#Unearthed: The Frances Dafoe Edition


When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's #Unearthed comes to you from a short-lived online magazine devoted to (mainly Canadian) figure skating history called "Skating Through Time" from the late nineties and comes to you from the late Olympic Silver Medallist and two time World Champion Frances Dafoe.

"REFLECTIONS" (FRANCES DAFOE)

fPhotographSkating and designing came to fruition at approximately the same time in my life. They melded together for the first time in St. Catharine's, Ontario at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships when my partner, Norris Bowden and I won the Waltz Championships of Canada in 1950 and were the first recipients of the new Canadian Championship medal which I had designed. This medal was used until 1987. A different medal design is in use today.

There had been an open competition for the design of this medal and when I won I was awarded the princely sum of $100.00. I don't know who was more surprised - my teachers, at Central Technical School, one of whom was the great artist Doris McCarthy, or me. I was so pleased that one of the judges was photographer Yousuf Karsh. The old medal was based on a sculpture of a great Canadian skater, judge and official - Norman Mackie Scott, one of Canada's skating pioneers.

PhotographThe new medal was a winged blade resting on a branch of laurel, the Greek symbol of victory. A branch of laurel is also used today, on the ISU's (International Skating Union) World Figure Skating Championship medals.

During the time I was taking the commercial art course at Central Technical School I was designing, not only costumes for my partner and me but also wedding dresses for the Eaton's store for their couturier department under the watchful eye of the wonderful cutter Mrs. Agnes Willis. She made, over the years, many outfits for our top skaters, myself included.

Carnival ProgramBecause of my art training, anytime there was an opportunity to design I took it. This led to designing costumes for the Toronto Skating Club Carnival and one of the program covers for this event. Over the years I designed pins for tests and crest for our International Teams as well as uniforms and dresses for the competitors all before my professional career started at the C.B.C., in Toronto Canada.

During our skating years we met the team of Blanche and Alan Lund, who were outstanding ballroom dancers, with several Royal Command Performances to their credit as well as being superb choreographers. They assisted us with our lifting techniques and became two of my dear friends and mentors in my design career. I designed over 30 productions for Alan until his untimely death.

PhotographOne of the most challenging aspects of our competitive years was the difficulty of skating out of doors in extreme weather. At this time in Canada and the U.S.A., we were "hot house" skaters. Although the rinks were not heated, they were much warmer than the great outdoors so we needed clothing that was not only warm but also would leave my waist free for lifts and throw jumps -- (yes we did throw jumps in the early fifties but they were singles!) We also introduced the first twist lift -- a loop twist; the first airborne lasso lift; the catch throw lift; the hip Axel lift; the lasso unto the shoulders, falling forward to an upright edge and the Axel into the arms. (We were always criticized for being too athletic). We also introduced changes of musical speed and interpreted different types of music. Sheldon Galbraith, our coach, remembers with great amusement, one of our club members coming up to him and saying, "mood spelled backward is doom".

Fifties DressWe were major contributors to the "illegal lift" section in our present day ISU and the CFSA (Canadian Figure Skating Association) rule book but at least we broke the old fashioned pair rigidity. During the fifties, the ladies skating dresses, were for the most part, cut in a princess line with no waistline, little fullness in the skirt for figures and greater fullness in the skirts for free skating. Many ladies wore tiaras for free skating. The dresses sometimes had different coloured petticoats underneath. The panties were separate and rather voluminous. The fabrics, at the time, were non-stretch woolens, nylon, rayon jerseys, laces, rayon satins, other unusual mixtures and velvet that marked with water. I did have a black silk velvet dress that had absolutely no give what so ever and a tendency to rip so, for the sake of decency I put the pants together with a slip top, which became what we think of as a leotard. It was made of black rayon jersey which did have a bit of "give" and had narrow straps over the shoulders. It was a great relief to me to know that I was covered when Norrie, one evening in Zurich during an exhibition, lifted me by my dress which promptly ripped off. Often there was no place to change in privacy. We trained in public rinks in every kind of weather. The worse the weather the happier our coach Sheldon. "You need the experience and who knows you may have to compete in the kind of weather". He was quite right. We competed in below zero temperatures in Oslo, Norway and another year in a blizzard in Vienna Austria.

PhotographThe following will give you an idea of the conditions that competitors dealt with in the fifties as compared to the athletes of today. The most difficult conditions we competed in:

4 degrees below zero in Oslo, Norway: When the ice is so hard and it is so cold the blade cannot melt the ice surface to give the skater the glide they require and one feels as if one is skating on a sticky surface and the blade produces a squeaking noise. The other danger is that pair skaters are unable to wear gloves and at this low temperature your hands begin to freeze and you cannot feel your partner's grip to say nothing of the pain that comes after you leave the ice and your hands begin to thaw.

Driving blizzard in Vienna, Austria: The snow was falling so fast that the rink had to shovelled before each pair. With no place to put the snow except around the sides, the ice surface shrank in size after each program and it was difficult to tell where the ice ended and the snow bank began. One of the problems of skating in snow is that the pretty soft white stuff builds up under your blades and slows your speed. We were also dealing with a highly volatile political situation as we were competing in the hometown of our closest competitors.

