Sister Knows Best: The Raymonde du Bief Story
"The year that I first started to skate, my sister Raymonde was already a 'starlet', a kind of enfant terrible, and wherever I went I was always known as Raymonde's little sister. It took me many years before I was known simply as Jacqueline." - Jacqueline du Bief, "Thin Ice", 1956
"Hello, it's me. I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet..." No, I'm not about to break into an Adele song. I'm just preparing to introduce you to one of the most eclectic French skaters I've encountered while sifting through skating's equally eclectic history. I touched on Raymonde du Bief ever so briefly in the biographical sketch of her younger sister, who is of course 1952 World Champion Jacqueline du Bief. However, I think you'll soon realize why I wanted to give Raymonde her own chance to glisten in the Skate Guard spotlight.
Already you can gain a sense of the fact that Raymonde's path was certainly unconventional, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. When she wasn't honing her craft on her ballet slipper skates, she was racing around the rink on speed skates. In January 1937, she won the French women's speed skating title in Superbagnères, beating the French record for five hundred metres. That same year, she was also the French junior women's figure skating champion.
Raymonde was doing things that female (let alone male) figure skaters simply didn't do at the time and the people of Paris were eating her innovative approach right up. She continued to entertain the people of France during the bleak years of World War II. Jeanine Hagnauer, in her 1968 book "Patinage sur glace : historique", wrote "During these war years, many sought [to be like] Raymonde. [Not interested in] the classic skating, she created a personal style full of charm. Those who saw her number in tails and top hat, cane in hand, keep [it as] an unalterable memory."
After surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris and World War II, Raymonde headed to Jolly Old England, where she skated in the Tom Arnold ice pantomimes. In 1948, she appeared in Richard Pottier's film "L'aventure commence demain" alongside Isa Miranda, Raymond Rouleau and André Luguet. This film appearance sparked contracts for appearances in France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden. She toured with the Continental Ice Revue and Scala Eisrevue and in 1949 penned the instructional figure skating book "Le Patinage, Sport d'Élite", which was published by Vigot Frères.
With her book came considerable attention and invitations to perform overseas in North America. She toured first with Ice Capades and then with John H. Harris' Ice Cycles (Canada and U.S. tour) alongside Margaret Field and Jimmy Lawrence, Marshall Garrett and Bob and June Ballard. Her appearances in the "Gypsy Gold" and "Birds Of A Feather" acts drew tremendous praise from audiences in Canada and the United States.
The supporting characters in other people's stories often don't get the recognition they are absolutely due but Raymonde du Bief's insistence that dance come first and skating come second and her pursuit of performance art over point tallying offer what I think are two important lessons many skaters could still learn from today. I don't know about you, but I'll always have a place in my heart for skaters who do things on their own terms and Raymonde du Bief was absolutely one of those skaters.
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