How To Find an Ice Dance Partner: Then and Now


by Morgan Matthews Pennington

IDC is excited to welcome Morgan to our journalist team. Morgan brings a wealth of first-hand knowledge from her time as an elite competitive ice dancer and  we are grateful she is willing to share her experiences with us and our audience. In her first series of articles, titled Beyond the Performance, Morgan shares her insights on various topics, including the search for a partner, developing a program and more.

It’s spring again! Time to plant new flowers, put the winter clothes away, start mowing the lawn, and if you’re an un-paired ice dancer, it’s time to search for a partner! The Solo Ice Dance Series season has just begun as the qualifying season has ended, so those interested in finding a partner will be strutting their stuff extra hard at solo dance competitions around the globe. And for those who have split with their partners from the previous season, their coaches will be calling their coach friends and setting up partner auditions.

The process of finding an ice dancer partner has gone through some slight iterations since I found my first Ice Dance partner in 1997, but much remains the same. Most notably, there are still many more available female ice dancers than male ice dancers. And as long as this is true, there will be a troubling power imbalance between female and male ice dancers looking for partners. Also, since coaches often act as brokers between ice dancers looking for partners, this takes even more power away from female ice dancers. A prospective female ice dance partner has to not only please a prospective partner and their coaches, but also her own coaches in order to get a partner audition. 

The issue of having coaches act as sole brokers between prospective ice dance partners was partially alleviated when (IPS) was created in 2003 by former national ice dance medalist, Augie Hill. The IPS website, whose management was transferred to and Figure Skaters Online in 2021, allowed both ice dancers and pair skaters searching for partners to create a profile, upload a photo of themselves, add personal stats, provide contact info, and even state their goals. This website was a game changer. Not only did it allow one to see a much broader range of prospective partners in the US, but it quickly grew to include skaters from abroad. According to coach and former Italian Junior Ice Dance Champion, Matteo Zanni, coaches in Italy still rely heavily on a combination of IPS and scouting at solo dance competitions to find prospective partners. Also, IPS opened the possibility for prospective partners to contact one another directly, without having a coach act as broker. Though most skaters still seem to list their coaches as a primary contact on the website, I wish more skaters would opt for direct contact, since this allows for a more free, unbiased flow of communication. 

The National Solo Dance Series, which started in 2010, provided another platform for ice dancers who hadn’t yet found a partner to be seen by top coaches who might have a match for them. Coaches continue to use National Solo Dance Series competitions as scouting opportunities, as Matteo suggested above. This concept is not new. Solo ice dance competitions have existed for a long time. And I can recall watching male solo ice dance competitions in Illinois when I was 9-10 years old and directly approaching ice dancers that I was interested in trying out with. However, those solo ice dance competitions consisted of compulsory dances only. The National Solo Dance Series added rhythm dance, free dance, and shadow dance events to the mix. This made solo dance a lot more fun and fulfilling. So fulfilling that many solo ice dancers gave up their partner searches entirely to focus on their solo dance career. Solo dance has grown rapidly in numbers since then and the caliber of skating has quickly risen as well. This year, the ISU officially recognized solo ice dance as a discipline and the first international competitions are being held this season. Solo ice dance is still a great way to find a partner when you’re first starting out, but it also has strong merits as a standalone sport. 

When I searched for a partner back in the late ‘90s, the most common way to do so was to attend the ice dance partner audition event at the U.S. Championships. This event was a great help for many female ice dancers and their parents, especially, who would otherwise have had to travel all over the country for partner auditions, since it was customary for the female to travel to the potential male ice dance partner’s home ice rink for an audition. This was both time consuming and very expensive for female ice dancers, especially when their coaches wanted to attend. In this case, the parents of a female ice dancer would have to pay for travel and lodging for several people just for one audition. In my case, as the daughter of two elementary school teachers, this meant eating rice and beans for weeks after an audition. As Katherine Copley, four time Lithuanian Ice Dance Champion who found her partner Deividas Stagniunas at the 2006 US Championships partner audition, puts it, “I think it was a good experience since you could travel once for multiple tryouts.” The event was not only convenient but very successful. Many teams who paired up at the event went on to achieve great success in ice dance. But the event was not without its flaws. 

