Friday, 22 July 2016

Echoes Of The Eisballets

"When I was a child in 1910 I already skated this new style and [at] twelve years I jumped already the Axel and Axel Paulsen himself saw me do it...." - Charlotte Oelschlägel in a letter to Dr. Arthur N. Foxe, January 29, 1968

If the word Admiralspalast rings a bell, it is with good reason. Early in the twentieth century, the Berlin venue played host to a series of highly popular Eisballets. They starred none other than the famous German professional skater Charlotte Oelschlägel, then only a teenager, who later went on to become a sensation in New York City in the Hippodrome's lavish ice shows. Today on the blog, we are going to delve a little deeper into the stories and scandals surrounding these productions.

Founded in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Berlin's Admiralsgartenbad was first home to a swimming pool, salon, over sixty baths (first and second class), two electric baths, a Russian steam bath and forty one brine baths. In 1910, the facilities were expanded by The Admiralspalast Aktien-Gesellschaft. Architects Heinrich Schweitzer and Alexander Diepenbrock added a cafe, 'Japanese salon', cinema, restaurants, ice arena and public baths to the Admiralspalast facilities, making the venue a 'one stop shop' for Berlin residents and visitors to the city. Not long after the 30 X 60 ice arena opened in April 1911, German impresario Leo Bartuschek set to work scouting talent for a series of Eisballets, which provided entertainment to diners seating around the rectangular ice surface.

Among Bartuschek's Eisballets were "Montreal, the Town on Skates", "Magic Of The Alps", "Yvonne", "Alpen Zauber", "Frau Fantastie", "The Merry Doll", "Abrakadabra", "Die Roten Schuhe" ("The Red Shoes") and "Flirt At St. Moritz". Charlotte Oelschlägel was indeed the star of many of these productions, but other skaters in the shows included Ellen Dallerup, Hans White, Alfred Jainczik and Hilda Rueckert. The number of skaters who actually participated in these shows varies vastly from source from source. Arthur Goodfellow's 1972 book "Wonderful world of skates; seventeen centuries of skating" claims there were sixty five in the cast whereas "The Sketch: A Journal Of Art And Actuality" in 1914 claimed the cast consisted of "seventy five girls and twenty five men." Howard Bass in his book "This Skating Age" notes that "the late manager of Dundee Ice Rink, Stanley Fryett, an Englishman who truly lived for skating, became a professional at the Admiral Palast at that time and has told me that ["Flirt At St. Moritz"] was well worthy of its historic importance that there were more than a hundred performers in the original Berlin cast." In stark contrast numbers wise, Jacqueline du Bief, in her book "Thin Ice" wrote that "Mr. Hans White, who was for a long time the star of the company, tells us that ballets were presented regularly by a permanent company of fifteen to eighteen professional skaters. He also tells us that the company even had its hired supporters of whose applause the artistes could be assured on payment of five marks a month." The varying numbers - from fifteen to over one hundred - may well be explained by the fact that there were multiple Eisballets which would of course had different casts.

The historical record does tell us that these shows were indeed very well attended, with up to a thousand spectators sometimes present for the suppertime skating soirees. Nic Leonhardt, in the 2013/2014 issue of "The Passing Show", the newsletter of The Shubert Archive, noted that "Flirt In St. Moritz" was "directed by Leo Bartuschek with music by Julius Einödshofer, choreography by B. Bernar, and costumes from the workshop of Hugo Baruch & Co., it is considered to be the first ice ballet with a plot. Its simple story allowed for various physical effects on stage, while the diverse cultural backgrounds of the characters provided an excuse for the display of colorful costumes and representations of national stereotypes. The main character was Kitty Goldberg, the young and beautiful widow of an American millionaire, who travels to St. Moritz, Switzerland. There she meets Oti, a Japanese Marquis, and Oluf Jacobsen, a Norwegian sportsman, who both fall for her – the American socialite becomes the talk of the town. The show was a huge success. Picture postcards featuring characters and scenes from the ballet were used for promotion and are still in great demand by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic."

The writings of American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb provide an extremely rare primary source glimpse into what it would have been like to have been in the audience at the Admiralspalast watching one of Bartuschek's Eisballets. In 1914, he wrote "in the Friedrichstrasse there is another place, called the Admiralspalast, which is even more attractive. Here, inclosing a big, oval-shaped ice arena, balcony after balcony rises circling to the roof. On one of these balconies you sit, and while you dine after after you have dined you look down on a most marvellous series of skating stunts. In rapid and bewildering succession there are ballets on skates, solo skating numbers, skating carnivals and skating races. Finally scenery is slid down on runners and the whole company, in costumes grotesque and beautiful, go through a burlesque that keeps you laughing when you are not applauding, and admiring when you are doing neither; while alternating lightwaves from overhead electric devices flood the picture with shifting, shimmering tides of color. It is like seeing a Christmas pantomime under an aurora borealis. In America we could do these things - at least we never have done them. Either the performance would be poor or the provender would be highly expensive, or both. But here the show is wonderful, and the victuals are good and not extravagantly priced, and everybody has a bully time."

The success of these shows translated into plans for a massive 'ice palace' that was modelled after the Admiralspalast to open in New York City. Irving Brokaw, The Shubert's and Frank J. Godsoll were all involved in the planned project but it never came to fruition. Instead, Bartuschek and much of the Eisballet's cast, including Charlotte and Ellen Dallerup became stars in New York City" when "Flirt In St. Moritz" became "Flirting In St. Moritz" and took the Hippodrome by storm. However, that's not where the story ends. Not even close. As Charlotte wowed with her thrilling Axel's and signature spiral, scandal brewed behind the scenes of the Hippodrome shows. By scandal, I mean that Bartuschek almost had the Lederhosen sued off him. "Variety" on June 2, 1916, reported that "Marietta Lorette Lorens, through her attorney, Nathan Burkan, has secured a judgment of $1,146 against Leo Bartuschek, of Berlin, owner of the ice ballet at the Hippodrome the past season. The action was started against Barthuschek when Miss Lorenz did not receive her salary of $400 per month after January 15. Bartuschek received $1,500 per week for the company and contracted with the plaintiff to manage it at the above-mentioned salary. Bartuschek claims that his contract ran out Jan. 15, and Miss Lorenz was employed in the Hippodrome thereafter, and should look to it for salary."

Meanwhile in Germany, Eisballets continued to be held at the Admiralspalast for a time in Bartuschek and Charlotte's absence, but things weren't going so well there either. The Bendigonian on June 14, 1917 reported that "an instructive sidelight is thrown on the Teutonic character by a story which
is told in the Berlin 'Vortwarts': The management of the Admiralspalast (a well-known Berlin music hall) engaged a number of young girls who were to figure on the stage as 'skating artists'. Their pay was to be twenty marks a week. Herr Wagner, the manager of the hall, must imagine that a girl who can maintain herself in the present state of things on that sum is not only a 'skating artist,' but also an artist in starvation. When three of these tried to convince him of the impossibility of living on such
a wage he coolly observed, 'What of that? You are good-looking girls,. and you will doubtless find additional means of adding to your income.' The girls thereupon brought an action against Wagner on the charge of 'offensive suggestions.' The Trades Court, in giving judgment, held that while the
charge of 'offensive suggestion' appeared to be well founded, the complainants, having signed a contract with their employer, were duty bound to carry it out on the terms agreed upon. They were, moreover, condemned to pay the costs of the action. These unfortunate girls will therefore be driven to the necessity of setting aside a sum of money from their wretched stipend to pay their employer's legal expenses, besides their own. It they are further forced by grim want to adopt Herr Wagner's infamous suggestion, the responsibility will lie heavily on judge who tried their action." No word on how those unnamed German figure skaters made out, but chances are they had bigger worries in their lives to contend with by the end of World War I.

