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South American Skating History... You'd Be Surprised!

The Palais de Glace in Buenos Aires

Patinação, patinaje... no matter the language, I promise you that the history of ice skating in South America is not only a fascinating tale but one that takes us back in the time machine much further than many would suppose.

We'll start by revisiting the story of the continent's first Olympic figure skater, Horatio Tertuliano Torromé. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1861 to an Argentine father and a Brazilian mother, Horatio Tertuliano Torromé emigrated to Great Britain with his family and took up figure skating. In 1902, he almost won a medal at the World Figure Skating Championships in London, England, but dropped from a third place finish in compulsory figures to finish fourth in free skating and just off the podium underneath Ulrich Salchow, Madge Syers-Cave and Germany's Martin Gordan. In 1905 and 1906, Torromé would compete at the British Figure Skating Championships and win the men's competition, which wasn't technically a men's competition as female skaters contested the men for the 'men's title' until they were finally given a competition of their own in 1927. A forty six year old Torromé qualified to compete as a representative of Great Britain at the 1908 Olympic Games and almost did, but instead opted to represent his father's home country of Argentina. He was the only athlete in ANY sport to represent Argentina at those Games and in the more than hundred years and countless Olympic Games since then, there still hasn't been another figure skater from Argentina. Although he would finish seventh of the seven men finishing the men's event at those Games (two didn't finish), Torromé would also judge the pairs figure skating competition at the 1908 Games. I know what you're thinking. He didn't SKATE in South America so it doesn't count. It wasn't long before people were at all.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the lifestyle of high society in Buenos Aires, Argentina began to echo that of Europe more and more. In 1910, Joseph R. King, a Briton living in the city, built the opulent belle epoque style Palais de Glace on land provided the city and opened the space as South America's first ice rink. The venue is still operational today for trade shows and exhibitions and explains its early skating days as such on its website: "Modelled on the Paris Palais des Glaces, the skating rink round occupied the central hall, and the surrounding boxes and lounges gatherings were distributed. In the basement of the building machines manufactured ice that supplied the track were installed, and the first new floor boxes, confectionery and a body completed facilities with a vaulted ceiling culminating in a dome with a large central skylight that even today preserves, designed to give natural light to the rink. Halfway through the 1910s, with ice skating and less in vogue, the Palais de Glace became an elegant ballroom with oak floor to welcome the new ambassador of civic culture: tango." The actual year of the Palais de Glace's transition from ice rink to ballroom was 1915 and it was in the venue that Porteno trendsetter Baron de Marchi staged tango soirees there in the 1920's, after which the dance was accepted by local high society. In a letter that was reprinted in her book "A Voyage To South America And Buenos Aires", Ida May Jack Cappeau recalled her visit to the rink thusly: "I went with Carlos and Angelica to the 'Palace de Glace' to watch the skating. It was a splendid building, and presented a very animated sight. There were many beautiful ladies skating and many pretty children. Some of the costumes were extremely smart. There was some fancy skating. We had tea while there, and I was introduced to many delightful friends of the S-P's."

Although skating didn't catch on greatly in South America at first, it enjoyed a surge of popularity in the early forties in both Brazil and Argentina. Here's a fun fact! Ice dancing pioneer Muriel Kay tells us in her book "Origins Of Ice Dance Music" about a rumoured South American Sonja Henie connection: "Sonja Henie was credited with playing a part in bringing Carmen Miranda to the U.S. According to some versions (and there are several) of the discovery of 'the Brazilian Bombshell', Sonja Henie, in the company of Broadway producer Lee Shubert, saw Carmen Miranda's show at Cassino da Urca while on a short visit to Rio in February 1939, and realizing the U.S. 'show biz' potential of the entertainer, pressured Shubert to give her a contract. Reportedly, Sonja even wore to a shipboard party a costume that Carmen Miranda had given her." Sonja was not the only skater to be taken by the samba.

Guy Owen's gaucho act. Photo courtesy Skating Club Of New York.

In 1941, Guy Owen and Maribel Vinson Owen starred in the continent's first ice shows at the Cassino de Urca Rio de Janeiro. Their shows, imported by the William Morris Agency, were well received and featured Bill and Betty Wade, Douglas Duffy, Alex Hurd and a chorus of six young women. Upon returning to North America, they debuted an early ice interpretation of the samba dance. Guy Owen even performed a popular solo act as a gaucho.

The Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima's rink in Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

That same year in Buenos Aires, the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima opened a small ice rink on the seventh floor of an office building. It was so popular that between six and hundred people skated there daily and the club had a waiting list of eight thousand. The October 8, 1935 edition of "The Glasgow Herald" explained, "This club, inspired by Dr. [R.C.] Aldao, one of the most public-spirited citizens of Buenos Aires, and financed out of unclaimed lottery prizes, provides for thousands of the young people of that great city a centre of healthy social life at nominal subscription." Essentially Argentina's answer to the YMCA, ice skating for a time was an incredibly popular activity. 

