Thursday, 28 April 2016

Did You Know?: Ten Slick Skating Anecdotes For Your Next Dinner Party

You know how it goes. You have your Hors d'Oeuvres elegantly plated, supper is coming along nicely and the cocktails are flowing just as they should be. Everyone's having a great time and suddenly an awkward hush falls over the crowd... Yes, friends, the inevitable lull in conversation can always seem like the end of the world at the time, but every host with the most of a skating dinner party has a trick or two up their sleeves. One or two of these fascinating facts could save you faster than you could pronounce Elizaveta Tuktamysheva! In the infamous words of Mrs. Peacock, "someone's about to break the ice and it might as well be me":

- 1951 World Champions John and Jennifer Nicks weren't the only star athletes in their family. Their father Jack was a great-nephew of nineteenth century cricket pioneer John Wisden.

- Margaret Brown, the larger than life Chicago socialite perhaps best known as 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' for her courageous life saving efforts during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, loved ice skating. Her and husband J.J. would travel to outdoor skating parties by horse and sleigh. The Brown's loved skating so much that in October 1895, J.J. Brown even helped foot the huge bill to construct a giant Ice Palace complete with a skating rink in Leadville, Colorado. After a couple of months of lavish skating parties and contests, The Ice Palace melted. Speaking of the Titanic, Canadian first class passenger John Hugo Ross was described by the Winnipeg Free Press in his youth as "a rosy faced boy in knickerbockers, riding his dog sled or off skating." He was also described as "dapper and flamboyant." He lost everything in the Gold Rush but inherited a family fortune afterwards. Ross was extremely ill while travelling on the Titanic and accounts note that he didn't take the ship's collision with an iceberg seriously. He is believed to have drowned in his bed.

- Barbara Ann Scott was quite superstitious. She considered green her lucky color (her birthstone was emerald) and in her autobiography "Skate With Me", she wrote "I have, I think, some reason for being superstitious about the number five, because several times when I was growing up I came in fifth in a competition the first year I entered and then, the next time the competition was held, went back and came in first. And I like to draw the number thirteen, because I think that is lucky for me. My armband at the Olympic Games was Number 13 and I skated on Friday the thirteenth in the World Championships in '48."

- Royalty from around the world have long enjoyed ice skating. In addition to Queen Victoria and The Romanov Family, famous skating royals over the years include Queen Ena of Spain and her husband Alfonso XIII, Princess Viktoria Louise of Prussia and Crownprincess Margareth of Sweden. Howard Bass noted that "at the British Industries Fair of 1950 a skate manufacturer exhibited a famous pair of skates that were once worn by Queen Victoria, each blade being decoratively extended at the toe in the shape of a swan's head. When the present Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, passed the stand she remarked to the exhibitor that there is a photograph in the Royal Family Album of Queen Victoria skating on that self-same pair of skates."

- In 1971, Carol Burnett parodied three time Olympic Gold Medallist Sonja Henie on season five of The Carol Burnett Show, performing her comic interpretation of skating moves as 'Sonja Honey'.

- Figure skating was the inspiration behind the theme and choreography of Kenneth Mansfield's 1961 ballet "Once Upon A Pond". Mansfield was a professional skater before turning to dance and came up with the concept after noticing how the castanets in Massenet's "Le Cid" sounded like skates moving on the ice.

- In 2016, the sporting world has been abuzz with chatter about athletes testing positive for meldonium. Back in December 1982, the International Skating Union had to deal with its very first case of a positive doping result in international competition. At the World Junior Championships, French ice dancers Christina Chiniard and Martial Mette claimed the bronze medal but were later stripped of their honour. The drug of choice? Diet pills. Americans Christina and Keith Yatsuhashi, who placed fourth, were never even told they got bumped up a spot after the disqualification. They found out from a member of their club who happened to read the ISU bulletin. 

- In the 1996 movie "The Preacher's Wife", Whitney Houston did her own skating in the scene where her and Denzel Washington skated on Portland's Deering Oaks Park. And I... will always love her!

- West German ice dancer Ferdinand Becherer skated with a glass eye for the latter half of his competitive career after being seriously injured in a car accident. With his twin sister Antonia, he went on to win three National titles in his country and finish in the top ten in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

- Back in the eighties, the Canadian Figure Skating Association had a really bizarre loophole in its rulebook seemingly designed to punish (winning) skaters receiving low scores in senior events at the Canadian Championships. Rule #5716(e) of the 1984 Rulebook stated that "to win a Senior Championship of Canada a competitor shall have obtained a mark of at least 4.0 from a majority of the judges for two-thirds or more of the compulsory figures of dances, and for both technical merit and artistic impression in free skating or free dancing. If the competitor placing first in an event has failed to meet these standard the most recently declared Champion, unless he was competing in the event, shall retain the title."

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 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

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice

When you think of a Russian ballet, perhaps you conjure in your mind these stunning images of the Moriinsky or Bolshoi Ballets or dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov or Anna Pavlova. The rich tradition of the Russian ballet directly influenced the classic Russian style of skating we now know today... and much of that is thanks to what was first known as The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice.

Founded in 1967 by choreographer Konstantin Boyarsky, The Leningrad State Ballet On Ice (which is now known as the St. Petersburg State Ballet On Ice) was an important effort to translate classical ballet to the ice, certainly a concept that was most famously later revived in the important work of John Curry. Boyarsky provided a vehicle for some of the most famous Soviet skaters to hone their art in the early history of the Ballet. Ludmilla and Oleg Protopopov were among the Ballet's greatest stars, as later were Olympic Gold Medallists Alexei Ulanov and Lyudmila Smirnova, Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin and Elena and Vladimir Bogoliubov.

Beginning in 1995, the Ballet began performing on the stages of opera theatres and has taken its show on the road everywhere from Portugal and Ireland to Colombia and Taiwan. It has adapted and staged some of the world's best known and most loved ballets including "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker", with lavish costumes and the high level of skating to back it all up.

Interestingly, the Leningrad State Ballet On Ice was not the very first of its kind in Russia. Ten years prior to the Leningrad Ballet's formation, The Moscow State Ballet On Ice was responsible for the first professional ice show ever presented in the former Soviet Union. Today both ice ballets are owned by Hutchison Entertainment Group, the same company that represents stars like Sir Elton John, Dame Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow.

