An Apfel A Day Keeps The Russian Judges Away: The Arthur Apfel Story

Photo courtesy BIS Archive, Gerschwiler Family Collection

I love unique stories and Arthur Julian Apfel's is most certainly right up there. The son of Betty (Lejeune) and Emil Apfel, Arthur Apfel was born October 29, 1922 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He got his start skating at Milner Park during The Empire Exhibition and later trained at the Wembley Ice Rink in Springfield, Johannesburg. Although he showed tremendous aptitude for the sport in his younger years, he was skating in a country that hadn't yet fully established a well-organized competitive and test structure. Although the South African Ice Skating Association had been established in 1937 and South Africa became a member of the International Skating Union the following year, early competitions held in the country were mostly focused on valsing (ice dancing) and were sporadic affairs. If Arthur was going to make his mark on the skating world, he needed to move on up and out.


Photo courtesy "The Skater" magazine

Arthur set sail for Great Britain, rented a room and started training in Richmond, London under legendary Swiss coach Arnold Gerschwiler. Although Gerschwiler's star pupil at the time was of course his nephew Hans, he improved by leaps and bounds while in London but wasn't particularly popular among his peers. His only great successes as a competitive skater all came in one season and were actually quite ironic.

Henry Graham Sharp, Adrian Pryce-Jones and Arthur Apfel. Photo courtesy "Ice Skating" magazine.

The Swiss trained, South African skater beat England's best to win the 1946 British Championships and headed to neutral Switzerland for the 1947 European Championships, the first international figure skating competition held on the Continent after World War II ended. He finished fourth.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

At the World Championships that followed in Stockholm, Sweden, Arthur won the bronze medal behind Gerschwiler and Dick Button. The irony? Skaters from Germany, Austria and Japan were not welcomed to compete at those first World Championships after World War II and Arthur, who medalled, was Jewish.


Opting to turn professional prior to the 1948 Winter Olympics, Arthur took a job as senior instructor at the Olympia Ice Rink in Johannesburg and starred in shows at the Morecambe Ice Dome at the Figure Eight Park. He also teamed up with another South African skater named Leah Rom to develop an incredibly unique act: acrobatic (adagio) pairs skating with both partners on stilt skates. Their act took off brilliantly and before long the pair returned to England to appear in Sir Arthur Elvin and Tom Arnold's ice pantomime "Humpty Dumpty" alongside Daphne Walker, Gloria Nord, Anne Rogers, Margo McMenemy and Len Stewart. While there, Arthur also appeared in a BBC broadcast of Cabaret On Ice alongside Jennifer and John Nicks and Jiřina Nekolová. He returned to South Africa and coached at the Charlton Ice Rink.


The most unique aspect of Arthur's story is truly that at a time when other skaters were focusing their attention to achieving near perfection in school figures and making revolutions in jumping, he was devoting a great deal of time and effort to innovating spinning. Although it was Dick Button who invented the flying camel spin during this period, it was Arthur that really set the standard for the modern crossfoot spin. In his 1968 book "Winter Sports", Howard Bass wrote, "I have seldom seen [the crossfoot spin] performed better than by South Africa's Arthur Apfel, who won the British championship in 1946... [He] made quite a specialty of the cross-foot and it may therefore be of useful interest to record his conviction that, contrary to a common assumption that the toes should be quite together, a far greater speed can be obtained with the left toes against the right boot, about an inch from the tips of the right toes. Another little trick Arthur found out, which can only be used with perfect control and balance, is to clasp the hands together as soon as they are near enough to do so. This creates a sort of leverage and the arms can be thereby pulled in much more quickly, which has the effect of giving a sudden burst of speed towards the end of the spin."


A few years ago, Arthur penned a letter (now in the archives of the National Ice Skating Association in England) which refers to a video in the archives, his beliefs with regard to spinning technique and his work in developing stilt skating in South Africa and abroad. I am sharing it in its entirety with permission as sharing this knowledge was clearly the intent of Arthur in the first place:

"I am writing to you for 2 reasons, I have taught my routines to some stars of ice shows that have come out to South Africa from Europe etc. Not existing known skating, which I know has advanced enormously to fantastic heights, but for example, Anita Curtis who came down to our Charlton Ice Rink to practice. I saw her doing some wonderful sit spins and when I spoke to her she told me that she was in Holiday on Ice, which was playing in one of the arenas in Johannesburg. I told her about lifting her free leg in the position I used in my film. She put this into her number. I went to the show with a friend and got seats right against the ice. She did the spin right next to me. Later she had photographs of the first 2 positions and sent them to me, In the 3rd position the free leg drops down into the cross toe position. After she left it came to me that it could be done from a camel and I sent her a sketch of this spin. I never saw her again.

