Saturday, 12 March 2016

Headbanging History: Tracing The Roots Of The Bounce Spin


You know that cherished recipe that has been passed down through the generations? The one your grandmother taught your aunt and your aunt taught your mother and your mother taught you? The story of one of adagio pairs skating's most mind blowing tricks of the trade - the bounce spin or 'headbanger' goes a little like the story of that recipe... and I had a little fun trying to unravel the mystery.

Before we take a look at the mystery and the history, let's take a look at what the bounce spin is. It's a jaw dropping adagio pairs trick where one partner swings the other around with both feet off the ice, supported only by the grip of the swinger on the swingee's ankle. The swingee is elevated up and down during the spin. Performed well, the head of the swingee comes terrifyingly close to being smashed on the ice. The International Skating Union, of course, wants no part in it. Per ISU regulations "spinning movements in which the man swings the lady around in the air while holding her hand or foot, are illegal... Twist-like or rotational movements during which the lady is turned over one or more times with her skating foot leaving the ice are not permitted."

World Professional Champions Anita Hartshorn and Frank Sweiding have one of the best bounce spins out there and have performed thousands in their career without a hitch, but even they have had a close call. In my interview with Anita back in June of 2013, she told me that "while performing in a Sun Valley show we were entering into a bounce spin (headbanger) and right as Frank took that hard back inside edge to pull me off my feet he stepped onto a gum wrapper that had blown out onto the ice! We both fell hard but fortunately we came out of it with only some bruises as well as bruised egos." It's dangerous business.


My quest to learn how the bounce spin got its start began by doing the obvious - asking Anita how she and Frank learned it. Anita explained that "Frank learned the bounce spin from Don Yontz when he first joined Ice Capades in 1978. Don was a roller skater turned ice skater for professional ice shows as an adagio skater. He had the best bounce spin and Frank was lucky to learn from him." 

Like Anita and Frank, who have taken their act everywhere from Guam to Germany, Don Yontz' skating background was every bit as unique. A former water skier and roller skater who since turning professional in 1968 toured with Ice Capades, Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice, Yontz was actually the principal skater and organizer of the first skating show at Cypress Gardens in the mid-eighties. He explained to me that he "learned it from Cal Cook circa 1969. I saw a roller skating table act do it in an old film from the thirties or forties. The roller table acts were popular in Vaudeville. The neck spin and neck swivel also had their origin there as well as the teeth swivel gimmicks. Remember, the table was sometimes only four feet in diameter. My early adagio training was from then partner Darolyn Prior. She was trained by Terry Rudolph at the Casa in Garmisch, Germany. There has never been a trick that thrilled an audience more. Hard to learn or do, no. Dangerous, yes."

Who was this Cal Cook? In the sixties, Cal and his wife Dori, daughter Melanie (Kim) and twins Kris and Kelly were one of skating's few family acts. While touring with Holiday On Ice as a stilt skater, he met his wife Dori, a chorus skater in the show from Los Angeles. They both left the tour, moved to Burbank, had children and Cal took up coaching. When Holiday On Ice returned to Hollywood, Morris Chalfen convinced Cal and Dori to return to the show... and incorporate the whole family in an act! The children, who hadn't even skated before, took lessons. Choreographer Tommy DePauw worked out an act for them which focused around Cal and Dori as an adagio pair and the family went on the road exploring the world by trailer. It would have been while The Cook Family was on tour as 'Harrigan's Hooligans' that Cook would have taught Yontz the bounce spin, which he passed down to Hartshorn and Sweiding. 

Tracing the bounce spin further back appears to confirm Yontz' assertion that the adagio trick had its roots in the table top roller skating acts that were incredibly popular in both Vaudeville and hotel shows during the twenties and thirties. Take this 1950 act from roller skaters Jerry Berke, Art Wall and Eva Hartley for example. You can clearly see that the 'swivel spin' tricks they were attempting were eerily similar to many adagio tricks we see on ice today.



Although the bounce spin most likely originated on rollers, there is evidence that some variation of the trick was performed on ice as early as the twenties. An advertisement for one of the Hotel Sherman's College Inn skating shows in Chicago depicts Norval Baptie swinging Gladys Lamb around by her ankle with the assistance of one arm and credits them as "the originators of the airplane spin." Photo evidence and footage as far back as the early twenties and thirties show Charlotte Oelschl├Ągel and her husband Curt Neumann as well as Howard Nicholson and Freda Whitaker performing the 'airplane spin' and 'whirligig'. While they are not the same as a headbanger, as you can see there are certainly strong similarities.


Where did the bounce spin really get its start? A hotel skating show in Chicago or at the Casa Carioca in Germany? A Vaudeville table top roller skating act? St. Moritz? Somewhere else entirely? I am not convinced it is a mystery that anyone can solve with absolute certainty. However, pieced together these scattered clues provide the ingredients for one of the most thrilling elements on pairs skating's menu. A recipe for disaster, if you will.

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