Thursday, 21 April 2016

Setting The Starlight Waltz Straight: Ice Dancing's Untold International History

"Those few who have voiced the opinion that ice dancing has become stereotyped have perhaps not realized the interpretive possibilities of expression." - Katherine Sackett, Skating magazine, December 1944

If you believed everything you read, you would think that ice dancing's first appearance at the World Championships was in 1952 and its first Olympic appearance in 1976. In reality, 'the historical record' has edited out a fair bit, neglecting to mention countless achievements by pioneering skaters who chassé and choctawed the way for ice dancing's ultimate recognition as a discipline in international competition.

After World War II, ice dancing got its foot in the door at the 1947 North American Championships at the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa. Although well attended, the event really wasn't much of an international one. Four of the five couples competing were from the United States and with Canadian Champions Marjorie Wilson Roberts and Bruce Hyland out due to illness, the top three spots all went to American couples. The winners were American Gold Dance Champions Lois Waring and Walter Bainbridge of the Baltimore and Washington Skating Clubs.

Three years later in 1950, an international ice dancing competition was held at Wembley Pool in London, England in conjunction with that year's World Figure Skating Championships. Again, American Lois Waring was victorious, but this time with partner Michael McGean. There were six teams in this event - three from the U.S. and three from Great Britain - and all performed four compulsory dances and a three minute free dance. By accounts, ice dancing was lucky it wasn't tossed aside altogether as a result of the less than stellar performances in this particular event. In the May 1950 issue of the USFSA's Skating Magazine, Kenneth D. McRae noted that "the English couples were obviously not too familiar with the American Waltz, and the same criticism applied to the American competitors on the Paso Doble. No couple succeeded in bringing out any effective rhythm in the new Tango. But probably the Waltz was the worst skated of the four. Still, it was on the Waltz, particularly, that the winners, Lois Waring and Michael McGean showed their supremacy over the others."

In 1951, the North American title went to Americans Carmel and Edward Bodel, but the duo didn't ultimately appear at the second of the two 'unofficial' World competitions in ice dancing held at the 1951 World Championships in Milan, Italy. This time, Britain made up for the embarrassment of a loss at home the previous year by taking home both first and second places ahead of American teams in third through fifth places.

World Champion Jean Westwood

In my February 2015 interview with Jean Westwood, she explained that "in 1950, most nations at this time held their Nationals after Worlds and selected their next year's World Team. In England, all their dance couples had retired, split up or turned professional. It was decided to hold a trial and select a team to enter the International Dance Competition, the forerunner of the World Dance Championship, in Milan during the World Figure Skating Championships. In October, I was involved in a serious car accident while attending Liverpool University and was hospitalized for a month then had to undergo physiotherapy. The new partnership of Lawrence Demmy and myself was formed and we decided to enter the trials. It was not judged but two couples were selected - ourselves and John Slater (my previous partner!) and Joan Dewhirst. So off we went to Milan where Lawrence and I won the first competition we entered - which just happened to be the equivalent of a World Championship. It was some way to start a career! Returning to England we did not win the National title, nor for the next two years even as reigning World Champions." Then nineteen year old Westwood's 1951 win with Demmy was truly incredible in light of her recovery from that car accident. Her injuries had been quite severe - in fact, a gash on her throat missed her windpipe by half an inch. The couple's inexperience internationally made their win even more incredible. Of most important note when talking about the 1951 event was the fact that the number of entries doubled and included teams from Austria, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. 

The following year, Westwood and Demmy won the first of their four consecutive 'official' World Championships to make a total of five altogether and the rest, as they say, is history for another day. While I am on the topic of unofficially recognized international ice dance competitions, I do want to talk a bit more about the Olympics, because 1976 in Innsbruck wasn't the beginning either.

Lois Waring and Walter Bainbridge. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

At the 1948 Winter Olympics in Germany, the North American Champions Lois Waring and Walter  'Red' Bainbridge, two British couples and a Belgian couple exposed ice dancing to Olympic audiences for the first time with a special demonstration. Lynn Copley-Graves' ever reliable encyclopedia "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" (which I consulted for much of the research for this particular blog) noted that at the 1952 Games in Oslo, "Carol Adams and Danny Ryan gave an exhibition of dances along with Frannie Dafoe and Norrie Bowden, who competed in Pairs. The two couples ended the exhibition with a risky change of partners on the Fourteenstep corners." Sadly, Ryan (heading to Prague as a judge) would be among those who perished on the 1961 Sabena Crash.

World Champions Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford

Snubbed by the IOC during the next three Games, ice dancing would make another 'unofficial' appearance at the 1968 Grenoble Games. A demonstration competition of "rhythmic skating in pairs" featured compulsory, original set pattern and free dances by the top three British couples, the top two Soviet couples, Americans Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky, Canadians Joni Graham and Don Phillips and Hungarians Edith Mató and Karl Csanadi. The competition wasn't overly well attended but was decisively won by Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford of Britain. In my November 2014 interview with Ford, he said "I never know how to talk about the Olympics. It wasn't an Olympic event but we did have the top ten teams in the world so I guess it's 'unofficial'." Official or not, the IOC certainly seemed to love what they saw. Avery Brundage, the IOC President, said that "rhythmic skating in pairs" was "sport, culture, art and beauty."

Brundage's praise wasn't enough to speed along the tortoise paced way of progress; ice dancing was
again excluded from the Olympic roster at 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo. It finally made its triumphant Olympic debut as a discipline at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. In my December 2014 interview with U.S. Champion Kent Weigle, he recalled, "it was the first time that ice dancing was officially included in the Olympics and it was quite an honour, but because of the timing at the event, they put the initial round of ice dance immediately following the Opening Ceremonies. Our team leader suggested we didn't participate in the Opening Ceremonies so we weren't out in the freezing cold before we had to skate. I regret that I didn't participate because we were in no way medal contenders and it wouldn't have made the least bit of difference. It's kind of what it's all about! That was a little bit of a downer but I remember one of practice rinks was outdoors so that was kind of fun. Getting to watch Dorothy, Pakhomova and Gorshkov, Rodnina and Zaitsev and John Curry win... that was so much fun to be a part of history and get to watch that." Canadian Champion Barbara Berezowski, who also participated in the 1976 Games, recalled in our March 2013 interview, "David (my skating partner) and I drew the dreaded number one in skating order at the Innsbruck Olympics. Dreaded because you never want to be the first competitor: it almost guarantees low marks, no matter what you do, because the judges have to leave room for the other twenty five skating teams to come. Looking back on that now though, there was a silver lining to that: that action made David and I the first ice dancers in the world to EVER compete in the Olympics! The entire experience of being at the Olympics changed my outlook on how important achievement is and how it can inspire others."


In the end, the victors were (then) five time World Champions Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov of the Soviet Union, with teammates Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov claiming silver and Americans Colleen O'Connor and Jim Millns settling for the bronze despite being crowd favourites. Berezowski and Porter were tenth; Weigle and partner Judi Genovesi fifteenth. The assistant referee of that first "official" Olympic ice dance competition? One half of the first 'official' World Champions in the sport... Lawrence Demmy. Just like the Viennese Waltz, the pattern of history repeating came full circle. 

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