To me, there's just something so classically beautiful about the fact this tradition is being carried on in present day. If you think about all of the wonderful skating shows that have been presented on theatre stages over the years and one by one fallen by the wayside, it is heartening that these efforts have endured. When Boyarsky and The Moscow State Ballet On Ice's founding choreographer Leonid Lavrovski first took on the daunting tasks of translating classical dance to the ice they were forging into new territory blindly and the tradition of this beautifully classical style so obviously influenced the coaches and choreographers of the years to come in realizing the aesthetic beauty of the marriage between dance and skating. To Boyarsky and Lavrovski, we can only say 'spaseeba'.

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 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

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Persistence And Passion: The Vivi-Anne Hultén Story

"Vivi-Anne Hultén, a skater who, in my opinion, has never been given her full dues, is the supreme example of art in free skating. Hers is skating unadulterated; she owes nothing to ballet or to anything but skating. She is the true exponent of the art of skating in its purest form." - Captain T.D. Richardson

Vivi-Anne Hultén was born August 25, 1911 in Antwerp, Belgium. She returned with her parents to their native Sweden where she started skating at the Stockholms Allmänna Skridskoklubb at a young age after showing promise in skiing as well. She was coached by Lars Grafström, the brother of none other than three time Olympic Gold Medallist Gillis Grafström. After winning her first in a long slate of Swedish national titles in 1927, Hultén entered the very first European Championships for women
held in Vienna in 1930. She won the bronze medal behind Austrians Fritzi Burger and Ilse Hornung and was hailed by Swedish newspapers as "The Flame Of Sweden". 

An obituary written in 2003 by skating historian Dennis Bird gives some insight into a romance the young Swedish skater had around that time of her life: "She attracted the attention of a young Englishman who was himself no mean skater. He later became famous as Sir Peter Scott, artist, ornithologist and yachtsman. In his 1961 book 'The Eye of the Wind', he wrote of a new princess working quietly at Rockers in mid ice-rink: 'It did not take me long to discover that she was the champion skater of her own Scandinavian country. My little champion knew how to move, how to dance, she also knew how to draw. And she was delightfully pretty. So long afterwards, I find it difficult to assess this romance of 30 years ago, but it was something gentle and tender and altogether happy. I discovered real humility for perhaps the first time. I simply was not good enough for her.' Scott did not name her in his autobiography, and in the 1990's another skater was suggested as a claimant. But Hultén telephoned me from her home in America and confirmed that it was indeed she who cherished similar fond memories of that relationship. Scott was sufficiently impressed to follow her to Berlin in 1931, when she was placed fifth in her first world championship. [Sonja] Henie, in her memoirs, "Wings On My Feet" (1941), wrote of Hultén as 'Sweden's rising national champion who by 1931 was already crowding the line'. 1932 was an Olympic year and in the Winter Games at Lake Placid, the Swede came fifth. Her best year was 1933, when she beat every other skater except Henie, to take the silver medal in the world championship on home ice in Stockholm."

The fact of the matter is that although Hultén's career was full of impressive achievements including two European medals, four World medals and that Olympic bronze medal in 1936, she was yet another in a long line of casualties unable to beat Sonja Henie during her controversial ten year reign at the top of the skating world... and there was certainly NO love lost between the two Scandinavian ice queens.

In the nineties she told Sports Illustrated magazine, "Look, I have a great admiration for what Henie did... On the ice she was terrific, a wonderful acrobat, just like a circus princess, a big smile, dressed perfectly. But she was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a very nasty person off the ice... I'm just telling it like it is." A 2003 article from The Los Angeles Times relayed several tales of the rivalry between the two famous thirties skaters with the last name H: "The rift began at the 1933 world championships, when Hultén finished only two-tenths of a point behind Henie. 'You are not nearly good enough to get second next to me,' Henie screamed afterward, pointing a finger at Hultén's nose. 'I'm so much better than you are. You deserved to be fourth.' At the 1934 world championship, Hultén came in fourth. 'Her father arranged it,' Hultén told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 'She was afraid of me.' Hultén asserted that Henie's father made deals with judges at world championships to ensure his daughter's victories and to thwart Hulten. 'Papa Henie would go to these places and tell the organizers, 'You can have my daughter (for an exhibition); come up to my hotel room and I'll tell you how we can arrange it,' she told the Sporting News in 1994. 'He played poker with them. If he won, he got an appearance fee for Sonja to skate and he got an agreement that the judges would place me no higher than third. I didn't have a chance. I know this is true because one of my best friends was the president of our club in Stockholm, and he told me about it. Back then the judges were always with the clubs.'" 

The rivalry didn't stop there. The aforementioned piece goes on to claim that "on a 1935 Olympic training trip to St. Moritz, Hultén told the Sporting News, she was detained at the German border for seven hours and searched 'from head to toe,' with no explanation from the guard, whose name was Ulrich Schmidt. Hultén said she later sought out Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to complain. Goebbels, a skating fan, had Schmidt brought to him. 'Goebbels made him get down on a knee and apologize to me,' Hultén recalled. " (Schmidt) said, 'Well, a young lady came through before her whose name was Sonja Henie. She told me this girl here would be smuggling jewelry, so we stopped her.' At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, medal winners were told to give the Nazi salute to Hitler. Gold medal winner Henie saluted, but bronze winner Hultén refused. 'I told them, 'I'm Swedish; I don't do that,' " she said. "I just stared at him. He was a scary person. He looked at you with kind of a burning look in his eyes.'" 

Sticking around to win a final medal at the World Championships in 1937 after Henie's retirement, Hultén had understandably had enough. She married a Swedish engineer thirteen years her senior named Nils Kristian Tholand and turned professional. She appeared in advertisements for the Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company and found success touring with Ice Capades and Ice Follies, performing in Raymonde du Bief's show "Paris Sur Glace" and skating adagio pairs with two of Henie's former partners, Harrison Thomson and Gene Theslof... who unlike another of Henie's former partners, Jack Dunn, managed to make it out alive. Hulten almost didn't herself, suffering serious injuries in a 1940 automobile accident in Seattle, Washington.

While in recovery, the on-ice pair of Theslof and Hultén became an off-ice pair. The Swedish ice queen divorced Tholand and married Theslof in 1942. An attempt at sweet, sweet revenge - in the form of moving in and actually stealing Sonja Henie's show from right under her while she was in Norway - failed miserably (as recalled by Harrison Thomson in the recent Skate Guard feature on him) and any hopes of a comeback were dashed entirely. 

