How The OSP Came To Be

Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov

"Skating is and will always remain essentially a dance." - Manfred Curry

Although we think of the development of the OSP as an international matter, the origins of the 'Original Dance' actually trace back to the roaring twenties when former German pairs champion, author and international judge Dr. Hugo Wintzer of Dresden, Germany submitted a failed proposal to the ISU for an ice dance competition, including an "original dance", to be included at the World Figure Skating Championships. Wintzer's "original dance" proposal was in many ways moreso a precursor to what we'd think of today as a free dance. He described it as a "dance of one's choice, 2 minutes" and stated that "the character must be that of a dance throughout. Thus figures appropriate to a pair or single skating should be considered incorrect; for example, separating figures, spirals, and successions of steps without a rhythmic repetition of movement. In senior dancing competitions, every series of dance steps must be skated at least three times in immediate succession."

Although Wintzer's proposal got absolutely nowhere, in 1928 at the USFSA's Annual General Meeting, the USFSA Governing Governing Council voted to adapt his 'Original Dance' proposal and include it at the 1929 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in New York in conjunction with compulsory dances. The judges were a bit all over the place but the Original Dance's debut was a success from a skater's standpoint. Among those competing in that first original dance competition were American skating legends like Maribel Vinson, Theresa Weld Blanchard and Nathaniel Niles. However, interest in the original dance in the United States soon fizzled.

In the late thirties in England, a New Dance Competition at the Westminster Ice Rink in England encouraged ice dancers to develop new variations on traditional compulsory dances. Although dances like Eva Keats and Erik van der Weyden's Westminster Waltz, Reginald Wilkie's Quickstep, Argentine Tango and Paso Doble, borne of this movement, survived as compulsory dances, others like the Roquina Waltz and Argentina Foxtrot flopped. A set pattern dance conceived by George Muller in Colorado Springs that was discussed at the first International Dance Conference in London in 1948 gave further impetus to the OSP movement but its impact wasn't recognized until some time later.

The concept of an Original Dance was again briefly revived in Great Britain as an Exhibition Dance in NSA tests of the fifties but it it wasn't until the early sixties after the Sabena Crash that talk of an OSP started getting serious. In her book, "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves notes that in May of 1961, "Courtney Jones organized an Original Dance Competition sponsored by the Queens Ice Club to find new dances from competitions and club dance sessions. He secured an NSA permit, donated a trophy, invited amateurs and pros to open in an 'open' format and refereed. Seven judges judged nine original dances for originality of steps rather than skill of performance. Eight border dances suitable for club sessions, among them two sambas, two beguines, and a tango-bolero, a foxtrot, a polka, and a mazurka [were skated]. The ninth, a reverse waltz, was like the Three-Lobe Waltz in reverse. The entrants expressed a preference and need for Latin and South American rhythms. The judges' opinions varied widely because it was difficult to mark a dance high that was skated poorly but fit all the rules. The tango-bolero won, but not so overwhelmingly that the NSA adopted it... As a step toward the original set pattern dance, the ISU considered holding a New Dance Competition, similar to the one held at Queens in May, after the next Worlds, with a rhythm chosen from rhumba-bolero, polka, or Westminster-type waltz. The dance could not use movements permitted in free dancing but absent from the compulsories. The dance could proceed either clockwise or counterclockwise around the rink, but could not double back on itself."

Lynn Copley-Graves also noted that during the 1966/1967 season, "The ISU Ice Dance Committee revived the USFSA idea from the late 1920's of adding an original set pattern dance to competitions. The Sportclub Riessersee organized a trial event for the DEU under ISU supervision and invited ISU member countries to send two couples; those whose dance teams placed in the top ten at the 1966 Worlds could send three couples. The ISU wanted to ensure that the original set dance would not be a free dance. It would be scored as a compulsory with one mark from each judge."