Barbara Wright Sawyer. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Barbara Wright Sawyer, Renata Bikart and Lucien Büeler taught at the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima, using the United States Figure Skating Association's rulebook as a guide as the country had no established skating federation or teaching program. Barbara Wright Sawyer, who had trained in England with Howard Nicholson prior to World War II and coached for a spell at the S.S. Brighton, produced and starred in a series of ice ballets at the rink - "Blue Danube", "Swan Lake" and "A Wedding In A Garden". The latter show raised a considerable sum for the Red Cross. 

By 1943, the Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima had opened a second rink on the rooftop of a massive, world renowned casino over two hundred miles away in the seaside town of Mar del Plata. Barbara Wright Sawyer took over this rink and presented her own hour-long shows, which included on-ice adaptations of the Tango, Habanera, Jota and Milonga. This rink only operated from January to March.

Photos courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide"

Three years later, Elizabeth and Fritz Chandler starred in an ice revue called "Hielo y Estrellas" (or "Stars And Ice"). The tour, run by Samuel Bakerman and Jose Borges Villegas, had a portable ice rink and tent that seated three thousand. It played shows in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Barquismieto, Maracaibo and Caracas. In 1947 cast member Roy McDonald recalled, "We opened [in Caracas] with a packed house and the natives gave every number a big hand. These South American's really appreciate a fast moving show and have a grand sense of humour. The attendance was wonderful all the time... During carnival time many of the natives attended the show in full dress costumes of varied description. Skating in a tropical climate is entirely different from skating anywhere in the States. One has a tendency to tire easily and there seems no end of perspiration. The ice surface was covered from the heat all during the day so that we did most of our rehearsing and practicing at night - sometimes long into the wee hours of the morning."

Susana Peralta, a student of  Lucien Büeler during World War II. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Speaking of the forties, one of skating's biggest stars of the era had a South American connection. Belita (Jepson-Turner) - whose story we looked at on the blog back in August 2013 - got her first name from the Argentinian side of her family. The June 15, 1946 issue of The Milwaukee Journal explains that "her great-grandfather, Charles Drabble, went from England to Argentina in a sailing ship, and was one of a group of Englishmen who played an important part in the development of the country. Acquiring thousands of acres of land in the vicinity of Buenos Aires, he established five great estancias (ranches), mainly devoted to the raising of cattle. He built his own railroads to these properties, established his own bank in the capital and later started a great frozen meat company. One of the estancias, and its terminal railroad station is called 'La Belita.' The firm of Drabble Brothers is now one of the great commercial firms of the Argentine."

The Diligenti quintuplets

By the fifties and sixties, touring companies were heading to South America gypsy style with ice making supplies, large ensemble casts, Salchows and stilt skates. After the Lamb-Yocum's Ice Parade's South American tour in 1950 proved unprofitable, Morris Chalfen's Holiday On Ice tour had slightly more success. In addition to Brazil and Argentina, figure skating was exposed to the people of Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia through these tours. The famous Argentine quintuplets - Carlos Alberto, Maria Ester, Marla Fernanda, Maria Cristina and Franco Diligenti - even had a skating connection. The May 9, 1955 edition of The Day noted that the family lived "outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a palatial home which has nineteen rooms, a skating rink, tennis court and swimming pool."

Sonja Henie's 1956 tour of South America was an utter disaster. She contended with ice making problems, moths and rats while skating on a converted bullring in Caracas. Performing on an impromptu ice rink on a basketball court in Rio de Janeiro, she wasn't in top form and received a lukewarm response.

Advertisement from "Skating" magazine, November 1963

Popularity of skating in South America waned in the seventies but in the eighties made a resurgence. Tivoli Park, an amusement park in Rio de Janeiro, partnered with Holiday On Ice to open an ice rink that offered instruction to Brazilian skaters. Its head coach was Pamela Harvey, a British skater who was married to a tobacco executive. Deidre Ball and Hans Hoefer's 1988 travel publication "Argentina" explained, "Ice skating has become the latest form of entertainment for young and old alike. You'll be able to find ice skating rinks all over Buenos Aires and in most of the major cities of the provinces." However, there was a big difference between skating as recreation and skating as competitive sport and it wouldn't be until the twenty first century that the country would start fielding competitors in international events when in 2002, the  Confederação Brasileira de Desportos no Gelo became a member of the International Skating Union and was followed closely behind two years later by the Federación Argentina de Patinaje sobre Hielo.

Today, skaters like Isadora Williams and Denis Margalik are representing South America with pride in international competitions. Just as Horatio Tertuliano Torromé was Argentina's first - and to this date only - Olympic figure skater back in 1908, Williams earned her place in the history books as Brazil's first Olympic figure skater in 2014. Figure skating may still not be as developed as in other parts of the world but today, Santiago, Chile's Parque Arauco mall plays host to an ice rink. Colombia's Los Yarumos fifty three hectare nature park offers horseback riding, barranquismo (rappelling through a waterfall) and seasonal ice skating. You can do paragraph double three's in Peru at the Mini Mundo in Lima's Jesús María district or execute brackets on Bolivia's synthetic XtraIce rink in La Paz. Every loop and lutz would only be adding to the continent's unique skating history.

This piece originally appeared as part of a six-part podcast series called Axels In The Attic. You can listen to Allison Manley of The Manleywoman SkateCast and Ryan Stevens of Skate Guard's audio version on Podbean or iTunes.

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":