Serving a stint as the Ice Capades' tour director in the fifties, the Swedish sensation and her husband settled in America and had a son, also named Gene. The husband and wife pair became a husband and wife coaching team, teaching in North and South Carolina and Tennessee before opening Vivi-Anne Hultén's Fun and Pleasure Skating School at the Aldrich Arena in Minnesota. She even taught skating skills to a hockey team. Barbara Underhill, anyone?
Hultén's 'golden years' were every bit as remarkable as her 'glory days'. Widowed in 1983, she soldiered on in life without missing a beat. In 1993 - in her early eighties - she even rejoined the cast of Ice Capades for special appearances in several cities. The next year, she was slated to commentate skating for Norwegian television during the Lillehammer Olympics. However, her intent to spill the beans on her experiences with Henie - a cultural icon in Norway - led the network to rescind their invitation. She did speak her piece on Henie in numerous newspaper and magazine articles and on that wonderful skating documentary called "Reflections On Ice: A Diary Of Ladies Skating" they put together down in the States in the nineties. After suffering a stroke in 1999, she moved to an assisted living facility in Corona del Mar, California to be closer to her son. She passed away on January 15, 2003 at age ninety one. 
I think the lesson in Hultén's story is of persistence. Even though she believed that her chances were slim to nil because 'the fix was in', she didn't stop competing. It reminds me a bit of when I performed as a drag queen. For the first five or so years, I competed in a long slew of drag pageants. I finished second - not first, not third, not fifth - in thirteen of them before I finally won my first one. When I skated, I won or medalled in all but one of the competitions I entered so not winning was something new for me. Though definitely frivolous, there was a great life lesson in that whole experience. There were always rumblings about these pageants being fixed and maybe some of them were. I definitely could care less at this point. I do know this though... When I was in those uncomfortable shoes, I was certainly conscious of - or of the belief that - even doing fifteen cartwheels, a backflip and shooting fireworks out of my fake boobs wasn't going to win me those contests. I did it anyway and tried my damndest. Stupid? Hardly. If you are a competitive person and love what you're doing, you do it... and then you do it again. You may in fact never win, but better things will eventually come if you push yourself. They have for me much like they did for Hultén. After all, I'm writing about this marvellously persistent person who dealt with some less than delightful people, tried their hardest to achieve their goals, didn't, moved on and found far more fabulous adventures around the next corner. It would seem Vivi-Anne Hultén and I may have a great deal in common. 

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 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

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.  

At the 1948 Winter Olympics in Germany, the North American Champions Lois Waring and Walter 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. 

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 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 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

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Of Birds And Blades: Audobon's Skating Adventures

"Sometimes a slight motion in the air revived our hopes... carried us through the smooth waters like a skater gliding on ice." - John James Audubon, 1826

Born on a sugar plantation in what is now Haiti on April 26, 1785 and raised in France, John James Audubon later became a pioneer in American ornithology. His studies and paintings of birds remain world famous to this day but what few know is that Audubon was, by all accounts, a first rate skater. He emigrated to America in 1803 on a false passport to avoid transcription in the Napoleonic Wars and primary sources simply abound with stories of his escapades on the ice while living near Valley Forge.

In an autobiography that was penned to his children and found in a barn on their estate long after his death, he wrote: "Not a ball, a skating-match, a house or riding party took place without me." Newspaper accounts from the early twentieth century recalled him as a "most graceful skater". A wonderful account of his skating prowess came from his neighbour David Pawling, who diarized, "Today I saw the swiftest skater I ever beheld; backwards and forwards he went like the wind, even leaping over large air-holes fifteen or more feet across, and continuing to skate without an instant's delay. I was told he was a young Frenchman, and this evening I met him at a ball, where I found his dancing exceeded his skating; all the ladies wished him as a partner; moreover, a handsomer man I never saw, his eyes alone command attention; his name, Audubon, is strange to me."

What few know is that skating almost took his life. While returning home, flintocks in hand, from a day of duck hunting on the frozen Perkiomen River in December 1804, he actually fell through the ice. He wrote in his journal of the incident: "We were skating swiftly along when darkness came on, and now our speed was increased. Unconsciously I happened to draw so very near a large airhole that to check my headway became quite impossible, and down it I went, and soon felt the power of a most chilling bath. My senses must, for aught I know, have left me for awhile; be this as it may, I must have glided with the stream some thirty or forty yards, when, as God would have it, up I popped at another air-hole, and here I did, in some way or other, manage to crawl out. My companions, who in the gloom had seen my form so suddenly disappear, escaped the danger, and were around me when I emerged from the greatest peril I ever encountered... I was helped to a short from one, a pair of dry breeches from another, and completely dressed anew in a few minutes... our line of march was continued, with, however, much more circumspection." Falling ill after his accident, complications from an abscess left Audobon with a high fever. Delirious, his wife Lucy nursed him for ten days at Fatland Ford. Undaunted by his near death experience, he returned to the ice and attempted an incredibly dangerous stunt.

In "The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volumes 132-133" later in the nineteenth century, Sydney Smith recalled that "Audubon was a capital marksman. On one occasion, while skating down the Perkiominy Creek, he laid a wager with Miss Blakewell's brother that he would put a shot through his cap." In a personal letter, Audobon explained his Russian Roulette like caper: "During the winter connected with this event... Thomas Bakewell, now residing in Cincinnati, was one morning skating with me on the Perkiomen, when he challenged me to shoot at his hat as he tossed it in the air, which challenge I accepted with great pleasure. I was to pass by at full speed, within about twenty-five feet of where he stood, and to shoot only when he gave the word. Off I went like lightning, up and down, as if anxious to boast of my own prowess while on the glittering surface beneath my feet; coming, however, within the agreed distance the signal was given, the trigger pulled, off went the load, and down on the ice came the hat of my future brother-in-law, as completely perforated as if a sieve. He repented, alas! too late, and was afterward severely reprimanded by Mr. Bakewell." Rightly so, if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned, this skating ornithologist had a death wish.

In his colour-plate book "The Birds Of America", Audubon identified twenty five new species of birds. He passed away in 1851, suffering from dementia later in life. Although he never achieved fame as a skater, these early nineteenth century tales only go to show you that skating finds itself in the life stories of historical figures you might never suspect.