When I arrived at the ice dance partner audition at the 2000 U.S. Championships, I was given a number to wear on my back. As I recall, when it was time to take the ice, the event organizers played compulsory dance music and the girls skated around and performed for the boys, who stood at the boards either alone or with their coaches. When one of the boys decided that they liked one of the girls, they went over to the organizer, who announced the girls’ numbers over the speaker. The selected girl would go over to the organizer who would point her to the boy who wanted to try skating with her. She would smile, perhaps curtsy at the boys’ coaches, and listen as either the boy or his coaches told her what to do. Looking back, it reminds me of a cross between cotillion and a deli counter, except that the commodities were adorned in various shades of tight, sparkly spandex. I was a very thin, flexible and flashy skater, plus I wore a low-backed red velour number to garner extra attention, so I got picked a few times. One of the boys I tried out with was Maxim Zavozin, who eventually became my long term ice dance partner. Several weeks went by after the event before I heard back from Maxim’s coaches about a second, in-person audition. Before we heard back, my mother assumed I did not get picked by Maxim because I did not flirt with him after the on-ice portion of the audition, which she thought she saw another girl doing. I was 13 years old and not at all versed in the art of flirting, a side effect of years of homeschooling, so I couldn’t imagine how that would have worked, but I felt bad for falling short nevertheless. 

For a second audition, I traveled to Florida to audition with Maxim. I knew that I would have to move there if we decided to form a partnership. This was the expectation for female ice dancers at the time. The girls went to the boys. One exception was for girls who trained under a top coach at a training center that attracted ice dancers, both female and male, from around the country. The main example of this at the time were the girls who trained under Igor Shpilband at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield, Michigan. Prior to forming a partnership with Maxim, I traveled to a different kind of audition in Bloomfield, where Shpilband and his then coaching partner, Elizabeth Coates, assessed my qualities and determined whether I was worthy of their tutelage. Shpilband and Coates decided I was a suitable match for their training program and I had planned to move to Michigan when Maxim reached out to me about a second audition. My parents considered whether a move to train with Shpilband and Coates in Michigan was a better option than moving to Florida to partner with Maxim, since the Shpilband/Coates coaching duo’s relative fame and reputation of forming championship teams was much greater than that of Maxim’s coaches at the time. We decided that, for me, Maxim was a better option. And the decision came down to money. 

At the time of my decision to move to Florida to partner with Maxim, it was a common practice for Russian ice dance coaches, like Igor Shpilband, to contact their coach friends in Russia and nearby countries to arrange to import an ice dance partner from Europe. The US-based coach would select an Eastern European male ice dancer from abroad that, based on traits alone, matched well with one of the US-based coach’s female ice dance students. The US-based female ice dancer would pay for all of the Eastern European male ice dancer’s expenses, including travel to the United States, living costs, coaching fees, ice time fees, naturalization-related expenses including legal fees, and in some cases a salary and other extravagances. My parents could just barely cover my own training costs, let alone even one of the above expenses. When American male ice dancers got wind of this, some of them started demanding to have their expenses paid as well. After all, equal pay is only fair! Maxim, however, did not demand that I pay for any of his expenses. His parents agreed to accept half the coaching costs, which meant that they would volunteer their time to make up the difference since Maxim’s coaches were his parents. There were upsides and downsides to both scenarios, either moving to train with Shpilband and Coates who would select and train a partner for me, or partner with Maxim and train under his parents in Florida, but the economics made clear which decision was most viable for me. 

My story aside, there is a clear gender divide in the search for an ice dancer partner. Female ice dancers have to go to much greater lengths to find a partner than male ice dancers. Male ice dancers hold almost all the bargaining power in the ice dance partner search game. Nevertheless, when it comes down to creating a successful partnership, both partners have to match in skill, style, personality, and work ethic. I was able to overcome my economic disadvantages and find a great partner in Maxim, who saw an excellent opportunity for a long lasting partnership in me, and not just an opportunity to pay his way for the next few years. 