There is indeed evidence of the continued existence of the Admiralspalast ice rink after World War I.  
The "Wiener Salonblatt" notes that the German Ladies Figure Skating Championship was held in the indoor skating venue in 1919, with Elaine Winter taking top honors ahead of Margarete Klebe. Incredibly, you can still go to the Admiralspalast, once home to Charlotte's famous Eisballets, today.
With echoes of Eisballets past resounding in its walls, the space reopened as a theatre in 2006. 
Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The 1957 North American Figure Skating Championships

Hosted by the Genesee Figure Skating Club, the 1957 North American Championships in Rochester, New York were so well attended that potential spectators were actually being turned away at the doors. Seven thousand and two hundred skating aficionados from both north and south of the border packed the city's War Memorial Arena for the free skating events with bated breath, anxious to see who would take home brand spanking new trophies donated by F. Ritter Shumway and the Rochester Institute Of Technology. In the end, Canada and the United States ended up in a stalemate, with gold medals in two disciplines each. Who was victorious? Who fell short? Let's take a look at how it all played out:


Canadians Maria and Otto Jelinek claimed the silver medal

"These kids have worked hard for this one and I'm pulling for them to come through," said Maribel Vinson-Owen of the international debut of her students Nancy Rouillard and Ron Ludington. However, the 1957 North American Championships were one battle even the unstoppable Maribel couldn't win. Canadians Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul and Maria and Otto Jelinek easily claimed the top two spots in the pairs event in Rochester, a testament to the utter dominance of Canadian pairs teams in the fifties. Wagner and Paul went on to win the Canadian and World titles in spectacular fashion... all within sixteen days. In his April 2010 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast, Paul recalled their training during that period: "We were, I say, trained like machines. Sheldon [Galbraith] would bring out the stopwatch, and we could go through that program without the music and end up within a half-second of when the music was there. And our music was on 78s, and every rink had a variable speed on its record player, so they could get it exact. I don't think that happens with CDs today."


Women's champion Carol Heiss Jenkins

On January 20, 1957 - Carol Heiss' seventeenth birthday - Tenley Albright dropped a huge bombshell. In a telegram to the United States Figure Skating Association, she announced her retirement. Up until that week, she'd been training six hours a day for the North American Championships. Suddenly Heiss, who had unseated Albright at the previous year's World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, found herself with a hell of a lot less competition to worry about in Rochester. The blonde and athletic student of Pierre Brunet from Ozone Park, New York, dressed in red with a sequin crown, skated brilliantly to take the gold in a unanimous decision of all five judges. Second was Canada's Carole Jane Pachl, who fell on a double loop early in her free skate. Third was seventeen year old Joan Schenke of Tacoma, followed by Canadians Karen Dixon and Margaret Crosland and Santa Ana, California's Claralyn Lewis.


David Jenkins in action

At the 1956 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Colorado Springs' David Jenkins had won the bronze medal. Right behind him in fourth was Toronto's Charles Snelling. They both had to be shaking their heads in disbelief when young Donald Jackson, who hadn't even competed at the previous year's Worlds, won the first school figure in Rochester. His beginner's luck ran out quickly when he blew the next three. Seventeen year old Snelling gave Jenkins a run for his money in the remaining figures but in the free skating, Jenkins utterly dominated. Performing a clean triple loop, double Axels and dizzying spins, he was the unanimous choice of all five judges. Hayes Alan Jenkins took a break from Harvard Law School to cheer his younger brother on. He praised him profusely: "I have thought Dave always was a better free skater than I... I thought his freestyle exhibition was magnificent. He is the only man now skating who can do the triple loop." American Tim Brown claimed the bronze over Jackson, who had an uncharacteristically disastrous free skate and finished fourth. In his 1977 Jackson biography "King Of Blades", George Gross noted, "When Don had returned to Ottawa in the fall, he and Otto [Gold] had decided to put together a completely new skating programme. They had only a couple of months to prepare it for competition. Don skated well during the early stages of the five minute routine but took a fall at the half way mark. He was back on his feet in a flash continuing his performance. Yet, his desire was not enough to overcome his inexperience with the programme. He fell three times in the final minute."


With three teams from Canada and three from the United States, the ice dance competition seemed doomed for a gridlock from the get-go. All six teams powered their way through four gruelling rounds of compulsories (the Rocker Foxtrot, Westminster Waltz, Quickstep and Argentine Tango) and a free dance. Geraldine Fenton and Bill McLachlan were ranked only second in Canada at the time as the North American Championships in 1957 were held prior to the Canadian Championships. The Torontonians pulled off a major upset in Rochester, defeating U.S. Champions Joan Zamboni and Roland Junso. In winning, Fenton and McLachlan made history as the first Canadian ice dance team in history to claim the North American title, ending a ten year streak where Americans dominated the event. Emily Van Hoorhis, describing the couple's winning free dance in the April 1957 issue of "Skating" magazine noted, "Their rich fluidity created by a soft knee bend and lovely lean lent a smoothness and flow which radiated from the couple's rhythm and lightness." In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted that the "competition was so close among the top three that the winning couple could not be determined by a majority of ordinals. The lowest ordinal total was used in the final decision." Another Canadian team, Sharon McKenzie and Bert Wright, actually won the free dance with two first place ordinals, but finished third overall, hampered by a collision in the boards during the Rocker Foxtrot. Toronto's Beverley Orr and Hugh Smith, penalized for performing pair moves in their free dance finished in last place behind Canadians Lindis and Jeffrey Johnston and Americans Carmel and Edward Bodel.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

How The Open Marking System Got Its Start

"A swiftly moving free skating program passes like a film, you have to take everything of it in split seconds and only in the well trained judge's mind will everything register as far as the human mind is able to register the multitude of quickly similar following moves." - Willy Böckl, 1940, "How To Judge Figure Skating"

"Open marking should be strictly adhered to. Secret marking, making adjustments possible, is just the bad practice the ISU does not want." - Gustavus F.C. Witt, "Skating" Magazine, November 1951

Although an early incarnation of the 6.0 judging system was first introduced to amateur figure skating competitions in 1901, for the first thirty years that it was in place the average skater had zero concept of how they were being scored. Results were usually released well after each segment of competitions and a "4.9, 5.1" were never held up on placards by rinkside judges. "Originally, the judges marks were kept in absolute secrecy, so far as the skaters and the public were concerned," explained American skating judge Joel B. Liberman in 1946.

Although it had already been used for several years in Sweden, it wasn't until 1936 that the Open Marking System was introduced in international competition. It was adopted by the International Skating Union at their 1935 Congress. At first, some judges were completely overwhelmed by the pressure of having to think so quickly on their feet. Charles M. Rotch, who judged the men's, women's and pairs events at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany recalled, "It was the first time I had used the Open Marking System. It was a mad scramble, for, before the skater had barely finished a figure, the judges were asked to hold up their cards, and we had no time to digest what the skater had done. The same was true of the free skating - the whistle blew for the judges to line up and hold up their marks, first for Program and then for Performance, before the skater was even off the ice."

Despite Rotch's misgivings, the system took off and was also used both an ISU/IEV and nationally modified versions at the 1936 World Championships, 1937 U.S., North American, European and World Championships. The Amateur Skating Association of Canada first introduced open marking at a junior club competition at the Toronto Skating Club in January 1938. On January 12, 1938, "The Montreal Gazette" reported, "Under the open marking system, each judge is equipped with a box in which are two sets of large figures, each coloured differently. At the conclusion of the judging of any figure, each judge pulls from the box the figures he has credited the competitor. Spectators see the cards. Officials of the Toronto club said in this way the public gains an idea of the scoring and that the system acts as a deterrent against any judge being discriminatory." Even in 1938, most people 'got' that transparency could only help the sport.

