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Pennington emulates role model with ice shows

Channeling Hamilton, four-time U.S. champion enlists Dornbush for 'Skate Dance Dream'

U.S. men's competitor Sean Rabbitt will trek to Ohio for 'Skate Dance Dream.'
U.S. men's competitor Sean Rabbitt will trek to Ohio for 'Skate Dance Dream.' (courtesy of Parker Pennington)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(09/05/2012) - Parker Pennington vividly recalls the moment he met his skating idol, Scott Hamilton. Pennington was 16, and Hamilton, the Olympic gold medalist, invited the newly crowned junior national champion to skate in his cancer benefit show.

"It was surreal," Pennington said. "Being a part of Scott Hamilton & Friends and seeing him up close on the ice, meeting the stars of the show and then being able to perform with them -- wow.

"I was nervous, absolutely, and I had butterflies, but they were cool butterflies. And when all was said and done, the experience made me feel like all the hard work I had put into skating was worth it."

Pennington, who began skating when he was 3 and will turn 28 on Sept. 13, was a U.S. champion at four different levels and competed at the senior level at the U.S. championships nine times. His last competitive season was 2010-11.

Although he never reached the same skating heights as Hamilton, Pennington continues to follow in his role model's footsteps today. Pennington has created a series of skating shows called Skate Dance Dream, and the overriding goal of the program is to impact young performers the way he was when he got a chance to skate with his idols. Along with his assistant producer, Marrisa Diaz, Pennington strives to develop new ways of intertwining the arts of dance and skating. There is even a dance floor on the ice surface for the shows.

The next show is Sept. 15 at the Gilmour Academy Ice Arena in the Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills, Ohio -- the third such show in Ohio in the last year. It will be headlined by Ashley Valerio, a top finalist from season five of the hit FOX TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, 2011 U.S. silver medalist Richard Dornbush and U.S. men's national competitor Sean Rabbitt.

The concept came together after Pennington watched an episode of So You Think You Can Dance and heard an interview with one of the contestants, Sara Von Gillern, who mentioned she enjoyed figure skating.

"I thought it would be so cool to have her in our show," Pennington said.

So he took the chance and contacted the show and got connected with her mother. Von Gillern liked the idea and participated in the Skate for Life program, and then other contestants of the show did, too. To date, these are the stars who have participated in the Skate Dance Dream program (in addition to Valerio): Comfort Fedoke, Gev Manoukian and Jessica King. Von Gillern and Manoukian were in Skate for Life.

The skaters, as you can imagine, have enjoyed mingling with the TV stars. Dornbush first talked to Pennington, his onetime competitor, about performing in the Skate Dance Dream show back in 2011.

"Now I take every opportunity I can to be part of his events," Dornbush said. "They are very unique. From a performer's standpoint, it's great. I think the dancers and the skaters have bonded really well."

Dornbush created a new exhibition program that he recently unveiled and will perform again in the upcoming Skate Dance Dream show in Ohio. In it, Dornbush transforms into a nerd, complete with green glasses, blue suspenders and a bright orange plaid button-down shirt he snagged from his brother-in-law's mother.

The music?

"Let's Get It On," by Marvin Gaye and "Stayin' Alive," by the Bee Gees.

"You should check it out on YouTube," Dornbush said. "But I have to admit that even I'm a little embarrassed to watch it myself."

Pennington, for his part, loved it.

"I saw it, and he had me laughing on the floor," Pennington said. "I think he really hit the jackpot with that program. He's an entertainer and has a great sense of humor."

Ice dancers Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt had planned on performing in the show but will be competing in the 2012 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City instead. The fourth-place finishers at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships have participated in the show before.

Kriengkrairut and Giulietti-Schmitt will have a little bit of Skate Dance Dream with them in their competitive season as Stacey Tookey (a dancer/choreographer who has appeared as a judge and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance) worked as a consultant for their free dance to Adele's hits "Rumor Has It" and "Turning Tables."

Unlike other ice shows, where stars may mingle with youngsters backstage, Pennington's shows include instructional seminars with the stars.

"Just meeting your idol is huge, but to be able to learn from them will have a long-term impact on these kids," Pennington said. "I want the kids to feel like this is their moment."

The shows draw youngsters from various local skating and dancing programs, and kids audition to be part of the program. Pennington, who teaches skating skills and choreography at five Cleveland-area ice rinks, is involved in some of the choreography for the show's numbers. Pennington first became involved in producing skating shows after his father, Larry, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He created benefit shows, called Skate for Life, in both his native Connecticut and in Ohio, where he spent many years training. According to his website, the shows raised $45,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Larry Pennington, who works as a veterinarian in Connecticut, continues to be an inspiration to his son.

"My dad is probably my biggest role model," Parker said. "When I got to visit him, I often go watch him while he's working, and his energy is just contagious."

That energy must be genetic, because Pennington certainly has tons of it as he is constantly teaching skaters and brainstorming ideas for future shows.

"I just really love working with the kids," Pennington said.