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Interview With Bernard Ford

When I called Bernard Ford and said it was a pleasure to speak with him, his response was "you don't know that yet". I already knew I was in for a treat. With that wonderful wit that I grew up with in a British family, I instantly felt at ease speaking with a living legend. With four British titles, four European titles and four World titles to his credit, Bernard Ford and his partner Diane Towler-Green dominated the world of ice dancing in the second half of the sixties. They pioneered the sport by adding lifts, twizzles and dance spins to a discipline that had always been skated firmly with two feet on the ground. Towler and Ford won the demonstration event of ice dancing at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France and handily, the World Professional title after winning their last World title as well. Ford's true contributions to skating after ending his competitive career are simply staggering as you will learn more in this interview. He's coached Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, invented a well known compulsory dance and continues to coach in Edmonton, Alberta. I think it's only fitting that you pour yourself a cup of tea and prepare yourself for an interview that is simply a must read.

Q: Not only did you win four British, European and World titles and a World Professional title, but you and your partner Diane Towler-Green were also the first 'unofficial' Olympic Gold Medallists when you won the ice dance competition at the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, which was a test (or demonstration) event. Looking back on all of these amazing accomplishments decades later, what moments stand out as your proudest ones... the most special memories?

A: 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'. To be honest with you, coming from my background in Birmingham - very industrial, low end - meeting The Queen was to me almost like Britain landing a man on Mars. Some of the skating achievements were hard work but meeting The Queen was a direct result of skating and it was quite incredible. We were invited to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. We were there with sixteen to twenty people in groups. She entered and went around and met everyone. I was around nineteen or twenty maybe and I didn't know so I just moved around from group to group and she was moving around the room in a circle as well. She never got to the group we were in. She eventually said, "Can I meet these people?" so a man came over and said "The Queen would like to meet you now". It was quite something. We went to Buckingham Palace and met her a second time at an Investiture and the third time I met her was the 100th anniversary of the National Skating Association. It was a dream and each time, I was never prepared. As for skating memories, I think the time we came fourth in Europeans in Moscow in 1965 was quite a big thing for me - to actually appear in front of so many people and to be approached in the street. It was like being a pop star. Winning first world medal as well as at the 1968 World Championships in Geneva - to get a bunch of 6.0's under the old system was quite something. You can never take things for granted but things were really quite different then. If you won the European Championships, it was a foregone conclusion you were to win the Worlds as well... but you still had to work very hard for it.

Q: You are a pioneer when it comes to ice dancing. You and Diane introduced elements like lifts, twizzles and dance spins to a discipline that had never seen anything like that previously. At the time, was there a lot of resistance to what you were doing to change ice dance or did people genuinely just appreciate the direction you were taking in revolutionizing the sport?

A: I'm a totally honest person and I have to say we had friends from Canada who had come to England who were competing professionally who were doing lifts. We were not the first to do lifts but we were first to introduce them to amateur skating. I would never take credit for inventing them. There was support but also a lot of resistance - "rules are meant to be meant not broken"... that sort of thing. You just remove yourself from that and let other people debate it. That's what judges are for. If they're talking about it, it means something.

Q: You were coached by the great Gladys Hogg - who also coached legends like John Nicks, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy and Courtney Jones and his two partners June Markham and Doreen Denny. What made Gladys Hogg such a legendary and successful coach and are there aspects of her teaching style that you find yourself using in your own coaching?

A: I was just a kid at the time and I started off traveling from Birmingham to London. I grew up skating in club competitions with John Curry. I would beat him in the free skate and he would always beat me in dance which is the irony of the whole thing. My parents would drive me down to London every Friday night. It was a whole day trip back then, not like it is now. It was about six or seven hours of driving. I'd go to have lessons w Miss Hogg. My mother asked Miss Hogg to watched my dancing. She just picked Diane off the session, tried us out and spotted that this was going to work. She said to my parents - "you better make this work". I honestly don't ever remember any lessons because she was such a great coach. She bred into you a way learning without ever making you feel like you were taking a lesson. She obviously taught a great technique too. It was just bred into you.

Q: Let's talk a bit more about your singles career before you went to go skate with Miss Hogg and were teamed up with Diane. Was singles skating something you wish you could have pursued more?

A: I was a terrible competitor but really a good free skater. I was just sort of a disaster in high level competitions but in local club competitions I would do well. Birmingham in the 1960's really produced so many important skaters. There was John Curry. There was Janet Sawbridge, who went on to partner Torvill and Dean together. I used to skate with Pamela Davis, who went on to become the coach of Robin Cousins. It was a booming center of developing talents at the time. I don't regret what I did but I didn't enjoy being alone on the ice in competition. The singles skating was part of the secret about my dance success. I was a man and I could skate.