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 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

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Skating's Best Supporting Character: The Harrison Thomson Story

Carl Van Vechten photograph. Used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

Back in those glory days when figure skating was glamourized on the silver screen by Sonja Henie and Belita Jepson-Turner, the men that paraded around skating's leading ladies more often than not played second fiddle. Today we'll delve into the fascinating story of one man who stumbled upon a professional skating career out of sheer necessity and went on to become one of the busiest yet most historically overlooked pairs skaters of his era.

Harrison Thomson was born in Chicago, Illinois and lived there until he was three. Moving with his family to Montreal, he took up skating at the age of seven and trained at the Montreal Winter Club. Although he spent much of his youth toiling away on patch sessions in a chilly Quebec rink, his amateur career wasn't particularly memorable. He finished second to a young girl named Patsy Hale at the Winter Club's competition in 1931, lost out on medals in the junior ranks to Wingate Snaith and Ralph McCreath and more often than not found himself performing exhibitions prior to NHL hockey games than winning competitions. That changed in 1936, when he took up pairs skating and won the Canadian junior pairs title on his first try with partner Audrey Joyce, defeating Betty Riley and Jack Wilgour of the Winnipeg Winter Club and training mates Margaret Symington and Charles Askwith of Montreal. A couple of months later, he finished second in the senior men's club championship at the Montreal Winter Club behind Askwith and handily won the senior pairs club championship with Joyce, earning the Hugh Paton Cup.

Thomson's real dream was to become a dramatic actor. He travelled by steamship from Canada to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. With only a few pounds in his pocket, he was dismayed to learn that he'd arrived two days late for the school's term. Returning to his hotel room and counting his chump change, it was evident he needed to find some way of making money... and quick. A friend told him they needed skaters for Claude Langdon's ice ballets "Enchanted Night" and "The Brahmin's Daughter" at the Covent Garden. Ten thousand pounds alone was spent on installing ice on the Garden's fifty five by seventy foot stage, a fifty member symphony orchestra was hired and a skating cast of one hundred and twenty professional skaters were employed, including two time Olympic Gold Medallists Andrée and Pierre Brunet, barrel jumper Phil Taylor and popular British show skaters Belita Jepson-Turner and Freda Whittaker. Thomson's roles in these two lavish ice ballets were decidedly minimal - he played a British officer in one and a grasshopper in another - but they earned him some money, got his foot in the show biz door and introduced him to Olympic Bronze Medallist Vivi-Anne Hultén.

Stanley Judson and Alicia Markova

After his engagement in Langdon's ice pantomimes ended, Thomson appeared in other British ice shows as Hultén's partner before coming to America. He appeared in various club carnivals in the Eastern states then decided to try his luck at California dreaming. He shacked up in Los Angeles with another single man four years his senior, a British dancer and director named Stanley Judson. Judson was a ballet partner of Alicia Markova, who started the Dolin-Markova Ballet with Anton Dolin, the man largely responsible for Belita Jepson-Turner's dance training.

Thomson joined the cast of Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue and prior to World War II, became Henie's pairs partner. He was featured prominently in her shows and even her film "Sun Valley Serenade". An account of Henie and Thomson filming skating scenes for the film at the 20th Century Fox Studio appeared in the May 22, 1941 issue of the Buffalo Courier-Express: "Miss Henie and Harrison Thomson, her long-time ice partner, circle the rink in a waltz step and at every right beat Sonja floats through the air with the greatest of ease. It is lovely and slow and measured, and you'd never think that Mr. Thomson is hurrying a bit because he is slated to join the Army in a week or two. They waltz around the big floor with complete grace and you think this is pretty wonderful. But before Miss Henie and Mr. Thomson have finished the loudspeaker says 'uhuh' or 'whooap' so they have to do it all ever again. They work all day on something that will pass before your eyes in 60 seconds at your favourite theater. I said that the skating pair did their work at every right beat. Beyond the rink in a dark corner are a pianist and a drummer. Their music is terrible - just thumps and rattles and tinny chords. The pianist is wearing earphones. When somebody says 'speed' it means that the camera is rolling, and the pianist with the earphones begins hammering the keys. Miss Henie and Mr. Thomson begin their gyrations on the black ice. They are to circle the rink twice, with Sonja being lifted into graceful leaps every so often. The pianist knows what's going on. He is listening through the earphones to the playback of the orchestra which has already done the music for Sun Valley Serenade. The sound film he is hearing is being run off in another building a quarter of a mile away, and he is just trying to indicate the beat with tinny chords. The drummer, who has no earphones, is taking his cue from the pianist and whacking out thumps and rattles. Many times the little scene is shot, and many times it is wrong. Henie and Thomson are off beat; Sonja does six leaps instead of five; at the very end of one take, when everything looks perfect, Sonja subconsciously reaches down and gives the skirt of her skating costume a hitch, like a woman easing the strain on her garters. Many times some little thing goes wrong, but finally everything is pronounced all right. The skating kept time to the sound track; the camera kept up with the skaters, and Sonja looked her loveliest. The director says, 'I'll buy this.'"

After filming "Sun Valley Serenade", Thomson enlisted to serve in World War II. He was discharged as Top Sargeant from the U.S. Army after five years in Alaska and returned to the world of professional skating to find the whole scene was changing drastically. In an interview with the Sausalito News on April 2, 1953, he recalled a row between his two former partners that had a major impact on Henie's shows and Hultén's career: "Sonja was in Norway at this time and the show which she had built up was 'resting' until she returned. This was a perfect opportunity for Vivi-Anne. She just came along and took over the whole [troupe]: manager, east and all and put them all to work for her on a new show which she planned for the Hollywood Bowl. I was to be her partner. When Sonja heard about it, she was like a raging tiger and chartered a special plane to bring her back to Hollywood. But there was nothing she could do about it; there had been no contract. It put her in quite a spot because at this time Hollywood had practically no ice skaters at all... Then came the anti-climax and a triumph for Sonja. We had been in rehearsal for some time and the evening of the dress rehearsal the panic let loose. Everyone's pay check bounced - the show had run out of money. But that wasn't all. The show was scheduled to open on the following Friday, and the manager had forgotten to have the ice put in the Hollywood Bowl. What a mess it turned out to be... Sonja bought the show and was to take her rival's part, costume and all. What a triumph it was for her. There she was with a ready made show, which she'd bought for a song. Everything was already arranged - except the ice of course and that was soon straightened out - Yes - everything was ready, including a new partner - me. It ruined Vivi-Anne and she never skated professionally again."

