Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Diane Towler-Green And Bernard Ford: The Mother And Father Of Modern Ice Dancing


Once upon a time, long before Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean became their country's first and only Olympic Gold Medallists in ice dancing with their iconic "Bolero" free skate, long before Sinead Kerr and her omnonomy brother John were working it in kilts, Great Britain had established its early dominance in ice dancing. From the time ice dancing was first included in the programme at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1952 until 1960, four different pairings from the UK had each won a World title: Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy, Pamela Weight and Paul Thomas and Courtney Jones with both partners June Markham and Doreen Denny.  After a four year dominance by the Czech team of Eva Romanova and Pavel Roman, the British team of Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford again dominated the world of ice dance for four straight years (1966-1969). The polished British team are considered the first 'unofficial' Olympic ice dance champions, when the top ten couples in the world were invited to compete in an exhibition event at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Of the win, Ford joked, "They didn't give us gold medals. But they did buy us a meal in a good restaurant."

Towler-Green and Ford were true pioneers of modern ice dancing, credited with introducing dance lifts, twizzles and pairs spins to a sport that was a strictly lift free zone. When Ford lifted Towler-Green off the ice at the 1964 British Championships, the team won their first medal at the British National Championships, which was followed by 4th place finishes in their first European and World Championships the same year. Naturally with any change to the status quo, their 'risque' lift, which was only "a small space between her feet and the ice" according to Ford, wasn't well deserved by everyone. "Some people loved it as the new direction, some said the rules might have been made to bent, not broken," explained Ford. Ice dancing was completely different at that time, with much more focus on the compulsory dances than on free dancing. "When I was training a lot of work went into the compulsories," explained Towler-Green in a 2007 Absolute Skating interview. "They were broken down and practiced until they were perfect. My coach wanted them perfect! We worked just as hard on the OD and FD, but technically, our coach was very strict on the compulsories. When I competed we worked on all the different Compulsories all the time, as they were drawn at the Championships itself. We had to do more sequences then as well." In total, four compulsory dances (including an Original Set Pattern Dance starting in 1968) and a free dance were skated during Towler-Green and Ford's era.


Lifts soon became commonplace in ice dancing thanks to Towler-Green and Ford, who continued to add variations and height to their revolutionary "trick". Though they certainly did a new trick to the ice dancing trade, there was more to Towler-Green and Ford than a gimmick. They had deep edges, speed and challenging footwork all on their side. Ford was no stranger to athleticism, having beat 1976 Olympic Gold Medallist John Curry in singles competition early in his career (only to beat BY Curry in ice dancing early in their career as well). Their dominance from 1965 to 1969 was absolute: they won a triple crown of the British, European and World titles every year during that period with programs like their well known "Moon River" exhibition and 1968 "Zorba The Greek" free dance and retired from ISU eligible/"amateur" skating in 1969, performing in ice shows together in Britain, Poland and Russia until Ford moved to Canada in 1971, and Towler-Green opted to stay in London, uninterested in full scale touring. Both Towler-Green and Ford were appointed as Members Of The Order Of The British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II and continued to make outstanding contributions to the sport both before and after their induction to the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1993.

Towler-Green returned to her former skating club, where she and Ford were coached by the famous and skilled Gladys Hogg, and coached former rival Janet Sawbridge and her partner Peter Dalby to a bronze medal at the 1972 European Championships. Three decades later, she coached both her daughters Candice Towler-Green and Phillipa Towler-Green to British junior ice dance titles and appearances in world competition,, among other World and Junior World competitors. After emigrating to Canada, Ford has since coached in Toronto, Edmonton and Seattle, Washington, and served on the ISU's ice dance technical committee where he co-invented the Cha Cha Congelado, a popular compulsory dance. He also coached 1988 Olympic bronze medallists Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall early in their career, which was evident in their athletic, detail oriented style.  


On their career and success, Towler-Green has stated "we were both hungry for success and worked as hard as we possibly could. We both gave 100% and never gave up even if we had bad results, bad skates or nasty comments." Ford has stated "we were told we were innovative, but we were just doing stuff we consider very basic right now. I don't know what the hell they were doing before." I know what they hell they've been doing since - interpreting music other than traditional ballroom dances, performing thrilling and innovative lifts, dance spins and footwork, and without Towler-Green and Ford's pioneering efforts in this department, ice dancing would not be the draw that it is today.

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