Caroline Mann: Artistry on Ice
When Caroline Mann takes to the ice, people tend to watch. Under her skilled strokes, the ice becomes not a slippery, frozen sheet but a medium for expression. Curves and edges, spins, lifts, and spirals all flow together into one choreographed dance that takes skating beyond sport and into the realm of art.
A professional figure skater and coach, Mann was late coming to the ice by figure skating standards. At age 11, she was captivated by the movie “Ice Castles.” Although she had been an avid pond skater, she had no formal training. After seeing the movie, she wanted to learn more. She started with group skating lessons at the Mass Bay Figure Skating Club in Lynn, then private lessons at the North Shore Figure Skating Club in Danvers, Massachusetts. Mann quickly worked her way through the figure skating tests, and as she mastered the required skills of footwork, spins and jumps, she also started competing in non-qualifying competitions.
“I had started too late to embark on a competitive figure skating track, but I wanted the experience of competing,” says Mann. “I also knew I wanted to somehow pursue a career in skating.”
For college, she headed to Colorado Springs, Colorado, partly because the area was home to the world-famous Broadmoor World Arena and Skating Club. The Broadmoor is home ice for Team USA Skating and legends such as Michelle Kwan. Once there, Mann was thrilled to discover that scenes from “Ice Castles” had been shot at the Broadmoor, and that one of her coaches had actually had a cameo in the movie. It seemed a sign that she was on the right track.
Mann started teaching group classes while in Colorado and found that she enjoyed teaching. She began to contemplate a career in coaching when an opportunity to skate with the Ice Capades came along. She auditioned and was accepted, but had to wait until a show opening materialized. “The openings were based in part on height,” she explains. “You had to fit with the rest of the ensemble. I would call every month to see if there was a part for me, and this went on for about six months. Finally, I got in but it was not good timing. I had just hurt my back pretty badly and was not at my best. I didn’t want to miss out, so I decided to skate anyway, but wound up only performing a short while with the troupe due to my injury.”
Nonetheless, Mann loved her time with Ice Capades and the glamorous costumes. “There were a lot of costume changes for different numbers,” she recalls. “In one show, we did a jazz dance number from the 1920s with these glittering, pink sequined dresses. This was followed by us being Vegas showgirls skating in sequined bikinis; we wore backpacks filled with giant palm fronds and had fruit basket ‘hats’ on our heads. The Ice Capade numbers all required a lot of precision skating, like what we call synchronized skating today. Timing was important and everyone had to match.”
After Ice Capades, Mann once again re-evaluated her skating career. “I certainly didn’t arrive where I am today by any conventional route,” she laughs. “Over time, I tried at least three different careers because I wasn’t sure I could make enough money with skating. I was even an airline pilot for a time—that was definitely one of my more unique career choices! However, skating always pulled me back. I also took a good look at myself. I had struggled with self-confidence my whole life, and I finally took the time to work on my feelings of self-worth. Once I felt stronger on the inside, I seemed to project more confidence, and that brought more students and more opportunities to me. I knew then that the other career opportunities I had tried did not work out because skating was where I was meant to be. Once I embraced that, things came together.”
Flying on Ice
During her skating journey, Mann began to pursue ice dance in more depth. Typically, skaters pursue either free-style tracks or ice dance, as the two disciplines require different skill sets as skaters advance. She had taken group ice dance as a young student and now wanted to see how far she could go. “Of course, this was also atypical, as I was already 30,” she says. “But this form just called to me. I wanted to be out on the ice and skate that close to someone. When you perform in ice dance, it’s like flying across the ice but with a partner. I love the look and feel of it, the way the dance embraces the music. I also love the partnership. You and your partner must be on the same page in every way. You have to be on exactly the same edge at every moment. At times, your blades are barely an inch apart—sometimes they may click together on moves such as 3-turns. It requires great trust and discipline.”
Mann has had three partners since pursuing ice dance, and says she has been very lucky that “lightening has struck three times,” as each one was excellent; it can be rare in ice dancing to find one great partner, let alone threes. With partner Will Eastler, she would win the Gold Medal at the Silver Dance Level at Adult Nationals, her one and only ice dance competition. “You have to learn all of these dance patterns and they are very specific,” she explains. “We also did some free dance, and it was the free dance that captivated me. I knew I wanted to explore that further.”
Today, Mann skates with Erik Nylund, a former student, and performs regularly as part of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Vintage Christmas Celebration at Strawbery Banke. She, Nylund and a small troupe of ice dancers skate in Victorian costume (no easy feat as long skirts and blades can lead to disaster) at the LaBrie Rink to routines created by world-renowned choreographer Douglas Webster. “I love working with Doug,” she says. “It’s an honor. His work highlights the essence of skating—deep edges, flow, the pure quality of movement. He also always creates performances that have unparalleled emotional depth. He is inspiring. He’s also pushed Erik and I to up our game. We are doing lifts and moves that we have not done before and it’s great. I’m loving every minute!”
Being a professional skater and coach is not without its challenges. While Mann now has enough of a reputation that she does not lack for students she must take care of her health in order to teach and perform continuously. “After my back injury, I made sure to pay more attention to body alignment, strength conditioning and doing lots of yoga,” she says. “You need to be strong yet flexible so I train and follow a fitness program daily.”
Skating is also mentally challenging, as in ice dance, Mann teaches both males and females, so she must be able to skate either the lady’s role or the gentleman’s, depending on who she is partnering. “I recently had to skate both roles back to back for a test session in Boston. It’s a wonder I remembered which part I was doing, but I did and they passed,” she laughs.
Role-switching aside, Mann loves coaching and feels it is the relationships she builds with students that bring her the most joy. “The great thing about skating is that you are never too old to start, and you can stay in the sport as long as you want and at whatever level you want. I have young students, students who have been studying with me for 20 years, and two ladies in their eighties who are learning ice dance. I also have an ice dance pair where the man is in his seventies and his partner is 60. Seeing all of these different people find joy in something that I love is wonderful. Whenever I see a student hit a perfect position or achieve an element for the first time, I get excited. Helping other people achieve their goals is what it’s all about.”
Mann admits that her field is not an easy one in terms of building a career, but says it can be done. “You have to be dedicated to achieving a certain level of skill if you want to coach or perform, so that determination needs to be there. But, otherwise, I believe if it’s meant to be your calling it will happen. I remember I once fell during a freestyle test—one of the few times I’ve fallen when performing. I figured, that’s that; I’ve failed; with the pressure off, I skated the rest of the program full out and it went very well. To my surprise, because I skated so passionately after the fall, I passed the test. It reminded me not to give up. You can make things happen if you want to.”