Harrison Thomson and Jinx Clark

From 1948 to 1950, Thomson skated at the Centre Theatre in New York, performing the role of Prince Desire in "Howdy Mr. Ice" and "Howdy Mr. Ice of 1950" alongside Jinx Clark. Between the two shows, he recalled, "we gave 947 performances. I danced the Prince in Sleeping Beauty until it came out of my ears." In those shows, he also appeared as the ringmaster in a circus inspired number called "The World's Greatest Show" and a duet called "Precision Plus" with Rudy Richards.

Harrison Thomson and Rudy Richards. Carl Van Vechten photograph. Used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust. 

He made a conscious decision to retire from professional skating at age thirty five, stating "I specialized in ballet skating and I'd seen too many stars behind the foot lights who should have retired years before. There is nothing more tragic - or more ridiculous - than watching dancers who have once been world famous, living in the past and imagining they are the same at age 40 as they were at 20." Moving to Montreal, he remained active in the theatre world, acting, doing choreography and set painting for his sister's stock company of actors.

He later returned to Hollywood. Again, instead of acting, fate had other plans. He helped build DC6's at the Douglas Aircraft Plant instead. Thomson bought The Tin Angel on Bridgeway in Sausalito, California and renamed it The Glad Hand, sold his house and ranch in Hollywood and moved permanently to Sausalito. He then bought land in Guerneville, opened a vineyard and made wine for his restaurant... proving that in the end, when life gives you grapes, you better make wine honey.

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 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

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Neva Skating Association: Special Figures And Finer Fashion

In terms of the founding of skating clubs, 1863 was quite the year. In the city now known as Oslo, Norway, the Christiana Skating Club was formed and of course, in America the coming together of skaters from the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers with New York City skaters resulted in the formation of the New York Skating Club, the second in the country. A world away in nineteenth century Russia, a third skating club was formed that year - the Neva Skating Association - and its contributions to the development of skating were as important as any.

The Association was actually founded by a small group of English skaters living in St. Petersburg at the time and named the Neva Skating Association after the Neva River that flows through much of the city. It was the earliest known predecessor to the St. Petersburg Skating Club. Members skated both upon the Neva River itself and at a public rink that opened on Yusupov Gardens shortly after the Association was founded. There was apparently another rink known as the 'Prudki' which was on the garden at Grechesky Prospect, but the Yusupov Gardens were reserved for members of the Neva Association.

Without question, the most important contribution of the Neva Skating Association to skating history was the development of 'special figures'. Building upon the stiff English style of skating and attention to symmetry in carving out figures on the ice, the club's Russian members got quite inventive and really focused their attention on crafting beautifully elaborate designs on the ice. The imagination required to create and execute special figures was viewed as an artistic endeavour by these early Russian skaters and they placed more esteem on this lost art than free skating and traditional school figures, in that order. Competitions of the era placed the utmost importance on encouraging skaters to create new designs. In early competitions in Russia, traditional school figures were at times excluded from the bill entirely. 

The Association also played an important role in dictating the skating fashion of the era. Female members - who absolutely existed - were known for wearing tunics that had the collars and borders embroidered with fur with a matching fur cap and high boots. The men of St. Petersburg also sported fur caps and this trend spread to Scandinavia by way of the many Russian Finn's who lived in the country and caught on in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark as well as in Continental Europe. 

Nigel Brown's authoritative 1959 book "Ice-Skating: A History" tells us that "every year the Neva was the scene of a dazzling carnival organized by the club. The Czar and members of the Imperial Family came to see it and skated. The ice-field was bordered by coloured lights and in the centre was an enormous snow figure from which shone a brilliant illumination like a lighthouse. Many of the skaters carried little coloured lights on their caps and in their belts and as they skated round in the dark, they looked like giant glow-worms. Cannons fired large snowballs that burst above the rink and sprayed skaters like confetti. These fêtes upon the Neva were the most extravagant and luxurious carnivals of the time. The Russian skating scene during this interesting period... was generally characterized by extravagance. If at times the ideas appeared somewhat fanciful, they were always visionary, and contributed a great deal to skating in this developmental age."

The Neva Association morphed into the St. Petersburg Society Of Ice Skating Amateurs in 1877, which was founded by a Neva member and docent at the city's university named Vyacheslav Sreznevsky - the son of Izmail Ivanovich Sreznevsky, a prominent figure in nineteenth century Slavic studies - along with prominent Russian skater and lawyer Alexei P. Lebedeff, architecture academian A.K. Bruni, a painter named Buchter, a general and two industrialists. In March of the next year, Sreznevsky won the first documented competition in Russia which was held at the Yusupov Gardens rink. By the late 1880's, a young Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin was among the Society of St. Petersburg skating elite.

Skating in St. Petersburg continued to grow and develop with special figures always remaining in the forefront in terms of a skater's education. Russian Studies lecturer James Riordan explained in his 1977 book "Sport In Soviet Society: Development Of Sport And Physical Education In Russia And The USSR" that "the Society of Amateur Skaters sent its members abroad to take part in competitions and, in 1883, Alexei P. [Lebedeff] won the unofficial world figure skating title in Helsinki - the first Russian success in international competition."

Less than a decade later in 1890, another of the earliest international competitions was held at Yusupov Gardens. Louis Rubenstein of Canada won the gold medal but it was Lebedeff who dominated the special figures. An American correspondent covering the event in the New York Clipper wrote of that the Russians "were the most awkward I have ever seen; even the simplest movements were only performed by a great deal of force, their hands and legs flying ln all directions. In regard to acrobatic skating they certainly shine, but in America or Canada such skating would not be tolerated by the judges. One of the best skaters here is Lebedeff, who closely observes the Canadian style and with more practice he will make a formidable opponent to even such finished skaters as Rubenstein. The ladies here, I must say, are very nice skaters, and some are very graceful in their movements; but I have seen none equal to some of our American lady skaters."

