A(nother) Spring Skating History Roundup

When I'm digging around for ideas for blogs, I sometimes come across the most unexpected and random stories. Last spring, I pulled together several fascinating tales that didn't quite have enough meat on their bones for a blog of their own and combined them into one post. The spring cleaning continues in 2017 with another spring mix of interesting stories from skating's colourful history. Grab yourself a nice cup of tea, open the windows and let the fresh air in and enjoy a(nother) little spring skating history roundup!


Without question, Clarissa Harlowe Barton earned her revered place in history. From her work tending to the sick and injured on the battlefields during the U.S. Civil War to her role in establishing the American Red Cross, she not only saved lives - she changed the world. If you'd like to dig deeper into her story, I'm definitely going to recommend listening to The History Chicks' 2011 podcast on this fascinating woman, but before you skate off there, I want to share with you a neat anecdote from her youth.

In her 1907 memoir "The Story Of My Childhood", Barton reflected on an injury she sustained once she mustered up the gall to try to skate... against her father's wishes. This tale, now in the public domain, serves as not only a footnote in the life of an extraordinary humanitarian, but a first hand glimpse into how young women at the turn of the century who showed a proclivity towards skating would have been treated growing up in rural America at the time:

"That little pond was my early love; the home of my beautiful flock of graceful ducks. The boys were all fine skaters; I wanted to skate too, but skating had not then become customary, in fact, not even allowable for girls; and when, one day, my father saw me sitting on the ice attempting to put on a pair of skates, he seemed shocked, recommended me to the house, and said something about 'tom-boys'. But this did not cure my desire, nor could I understand why it was not as well for me to skate as for the boys; I was as strong, could run as fast and ride better, indeed they would not have presumed to approach me with a horse. Neither could the boys understand it, and this misconception led them into an error and me into trouble. One clear, cold, starlight Sunday morning, I heard a low whistle under my open chamber window. I realized that the boys were out for a skate and wanted to communicate with me. On going to the window, they informed me that they had an extra pair of skates and if I could come out they would put them on me and 'learn' me how to skate. It was Sunday morning; no one would be up till late, and the ice was so smooth and 'glare.' The stars were bright, the temptation was too great. I was in my dress in a moment and out. The skates were fastened on firmly, one of the boy's wool neck 'comforters' tied about my waist, to be held by the boy in front. The other two were to stand on either side, and at a signal the cavalcade started. Swifter and swifter we went, until at length we reached a spot where the ice had been cracked and was full of sharp edges. These threw me, and the speed with which we were progressing, and the distance before we could quite come to a stop, gave terrific opportunity for cuts and wounded knees. The opportunity was not lost. There was more blood flowing than any of us had ever seen. Something must be done. Now all of the wool neck comforters came into requisition; my wounds were bound up, and I was helped into the house, with one knee of ordinary respectable cuts and bruises ; the other frightful. Then the enormity of the transaction and its attendant difficulties began to present themselves, and how to surround (for there was no possibility of overcoming them), was the question. The most feasible way seemed to be to say nothing about it, and we decided to all keep silent; but how to conceal the limp? I must have no limp, but walk well. I managed breakfast without notice. Dinner not quite so well, and I had to acknowledge that I had slipped down and hurt my knee a little. This gave my limp more latitude, but the next day it was so decided, that I was held up and searched. It happened that the best knee was inspected; the stiff wool comforter soaked off, and a suitable dressing given it. This was a great relief, as it afforded pretext for my limp, no one observing that I limped with the wrong knee. But the other knee was not a wound to heal by first intention, especially under its peculiar dressing, and finally had to be revealed. The result was a surgical dressing and my foot held up in a chair for three weeks, during which time I read the 'Arabian Nights' from end to end. As the first dressing was finished, I heard the surgeon say to my father: "that was a hard case, Captain, but she stood it like a soldier." But when I saw how genuinely they all pitied, and how tenderly they nursed me, even walking lightly about the house not to jar my swollen and fevered limbs, in spite of my disobedience and detestable deception (and persevered in at that), my Sabbath breaking and unbecoming conduct, and all the trouble I had caused, conscience revived, and my mental suffering far exceeded my physical. The Arabian Nights were none too powerful a soporific to hold me in reasonable bounds. I despised myself and failed to sleep or eat. My mother, perceiving my remorseful condition, came to the rescue, telling me soothingly, that she did not think it the worst thing that could have been done, that other little girls had probably done as badly, and strengthened her conclusions by telling me how she once persisted in riding a high mettled unbroken horse in opposition to her father's commands, and was thrown. My supposition is that she had been a worthy mother of her equestrian son. The lesson was not lost on any of the group. It is very certain that none of us, boys or girls, 'indulged in further smart tricks. Twenty-five years later, when on a visit to the old home, long left, I saw my father, then a grey-haired grandsire, out on the same little pond, fitting the skates carefully to the feet of his little twin granddaughters, holding them up to make their first start in safety, I remembered my wounded knees, and blessed the great Father that progress and change were among the possibilities of His people. I never learned to skate. When it became fashionable I had neither time nor opportunity."

