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Novak and Kiliakov mold young skaters

Russian coaches succeeding with young dance teams

Students of Novak and Kiliakov at the Wheaton Ice Arena.
Students of Novak and Kiliakov at the Wheaton Ice Arena. (John Markon)

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By John Markon, special to icenetwork.com
(07/03/2008) - Elena Novak has a wonderful command of English, but her Russian roots were showing when she was asked if there was a large "fun" element built into the flourishing teaching and coaching program she and husband Alexei Kiliakov have launched in Wheaton, Md.

"We don't include too many things specifically for fun," Novak said. "I think our skaters appreciate their fun much more when they've worked hard together in training and been through the stress of competition together as well."

Novak and Kiliakov were among the final wave of skaters produced by a state-supported developmental system in the Soviet Union that was unsurpassed in producing world-class pairs and dance teams. If political change hadn't intervened, the former USSR might still be to pairs and dancers as Brazil is to coffee beans.

Novak and Kiliakov, while they notched some notable competitive successes within Russia, never quite broke through the crowd to make their marks internationally. They relocated to England in 1993, where Kiliakov toured with Tatiana Tarasova's Russian All-Stars, and to the U.S. in 1999, where they spent four years in the cast of Disney on Ice.

When injuries and general wear-and-tear forced them off the ice, they landed at the Wheaton Ice Arena, where they set up shop as coaches along with Ukrainian Dmytri Ilin, also a Disney alumnus. All three quickly learned that demand for ice dancing instruction in Washington's Maryland suburbs was far short of the new supply.

"We had maybe two or three adult couples who wanted to practice a little bit in the evenings," said Kiliakov. "We had no young skaters."

Their first assignment: sales.

"In Russia," Kiliakov said, "I think dance was always regarded as a discipline equal to freestyle, pairs or any other kind of skating. Here in America, we had to get away from the idea that dance was something you tried after you did freestyle first."

What the three coaches sold was opportunity well in advance of the U.S. Figure Skating Association's age groups for dance, which allow skaters to compete as juveniles until age 16 and intermediates until age 18.

"That reflects the idea they would have done other forms of skating first," Kiliakov said. "For good development, though, you can't be on the juvenile level at age 15 or 16. It's just too late."

Last summer's Lake Placid Championships were marked by youthful Wheaton skaters who weren't prepared to leave the high finishes to their elders:
  • The brother-sister team of Danvi (age nine) and Vu (11) Phan took third place in the juvenile division.
  • Teammates Lorraine McNamara (nine) and Quinn Carpenter (11) were first.
  • Kristina Rexford (10) and Michael Parsons (12) were 10th ... in the intermediate division. This summer, all three teams will compete at Lake Placid as intermediates.

"We try to use the youth of our skaters as an advantage when we can," said Novak, who's the choreographer among the coaching triumvirate. "Young children can do charming programs that simply wouldn't be appropriate for skaters in their mid-teens. They are kids and we enjoy presenting them as kids."

They've also had notable success keeping boys in their program. At many skating clubs, the "dance program" can consist entirely of young female skaters waiting for suitable (and scarce) male partners.

"Other coaches ask me 'Where do all your boys come from?'," Kiliakov said. "Boys are out there. If you can develop your core group of boys, you can attract others. The more boys you have, the more you can get."

When confronted with an American perception that skating and dancing may be insufficiently masculine, Kiliakov produces a Russian study that compared the strength and agility of an elite group of male ice dancers with a similarly advanced group of hockey players. The results were one-sided -- in favor of the skaters.

"There are still some advantages to a Soviet-type system you can't have with private lessons," Novak said. "Keeping promising couples together here can be difficult. The boy and the girl have to be available to practice at the same times and have to have the same level of commitment. It was a lot easier for a Russian coach to walk through a class of five and six-year-olds and just say 'You with you and this one with that one.'"

Which doesn't stop Kiliakov from describing the potential of all his advanced teams as "High."

"Otherwise," he said, "why do it?"