On February 9, 1896 the first World Championships recognized by the International Skating Union were held in St. Petersburg. Georg Sanders, an American living in St. Petersburg, claimed the bronze medal in the 'regular' competition that consisted of school figures and free skating but, drawing on his schooling, the gold in the special figures competition. Fittingly, in 1908, Panin-Kolomenkin became the only Olympic champion in the lost art of special figures. In Irving Brokaw's 1913 book "The Art Of Skating", Georg Sanders guest-authored a chapter on special figures where he noted how the art remained hugely popular in the earlier twentieth century. He stated that "in order further to encourage the invention and execution of new figures, a silver challenge shield was presented by N.D. Bojarinoff, in 1909, at Wiborg, for competitions from which compulsory skating of school figures was entirely absent; the competition consisting of two parts, viz., Figure Combinations (figure designs) and Free Skating. This was won in 1909, at Wiborg, by K. (Ollo) of St. Petersburg."

Many factors contributed to special figures falling out of favour but interestingly, the art remained popular in Russia for decades after these intricate designs were excluded from major international events. Although there was certainly a long period where skaters from North American and Continental Europe dominated international competitions, Russian skaters have consistently been considered among the most esteemed in the world. I must say that their early skating roots - the fur costumes, special figures and colourful spectacles on the Neva River - are certainly fascinating.

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 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 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

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Prophecy Of T. Maxwell Witham

There is something so compelling about the idea of prophecy. From Nostradamus to Madame Helena Blavatsky to the great 'sleeping prophet' Edgar Cayce, those souls who have dared to put forth their visions of a future world in the face of certain ridicule have shown tremendous bravery. The author whose work we will explore today on the blog did not write quatrains foretelling an apocalypse on ice. However, in his column "Skating Gossip" published in the August to December 1895 issue of "The Badminton Magazine of Sports And Pastimes", author and English Style skater T. Maxwell Witham did present a fascinating prophecy of his own on the road he saw figure skating heading down. In Witham's time, a sport without school figures would have been as unimaginable. Yet, one hundred years later, brackets and loops had been abolished from competition. I wanted to share Witham's essay to remind us that the future now, in the twenty first century, is as uncertain as it was in the nineteenth. The IJS system the sport is mired in now and the reality of free skating programs with four quadruple jumps may be no more permanent than the way of progress that Witham projected in the late nineteenth century. Read his words carefully, and consider that change is constant:


All methods of self-propulsion are fascinating, but when, in addition, progression is only possible by means of correct balance, as in skating and bicycling, the fascination is doubled.

Figure-skating, as distinguished from skating as means of progression, is comparatively modern, and, curiously enough, It emanates from Great Britain and from English-speaking people. Before the year 1830 figure-skating was in its infancy, and such movements as were known were handed down from generation to generation by tradition, as the few books on the subject that did exist described only the most elementary movements, and frequently the directions given for acquiring these were entirely

From the year 1869 till now skaters have been gradually taught by good text-books, the leading men in the art have studied the various movements that go to make up figure-skating, and have now practically demonstrated all the fundamental strokes that are possible to the figure-skater. We are not
from this to understand that nothing new in figure-skating is possible. Far from it. Although every possible stroke is now known, the multitude of combinations by joining one stroke with another is perfectly endless but whether the rising generation will derive as much pleasure in devising these combinations as the pioneers of the art did in working out the simple initial strokes is doubtful. 

In the dawn of figure-skating, undoubtedly the inside edge was the first which demonstrated the possibility of leaning over on an edge and so describing curve, seeing that this inside edge was the easiest to execute by reason of the unemployed leg being always ready and available to act as prop to
the nervous or falling performer. This inside edge no doubt suggested the outside, and when this was demonstrated as possible, it was practised to the entire exclusion of the inside, because in the early days the position of the skater's body when executing the inside edge made it an ungainly and ungraceful movement.

In practising the outside edge, our ancestors, no doubt, in holding on to the edge as long as possible occasionally found that at the end of the curve they made an involuntary half-turn, placing them on the inside back, and this involuntary turn being by practice reduced to certain turn gives us the common figure 3. It has, no doubt, struck many people, as it has struck me, as curious and almost incredible, that, given the dandy-horse, which demonstrated the possibility of riding on machine having two wheels in the same plane, it was some forty years after the advent of the dandy horse before it occurred to some one to put cranks on the front wheel and so continue the motion, thus virtually creating the modern bicycle. And it is hardly more curious that, with the forward commencing with an outside edge and turning to an inside edge backwards to guide them, it was years before the other turns were discovered. 

Skaters continued to practise only the figures that had been handed down to them by tradition, gradually and slowly increasing the number of possible figures such, for example, as second and third turn in the 3. Who it was who had the boldness first to try the dangerous second turn is unknown, but
the having three turns and known as the double was undoubtedly skated by the members of the Skating Club as early as 1830, but as single turn, from inside back to inside forward, it is doubtful if it was skated till quite recent years. Then, again, another movement, now known as 'change of edge,' but formerly called the 'serpentine,' might easily have occurred to skater by chance. He might have been describing curve of outside edge on the right leg and some one to the left of him might have spoken to him, and to answer the question asked he might have turned his body without putting down his left leg and have found him self on the inside edge, and it would then naturally strike him that while on an edge he could, by altering his balance, change the edge from out to in, or from in to outside. 

It may, think, be safely asserted that the germs of most modern figures have more probably been discovered by chance on the ice while practising something else than that they have been thought out in the study and declared theoretically possible. By tacking on turn either at the end or the commencement of the newly-discovered change of edge large number of new figures, known as Q's and reverse Q's, were created but we have to thank our Canadian and American cousins for showing us how to make the change of edge as a means of propulsion and when this was recognised, any number of movements on one leg could be joined together and skated without any assistance from the other leg other than swing. 

It is only within the last few years that the skating fraternity has from time to time been startled by the publication of descriptions and diagrams of new figures, some of them, perhaps, being put forward as theoretically possible, but practically impossible yet now one sees boys of fourteen executing these supposed impossible figures with the greatest facility. 

How is this? First, the modern figure-skater has better constructed skate than his ancestors possessed and, secondly, skating being an imitative art, he has only to copy what he sees others doing, or follow the careful instruction given in the text-books, and he is thus enabled to acquire facility in executing difficult movements much more rapidly than did the pioneers of the art but he does not attain what was to the early figure-skaters the supreme pleasure of thinking out and demonstrating as possible some movement which at that period was new departure.