In the same show the stilt walker, a Russian 1st name [Porfia?] came to me and I took round Johannesburg. I showed him my comedy routine,. part skate part stilt.. He looked at my film as did Anita. [Porfia] managed the skate/stilt and said he was going to try it overseas in a show.

My second reason. I watched my son Julian's skating film again after all these years. He started at 1 year 5 months and 'retired' at 3 but I will come to my son later.

To carry on with my first story I would like to teach some of my spins to the skating world before I take the knowledge with me! As with Anita Curtis it must be a very good skater but they could pass it on to anyone good or medium. Now for the instructions:

The first spin I will call the 'leg up' spin can be seen in my film. It must be fast. The sit spin will already be done fast by your skater, then in the leg up position it will be even faster. If it is fast enough the free leg seems to disappear and the leg looks like a hoop around the body. Then the free leg drops down into the cross toe position into a fast end. The same spin can be done from a camel spin instead of a sit spin...

Now for the next spin. In my film go from a sit spin (the sit spin does not count in this spin - I mention it so you can recognize it on the film) then from the cross foot stop with a toe rake and spin in the reverse direction. Now for the lesson. It will start with a cross toe (not crossfoot) dig the toe rake in to stop & let the shoulders twist round (see the film). Untwist the shoulders without changing feet and set yourself spinning in the opposite direction on the back outside edge cross toe spin. You must be able to do a back outside cross toe spin (also called back cross toe spin) on the same foot as you do a normal cross toe spin before you will be able to do this spin. Very difficult. Now you will see me in the end of the film that is the end of the spin. Lately I have realized it would not be necessary to end the spin there, instead dig the toe rake in again and go back to the original cross toe spin. Then if you have enough energy reverse backwards and forwards until you are exhausted.

Now for the next spin. A jump change foot sit spin. I go into a sit spin, change feet then jump onto the foot I started with and stop. To find the spin in my film it is at the beginning of the programme but it is taken from above and is not very clear but I do it again later and it is taken from the side and is very clear.

A fifth spin is any particular spin on the left foot the same spin on the right foot. I do this in my film in the comic section on a stilt. Of coarse the stilt has nothing to do with the spin so ignore that. I come out of the first spin on the back inside edge on the same foot then step into a spin on the other foot.

That is five spins. I am addressing this to you hoping you will find someone to show this letter to. It will need a good spinner to try these. Anita Curtis was a very good spinner and she did a spin she got from me. She was excited about it and sent me some photographs.

Yours very sincerely

Arthur Apfel"
Arthur Apfel congratulating 1950 South African Champion Eric Muller. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.


Continuing to coach in South Africa for many years after he stopped actively performing as a professional, Arthur developed a line of ankle supports for skates which enjoyed popularity in public rinks Great Britain in the sixties and seventies. He became something of a Tonya Harding fan later in life. He travelled to Portland, Oregon in 1992 and was honoured at a party with Tonya and her then coach Diane Rawlinson. In a newsletter that went out to Tonya's fan club in 1994, he wrote, "I wish to express my whole hearted support of Tonya, and I believe completely in her innocence. I know what a sweet disposition she has. I was pleased Tonya won the U.S. Championships, and I saw her skating on TV a number of occasions. It always thrills me to see her on the ice." So, South African skater goes to England, wins a medal at the World Championships, pioneers pairs skating on stilts and does some great work in developing spinning technique... and becomes a Tonya fan? Certainly an eclectic mix, that's for sure and heaven knows I love eclectic.

Arthur's wife Eleanor (Oxton) passed away in 2013 and he spent his last years in a nursing home in Johannesburg, South Africa. In November 2015, Hilary Passmore informed me that (in his nineties, mind you) "Arthur is still alive and skating around with his walker! He has a copy of the video, which we have all seen. Amazing." Sadly, he passed away on September 15, 2017 at the age of ninety four.

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