The most challenging time to find a partner is when an ice dancer is just starting out. Just like finding your first job, it’s tough to convince someone to take you on when you don’t have much on your resume. This is when offers of financial assistance speak the loudest to prospective partners. At this stage, most skaters are too young to generate an income to pay for their training expenses through coaching. And it takes many years of training and a track record of competitive success before Team USA funding becomes available to skaters. Female ice dancers, like myself, who can’t or won’t offer economic incentives to a prospective partner have to work twice as hard to find a partner, especially when male ice dancers typically compare multiple offers before selecting a partner, even before they have a track record of competitive success. 

Anton Spiridonov, who competed internationally for Team USA with partner Lorraine McNamara and ultimately placed 6th at the 2023 US Championships said of his latest partner search. 

“Of course being a male in ice dance, you’re put in an advantageous position when looking for a partner. Before I teamed up with Lorraine, not a lot of people really knew me, but being a boy in this sport, you’re in high demand and will always get offers from girls and their coaches.”

According to Anton, after his split from Lorraine McNamara prior to the 2023-24 season.

“This time around, it was exceptionally simple and fast. Having took part in the Grand Prix circuit and competing/medaling at other international events, you’re quite a bit more in the spotlight. I’ve received an overwhelming amount of offers, many of them were very interesting.”

According to Anton, success on the international stage garnered multiple enticing offers from prospective partners, but skill and communication have been the ultimate driver of his latest partner search. 

It can take many attempts to find the right ice dance partner. Watching teams like Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, as well as Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir rise to the top of ice dance podiums can give one the impression that it’s necessary for a team to form when both skaters are very young and stay together for multiple decades in order to achieve success. This is simply not the case for most ice dancers. Emily Bratti, 2024 US national ice dance bronze medalist with partner Ian Somerville describes her quest for a partner.

“I’ve had so much experience with looking for partners throughout my career. I’ve competed with four different partners including Ian, but half of them were only for a couple months. I only started competing in ice dance with a partner back in 2017.”

Finding the right mix of skating skill, work ethic, communication style, coaching preference, economic circumstances, and location requires trial and error. And sometimes the right match isn’t immediately obvious.  

“My next partnership, which was Ian, was completely different than the rest. We had just left our previous coaches and previous partners, and both wanted to take a break from skating and competing. We had been close friends for the past three years. At random times in the past few years, we had practiced together during stroking classes and for fun when we didn’t have partners. Everything clicked those first times we skated together, it was kind of surreal. It felt like skating with someone you’ve been partners with for 10 years. I think after that we both knew that we could do very well together. At the time, Ian hadn’t finished growing yet and we were the exact same height. Our coaches at the time didn’t allow the partnership. But anyway, in 2021 we both started skating at the same rink for fun, Dmytri Ilin’s rink, and decided to practice together. We pretty much decided on our own that we wanted to be partners, and Dmytri supported us.”

In the end, Emily and Ian fought to skate together because it felt right to them. Emily describes what did and didn’t work in her search for the right partner.

“When I reflect back on what worked and what didn’t work in my various partnerships, I can confidently say that the most important thing of all was finding someone you can be friends with and who shares the same work ethic and goals. I’ve had talented partners before but the partnerships did not work out because it wasn’t mentally sustainable. Ian and I definitely agree on this and have had similar experiences. It makes us appreciate our partnership even more and we both give this advice (to) anyone who is struggling finding the right partner.”

The makings of a successful partnership aren’t always clear on paper. Just as many have tried and failed to boil down the elements that add up to a successful marriage, there is no exact formula for a successful ice dance partnership. Searching IcePartnerSearch for a prospective partner is a good start, and listening to coaches’ feedback after an audition is important, but ultimately ice dancers have to listen to their gut when selecting a partner. After all, if you’re going to spend 6-8 hours a day holding hands with another person, that person better be someone that you like. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.