The facility of communication all over the world has affected figure-skating as it has other arts, and itinerant professional skaters, mostly American, established themselves in Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Norway, and schools of skating were established, where the practice of the art is carried out by the natives in accordance with the early teaching of their professors, coupled with the desire for display peculiar to foreigners. The English man tries to, and does in fact skate the most difficult movements, and at the same time his whole desire is to conceal the difficulty. The foreigners, on the other hand, exaggerate the motion or balance which emphasises the difficulty, and go for speed and dash, which they attain mostly at the cost of elegance.

There is another school, that of St. Moritz, which is essentially British, and which has carried out the early teaching of the Skating Club of upright carriage and straightened knee to its logical conclusion, and it is quite wonderful to see the skill of the habitués of the St. Moritz rink in executing the most difficult movements with the arms quiescent and the knee and body perfectly rigid. They carry this rigidity to an extent that some good judges consider exaggerated, but their style has one good quality,
and one that will be more and more of use as an object lesson if our skating is to be done in the future principally in covered rinks, as it proves that by practice the most difficult movements may be skated with certainty and at great pace without the stooping body, bent knee, and swinging arms which are the essential characteristics of difficult figures when skated in the acrobatic fashion common to foreigners.

What will the figure-skating of the future improve or degenerate into? The improvement of the last few years has been most marked on the part of the men, and the ladies are running them very close. The causes of this decided improvement are the start given to figure-skating by the introduction of roller skates in 1875, the greater interest that is now taken in anything athletic, the long frosts which we have enjoyed during the last few years, and the continuous practice which many of our best skaters
obtain every year in the Engadine. But now that we have Niagara, and are to have similar places at Knightsbridge and Argyll Place, although there will be the opportunity of continuous practice, the space available is contracted and crowded, and the chances are that, from an English point of view, the skating will deteriorate. Individual acrobatic performances on skates will doubtless develop enormously, but the accuracy and correct pose which have hitherto distinguished English skating, as seen to perfection in the Club figures will be lost. 

There is one form of skating which has made some little progress of late years, which the real-ice rinks may bring to great perfection, and that is hand-in-hand skating. It is fascinating of itself, and is practically possible in crowded rink. For the side-by-side figures there are two ways of holding hands first, the old method, where the gentleman, being on the left of the lady, takes her right hand in
his right hand, and her left in his left, the joined right hands being underneath the left hands secondly, the method known as the Austrian. In this the lady puts her hands behind her with the palms upwards, and the gentleman takes them in his hands,which are turned palms downwards. He stands behind the lady to her left, the left hands are joined and brought forward, and the lady's right hand is passed behind and across her back, and is so held in the gentleman's right. When the gentleman is to the right of the lady the position is, of course, reversed. At first this position feels cramped, and it is especially the lady who is most affected. This is caused by the strangeness of skating with her hands held behind her back, but if the gentleman will be careful to always be at her side, either to the right or left, instead of behind her, this feeling will soon wear off, and when the lady is able, without effort, to swing her arms behind her from one side to the other, according to the position of her partner, it will be found that much freer skating can be done in the Austrian than in the old-fashioned side-by-side method. 

One thing must be remembered in hand-in-hand skating if either of the partners should feel that fall is inevitable, the hands must be disengaged instantly and to do this, and to ensure ease and grace, the hands should be held but lightly, and by the ends of the fingers. In the confined space of real-ice rink Club figures are not possible, as they occupy far too much room but this hand-in-hand skating can be indulged in to any extent, and as every movement that can be executed by an individual skating alone can be equally well skated by two persons holding hands in the Austrian method, it is probable that for the next few years any great improvement in figure-skating will be in this direction.

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 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

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The 1996 ISU Biennal Congress

Sometimes you really don't have to turn the dial back on the time machine that far to see just how much the world has changed in a relatively short period of time. In today's case, we're only talking twenty years. It was eight years before Facebook; ten before Twitter. Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister, Bill Clinton was President and Ross and Rachel were taking a break. The Grammy for Song Of The Year went to Seal's "Kiss From A Rose", Michelle Kwan had just won her first World title and on any given Saturday afternoon, at least three or four television channels were showing figure skating at the same time. The year was 1996.

The event in question was the forty sixth Biennal Congress of the International Skating Union held in June 1996 in Davos, Switzerland. It was only two years into Ottavio Cinquanta's reign as the President of skating's governing body yet and it was a time of great change as the ISU struggled to adapt and stay relevant in a time where professional competitions, shows and specials were garnering a great deal of attention from television audiences. 

Several of the main items of discussion in Davos that year revolved around the creation of new events. The Grand Prix, known as the Champions Series in those days, had first been contested during the previous season. At Skate Canada in Saint John in the autumn of 1995, the ISU had included a small junior men's event with five skaters as a test as to the viability of a similar series for junior skaters. They were suitably impressed and a Junior Grand Prix circuit consisting of six events and final was approved to begin during the 1997/1998 season. The creation of the Four Continents Championships was also announced, with the first event to be held in 1999 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There was a proposal to make both the Europeans and Four Continents Championships qualifying events for Worlds, but it didn't pass. Approved was a decision to hold an annual World Precision Team Skating Championships in April of each year, starting in 2000. The Champions Series was expanded to add a sixth event, the Cup Of Russia. With regards to competitions, perhaps the most interesting development at the 1996 Congress was Cinquanta's announcement of a new style of competitions: "medal winner" events open to skaters who placed in the top three at either the Worlds or Olympics. These events were planned to rival in appeal and popularity with professional and pro-am competitions, but ultimately, they never really got off the ground. The June 22, 1996 issue of the Kingston Whig-Standard described the new events as "the latest in the tug of war between the ISU and the made-for-TV entrepreneurs who are battling for the sport's biggest names, the fans' loyalties - and a bigger share of the advertising revenue pie." It's interesting to note that in present day, the Medal Winners Open has an eerily similar name and concept to this 1996 proposal.

One hot topic of discussion in Davos was a rule change pertaining to how spots were determined for both the World Championships and Olympic Games. A points system was introduced for Worlds and the number of skaters in each discipline for the Olympics (beginning in 1998) were changed to thirty men and women, twenty pairs and twenty four ice dance teams. The majority of Olympic spots were to be determined by results at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, but spots for six men, six women, four pairs teams and five ice dance teams were to be up for grabs at an ISU competition the autumn previous to the Olympics. That particular rule change garnered great attention when Lu Chen, the 1995 World Champion, failed to qualify for the free skate at the 1997 World Championships and earned her Olympic spot by winning the 1997 Karl Schäfer Memorial. Had she not have attended and qualified, Maria Butyrskaya would have been the 1998 Olympic Bronze Medallist. It was also decided that each country would have the right to send at least one skater in each discipline to the World Championships, something that has unfortunately fallen to the wayside since.

