We work year round. As soon as the Solo Dance stops we do Synchro.” 

Lang explained the continuity in disciplines. “Synchro is so cool to watch. All their elements are ice dance elements, so I get to work with them on their twizzles, edge elements etc.”

Not only does she coach Synchro, but the “Skating Mom” actually competes. 

“I skated last year at the Nationals with our Masters Synchro Team, and it was so much fun for me to perform with a bunch of others,” Lang added. “All our Directors are skating in it. All of our Coaches are skating in it. We just have a big family of women who want to skate together and have fun.”

Lang concluded on a positive note.

“I see the program going nowhere but up and being super successful in the future. That’s especially true for Arizona. When it gets hot, there’s nowhere better to escape the heat than the ice rink. I get a lot of interest in skating during the summer, starting now. It took a long time for Arizona to catch on to Solo Dance, but now it keeps getting bigger and bigger. I feel like the luckiest person!”

The National Solo Dance Final will be held September 14-17, 2023 in Chicago, IL.

Please watch for personal stories of some of the athletes who are helping Solo ice dance continue to grow in the Arizona desert.