Barton's skating story reads almost like one of Aesop's fables in its moralistic tone, but you know what? The lesson still holds true. Sometimes when you get you on the ice, you fall, you hurt yourself, you get back up, you move on... but that draw to the ice never goes away at any age. 


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) is widely regarded as one of the most controversial figures in history. He was the father of Leninism, which - joined with the works of Karl Marx - formed Marxism-Leninism and shaped the world view on Communism. He acted as leader of the Russian Communist Party and was of course the first leader of the Soviet Union. He also led the Bolshevik Revolution and we all know how that turned out. Like him or lump him, this guy certainly made a massive impact on world history. What you probably didn't know about him was that he was a - wait for it - figure skater.

Lenin grew up in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), a small city on the Volga River, in a wealthy middle class family. His family's affluence afforded him the opportunities to pursue a wide variety of sporting activities, including skiing, swimming, rowing and ice skating. He devoted more time to his interest in skating during his time in exile in Siberia for sedition in the late nineteenth century. In a November 15, 1898 letter to his mother, Lenin wrote that "the only change is in the form relaxation - now that winter has come I go skating instead of hunting. I recall the old days and find that I have not forgotten how, although it is ten years since I skated last." This asserts that he would have been skating in his late teens.

Carter Elwood's paper "The Sporting Life Of V.I. Lenin" elaborated on Lenin's skating connection in much further detail: "According to Olga Lepeshinskaia, ice-skating was Vladimir Il'ich's favourite sport and one where his skill was far more evident than in hunting. Once the Ienisei froze and before too much snow had fallen, it was possible to skate for miles on the river. Ever competitive, Lenin challenged his fellow skaters to a race. 'Our skates would cut into the ice. In front of everybody (was) Ilyich, straining all his willpower and his muscles in order to win at any price, no matter how big the effort.' After the snow came, the exiled socialists of Shushenskoe cleared the ice on the Shush River in front of their village to make a skating rink. Krupskaia provided an admiring audience. 'Volodia is an excellent skater,' she informed his sister Anna; he 'even keeps his hands in his pockets of his grey jacket like a true sportsman.' After a Christmas trip to the near-by town of Minusinsk, where Lenin was given a new pair of Mercury skates and some lessons in figure skating, they returned home where he 'amazed the people of Shushenskoe with his 'giant steps' and 'Spanish leaps'." The self-effacing Krupskaia admitted that she in contrast 'strutted around like a chicken on skates.'"

Further evidence exists of Lenin turning to skating over a decade later when living and researching in Krakow before the first World War. He bought another pair of skates and again wrote to his mother saying "skating brought back memories of Simbirsk and Siberia". According to the text "V. I. Lenin v Krakove i Poronine", he again impressed an audience of local residents, this time by "executing elaborate figures on the ice".

Well after his death in 1924 of what is now believed to have been syphilis, it only seems appropriate that the Lenin Stadium complex constructed in 1955 which houses twenty rinks, many of which used for the instruction of figure skating, bears this controversial revolutionary's name.