Andorra and Cyprus both became ISU members, as did Portugal, which no longer is. A new Coaching Commission was created as an advisory structure to the ISU's Technical Committees. It's chair was to be Carlo Fassi, who tragically passed away at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne. Age limits to compete at the World Championships and Olympics were also redefined; skaters had to be fifteen years or older by the beginning of July before the event. Younger skaters who had already competed at Olympics or Worlds (Tara Lipinski, for instance) were grandfathered in.    

Perhaps the most interesting topics the powers that be in Davos discussed involved - you guessed it - judging. Concerned about the confusion of ordinal flops, the One By One (OBO) scoring system was discussed in Davos and later tested as an experiment at the 1997 Nebelhorn Trophy. It was all much ado about nothing as only a few short years later, 6.0 was sadly no more. I'm scowling at you, judges in Salt Lake City... "and that's why we can't have nice things." Also brought up in Davos was the possibility of instant replays for the short program. No conclusion was ever reached, perhaps largely because at the time technology just wasn't quite there yet for something of that magnitude to be implemented easily or affordably.

It's interesting to look back only twenty years and see the seeds of events like the Junior Grand Prix, the Four Continents Championships and the World Synchronized Skating Championships but even moreso, the fact that only twenty years professional and pro-am competitions were such a competitor to the ISU's events that they were struggling to find ways to compete with them. At the time, the ISU was also trying to change a scoring system they indeed realized wasn't perfect. Evolution seems slow and incremental at times, but looking back now and realizing just how quickly the years have passed and how many changes have taken place, it only amplifies the fact even more that in twenty years the hot button issues now will seem completely dated. Change is constant and we should never, ever get too comfortable. We're just in the process of making more skating history, that's all!

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 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

Thursday, 7 April 2016

A Hungarian Hero: The György Czakó Story

Born July 11, 1933 in Budapest, Hungary, György Czakó first took to the ice at the age of six. "I was a late child because my father was a soldier in the first World War and spent four and a half years as a prisoner in Siberia," explained the eighty two year old in a series of February 2016 interviews. "I was about three or four years old when I got tuberculosis. Because in this time, there was no medicine (antibiotics, penicillin) against this disease, yet I was not allowed to walk. When the disease was over, the doctor suggested to my parents that they should take me to fresh air, for instance to skate outside."

Czakó's first efforts at the Városligeti Műjégpálya were not met with encouragement. "The first coach told me I should go home and never skate any more because I am not talented," he explained. "Others told me just work hard and you will be successful. I believed the others. In those times, we had only one skating rink in Budapest. Beautiful region, but it was open only four months a year." Despite limited ice time, by the age of eighteen the young skater who once told to never skate again was Hungary's senior men's champion.

The following year, the rising star was sent to represent his country at the 1952 European Championships. He finished eighth of ten entries and was named to Hungary's six member Olympic team. In Oslo, Czakó finished in twelfth place but performed alongside medallists Jeannette Altwegg and teammates Marianna Nagy and her brother László in the closing ceremonies. He drew inspiration from his more seasoned competitors. "Naturally there were other skaters as models for me," he said. "I looked up to Dick Button who was Olympic Champion before the silver medallist Ede Király from Hungary. If you want to win you have to learn everything from the better ones and add something which is individual. At least this should be aimed for."

Not in the least discouraged by last place finishes at both the 1953 European and World Championships, Czakó soldiered on and tried new things. He skated pairs with Olympic teammate
Eszter Jurek and invented the Czakó jump, a variation on the Walley. He explained, "we were out in [the] Soviet Union to 'change experience' at the time when the Soviet figure skating was in [its] infancy. When we were out there the second time, I noticed that the eighty second jump in a register of a Russian coach is the Czakó jump. Then at the Olympic Games it turned out that this jump was invented in the west as well and was called Robertson, somewhere else Walley." The difference between the Czakó jump and the Robertson jump, as the Hungarian Champion explained, is in the take off: the Czakó from a crossover, the Robertson from a serpentine.

After defeating future Olympic Gold Medallist Manfred Schnelldorfer at the 1955 European Championships in his home city and winning a silver medal at the Winter Universiade, Czakó turned professional, joining a Hungarian ice revue. "I turned to the Hungarian skating show in 1957," he explained. "I skated as soloist seven years in this show. There where about thirty five to forty skaters but it seemed for the audience more because of the [frequent costume changes]. The other soloists beside me were Marietta Marik, Marianna Nagy, Gábor Vida, Gyula Jelfy and Györgyi Botond. The themes were build up from different musicals, operettas, country and Hungarian musics, Gypsy stories and chansons. Each part or duration was about a quarter of an hour. The show had its own orchestra with ten members. We had our own theatre with nine hundred seat places and 10 X 10 meter ice surface."

The popular Hungarian skater remained with the ice revue for its entire run. "I stopped performing in 1965 when the show finished," he confirmed. "Then I did the coach exam, and started coaching in a little town south from Budapest. There were a couple of talented skaters and we organized competitions and invited the skaters from Budapest and we went to competitions in Budapest also. My skaters beat the other ones from Budapest often. After two years, I continued coaching in Budapest. My best memories as a coach were when my daughter [Krisztina] became silver medallist at European Championship in 1997 in Paris. She won a Skate Canada in Edmonton also." He also served as President of the Budapest Skating Club for many years and worked as a mechanical engineer.

Czakó reflected amazement as to how the sport has progressed both in Hungary and internationally since the fifties when he competed: "Naturally figure skating developed very much in the whole world since then. There was only two skaters in the world who could jump a double Axel. The one was Olympic Champion Dick Button and the other one was Hungarian Champion Ede Király, the second in the world. Now a double Axel is a compulsory jump for a ten year old skater. There were no triple jumps yet. In the meantime, we had a World Champion couple in ice dancing, a European Champion and two silver medallist winners at the European Championships. We now have successes in short track [speed skating] also." The Hungarian skating world owes a great debt to this man who has worked tirelessly to encourage the growth of skating in his country. The fact his first coach told to go home and never skate again is yet another shining example of one of skating's enduring lessons: there will always be people who have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

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 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