Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Sister Knows Best: The Raymonde du Bief Story


"The year that I first started to skate, my sister Raymonde was already a 'starlet', a kind of enfant terrible, and wherever I went I was always known as Raymonde's little sister. It took me many years before I was known simply as Jacqueline." - Jacqueline du Bief, "Thin Ice", 1956

"Hello, it's me. I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet..." No, I'm not about to break into an Adele song. I'm just preparing to introduce you to one of the most eclectic French skaters I've encountered while sifting through skating's equally eclectic history. I touched on Raymonde du Bief ever so briefly in the biographical sketch of her younger sister, who is of course 1952 World Champion Jacqueline du Bief. However, I think you'll soon realize why I wanted to give Raymonde her own chance to glisten in the Skate Guard spotlight.


Born in 1926 in Paris, France, Raymonde was eight when she first took to the ice with her younger sister. Though she showed promise while hustling around the ice on the city's frozen lakes, she opted to delay formal instruction in skating until she had studied ballet, believing the two went hand in hand. After becoming proficient at the bar, she came up with the idea of using ballet slippers on ice skates in place of the high laced boots fashionable at the time. Interviewed for an April 15, 1953 publicity piece with The Associated Press, du Bief explained that though it seemed "an almost unbelievable idea due to the fact that in skating the ankles need the added support... [she] had developed her ankles to a point where they did not require the support most skaters need. After finding a manufacturer who could make such a pair of skates and ballet slippers, [I] took to the ice."

Already you can gain a sense of the fact that Raymonde's path was certainly unconventional, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. When she wasn't honing her craft on her ballet slipper skates, she was racing around the rink on speed skates. In January 1937, she won the French women's speed skating title in Superbagnères, beating the French record for five hundred metres. That same year, she was also the French junior women's figure skating champion.

Raymonde's big break came in 1938, when she turned professional at the age of twelve and appeared at the historic Théâtre Mogador in Mitty Goldin's play "La féerie blanche". In the second act, an ice floor was unveiled and there was Raymonde, performing a foxtrot on ice - in HOCKEY skates - alongside the brilliant Belita Jepson-Turner. The January 9, 1938 issue of "Le Matin: derniers télégrammes de la nuit" described her as a "a charming vision of fantasy whose prowess remains an elegant and perfect art." The January 15, 1938 issue of "Le Monde illustré, Miroir du monde" noted that her performance of was "more than remarkable."

Raymonde was doing things that female (let alone male) figure skaters simply didn't do at the time and the people of Paris were eating her innovative approach right up. She continued to entertain the people of France during the bleak years of World War II. Jeanine Hagnauer, in her 1968 book "Patinage sur glace : historique", wrote "During these war years, many sought [to be like] Raymonde. [Not interested in] the classic skating, she created a personal style full of charm. Those who saw her number in tails and top hat, cane in hand, keep [it as] an unalterable memory."



After surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris and World War II, Raymonde headed to Jolly Old England, where she skated in the Tom Arnold ice pantomimes. In 1948, she appeared in Richard Pottier's film "L'aventure commence demain" alongside Isa Miranda, Raymond Rouleau and André Luguet. This film appearance sparked contracts for appearances in France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden. She toured with the Continental Ice Revue and Scala Eisrevue and in 1949 penned the instructional figure skating book "Le Patinage, Sport d'Élite", which was published by Vigot Frères.


With her book came considerable attention and invitations to perform overseas in North America. She toured first with Ice Capades and then with John H. Harris' Ice Cycles (Canada and U.S. tour) alongside Margaret Field and Jimmy Lawrence, Marshall Garrett and Bob and June Ballard. Her appearances in the "Gypsy Gold" and "Birds Of A Feather" acts drew tremendous praise from audiences in Canada and the United States.



In 1953, she returned to live on rue de l'Abbé-Groult in Paris' Javel quarter and for a time, starred in her own travelling French ice revue called Paris On Ice. By the later fifties, she turned her attention to coaching. In 1973, shhe worked with a young blind speed skater who was competing in the first International Winter Games For The Handicapped, a precursor to the Winter Paralympic Games, which was held in Courchevel.


The supporting characters in other people's stories often don't get the recognition they are absolutely due but Raymonde du Bief's insistence that dance come first and skating come second and her pursuit of performance art over point tallying offer what I think are two important lessons many skaters could still learn from today. I don't know about you, but I'll always have a place in my heart for skaters who do things on their own terms and Raymonde du Bief was absolutely one of those skaters.

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