I once owned a mammoth red binder. One of the three rings had started to warp and you had to pull the pages through each time to read them. It was a copy of the CFSA rulebook. There's a whole world of skating history that can be gleaned from rulebooks have changed over the years and it was in a borrowed (earlier) copy of that very same CFSA rulebook that I happened upon several sections that I found particularly fascinating. They related to the stringent rules of amateurism.

We've all heard the stories: Papa Henie accepting lavish gifts as compensation for Sonja Henie's services; Barbara Ann Scott having to return a gifted yellow Buick convertible to keep her amateur status. Although much has without question changed over the years, back in the day federations took amateurism extremely seriously. The 1984 CFSA rulebook defined an amateur as "a person who participates in the sport as an avocation, for pleasure and not as a means of livelihood, and who is not disqualified as an amateur by any regulation of the ISU". Ways you could lose your amateur status including teaching skating for gain, participating "in any capacity, in a skating competition or exhibition not sanctioned by the CFSA, or other member of the ISU", performing with professionals in skating exhibitions without express permission, displaying advertising for commercial products or services during any CFSA or ISU sponsored event without permission and being in excess of allowed expenses. Signing contracts, accepting money in exchange for signing contracts at a later date and performing or teaching with the agreement of being paid sometime down the road were also all big no-no's. Skaters also had to be incredibly careful as to whether or not the events they appeared in were sanctioned by the CFSA. If, for instance, they even skated an exhibition during the intermission at a hockey game "where the professional element [dominated]," they were totally in troubs.

Let's talk a bit about expenses. Skaters under the age of eighteen were allowed to have a chaperone (one for every five skaters) whose expenses were paid, but the rules defining allowable expenses were very persnickety. Skaters and chaperones competing internationally had to educate themselves as to what was and wasn't allowed.

Skaters were allowed to receive financial assistance for their expenses in attending a competition from any source, but the CFSA reserved the right to request skaters submit a detailed list of all receipts and expenditures for scrutiny upon request. When they performed in shows, each skater was allowed to receive gifts of a value that did "not exceed $200.00 or the amount allowable under ISU rules (400 Swiss Francs), whichever is less". Gifts were allowed to be given in the form of gift certificates or purchase vouchers so long as the skaters weren't able to in any way sell or exchange them for cash value.

What happened if a skater's eligibility was questioned? Why, a  good old fashioned witch hunt of course! Well, not really, but it's easy to see how the rules could be manipulated to cause skaters considerable headache if you wanted to be an ass about such things. If someone made an objection to a skater's amateur status, they had two days to submit a notice in writing and a deposit of ten dollars to the Executive Director of the CFSA. At least seven days before the Board of Directors met to discuss the matter in a hearing, the skater was sent a copy of the complaint and notice of the time and place of the hearing. Skaters were called upon to defend their amateur status but "the burden of proof shall be on the objector". Depending on how the hearing went, the Rules Committee could either recommend a temporary suspension of a skater's amateur status or a full one. If a skater didn't agree with the decision, they had two recourses: an appeal (again paying a ten dollar deposit "which may be returned at the discretion of the meeting") and applying for reinstatement. Reinstatement appeals at the time could only be made at the CFSA's Annual General Meeting and if a skater reinstated, they could certainly test, skate in carnivals, judge, referee and compete in national competitions. They were not, at the time, ever eligible to compete in ISU or international competitions again. So this was some serious business! 

The changes that have occurred since these texts were written are innumerable. We saw the reinstatement of amateurs in the nineties in time for the Lillehammer Olympics, the great heyday of great professional figure skating competitions killed by the introduction of pro-am competitions and today, more skaters than ever choosing to retain their 'amateur' status simply because there aren't sufficient competitive opportunities professionally to offer a sense of fulfilment or challenge, let alone make a living outside of the show world. I don't want to get into a discussion about the importance of professional skating (been there, done that about ten times already on the blog) but I do hope these points serve as a gentle reminder to skaters today that 'they have it good'.