The most difficult conditions we trained in:

Rain: Visibility becomes a consideration, our hands become very slippery and endangered many elements. Thaws - The ice would become very soft and our blades would dig into the surface and actually become stuck and stop. I broke one of my ankles that way. This was very dangerous for rotating lifts and spins particularly if your blades had been sharpened for hard ice the day before (the groove between the inside and the outside edge is much deeper for hard ice).

Wind: We would have to start our program half way down the rink into the wind because the wind would blow us back up -- imagine jumping into the wind and landing behind where you took off! Hard ice - with deeps cracks transversing the entire surface (extremely dangerous!)

Gray days: When you lost the horizon line against the snow and the ice surface and had to skate by "feel". It's very difficult - like skating on water-covered black ice or heavy fog.

Severe temperatures: At Garmisch we trained in 18 degrees below - Fahrenheit. I developed hypothermia and couldn't control my shaking. Pierre Brunet noticed what was happening and carried me into a warm room. Unfortunately Sheldon had been called home to help with the Toronto Skating Club Carnival and we were left with no one. No official and no coach! Pierre Brunet, a former pair skater, became our temporary coach with the kind permission of Carol Heiss.

Whenever outdoor ice was available we skated at the University of Toronto's Varsity Arena (the surface was much too small at the Toronto Skating Club). When a varsity hockey team did not book the ice surface, the management would notify us and we would skate at any hour of the day or night. Sheldon further insisted that we skate on heavy used hockey ice to develop and strengthen our edges (so many reporters commented on our strong skating edges). It was a hard fought battle.

Skating outdoorsPhotograph gave us other challenges. We usually walked to the rink whenever possible and it was extremely cold. I always wore slacks or ski pants under my coat and over my thick woolen tights which "bagged at the knees". This meant I would need to put on my practice outfit at rinks where no dressing room existed.

Necessity helped me develop a special design to accommodate the various clothing needs. The top of my skating outfit including my pants was made in one piece. The top half was wool for warmth and the pants, which were attached slightly below the waist, were made of rayon jersey (which allowed for a 'give').



DesignThe result was a long sleeved leotard. The separate skirt was made of the same material as the bodice, usually with small pleats and was carried with my skates and put on in public.

This leotard design gave little consideration to the freedom of the arms, which were essential to pair skating, not only for the ladies, but also for the men. The solution was to put triangular shaped pieces of the dress or men's suit fabric cut on the bias (called gussets) into the bottom half of the armholes. Norrie's tailor was Mr. Neil McKonnen.

I then had to design a short jacket to keep me warm during the warm-ups and sometimes during our full training sessions. The final design was a jacket approximately 4 inches above the waist at the sides, angling up at the front to just below the bust and dipping to about 2 inches above the waist in the back. I designed many of these short jackets -- in wool plaids and plain wool always specially lined with a type of thermal lining. Norrie often had short jackets made to match.

PhotographThe other pieces of equipment that I deemed as necessary were the warm boot-covers -- we tried fleece lined ones (too cumbersome) and finally in desperation I bought a pair of men's white socks, slit them along the sole, serged them and buttoned them over my boots - fastening them around my blades to keep the leather dry when we trained during snow storms.
In competition male pair skaters were not as adventuresome in this period and were usually dressed in black! -- black trousers, short black jackets with underarm gussets and white shirts with either a black bow-tie or straight tie. We did experiment making Norrie's pants into a sleeveless jumpsuit. This one-piece sleeveless jumpsuit kept the white shirt from showing at the waist. (It was also great with a sweater worn over it). We then added hooks under the shirt to hook the front and back together to make it neater and less bulky.

The pairs tended to dressPhoto the same - the girls were either in black or colour and the men wore black, black and more black. Because Norrie and I wished to emphasize the height of our lifts we felt that my dresses should be very bright to stand out against the snow or dull weather. Consequently I found myself travelling up and down the escalator in the Eaton's department store to see what colour fabrics caught my attention. I designed all our own costumes and would continue to design outfits for many other competitive skaters in the years following our retirement.

During our time we did take a daring step. For our exhibitions, Norrie and I were dressed alike in bright colours -- blue, bright yellow, and white outfits trimmed with cerise. Norrie wore matching boot covers, which at this time was very different.

The destructionPhotograph factor was ever present for us. We were allowed very little luggage to travel to Europe; 44 pounds to be exact. We needed heavy clothes for warmth, exhibition costumes for shows and competitions and formal outfits for dinners. I only was able to carry two skating outfits for practice and in 1956 one of these outfits ripped into pieces and couldn't be mended. We had to call Canada to have another brought to Cortina by Mrs. Scott (Barbara Ann Scott's mother). Even this call was difficult, as calls from Italy had to be punched through a ship at sea.

PhotographIt was trying time for Canadian skaters. We were all blazing new trails, whether it was altitude training (Sheldon along with Barbara Ann Scott, and my father Dr. Wm. A. Dafoe were the only people who thoroughly understood this problem), equipment difficulties, ice conditions, blade sharpening (to handle different kinds of ice conditions which changed daily); availability of knowledgeable coach/trainers; experienced judges; the necessity of massage after outdoor training to keep the muscles pliant, suitable costumes, lack of funds, (The CFSA gave us our air-fare after we won the World Championship and the Toronto Skating Club gave us $150.00. Sheldon gave up his income for two weeks each year to accompany us and my father paid for his transportation and living expenses); and last but not least a Skating Association with little or no understanding of the European climate - political or otherwise.

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