In its infancy, reception towards the Open Marking System was for the most part fantastic. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "Comments on its use had been overwhelmingly favourable, mentioning more accurate judgment, more honesty and less fixing of the results, and increased interest for all, especially for the spectators." By 1946, Joel Liberman was boasting, "The open system has been modified for convenience and time saving, but essentially it has persisted through more than 35 competitions." However, open marking did have its detractors both in Europe and North America. Notably, one article critiquing open marking appeared in "The Skating Times" in 1938. It was penned by an author who ironically hid behind the cloak of anonymity - using the pseudonym 'A.B.C.' - to complain about transparency.' He or she bemoaned that judges often got carried away and boxed themselves in by giving extremely high marks mid-competition and unable to make use of an eraser, found themselves in sticky situations they couldn't get themselves out of. 'A.B.C.' cited one mid-thirties competition where a skater was given two 6.0's when four skaters (one of them being Cecilia Colledge) hadn't even skated yet. In "Skating" magazine, John Machado argued that some judges were "prone to attribute a certain amount of rubbing and changing to dishonest fixing of results" and that transparency was the lesser of two evils.

Open marking ultimately transformed skating into a sport beloved by millions that survived countless controversies and evolutions until good old Ottavio Cinquanta rather inexplicably decided to kick it to the curb in the twenty-first century after 'ye olde Salt Lake City debacle'. With the recent decision to ditch the anonymity under 'the new judging system' that unfortunately persisted during Cinquanta's reign of terror, we can only hope a return to transparency will serve skating with the same boost in popularity that it afforded back in the thirties and forties.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Adele Inge: The Girl Who Did Backflips On Ice During World War II

"I'm a camera fiend, you know." - Adele Inge, "The Ottawa Citizen", March 25, 1953

Every eight months or so, one of those listicle type news sites will run one of those clickbaity pieces claiming Surya Bonaly was either the first or only woman to perform a backflip on ice. I kind of cringe a little each time. What about Rory Flack? Lori Benton? Ashley Clark? And what about Adele Inge? Got to love crackerjack research. Something, something "Wikipedia said so". Oh sweetie no...

Born in 1926, Adele Inge was the daughter of Emma Inge and her real estate broker husband Everett. Largely self-taught, Inge started skating as a youngster on her own private, homemade twelve by twenty six foot ice rink constructed in the basement of her parents' Clayton Township, Missouri home. An athletic child, by the age of nine Adele was beating her male classmates in track and field, tennis and cycling. She also excelled at everything from horseback riding to tap dance. But it wasn't until she started to copy the gymnastic stunts of her three older brothers, Robert, Ray and Oliver, on the ice in the basement rink that father Everett truly realized that he had a star on his hands.

Everett hauled his daughter out of school and hired a woman named Mildred Massee who had studied at The Sorbonne in Paris' Latin Quarter to act as her tutor. He proceeded to take on a second job... acting as his little show pony's manager. In the late thirties, Adele made her big debut appearing in Sonja Henie's revue. To say her act was an artistic masterpiece would be the exaggeration of the century, but Adele's high flying split jumps, Arabian cartwheels and acrobatic stunts - including a backflip - left audiences struggling to pull their jaws up on the floor. Before she was even fifteen, Adele had done everything from acting in the St. Louis production of "Murder In The Red Barn" to ice skating at the International Casino on 42nd Street in Times Square, New York. In 1942, Adele starred in a series of shows in the Terrace Room of the Hotel New Yorker, accompanied by no less of a star than Benny Goodman himself. She appeared in select cities with the Ice Capades tour in 1942. Then, in the middle of World War II, her fairy tale almost ended.

On June 19, 1943, Everett Inge died suddenly in St. Louis, Missouri. A seventeen year old Adele's future seemed uncertain but an invitation to perform in the Century Room at The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas kept Adele's fifteen minutes of fame going. Making her rounds on the hotel ice show circuit, Adele was the toast of the Netherland Plaza Hotel's ice show in Cincinnati in 1944 and 1945. The March 25, 1944 issue of "Billboard" magazine boasted, "Adele Inge, featured, is the most capable fem ever to cavort on the ice here, and she seems to improve with every showing. She has a figure, appearance and grace, and totes a big bag of ice tricks, including spins, twists, whirls and more, far above the average. Her waltzing to 'Warsaw Concerto' is the hit of this show."

In the late forties, Adele took her act to Great Britain and appeared alongside Daphne Walker and The Three Rookies in the show "Stars On Ice" at the Stoll Theatre. In 1951, she even skated in Brazil. By 1952, the highly in demand skater was starring in the revue "Calendar Capers" on the ice tank in the Boulevard Room of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. Her star slowly waning, Adele enjoyed limited success as the star of "Spice And Ice" on the Tivoli Circuit in Australia in 1958. Her last big gig? Doing advertisements for Kraft Bonox beef broth.

Just as quickly as she'd risen to prominence, Adele Inge faded into absolute obscurity. You won't find her name in any of those listicles or in the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. History has a funny way of choosing who gets remembered and who gets forgotten and it's truly a shame, because I think a female figure skater who was doing backflips in the thirties and forties deserves at least an honourable mention. But what do I know?

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

What The Zhuk?: Scandals From Behind The Iron Curtain

With wife Nina, Stanislav Alekseevich Zhuk won three consecutive silver medals at the European Championships from 1958 and 1960. However, it is his controversial coaching career and not his competitive accomplishments that most remember today. Just what made Stanislav Zhuk one of the most despised coaches in history? Let's go back in skating history, sneak behind The Iron Curtain and explore this fascinatingly despicable tale.

Let's get this party started with an excerpt from a letter to the editor, published in the November 16,
1968 edition of the омсомо́льская пра́вда (Komsomolskaya Pravda), the Soviet Union's All-Union newspaper: "Dear Editor, We are writing to the Komosol paper because what we have to say has to do with the upbringing of young athletes. Let's start by mentioning just one episode, which unfortunately, did not fail to slip past millions of TV viewers at the Grenoble Olympics. Remember the wonderful moment when our 'Golden Pair' of figure skating, two-time Olympic Champions Ludmilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, were greated by an ovation as they stood on the highest step of the winners' platform? It seems only one pair of athletes, a mere step below, 'forgot' to congratulate them. Only so as not to provide silage for sensation-seeking Western papers did the champions finally shake the hands of their rival teammates. But we will not reproach these athletes, for 'There are no bad students - only bad teachers.' Let us now turn our attention to the tutor of the Silver Pair - Honored Coach Of The Soviet Union, Honored Master Of Sport, Comrade Stanislav Zhuk. There he stood, arms folded, right in front of the TV cameras. Millions saw how he turned his back as Belousova and Protopopov entered. To an outsider this might have seemed just chance, an unfortunate slip, but we know better: we know all too well of those interviews he has so zealously been granting foreign columnists, and we know that what he did to the Golden Pair was, alas, hardly accidental. We have read those interviews in foreign publications, and we can testify that Zhuk continually expatiates on our champions' flaws with obsessively extolling his pair alone. Is this befitting for a Soviet coach? We dare not cite most of the language Zhuk uses with his colleagues. But we submit just one, barely printable, example, addressed to Honored Coach of the Soviet Union Tatiana Tolmacheva, an individual respected by all sportsmen: 'Just wait, I'll drown you like a mangy kitten in a slop pail!' This because Comrade Tomalcheva, a judge at the competition, consigned his pupils to second place. One of Zhuk's 'teaching methods' is to collect personal vouchers from his charges saying he's the one that taught them a particular technique. He keeps the vouchers in his tweed jacket, and every time his students win he shakes the papers in his fist as proof he's the one to thank for it. For some reason - whether out of fear or mesmerized by his past performance - there's no one who's yet had the nerve to straighten him out." This scathing letter was signed by six prominent soviet coaches, including the national team's senior coach Viacheslav Zaitsev as well as Tomalcheva, Elena Chaikovskaia and Igor Moskvin. The silver medal Soviet pair referenced as Zhuk's pupils in Grenoble were of course none other than his sister Tatiana and partner Alexander Gorelik.

