Golden Skate

2004 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships

Summer is the season and they’re dancing for a reason in upstate New York. The Adirondacks have been a hotbed of dance activity forever. Not only is the National Museum of Dance located in Saratoga Springs, halfway between New York and Lake Placid, but the New York City Ballet has spent its Julys performing in the spa city for almost 40 years. The Ballet often showcases the talents of aspiring ballerinas like ice dancers Michaelee Scarincio, who appeared in Coppelia in 2003, and Isabella Tobias, who danced in Mozartiana this year.

So it is no surprise that ice dancing, not freestyle skating, is king in Lake Placid in August. That’s where the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships have been held for almost half a century. Every summer, over 500 ice dancers descend on the friendly mountain village to compete, to learn, to teach, to watch and to visit old friends from around the country and around the world. And yes, to gossip. A prime topic this year was the potential match-up of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Peter Tchernyshev. Individuals who had seen them practicing together noted that they were so good they could “win Worlds doing crossovers,” but that the moves in the programs they were practicing looked more like show programs. No official announcement has yet been made as to whether the couple will actually team up for the 2004-05 season.

The Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships are huge. Over 300 skaters competed in more than 70 events in Lake Placid in every possible ice dancing classification from pre-juvenile to senior to open, with solo and shadow dancing thrown in for good measure. Italian coach Walter Rizzo, who formerly coached Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali and now works with Nikolai Morozov’s group in Newington, CT was surprised. “I sent one of my couples a few years ago with another coach and he told me it was big, but I never thought it was this big,” he said. “It’s very exciting to watch and the kids are all very excited. It’s smart policy for the U.S. to develop good skaters without politics. Thirty junior and novice couples is amazing. They will be competitive by 2010.”

A visit to Lake Placid every year allows you to watch as the cute little tykes from pre-juvenile and juvenile dance morph into coltish adolescents in novice and then stunning young heartbreakers in juniors and seniors. Watch long enough and those young dancers mature into National, World and Olympic medallists, like Judy Blumberg and Sergei Ponomarenko, who were acting as the technical consultants for the new judging system in Lake Placid. Later they come back as coaches and proud parents or even as judges. One of the more recent additions to the coaching ranks is Mark Fitzgerald, who now coaches Adrienne Koob-Doddy and Robert Antonelli. The dancers switched amicably from Robbie Kaine and Cheryl Demkowski-Snyder so that they can attend normal high school and not commute several hours back and forth from Delaware every day. Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow were also there, showing off their new baby in between coaching sessions.

Everyone has Lake Placid stories. Venerable coach Ron Ludington reminisced about the times when Barret Brown and Tom Lescinski competed against one another in Lake Placid (Tom usually won.) Brown and Lescinski are now a renowned ice dancing coaching team at the Skating Club of Boston, returning to Lake Placid every year. They always sit quietly together at rink side, like proud grandparents, calmly encouraging their stable of young ice dancers that includes Meghan McCullough and Joel Dear, who just joined their group this year. New Jersey coach David Lipowitz remembered when he competed as a juvenile in the early 1970s. “The two big rinks weren’t here then,” he said, “We just used the 1932 rink. The most fun for me was watching and learning from the seniors who were going to the Olympics. They were like gods to us then.”

Learning is as important in Lake Placid as competing. Skaters have the opportunity to compete in every dance to be skated during the season and get immediate critiques after the event from national and international judges. For junior and senior ice dancers, there are opportunities to be judged under both the current system and the new Code of Points, extremely useful for those competing in international events. Coaches also learn from the critiques and other discussions with judges as to interpretations of new rules, while dozens of trial judges have the opportunity to sharpen their skills and become eligible to judge at various levels.

Several Canadian couples came to take advantage of this rare learning experience, since the Code of Points will be in effect for Canadian Nationals this season. They included a couple of the contenders for the Canadian junior title. Allie Hann-McCurdy and Michael Coreno, finished second in the junior original dance and third in the free in their group, while the new team of Alice Graham and Andrew Poje won both compulsory dances and the original dance in their group and finished third in the free.

Some skaters come only for fun. Many of the ladies who are shadow dancers and solo dancers have been unable to find a male partner so they compete just for enjoyment. Lake Placid is one of the few places they can dance in front of an audience. Michelle Gross of the Essex Skating Club, who is about six feet tall in her skates, is one of them. “I’ve been coming to Lake Placid since I was nine,” she said. “I missed a few years when I went to college and then came back again. It’s hard to find a partner when you’re too tall. But I love to compete here.”

Dancers come from near and far to go to Lake Placid. The only truly local competitor this year was Bryn-Erinn Mooney, a solo dancer from Lake George. Mooney comes to Lake Placid the one night a week when she’s not working to practice her competition dances. “It’s hard to compete against all these dance queens who spend all day at the rink,” said Mooney, who competed in novice, junior and senior solo dance, winning a silver in the novice American Waltz. Needing one more dress for the event, she modified her high school homecoming dress to compete. “It’s tough to go from my little pond to such a prestigious competition. But a lot of my friends came to watch me and see what I’ve been doing the rest of my life when I’m not with them.” Mooney has been competing at the event for the last four years. Although she never found a partner, her competition experience did lead to an invitation to join Miami University of Ohio’s synchronized skating team in the fall.

Former Olympian Chuen Gun Lee of Korea was the farthest competitor from home. After competing for his country at Salt Lake City, Lee moved to Delaware, hoping to dance for the United States. Lee now partners Kate Slattery in senior dance. They fared well in Lake Placid, winning the senior compulsories and taking the bronze in the original and free dances. Jill Bakker of the Netherlands, with partner Jeremy Daniels, was inspired by her first visit to the event. The couple, who skated novice compulsory dances, have only been together for a few weeks. They are coached by former British champion Gary Shortland and hope to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit in the future. “I’ve been watching all day long and learning a lot,” Bakker said. “Now I want to go and practice even more. Everyone is so happy and smiling. You don’t see that in freestyle skating.”

For the newcomer, Lake Placid can be a bit of culture shock. “It’s like a beauty contest with all these girls and all these dresses,” said Tiffany Stiegler, a long-time national pairs competitor with her brother Johnnie. Pair skaters have awfully sparse costumes compared to the luxurious gowns of ice dancers. With hundreds of women competing in several dances, each of which requires a different outfit, the scene in the dressing room must indeed be reminiscent of the Miss America Pageant. “I always wanted to do dance,” said Stiegler, who won the Open Midnight Blues with Sergey Magerovsky in her first ice-dancing event. “I’ve been learning and testing dances all summer.” Stiegler, who is working with Igor Shpilband in Michigan, had at least two other dancers ask to be her partner.

Partner acquisitions are another tradition in Lake Placid. Many dance couples first met each other there. One of the prime reasons to compete in solo dance or open dances is to strut your stuff to potential partners and many tryouts occur during the week. The boys who won solo dances were especially popular, with a plethora of offers from eager young ladies and their partners. Among the many dancers scheduling tryouts were the musically talented Galler-Rabinowitz twins, Arielle and Danielle, who even had an invitation from another set of twins. But you’ve got to keep a close eye on your partner if you have one. Discussing another ice dancer who was at the event as a spectator, one of her fellows cannily noted, “She’s between partners now and looking to see whose partner she can poach.” Another who had lost her partner during the summer explained, “She made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and I wouldn’t match it.” Meow!