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Les Premières Femmes De Paris: Roots Of Women's Figure Skating In France

The Palais de Glace, 1912

Back in May of 2015 in "A Woman's Right To Skate" we explored a broader view of how women got their foot in the man's, man's, man's world of figure skating. Interestingly, the names of two women from France came up: the famously beheaded queen Marie Antoinette who was celebrated for skating in France's Royal Court in 1776 and Maria Weigel, a German woman living in Colmar who was stoned by her own neighbours for skating with her male counterparts in 1851. These two extremes really speak to the ever-present roles of class that pepper figure skating's early history constantly, particularly with regard to how women were treated.

However, today on the blog we're going to take a step forward and appreciate how far ahead of the game France was compared to many other countries in terms of developing women's figure skating. In 1892, the Pôle du Nord rink opened in Paris and two years later came the second covered rink, the austere Palais de Glace. In the Belle Époque style, the rink was surrounded by a promenade, bandstand for a live orchestra and a café where skaters enjoyed chocolate and strong coffee. The Skating Club of Paris, formed two years later in 1896 by Lucien Tignol, encouraged membership from both men and women. In fact, he targeted magazine and newspaper advertisements specifically towards women. Tignol's main concerns didn't revolve around the gender of membership whatsoever; they were growing the club's membership and adhering to strict rules of amateurism. The Skating Club of Paris welcomed women with open arms and encouraged their growth as skaters.

In her 1968 book "Patinage Sur Glace Historique", figure skating historian Jeanine Hagenauer wrote that during that developmental era when women were coming to the Palais de Glace in droves, when the banks closed at five, "the women met there at night. The children [were] sent from two to four hours with their tutor, their governess... at the Époque they enjoyed graceful skating, light and gay... falling into the arms of their [children] upon their return." Women wore ermine, twisted braids and velvet dresses with silk shoulders. They were decked out in fur caps, petticoats and had perfumed handkerchiefs. Noted Hagenauer, the women "who shone the most received the public homage. What applause!"

Demonstration of French Valsing by Louis Magnus and his partner

Although a few of the women who became members of the club had skated with the exclusive Cercle des Patineurs on the frozen Bois de Bolougne, many were newcomers and sought instruction in the foundations of skating technique. However, while other countries were busying themselves with school and special figures and the development of international competitions, the main interest of men and women skating at the Palais de Glace was ice dancing. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves notes that "Monsieur Jean Richard, a skating instructor at the Palais de Glace in Paris, gave the first official public performance of valsing on ice, and the audience loved it. Skaters in France immediately adopted the Valse, which closely resembled the European Waltz we do today. To fit within the shorter, more circular rinks of the time, the Valse had only one set of three turns to the barrier... From that beginning, upper crust Parisian society valsed on ice at the Palais de Glace until World War I." French skating pioneer Louis Magnus wrote that "to know how to waltz, that's what the young girls dream of, even before doing an outside edge."

French figure skating champion Yvonne Lacroix in a speed skating race

When the Skating Club of Paris' President Albert Michel instituted early rules for the French Figure Skating Championships and created trials to classify skaters in 1901, women were introduced to the formal testing and competitive environment in France at the same time as men. Speed skating and hockey were also quickly developing at the same time in the country and it's no surprise that with Magnus' influence on all three sports at the time, women were taking to all three sports in Chamonix by the late 1910's, around the same time Yvonne Lacroix won the first recorded French women's figure skating title in that city.

Women's figure skating really grew in France during that period but the male membership of the Skating Club of Paris was largely decimated by World War I. When the rink re-opened in 1921, the heyday of the Palais de Glace was over and it closed shortly thereafter. Although The Club Of Winter Sports formed as a merger of two Parisian skating clubs and The Brunet's were hugely dominant on the international scene in the twenties, it was not until Jean Potin founded the Elysee Skating Club that the grassroots re-organization of skating in France really took off at the Molitor rink. One has to wonder if those pioneering Parisian women ever dreamed of a day when French women like Jacqueline du Bief, Surya Bonaly, Laetitia Hubert and Vanessa Gusmeroli would enjoy such success on the World's biggest stages. They were, by all accounts, probably far more interested in their ice dancing and who can blame them? Ice dancing's pretty cool stuff!

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":