The letter to the омсомо́льская пра́вда fuelled a showdown. Although the Soviet Sports Committee were steadfast in their support of Zhuk and maintained silence on the issue, the furor was just beginning. When the newspaper later shared that "Comrade Zhuk has been given a stern dressing down. The appropriate notation has been made in his personal file" his rival coaches didn't buy it. In his 1978 book "The Big Red Machine The Rise And Fall Of Soviet Olympic Champions", Yuri Brokhin notes that "after a training session of the National Team at a suburban Moscow dacha, the angry Zhuk decided to get even. He packed his skaters onto a bus, waited until Belousova and Protopopov showed up, promptly slammed the door in their faces, and ordered the driver to step on the gas. The Golden Pair was left stranded twenty miles outside the city. The next day Belousova and Protopopov blew into the offices of Komsolskaia Pravda brandishing two points. First Zhuk had borne them a personal grudge ever since the 1950s, when they were training under rival theorist Petr Orlov. He continually made disparaging remarks to them, talked about them behind their backs, and ultimately had them expelled. What he was doing now was no different: conspiring to turn the Sports Committee against them. Second, Zhuk was having his pupils imitate Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul while dismissing the achievements of the native Russian school, for which Belousova and Protopopov had paved the way."

On January 8, 1969, right before that year's European Championships, the омсомо́льская пра́вда published an article demanding that Zhuk be fired. This time, the media fire storm was so overwhelming that the Sports Committee removed Zhuk as the coach of the National Team heading to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. His students, Irina Rodnina and Alexei Nikolaevich Ulanov, won their first European title without their coach present, soundly defeating two time Olympic Gold Medallists Belousova and Protopopov. At a press conference after the competition in Germany, Rodnina told reporters "It's true we don't show the depth of feeling that they do, but tell me - I'm only nineteen, so why should I try to play with a kind of experience I haven't yet had and they have? I can't - and what's more, I don't want to - come off like some artiste. But I do have something of my own to offer. If Aleksei and I started imitating them, we'd never have won. Coach Zhuk found a style that was right for us - and it's just the opposite of theirs, which I think everybody's bored with by now anyway." To say that there was no love lost at the time between the Protopopov's and Rodnina, Ulanov and Zhuk is really the understatement of the late sixties. After finishing third to Rodnina and Ulanov and another legendary Soviet pair, Tamara Moskvina and Alexei Mishin, the Protopopov's retired amidst allegations that Zhuk and Valentin Piseev had a hand in their demise, Rodnina flourished with Ulanov and later Zaitsev... but Zhuk continued to zhuk up. Behind the scenes, the indomitable Rodnina was actually intimidated of her coach, so much so that she would reportedly get up even earlier in the morning than she was asked to just to be early for their lessons and avoid his wrath. Zaitsev and Zhuk didn't get along and things eventually got so bad that Rodnina eventually made a deal with the Central Red Army Club (CKSA Moscow) to allow Tatiana Tarasova to take over as their coach in 1974.

In addition to his prize pair, Stanislav Zhuk acted as coach to many other top Soviet skaters in the seventies, including Sergei Chetverukhin, Elena Vodorezova, Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakrai and Sergei Volkov. Brokhin's book recalls Zhuk's behavior during his pupil Elena Vodorezova's free skate at the 1977 World Championships in Tokyo: "Tweed-jacket collar tucked under the bulldog jaw, tired eyes cast downward at his shoes, he transformed every sound of the girl's skates into an image of unmistakable clarity. Suddenly he could hold back no longer, breaking his practice of many years. He raised his eyes and riveted them on Elena. His glower pierced the skater as his thoughts bubbled over in unpronounced phrases: 'What the hell is she doing?... Get up there! Somersault! No, no! Stupid brat! How many times have I told you not to move into a jump like that? Well... Dazzle those damned judges with that finale of yours! Ah... Ah! Shit... you snot-nose little dummy!' A couple of minutes later, smiling for the TV camera, the man was down by the rink kissing the girl, straightening the light blue bows that stuck up from her hair like propellers: 'Atta girl, Lenochka! You blew it here and there, but dammit, you weren't half bad! Molodets! Next year, we're gonna get that gold!'" Vodorezova actually won the free skate that year in Tokyo, but a thirteenth place finish in the school figures and a fifth place in the short program kept her in seventh place. Rodnina and Zaitsev fought with Zhuk and left him for Tatiana Tarasova. He turned his attention to Marina Pestova and Stanislav Leonovich, who won World medals in 1980 and 1982.

The drama continued! In her book "My Sergei: A Love Story", Ekaterina Gordeeva wrote at length of her experience training under Zhuk in the mid eighties: "The head coach of the army club at that time was Stanislav Alexeyvich Zhuk, who by any definition was a miserable, pitiless man... He was in his fifties, short, with a big stomach and a round face. His most arresting feature was his eyes, which were small and dark and looked very deep into you. They were very scary, peering at you from beneath his hairy eyebrows. All of Zhuk's movements were fast. He also had very strong but not very nice hands. I didn't like it when he showed us movements with his hands. And on the ice, when he demonstrated something to us with his feet, he couldn't straighten his leg. It looked ridiculous. Sergei used to laugh at Zhuk, but not to his face. We used to imitate the way he walked fast, taking very small steps. Sergei didn't like him as a person. Zhuk drank every night, and he used to speak harshly, even filthily, to the boys. He liked to order them around as if they were soldiers, because they skated for the army club. 'Shut up,' he would say. 'I'm higher than you in rank.' Zhuk liked these army rules... He used to tell us, 'If I don't coach you, you'll never be on the World or Olympic team.'"

Gordeeva continued by stating, "I shared a room with Anna Kondrashova, and Zhuk would tease us about eating dinner at the cafeteria. Anna always had a problem keeping her weight down, so we stopped going to dinner because afterward Zhuk would tell such stories about how much we ate and how much we'd weigh if we kept eating dinners like that... One time I saw Zhuk hit Anna. I was in the bathroom, and Zhuk came and started talking loudly to her. I decided I'd better stay where I was, but then they started fighting, and when I came out, he was hitting her on the back. I ran out to get Sergei, but by the time we came back Zhuk was gone. Anna was crying. That was nothing new. She cried almost every day. Zhuk used to come to her and say, 'I saw you last night go into Fadeev's room. What were you doing in there?' Even if she had done this, it was none of his business, of course. But he would torment her with his spying, and I was so young that Anna never confided in me what was behind it. I understand now that he was trying to get Anna to sleep with him. He had done this with many girls over the years."