This test event took place in the first week of September, 1966 at the Olympia Eisstadion in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Although nine couples were initially entered, Americans Lorna Dyer and John Carrell and the French team of Brigitte Martin and Francis Gamichon both withdrew. Seven teams remained to skate compulsory dances, the new original set dance and the free dance. Janet Sawbridge and Jon Lane of Great Britain skated a Paso Doble, Gabriele and Rudi Matysik of West Germany opted for a Mambo, Brits Vivienne Dean and Michael Webster selected a Tango and Czechs Milena Turnova and Josef Pepek chose a Fox-Polka. Three teams settled on straight up interpretations of the polka: West Germans Angelika and Erich Buck, Czechs Jitka Babick√° and Jaromir Holan and Brits Mary Parry and Roy Mason. Sawbridge and Lane's Paso Doble got the nod in the original dance with average marks of 5.5 and "Skating World" magazine noted that the original set dances were "all exceptionally good, and we are in for a treat in future years if these dances are anything to go by."

At the 32nd Biennal Congress of the ISU in Amsterdam, West Germany in 1967, delegates voted to introduce an "original set pattern dance", effective September 1968. The regulations were as follows:

a) This dance shall not be a free dance.
b) Each couple may choose their own music and tempo.
c) Only regular dance rhythms with constant tempo may be used.
d) The choice of steps, connecting steps, turns and rotations is free, provided they conform to the rules of the ISU.
e) This dance must be composed of repetitive sequences. The sequences must consist of either a half or a whole circuit. Altogether, the dance must complete three circuits of the rink, i.e. six or three sequences, according to the arrangement. Reverse direction is permitted provided it is constant.
f) The dance sequence must not cross the middle axis of the rink.
g) It is permitted to change the dancing hold three times in the sequence if this takes a half circuit. If it takes a full circuit, six changes are permitted.
h) Hand-in-hand positions with outstretched arms are not permitted except at the start of a sequence and must not exceed seven steps.
i) Separations of partners must not exceed the duration of one bar of music.
j) Toe steps are not permitted.
k) ISU Rule 358 must be observed with regard to dress.

Skaters were also required to submit the type of music and rhythm they had selected as well as a brief description to the judging panel prior to the OSP. Some coaches, including the indomitable Gladys Hogg, expressed concerns over whether or not judges would penalize couples who chose a rhythm they weren't partial to. Miss Hogg and Alex Gordon initially both expressed their belief that judges should be able to come to a conclusion as to which couple was the strongest based on the compulsories and free dance alone. In November of 1968, Janet Sawbridge and Jon Lane, who'd won the original set dance in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1966, competed in one of the first competitions to ever include the OSP - that year's British Championships - but lost to Diane Towler and Bernard Ford. Both couples were coached by Miss Hogg.

With free reign to select a concept and music of their choosing, skaters went a little crazy that first season. From "The Sailor's Hornpipe" to "The Peanut Polka" and more than one honky tonk country hoe-down, the judges were left a bit bewildered both in national and international competitions that first year. Copley-Graves noted that at the World Championships, "Towler/Ford skated an exciting, controversial OSP with perhaps more than the six allowed changes of hold... Pakhomova/Gorshkov beautifully executed a waltz OSP to haunting music in a minor key with 'absolutely no tempo', according to Alex [McGowan], to the orchestrated music 'Beryozka,' named for a small birch tree that is common in Russia." The 'one mark' judging system tested at the 1966 international event in West Germany was retained in the OSP's infancy.


As one of Henri Meudec's final tasks as ISU Ice Dance Committee chair, the 'free for all' OSP's were quickly put to bed. At the 1969 ISU Congress in Maidenhead, England, it was decided that the rhythm for the OSP would be set by the Ice Dance Committee. The first rhythm selected was the Polka and by the 1971/1972 season, all sixteen teams at the World Figure Skating Championships were skating Samba OSP's. In 1975, vocals were prohibited in the OSP.  Since the seventies, the OSP has varied in form and constantly evolved. It's been known as the Original Dance and Short Dance and may soon become the Rhythm Dance, a term previously used at the World Professional Championships in Landover, Maryland. Although much has changed over the years, I think it's always good to Rocker Foxtrot back to your roots.

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 http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard 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 http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.