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Back In The USSR, Part Three: Ice Dancing's Humble Beginnings In The Soviet Union

"Perhaps the USSR will soon occupy all three rungs of the stand of honor." - Tamara (Bratus) Moskvina, "Skating" magazine, April 1970

Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin... It would really be quite easy to assume from thinking back on these legendary names that ice dancers from The Soviet Union were always dominant. However, like everything else in figure skating history, everything begins somewhere.

In 1958, Svetlana Smirnova and Leonid Gordon made history at the European Championships in Bratislava as the first Soviet ice dance team to compete in a major ISU international competition. They finished dead last. Prior to taking up ice dancing, Smirnova had been a pairs skater with partner Yuri Nevsky. Nevsky had previously skated pairs with Ludmila Belousova before she teamed up with Oleg Protopopov and when he retired from competitive skating in 1957, he took on a major role in popularizing ice dance in the Soviet Union.

In the September 1962 issue of "Skating World" magazine, Nevsky wrote, "Ice dancing had been practiced in the Soviet Union at public rinks long before the USSR Federation became affiliated with the ISU. But it was merely a pastime for those who attended the rinks after their daily work and found pleasure in skating to music. The number of ice dances in those early days did not exceed a dozen, and the patterns were rather primitive, being based on simple edges. These were mainly polka, tango and foxtrot movements, waltzes (to both slow and fast tempo) and some dances converted to the ice from the ballroom, of the Pas de Grace and Pas d'Espagne type." Aside from recreational performance, the most audience that these dances really received was at carnivals.

Lynn Copley-Graves' wonderful 1992 book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" noted that "while reading the USFSA magazine 'Skating' in 1955, Yuri happened upon some ISU dances. He showed them to others and sparked interest in competitions using ISU regulations. Within a year, skaters at the public rinks embraced the new dances, calling them 'sporting dances'. Poor technical ability hampered progress because knowledge of edges, cross rolls, mohawks, etc. was scanty. As the Soviet skaters fumbled through the European Waltz, Foxtrot and Fourteenstep patterns, interest waned. The highly qualified skaters - those who could handle the intricacies of these dances - snubbed them, unconsciously associating them with the old dances. To them, the dances were 'a new toy for beginners or for those who attended the rinks for fun.' Only a few of the leading figure skaters recognized the worth of the new dancing. Among them were Yuri's pair partner Svetlana Smirnova and Leonid Gordon."

Coached by Larisa Novozhilova, Smirnova and Gordon learned fourteen ISU compulsory dances in a year and gave exhibitions in St. Petersburg but perhaps discouraged by their loss in Bratislava, turned professional and joined an ice ballet. However, their brief but pioneering step to putting ice dance on the map as a bona fide sporting discipline added credibility to these new dances, and it wasn't long before the Soviet federation adapted these 'new ISU dances' into their competitive structure and developed a three-tiered testing system with four levels in each tier. Within ten years, ice dancing had became so popular in the Soviet Union that qualifying competitions were instituted to whittle down the number of senior ice dance teams at the National Championships to fifteen.

Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov

By 1969, Lyudmila Pakhomova and Alexander Gorshkov were on the European and World podium. Their secret? Choreography from The Bolshoi Ballet. As compared to the severely contrasting style of the dominant British teams of that era, it would be the Soviet ice dancer's infusion of classical dance into their ice dancing that would give them that edge for years to come. Talk about a contrast from initial resistance to innovation!

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":