In the spring of 1986, Gordeeva and Grinkov, Alexandr Fadeev, Anna Kondrashova and Marina Zueva sent a letter to Central Red Army Club officials reporting Zhuk's drinking, missing practices and abuse. The club appointed Stanislav Leonovich to coach Gordeeva and Grinkov, but Zhuk (a colonel by rank) remained the Central Red Army Club's head coach, continuing his work with young skaters for years to come. On November 1, 1998, he passed away at a Moscow subway station near the same club he coached at for decades. Despite his controversial (to put it mildly) career as coach, in 2008 a statue was erected in his honor at the Central Army Red Club. I don't know about you, but that seems like a tough pill to swallow.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Magician From Mission Hill: The Paul McGrath Story

"Expression should not be held inside when skating." - Paul McGrath, "The Harvard Crimson", April 18, 1974

Boston, Massachusetts... home of Maribel Vinson-Owen, the cream donut and Meagan Duhamel's new favourite place to scream in the air. It was also the home of the subject of today's blog, a skater whose contributions to the sport have never really been recognized to the extent they should have been.

Born August 21, 1946, Paul McGrath was the son of Francis McGrath, a tool and die maker, and his wife Catherine (Linehan) McGrath. The McGrath's were an Irish Catholic working class family that lived in the Boston neighbourhood of Mission Hill and figure skating was something that Paul discovered at the age of twelve in 1958. He bought his first pair of skates - three sizes too small - at a rummage sale for fifty cents. It wasn't long after he first took to the ice that people started recognizing that he had something special: a striking ability to interpret music. He joined the Commonwealth Figure Skating Club and supplemented his usual training with ice time at the Skating Club Of Boston. "I trained at the Skating Club [Of Boston] but I wasn't a member; I was only allowed on the ice during certain hours," McGrath explained in an April 26, 1984 interview in The Boston Globe. "I was the proverbial weed poking through the sidewalk."

That 'weed' was the prize pupil of Olympic Silver Medallist, World and European Champion Cecilia Colledge. She guided him to a second place finish in the novice men's event at the 1962 U.S. Championships in front of a hometown audience at Boston's McHugh Forum in only his fourth year skating. Two years later in Cleveland, McGrath placed fourth in the junior men's competition behind Tim Wood, Duane Maki and Richard Callaghan. In 1965 at the age of eighteen, he won the Eastern and U.S. junior men's titles and finished second at the Lake Placid Summer Competition right behind Canadian Champion Dr. Charles Snelling. And then, just when his future never seemed brighter, he decided to call it quits. "My whole family sacrificed everything for my training until they just couldn't swing it anymore," McGrath explained in 1984. "But I'd already been told by some powerful people in skating that I wouldn't make it to the Olympics in 1968, because the other contenders for the team had better connections. There's a lot of politics in skating."

After graduating from Newman Preparatory School and attending Emerson College, McGrath became the Radcliffe figure skating instructor at the Donald C. Watson Rink just north of Harvard Stadium. In April 1970, he finished second behind World Champion Donald Jackson at the World Professional Championships at the Empire Pool at Wembley. Four years later, he earned seven perfect scores and won the World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain. Skating to "Carmina Burana", McGrath was a pioneer in introducing vocal music to professional competition. In the April 18, 1974 issue of "The Harvard Crimson" he explained, "I used this music not for the words but for the sound of the voice, so that I could interpret the sounds... Any music is appropriate if you can express what you want to." His repertoire of programs was extremely eclectic for the period. He performed to everything from Mahler's "Symphony No. 10" to a drum solo by Ringo Starr.

It was at the World Professional Championships at Wembley that McGrath first met Lorna Brown. "After my performance," she recalled, "this guy comes running up to me who I'd never really seen because I hadn't seen him skate at that point because [the men] were after us. He came up to me, hugging me, saying, 'You really came through!' and I could never forget that moment. I felt like I'd met someone who was on the same wavelength; the same artistic plane as me. We got together and we became lovers. We travelled back and forth for a while and then one day, I was in Boston at his apartment and one of his lovers came in and it was a really scary situation. Eventually, we broke up because it just wasn't right for him. But for a time we had an amazing relationship. It was very much based on the art. We had so much in common. We went to art galleries in New York together, he bought me a ring. It looked like we were going to get married at one point. When I went to the Boston Skating Club, there was a great big banner the whole length of the rink that had been put up at the back where the seating was: 'Welcome Lorna'. I was just blown away. He had me performing for his skaters and dancing in someone's house on a stage. It was just amazing, really. We loved each other and we continued to be friends but there was no connection in any way, shape or form at that point because I had totally accepted that he'd decided one hundred percent that he was gay and I could completely accept that."

McGrath's artistic and musically sensitive performance style later caught the eye of Olympic Gold Medallist John Curry, who invited him to perform in his "Theatre Of Skating" at the Cambridge Theatre in London. After the show, Curry sent McGrath packing. "There wasn't an obvious dislike going on that we could see," explained Brown. "Nobody ever spoke about John and Paul but I think they differed artistically. I think maybe John criticized Paul. He was an incredible jumper and John wasn't. Anything that would upstage John, especially from a man, he wouldn't have. Also, I think Paul was not as classical as John. He was very, very much a free spirit. He was an individual artist. He didn't follow anybody. He was a complete individual. He would stand on one of the openings going on to the ice and literally, he would step onto the ice and do a triple jump from nothing. He was an amazing jumper, incredible technician and a great artist. He wasn't copying anybody. He was his own person."

After winning a second World Professional title in Jaca in 1977, McGrath focused his attention primarily on coaching and choreography and took a job at the Skating Club Of Boston. Among his students were Catherine Foulkes and Jill Frost. Frost was a promising American skater who won the U.S. novice and junior titles but like her coach, never won a medal in the senior ranks at the U.S. Championships. Like her coach, Foulkes skated in John Curry's Company. McGrath's work was praised effusively by his peers and his choreography was a cut above much of the shtick of the period.

McGrath was outspoken about how figure skating was presented to television audiences. He believed too much emphasis was placed on the technical elements and not enough attention was paid to educating audiences about the second mark. He bemoaned, "Television has built a huge audience for skating...  How would you like it if in the middle of Swan Lake,' the announcer came on and said, Now watch that arabesque!' TV skating is just not handled from an aesthetic viewpoint."

Sadly, McGrath left this world far too soon. He passed away on December 3, 1990 at the age of forty four of liver cancer, a complication of HIV/AIDS, at the Youvill Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brown learned about Paul's death when she went to John Curry's memorial in New York. "To hear about Paul's death, among so many others, when I was standing on stage was absolutely heartbreaking. I sobbed." The last time they had seen each other was in London in the seventies.

Since 1992, he has been honoured posthumously by the Professional Skaters Association with the Paul McGrath Choreographer Of The Year Award. Winners have included Sandra Bezic, Sarah Kawahara, Brian Wright, Lori Nichol, Tom Dickson and David Wilson. Brown recalled, "He was very funny. He was a person who loved to enjoy life. He loved performing and that was maybe what John crushed a little bit because he kept Paul back. He wouldn't allow Paul to do the things that he was really best at. We would laugh a lot. He was a very passionate person, very meaningful and compassionate as well. A beautiful person with a lot of love in his heart."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

The History Of Quadruple Jumps

Four revolution jumps... to skaters back in Ulrich Salchow and Gillis Grafström's days, they wouldn't have wouldn't have even been comprehensible. However, as we all know, under the current IJS system they're the name of the game. From Dick Button performing the first triple jump to Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden's introduction of the first twist lift, overhead lasso lift and throw jump to the majestic video of David Jenkins doing a gorgeous triple Axel in 1957, figure skating history is of course full of technical innovations and the history of the evolution of quadruple jumps is really quite a fascinating story.

