The First Queen Of Canadian Pairs Skating: The Frances Dafoe Story
"The nicest thing about figure skating is the wonderful people you meet. I have friends in many countries that I probably never would have met if it hadn't been for figure skating." - Frances Dafoe, January 23, 1956, "The Montreal Gazette"
Born December 17, 1929 in Toronto, Ontario, Frances Helen Dafoe Bogin was the daughter of Helen Parker Gibson and Dr. William Allan Dafoe, a prominent surgeon who had lettered in four sports at the University Of Toronto. Her uncle, Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, was known for delivering and caring for the famous Dionne Quintuplets. An energetic and athletic youngster who excelled in synchronised swimming and diving, Frances started skating at the age of eight. Her parents originally put her on the ice so that she could burn off some steam with no designs of her ever being a competitive skater, but she was soon identified as one of the Toronto Skating Club's most promising young talents. Sidelined early on for two years after breaking both ankles, it was the club's lavish carnivals that drew her back to the ice.
Interestingly, Frances' first big victory in the skating world wasn't even on the ice. When the Canadian Figure Skating Association decided to hold a contest to select a new design for medals for the Canadian Championships in 1950, the high school student entered and won. "There had been an open competition for the design of this medal and when I won I was awarded the princely sum of $100.00," she recalled in a memoir written in the late nineties. "I don't know who was more surprised - my teachers, at Central Technical School, one of whom was the great artist Doris McCarthy, or me. I was so pleased that one of the judges was photographer Yousuf Karsh. The old medal was based on a sculpture of a great Canadian skater, judge and official - Norman Mackie Scott, one of Canada's skating pioneers. The new medal was a winged blade resting on a branch of laurel, the Greek symbol of victory. A branch of laurel is also used today, on the ISU's World Figure Skating Championship medals." Frances' design remained in use by the CFSA until 1987.
Frances, Norris and a really adorable furry fan
Frances teamed up with Norris Bowden in 1950 shortly after their engagement. Prior to their pairing, she had been a singles skater, but her injury forced her to focus on ice dancing. Winning the Waltz title at the 1950 Canadian Championships at the Winter Club of St. Catharines, the duo became the first recipients of the very medals that Frances had designed. Coach Sheldon Galbraith convinced the duo to give pairs skating a try. They were an unusual pairing - he an engineering student; her a designer... left brain meets right. Their on again, off again off-ice romance and 'artistic differences' often led to stormy on-ice disagreements, soothed by Galbraith's firm but compassionate guidance. Frances and Norrie trained six hours a day at Toronto Skating Club rink, the Varsity Arena and at Schumacher in the summers.
Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, the National Ice Skating Association Archives
Up, up and away - Frances and Norris in action!
Frances and Norris were true pioneers in pairs skating. They introduced the twist lift, throw jump, catch lift, pressure lift, overhead lasso lift, hip Axel lift, the Axel into a partner's arms, the leap of faith and many other elements to the skating vocabulary. Frances credited the ballroom dance team of Blanche and Alan Lund for assisting her and Norrie with their lifting technique. Norris was some eight inches taller than Frances, making a lot of these movements - termed "too athletic" by the skating establishment - possible. "We were always criticized for being too athletic," recalled Frances. "We also introduced changes of musical speed and interpreted different types of music. Sheldon Galbraith, our coach, remembers with great amusement, one of our club members coming up to him and saying, 'mood spelled backward is doom'... We were major contributors to the 'illegal lift' section in our present day ISU and CFSA rulebooks but at least we broke the old fashioned pair rigidity."
In 1952, Frances and Norris won the Canadian pairs, ice dance, Waltz and Tenstep titles in Oshawa at the Canadian Championships and skated to top five finishes at both the Winter Olympic Games and World Championships. Over the next four years, they amassed another five Canadian titles in pairs, Waltz and Tenstep, two North American pairs titles and four medals at the World Championships - two of them gold - and the 1956 Olympic silver medal. The team's loss at those Winter Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo was a crushing blow. They earned more points than the Austrian team of Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt and tied them in first place votes, but the Austrians earned more second place votes than the Canadians... and the gold medal. Norris recalled, "The most disappointing moment is when you know you have done the best you could possibly ever do, and it hasn't been recognized. We wanted that gold medal so badly." The result was highly controversial at the time. More than once, there were loud whispers about funny business when it came to the judging of the competitions the Canadians entered overseas in Europe.