Q: When you were competing obviously there was a huge emphasis on the compulsory dances. Do you agree with their elimination from competition and what do you think about the way ice dancing is being judged today?

A: When we started coaching, I knew a lot of judges. When I first came to Canada, there were a few people who kind of saw me as a guiding light so I was in a position where I could speak to judges frankly and say "I don't understand something - what is the difference between a 5.5 or a 5.8?" Why judge one team who does sixty five lifts against another who does like three? If you're a judge that likes lifts maybe, but it all seemed sort of off balanced to me. Eventually when I was living in Seattle, I came back to Toronto to do a level four coaching seminar. I was working with a coach there and we had a long discussion about programs. I thought they should all have set elements - this many lifts, this many footwork sequences, those sorts of things. With this discussion, I initiated a conversation about this new judging system! The fact we brought coaches in with callers... I didn't invent the new judging system but I did initiate the thought process that got the ball rolling. As for the compulsory dances, they are like doing scales on the piano. Although juniors and seniors now do the short dance they still have to do compulsory dances as they are coming up and the compulsory dance is part of the short dance. As long as they're involved somewhere, that's great because they are the very basic elements we use for guidance.

Q: Over the years, you have had your fair share of experience not only coaching but also in judging professional competitions. What was the judging experience like for you and being a former World Professional Champion yourself, do you feel that competitions for professional skaters without ISU rules are something that should make more of a comeback in the future?

A: I always regret because my partner was not interested in doing shows. I enjoyed touring, skating shows and exhibitions so for years and years I could never go and watch shows and professional competitions. I always ended up crying because I was never allowed to perform like that. I just got backroaded in coaching. As much as I enjoyed judging those professional competitions, it was also painful. All we have now is ISU competitions but at the end of the day, I don't know where those kids go who have a talent beyond that other than skate on ships. There are so many skaters with so much talent with nothing to do when their time competing comes to an end. On one side of the scale, we have all these coaches but the other side of the scale is becoming so light. There are no venues for these people to work. I find it very frustrating. I see it as just a matter of time until it comes back again. It's very difficult. Ice shows are not what they used to be. It's not the best situation.

Q: Since you emigrated here to Canada in the early 1970's, you've done so many remarkable things - coaching Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall, co-founding the York Region Skating Academy in Richmond Hill and inventing the Cha Cha Congelado compulsory dance among them. How hard was the transition from your own skating career to being on the other side of the boards?

A: When I first came to Canada, I was working at the Cricket and Granite Clubs as a club coach. I had sort of removed myself from the competitive side altogether. I was just glad to earn money and send it back to my parents. We were not a wealthy family by any stretch of the imagination. I always felt like I owed them. I was earning a good living and taking care of them. There were certain people in the Association who always tried to keep one of my legs in competitive skating. I always wanted to be involved but one side of my head said that's over and the other side was saying I could make difference and do some good. 

Q: How did you come to work with Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall?

A: Rob McCall and Marie McNeil would come down with three other teams from Halifax in the summers and I would help them as much as I could. Barbara Graham got in touch with me and said Tracy Wilson and her partner Mark Stokes were left without a coach, free dance... nothing, could I help? They moved up and won  the Junior Championships that year and then Mark quit. Tracy, of her own volition, phoned Rob McCall and asked him if he would skate with her. They came back to Toronto and I started teaching both of them together.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: I guess there are four. John Curry would be one. He did so much for the sport along with Robin Cousins. They were both British male skaters coming through from England, but they revamped the very thought of what figure skating was. Torvill and Dean of course. They were a breath of fresh air, a guiding force and gave ice dance a level of credibility where other disciplines would respect and watch what we did. I would have to say John Nicks as well because he's from Brighton and Miss Hogg taught him and his sister. He went to South Africa and then went to the States. It's rare a World Champion produces that many champions. He just really led and developed pairs skating.

Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?

A: The size of my feet? I have no idea! Anyone that's creative loves to create. My life has been so much creativity and misery at the same time. If I'm not creating, I'm in the depths of depression. I am always looking for the next creative challenge. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a missionary in Africa. I could have left England and gone to the U.S. and made a lot of money... but I came to Canada and wanted to do some good and help people. I'd like to think I do good work, but it's just the challenge of using your brain, using music and trying to pull something out of nothing that keeps me going.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":