Back in the late seventies and early eighties, a small circle of American skaters took the plunge at attempting quadruple jumps. Robert Wagenhoffer was landing them in practice and Mark Cockerell was attempting them in competition, but the first quad attempts in major international competitions didn't come until 1983, when the Soviet Union's Alexandr Fadeev went for the gusto at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.

Around the time that quadruple jumps were first being attempted, not everyone was sold on the push for technical progress. In an interview in the December-January 1979 issue of the "Canadian Skater" magazine, 1976 Olympic Bronze Medallist Toller Cranston lamented, "I know that the trend today is that a male competitive skater has to do in the neighbourhood of four... five... six to eight triples, which makes no sense to me at all... It becomes a big, fat bore. You forget those performances. The performances you really remember are the emotional ones... I agree that in some ways it is a very authentic progression. But it's not the only progression. It's only one kind. For example, I always remember going to the Moscow Circus where I saw people do things that defy the ability of the human body - they practically turned themselves inside out, they stood on one finger, and so on. But after about three-quarters of an hour, I left in the middle of the performance. Yes, it was phenomenal and unbelievable, and I had never seen anything like it before. But then suddenly I became aware that, gee, these seats are uncomfortable, I have no room for my feet. The point is that when I left, I had forgotten everything. I had not been impressed emotionally. But to my dying day I'll remember some of the performances I saw of the Bolshoi Ballet. I can't tell you what they did, but I have visions, and my body sort of surges up with emotions because I FELT something." Despite Toller's reservations about the jump race, his successors persevered at going for the technical gusto.

Controversy persists to this day as to when the first quad jump was actually landed in international competition. Officially, the ISU recognizes Kurt Browning's quadruple toe-loop at the 1988 World Championships as the first. However, the March 26, 1988 edition of The Bangor Daily News notes that "[Jozef] Sabovcik was believed to have landed one at the 1986 European Championships. But a review of the tapes revealed that he grazed the ice on his free leg and the jump was disallowed." In a December 2008 interview on The Manleywoman SkateCast, Sabovcik explained, "I know what I did, and Kurt and I, people thought we were at each other's throats about this, but Kurt’s a really good friend of mine. I respect him as a skater and I think he respects me as a skater. I did what I did, and mine wasn’t by any means perfect, but neither was his. The ISU makes their decisions and that's how it is. They usually don't go back on anything they rule. Scott Hamilton told me, he was there, they made a video that showed the landing from a certain angle, and when he heard the ruling, he offered them the tape from, I think it was, ABC, and [the ISU] simply refused it because they had made their ruling." In his 1991 book "Kurt: Forcing The Edge", Kurt Browning talked with candor about his own historic accomplishment: "I'd been landing quads in practice for a couple of years. I'd landed them in Cincinnati and tried them here and there, whenever I felt the chance existed. Other people were landing them too. But there are two important distinctions that put my name into skating history. I was the first to land a quad perfectly and cleanly - landing on one foot, not two - at a recognized, sanctioned skating event. Not fooling around in practice, not on springy ice, not on a pond in the middle of nowhere without a battery of judges around. That is why my name is in the Guinness Book Of World Records. I was the first to do it. I won't be the last. Let's be clear about this. Skating folklore is rich with jumps that never happened, real fish stories. According to legend, there have been quad Salchows and fantastic combination leaps. Perhaps people were landing quads in some manner in the 1940s, because that's when the rumors began to circulate. [Sabovcik]'s one of the most exciting jumpers I've ever seen. Boitano did a perfect quad in practice in St. Gervais. I've seen Orser do them. But I was the first to hit one when it counted."

The first quadruple attempt from a woman came in 1990, when exuberant French skater Surya Bonaly went for the gusto and tried both a quad toe-loop and quad Salchow at the European Championships. She ultimately continued to tackle the jump sporadically until 1996 before abandoning it entirely. That same year, Alexei Urmanov became the first Soviet skater to land a quad in competition at the Soviet Championships.

The first attempt of a quad jump in combination came in 1991, when Michael Chack tackled a one-foot Axel/quad Salchow combination at the U.S. Championships, two footing the landing of the second jump. In his 2014 Skate Guard interview, Chack said "as far as my quad, I just loved jumping and trying different things and pushing skating limits." Weeks later, Elvis Stojko landed the first quad combination at the 1991 World Championships - a clean quad toe/double toe. The following year at the Albertville Olympics, Petr Barna landed the first quad jump, a toe-loop, in Olympic competition.

For much of the mid nineties, Elvis Stojko was quad king, ruling the roost when it came to his consistency in landing quad after quad in both national and international competition. At the 1996 Champions Series Final, he again made history by landing the first quad/triple combination in competition. At that event alone, three different skaters (Stojko, Urmanov and Ilia Kulik) all landed quads. The quad race was on. By the 1997 World Championships, Chinese phenom Zhengxin Guo was landing both a quad toe on its own and a quad toe/double toe combination. This gave him the distinction of being both the first skater to land two quads in one program and the first to put a quad and a quad combination successfully in one free skate. Stojko, of course, repeated his quad/triple event at those same World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In 1998, American skaters starting reclaiming their place in the quad race (see what I did there?) when Michael Weiss made the first quad Lutz attempts at the 1998 U.S. Championships and 1998 Winter Olympics. That same year, Timothy Goebel became the first person to land a quad Salchow, the first to land a quad Salchow in combination and the first American skater to land a quad combination when he pulled off a clean quad Salchow/double toe combination at the Junior Champions Series Final. The feat was so unexpected in the junior ranks that it took the ISU nearly a month to ratify Goebel's effort. Ilia Kulik, in his 1998 Nagano free skate, also became the first Olympic Gold Medallist to include a quad in his winning free skate.

At the ISU's Biennial Congress in June 1998, a rule change was made permitting (male) skaters to attempt quads in their short programs. Canadian Derek Schmidt was the first to go for it - in two summer competitions in Canada - but didn't he land them cleanly. Elvis Stojko went for it at that year's Skate America but he too was unsuccessful. The first clean quad in a short program came from China's Min Zhang, who landed a quad toe in the short program at the 1999 Four Continents Championships. However, the most significant milestone of that season in terms of the quad race was the first program to include three quadruple jumps, an incredible accomplishment Timothy Goebel achieved at Skate America in October 1998. During the 2001/2002 season, Min Zhang again made history as the first skater to land three quadruple jumps in his Olympic free skate and Evgeni Plushenko landed the first quad/triple/triple (toe/toe/loop) at the Cup Of Russia. He would repeat that feat in his winning 2006 Olympic free skate in Torino.

The first woman to land a ratified quad was Miki Ando of Japan at the 2001 Junior Grand Prix Final and first to land three clean quads in competition under the "new" judging system was France's Brian Joubert, who pulled off a quad toe/double toe, quad toe and quad Salchow at the 2006 Cup Of Russia. In 2010, Kevin Reynolds became the first skater to land two different quads in one short program at Skate Canada International.

The race to include even more difficult quadruple jumps has been nothing short of compelling. Jumping aficionados worldwide - particularly in Russia and Asia - leave us constantly questioning both the laws of physics and reason. Here's the reality. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are landing throw quad Salchows and Lutzes; skaters are attempting quad Axels in harnesses... and while it leaves our jaws on the floors to watch, the pounding that these skaters bodies are taking is just insanity. That said, the pounding ALL skaters bodies take is insanity. I should know; I don't skate anymore and my back and feet are still a mess... and believe me, I wasn't trying quads sweetie.