Frances and Norris - better known to friends as Frannie and Norrie
On top of dealing with behind the scenes judging intrigue, the first Canadian pair to win a World title accomplished this with next to zero financial or moral support from the CFSA, who placed very little faith in the talented Toronto twosome. "It was trying time for Canadian skaters," Frances recalled. "We were all blazing new trails, whether it was altitude training (Sheldon along with Barbara Ann Scott, and my father Dr. William A. Dafoe were the only people who thoroughly understood this problem), equipment difficulties, ice conditions, blade sharpening (to handle different kinds of ice conditions which changed daily); availability of knowledgeable coach/trainers; experienced judges; the necessity of massage after outdoor training to keep the muscles pliant, suitable costumes, lack of funds (The CFSA gave us our airfare after we won the World Championship and the Toronto Skating Club gave us $150.00. Sheldon gave up his income for two weeks each year to accompany us and my father paid for his transportation and living expenses); and last but not least a skating association with little or no understanding of the European climate - political or otherwise."
Frances and Norris called it a day at twenty six and twenty nine following the 1956 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany and ended up remaining very close friends despite calling off their engagement. After overcoming a very messy, public spat with the CFSA in 1958 that saw both her and Norris suspended as members for a time, Frances divided her time between costume design and judging. She took commercial art and fashion courses at the Central Technical School and draping and fabric courses at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Turning down an offer to work for Arnold Scaasi, she designed costumes for the CBC for close to forty years. She was responsible for the imaginative costumes worn in Toller Cranston's television specials and her work for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Charlottetown Festival, the folk dance troupe Les Feux-Follets and the 1981 film "Movie Magic" with magician Doug Henning was highly acclaimed. In 1988, she was responsible for creating over six hundred costumes for the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta. She also created costumes for Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Scott Hamilton, Liz Manley, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Katarina Witt and countless others. Balancing a hectic work schedule with marriage and motherhood, she always found time for her family. Most of her design work was done away from the chaos of the television studio, late at night in her home studio.
Of all of Frances' incredible work in costuming, many will remember Toller Cranston's television special "Strawberry Ice" best. World Professional Champion John S. Rait recalled, "I first met Frances as a skater working on 'Strawberry Ice'. Her attention to detail and creative flare was evident in everything she did." On the beloved production, Frances remarked, "I felt very strongly that I was the right costume designer for this project as I fully understood what they were trying to accomplish and wanted to be part of the creative process... It was the challenge of a lifetime. It was a joy to be part of such a free thinking team where everyone respected each others uniqueness and talent.... The Strawberry Queen's costume was great fun to make. The skirt was made of layers of quilted petals, each dyed by hand starting with pale pink and increasing in tone to dark red. These petals resembled strawberries with small mirrors, rim set to look like small seeds. The bodice was boned to a period shape and made of lightweight pink spandex with a silk collar trimmed with ruching. This whole creation was put over a spring steel hoop with a long silk georgette ruffle around the bottom. As Sarah Kawahara (the Queen) moved, in her long dress it slowly disappeared leaving a saucy leotard of hot pink sequins with a skirt of silk green ribbons and hand made miniature strawberries of red, orange and hot pink."
Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.
Delaying the start of her international judging career to allow Norris to move up the ladder as they were not permitted to be on the same panel, she eventually judged countless national, international and professional competitions, including the pair events at the 1984 World Championships and 1994 Winter Olympic Games. She retired from judging in the mid-nineties. In a March 2, 1990 interview with Laurie Nealin for "The Globe And Mail", she admitted, "When I was a competitor I thought, 'those lucky judges, all they have to do is go to a World Championship and hold up marks. Now that I'm a judge, [I realize] it was really easier when I was competing. You sit up up there thinking, 'those kids have spent so many years getting here. Please, dear God, give me the wisdom to judge well'." A year and a month after that interview, she said goodbye to Norris, her former partner who had been as much of a support during her judging career as when the duo was skating together.
Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine
Frances was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall Of Fame in 1955, the Canadian Olympic Hall Of Fame in 1958, the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1984, the Order Of Ontario in 1990 and the Order Of Canada in 1991. In 1992, she earned the Confederation Medal and in 1993, she was inducted into the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall Of Fame. In 2002, she earned the Golden Jubilee Medal. She was nominated for several Gemini awards for costume design and won Golden Gate and Prix Anik awards for her work on "Strawberry Ice". In 2010, she was honoured by Branksome Hall with the Allison Roach Alumna Award.
A long-time believer in the importance of figure skating history, Frances penned the gorgeous 2011 book "Figure Skating And The Arts", hands down one of the most thorough and well-researched books detailing figure skating's history in recent years. Later in life, she split her time between residences in Toronto and Jupiter, Florida. Predeceased by her second husband in April, Frances passed away at the age of eighty six on September 23, 2016 in Toronto. If you looked up the words "someone who left the figure skating world better than they found it", Frances Dafoe's picture should be right there.
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