The real question as we look back on the history of quads in figure skating isn't the past but the future. In February 2014, "Scientific American" published a fantastic article about the possibility of quintuple jumps. In the piece, University Of Delaware biomechanist James Richards is quoted as saying that "the quad is the physical limit. To do a quint, we would have to have somebody built like a pencil, and they can't get much smaller than they already are." Scientists say a lot of things. I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to discount quints just yet. Figure skating is really 'figure jumping' these days and with the progress that's being made on the technical side every day and new coaching technology, I choose to just sit back, be amazed and sincerely hope nobody gets hurt.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Statue Is Done: The Jacqueline du Bief Story

"One does not take up skating; skating just takes up you." - Jacqueline du Bief, March 23, 1954

Back in the fourth installment of "The Other World Champions" series here on the blog, we oh so briefly explored the story of one of the most enigmatic skaters to capture the world's attention during her era. For a long time I have wanted to write at length about Jacqueline du Bief's important contribution to the skating world... but there have been a couple of roadblocks. There's not a wealth a video footage of her publicly available and much of the source material written about her career isn't in the English language. That said, with a translated copy of her 1956 autobiography in hand, a wealth of English sources and what French sources I could roughly translate, I put my nose to the grindstone and was able to come up with this biographical sketch which I hope will shed some new light on just how big a deal this French star really was.

Born December 4, 1930 in Paris, France, du Bief started skating at the age of four with her older sister Raymonde at the Molitor Rink and became immediately hooked. Both sisters actually studied ballet prior to receiving high level instruction in skating, which was a complete juxtaposition to how most skaters of the era would have approached the sport in their youths. When she started taking lessons with Lucien Lemercier, she was a quick learner and by nine years of age, she was already making quite an impression. One of the first mentions of du Bief wowing crowds was around this time. The August 21, 1939 issue of the French language newspaper "Le Figaro" cites her as a star of Lè bal des Petits Lits Blancs in Cannes, an opulent summer festival where she demonstrated her skating prowess alongside other performers such as soprano Lily Pons, ballet dancer Serge Lifar and le ballet de l'Opéra-Comique.

After winning the French junior title - her first competition - du Bief moved into the senior ranks. In "Thin Ice", she explained that in her first senior competition "the day began with a heavy air raid and I arrived at the rink with a strange feeling of discomfort and fatigue... When my turn came, I presented myself without enthusiasm and I executed a programme in which the greatest difficulties consisted of one 'Lutz', 3 consecutive loop jumps on the same foot, and a long spin of four turns. There were six of us and I got fourth place, but we had not left the dressing-room before the siren went, announcing another aid raid. We remained for two hours in the underground shelters of the building. There, stretched on a bench, and rolled in a blanket, I became feverish and red spots broke out over my face. When we at length got back home, my mother said to me: 'Tomorrow I will buy you a book and some crayons, and you'll have to stay in bed - you've got measles.'"

When Paris fell to the Nazis on June 14, 1940, the trajectory of du Bief's budding career was affected greatly. During the German occupation, power plants were taken over and ice rinks were closed. With no artificial ice to be heard of, du Bief returned to where she started, practicing wherever the nearest lake froze over once she recovered from her illness. After the Liberation Of Paris in August 1944, rinks reopened and du Bief returned, training at Boulogne Billancourt and the Molitor and Rue Nesnil ice rinks with coach Jacqueline Vaudecrane.

By 1947, du Bief had won her first of six consecutive French senior ladies titles. Appearing at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, she made an inauspicious start, finishing sixteenth of twenty five competitors, but by the time she made it to Davos for that year's World Championships, the young skater was already turning heads. Although she gave a disastrous showing in the school figures, her unique free skating style did not go unnoticed by the judges, who included Kenneth Macdonald Beaumont and Melville Rogers.

That contrast between a weakness in school figures and a prodigious talent in free skating was a theme that went on throughout the five foot five skater's career. It didn't help that one of her main rivals was Jeannette Wirz (Altwegg) who was regarded by many as the finest school figure skater of her era and it also didn't help that du Bief's stance on the matter of school figures was that "they're so boring." When she appeared at the 1949 World Championships in front of a hometown crowd, she moved up from sixteenth out of seventeen skaters to ninth overall on the basis of her free skating alone; a kind of meteoric rise in the standings and juxtaposition that was rare back in those days. While Jacqueline was rising in prominence in the amateur ranks, her sister Raymonde was finding success as a professional skater. Raymonde's success motivated Jacqueline to see just how far she could push the envelope artistically as a free skater. She was fiercely determined to win on her own terms.

What made du Bief just so unique at the time? Susan D. Russell noted in a 2012 article in International Figure Skating magazine that "throughout her career, Du Bief experimented with new and innovative ideas and explored all avenues of artistic skating. Her vibrant personality and power of presentation accentuated her many brilliant and original moves, which at times both dazzled and shocked audiences. Du Bief was renowned for her creative choreography. She once devised a program where she portrayed a statue that came to life while another performer pretended to be asleep in a chair on the ice. In another program, she wore a costume with red and white arm bands so that when she spun her arms resembled a barber’s pole." She was also credited by Dick Button with the invention of the illusion spin when she lost balance on entrance to a camel. She wore flame red dresses, insisted on doing her own choreography and by 1950, had decided to play the game and put in the time required to improve her school figures drastically so that she wasn't always having to come from behind. She also took up pairs skating, winning two national titles with partner Tony Font in 1950 and 1951. By 1950, her hard work and innovations were starting to pay off. In Oslo at the European Championships, she won her first international medal (a bronze) behind Ája Vrzáňová and Altwegg. The following year, she was both the European and World Silver Medallist, winning the free skate in both events.

The stage was set for 1952 to be du Bief's year and in her first two international outings - the European Championships in Vienna and the Winter Olympics in Oslo - she was unable to overcome her finishes in the school figures and overtake Altwegg. The fact that she ultimately moved up to win the bronze medal at the 1952 Olympics was actually quite remarkable in the fact that she was skating at that event with a fever of 101.7. Willed on by her strong desire to finally win an international competition, she returned to Paris to skate in front of a home crowd at the World Championships at the Palais Des Sports. The whole event was rather surreal for the nineteen year old skater. In an Ice Network feature on her coach Vaudecrane, du Bief was quoted as saying "I was alone on the ice in that stadium. It was me and the audience and my skating under the stars," She landed the first double Lutz from a woman in international competition and earned a perfect mark of 6.0, taking home the World title. But it wasn't all roses. She fell twice (once quite badly) and her hometown crowd turned on her. Frank Orr's February 13, 2002 article from the Toronto Star noted that "the spectators pelted the judge [who gave her the 6.0] with bottles and anything else that wasn't nailed down" when they learned that she had beaten American Sonya Klopfer (Dunfield). In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick considered the politics behind the audience's outburst: "During the marking, the highly demonstrative audience was shouting its approval or disapproval as it saw fit. The German judge raised his card to mark the performance in free skating. Out of a possible perfect score of six, he gave a six. Despite the fact that this skater had fallen down, he had given her a perfect score. Had he given it to her in contents, the judge could have justified himself by approving her music, the layout of the program and so forth. But to give a perfect mark for a 'performance' in which the skater fell down was just incredible; had the judge merely wished to place her first, he could have done so with almost any other mark by judging the others consistently with the standard he placed on her performance. But the crowd was emotional, the judge was a German voting in Paris at a time when political tempers were flaring, and there was no adequate check on his action at that time. Whether or not there was a direct connection between these factors and that mark can be surmised by the reader as well as the writer, but it is interesting note that the resulting criticism, although directed against that particular judge, also reflected the general dissatisfaction with the system of marking that permitted such an incident."

Her controversial win resulted in nicknames ranging from 'The Pride Of Paris' to 'The French Panther'. In her autobiography, du Bief conceded that Dunfield should have won. That's not how any World Champion would want to have to look back on their winning performance, especially one so regarded for their ahead of their time free skating talent. Sadly, the controversy followed her to her final amateur competition - the French Championships - where she was plagued by consistent speculation as to whether or not she'd already turned professional. Although plans were in the works with John Harris, she hadn't signed anything. She took her final gold medal and hit the road with a sour taste in her mouth. In "Thin Ice", she recalled "my world of that time, a world of competition and classic rules, was to me the detestable and necessary world of the concrete and the real, but my world of tomorrow - the show world - I was quite sure was a world of dreams and imagination, a world of the ideal."

The story of HOW du Bief turned professional is one of the coolest I've ever encountered. The April 5, 1952 edition of Billboard magazine recounted that the "entire production staff of Ice Capades here, is eagerly awaiting the Tuesday arrival of Jacqueline du Bief, Parisian world figure-skating champ, at Idlewild Airport. Seems that [although] the French darling of ice, whom Ice Capades execs are gambling will be the hottest skate sensation since Sonja Henie, has already agreed to turn pro under their banner, she is holding on to her amateur status until a few moments before her overseas plane touches U.S. soil. The sentimental 19-year old is determined to sign her first pro contract at the exact moment her plane flies over the Statue of Liberty, an earlier French gift to America. Ice Capades contract inking will be legally witnessed at that moment by plane captain and co-pilot." She joined the show the next week in Chicago. On her decision to turn professional, du Bief spoke out in the December 17, 1953 issue of the Chicago Tribune: "What could I do after being world champion but stay and be world champion again? So I decided you cannot be an amateur all your life, you have to work some day. I do not like the school figures necessary in amateur competition. I wished always to do dance and interpretive numbers. The judges used to say 'She is too theatrical, not classical enough.' In the show I can do what I want, what I feel, be more free."

Freer she was. Her self-choreography and music choices became even more avant garde. Her eclectic programs ranged from "Johnny Guitar" to a honky-tonk folk ballad bemoaning the fate of Tom Dooley to "When The Saints Go Marching In" to an underwater fantasy. She once remarked that "a fish on ice might sound funny but I represent the movements." After a brief stint with Ice Capades, in 1953 she performed in Paris in the star role of Sonja Henie's troupe while Sonja vacationed in Paris, then co-starred with of Arthur Wirtz' Hollywood Ice Revue in December alongside Barbara Ann Scott. She followed that up with performances in Holiday On Ice and the Scala Eisrevue. The young French diva was in demand.

A bit of a diva du Bief was. She drove herself from place to place in her Simca sports car with a snow white, deaf cat named Totoche with blue eyes she acquired in Brighton at her side everywhere she went. She modelled with clay, had an eye for fashion and spent her time off the ice in theaters and at the ballet, listening to symphonic music and reading books. She also had a notorious sweet tooth and loved to bake. In 1954, she had a wonderful collection of waltzes especially composed for her by Alain Romans (here's the link from the BNF archives to listen!) and she started performing regularly as a star of Tom Arnold's Ice Pantomime's in Great Britain. Her televised appearance as "Aladdin" (in the starring masculine role) was reportedly the catalyst for another future World Champion - John Curry - to want to take up the sport. After watching a performance and interview with du Bief, Curry was said to have announced to his mother "I want to go skating".

As much as she loved travel, du Bief frequently spoke of the loneliness of being on the road in interviews. She said that "when in a show you cannot have any life like everybody. If you have a skating boyfriend it is no fun. Always it is the same thing. You cannot speak of anything but skating. And if you meet a boy outside the show, before he can become a boyfriend you are gone."

After penning her autobiography in 1956 and starring in another Arnold production - "Babes In The Wood On Ice" at Wembley Pool - du Bief made the decision in 1958 to stop touring and start freelancing. She starred in the first Lido de Paris show, flew from Paris to Ottawa to skate three numbers in the Minto Follies, gave exhibitions at winter carnivals in Switzerland and Germany and did a two month show in Johannesburg, South Africa. She loved skating in warm climes and noted in a March 11, 1958 Ottawa Citizen interview that it "will be lovely to visit a warm country. Skaters seldom get a chance, although I was in Spain, Majorca and Minorca last year."

In 1959, she accepted a year long engagement in the Ice Cocktail show at the Las Vegas Stardust Hotel and the following year was a regular on the short-lived NBC variety programs "Music On Ice" and "Summer On Ice "alongside Johnny Desmond, Jill Corey, The Skip Jacks, The Dancing Blades and ice comedian Ben Dova. The shows got bad reviews for their poor use of colourization and awful music and du Bief's skating was generally regarded as the glue that held the productions together. That same year, the Ottawa Citizen noted in its March 19 edition that her accent "landed her in difficulties the other day in Rochester. Trying to buy a train ticket to Ithica a cantankerous agent mistook 'Eezica' for utica and to pacify him she said 'OK, however you say it - give me one ticket.' She wound up in Utica, 70 miles away and had to take a taxi to catch the beginning of her show."

In 1961, du Bief returned to Great Britain to take on the role of The Wicked Queen to Sue Park's Snow White in "Snow White On Ice" at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow. The Glasgow Herald on March 29, 1961 wrote that she "has a grace and charm that belie her sinister role." The following year, she again bucked convention when she took on the male role of Peter Pan in "Peter Pan On Ice" at Wembley Pool. On her time as a professional skater, du Bief once remarked that "when I work well, and the audience is good, I forget I am tired and everything else. I like to leap. I feel I fly through the air and I like that. My best pleasure is to jump so big and so fast as I can when I practice. Sometimes I fall very hard, but I like that." It was shortly after her stint with Tom Arnold's shows winded down that du Bief retired from professional skating, returning to live in France.

Not afraid to speak her mind, du Bief had some very real opinions about what was and wasn't working with competitive skating... and decades later, her opinions on the future development of competitive skating turned out to be quite prophetic. When touring with Ice Capades right after turning professional, she told reporters that Olympic figure skating competitions were corrupt and the current judging system should be abolished. In addition, in "Winter Sports" in 1966, Howard Bass noted that "Jacqueline du Bief has suggested that school figures, the way they are being emphasized today, can actually hurt a skater's free skating performance and that some of the tedious hours devoted to figures could be spent more advantageously in free skating." Her opinion on school figures may not have been surprising, but her opinion on the role of dance to developing strong free skating very much was. The very skater who took ballet before she took formal skating lessons did not, according to Bass, advocate practical ballet training for skaters either but was supportive of the idea of skaters watching ballets be performed. By the 1992 Olympics, forty years after du Bief's Olympic medal win school figures were no longer part of Olympic competition and as for that judging system she felt she should be abolished? We all know what happened ten years later in Salt Lake City.

In 1959 in "Ice-Skating: A History", Nigel Brown wrote that "Jacqueline du Bief was an inspired artist seeking an outlet in skating. She performed feats of skill not only with her limbs. Her intensive spirit dominated. She showed by her brilliance and natural talent as an artist the wide possibilities of artistic skating, but more than anything she brought a much needed refreshing air to the framework of women's skating. She appeared at the right time." I couldn't agree more with Brown.

I want to close with perhaps my favourite quote from Jacqueline du Bief, which sums up her thoughts on the creative process: "When it is in your brain you feel it is the best you ever did. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad, but the best moment is when you have it in your brain. I try to do what a sculptor does with a statue - correct it all the time. At the end it is done, like the statue is done." I hope I've been able to, in patching together the pieces of her story like a quilt, do justice to that statue's story.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at