"Though Philadelphians have never reduced skating to rules like Londoners, nor connected it with business like Dutchmen, I will yet hazard the opinion that they are the best and most elegant skaters in the world." - Alexander Graydon

As the art of free skating developed in North America in the nineteenth century, dance steps and 'free figures' were an integral part of the composition of skater's programs. Perhaps the most popular of these dance steps were grapevines, which Irving Brokaw described in his 1913 book "The Art Of Skating" as "movements in which both feet are continuously employed on the ice, and where one foot is made to go in front or behind the other in combination with threes, loops, anvils, counters and toe-circling movements."

According to Brokaw, a member of the Philadelphia Skating Club named Amos Pinchon first brought the grapevine to New York in the winter of 1858-1959 and fittingly perhaps the most popular of the grapevines, the Philadelphia Twist, originated in that Pennsylvanian city around the same time.

The Philadelphia Twist was invented by an important man in early American skating history: the first chairperson of the first skating club. Colonel James Page was appointed as chair at the December 21, 1849 meeting at Stigman's Hotel on George and Sixth Street's in the city where the Skaters' Club Of Philadelphia, the precursor to the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society, was formed. Page wasn't your typical skater. He fought in the War Of 1812, The Buckshot War in 1838 and the riots of 1844 in Kensington and Southwark and as a high ranking military man, was extremely well respected and revered both on and off the ice.

But what exactly WAS this Philadelphia Twist that Page devised? Our old friend Henry Eugene Vandervell explained the entrance to the turn thusly: "The skater makes a whole circle on the outside back, with say, the right foot, when he places the left behind, outside of and parallel to the right, and with the feet thus locked makes half a revolution to the right, and taking up the right, skates the other circle of the eight with the left, and so on. The movement is, in fact, a back eight, with the circles tied together with the Philadelphia Twist." The Twist itself was a simple two foot half revolution turn with both feet locked together and could be skated in single or double form and was often accompanied with the variations of pivot circling on the toe-point or heel or incorporating a spread eagle in the steps. The most interesting part? Many men skated the twist together as a sort of primitive ice dance 'greeting' called a Salutation and for decades, it was extremely fashionable to do so. There you have it folks... in the end, it all comes back to same sex ice dancing. Who would have thought?


"It all comes to this: the simplest way to be happy is to do good." - Helen Keller

On Friday, April 3, 1981, some of Canada's best figure skaters descended on Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens for a skating benefit like no other called The Vickie. The name of the show was a loose for acronym for 'Visually Impaired Children's (Kids) Ice Extravaganza' and the show was a fundraiser for the Ontario Foundation for Visually Impaired Children, who at the time ran High Park Forest School, the only school in all of Ontario that provided services for young students with visual impairment. The Vickie had actually been held three times previously, but this was the first time it was brought to a major arena with major sponsorship and advertising.

The Gardens were donated by Bill Ballard and the show itself in 1981 featured a massive cast of five hundred skaters from the Granite Club and Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, a precision team from California called the San Diego Ice-Ettes and a performance by the Metro Toronto Police Pipe and Drum Band. The big name skating stars were Olympic Bronze Medallist Toller Cranston, World Champion and Olympic Bronze Medallist Donald Jackson and that year's Canadian Champions Brian Orser and Tracey Wainman. As part of the benefit, Toller Cranston was actually given The Vickie Award for his dedication to the cause. Toller actually donated his time and performed for this particular cause since day one.

Despite the big name stars, the skater many really came to was Stash Serafin of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, who himself was visually impaired. Serafin was actually the very first student of Uschi Keszler when she started coaching in 1971. According to an April 4, 1988 article from the "Philadelphia Inquirer", Keszler's work with Serafin greatly influenced her work with Brian Orser: "Because of Stash, I think Brian's blade is a lot more sensitive. I had to learn to teach through sound and learned that each mistake has a different sound."

The producer of the show was Andra McLaughlin Kelly, who represented the U.S. at the 1951 World Championships and later starred in the Ice Follies. McLaughlin Kelly's work with Canadian visually impaired skaters (many of whom also performed in the show) was an incredibly important part of the show's success.  Kathleen Rex's March 21, 1981 article in "The Globe And Mail" explained, "A high point of the evening will be the performance of youngsters such as Steven, who, dressed in Teddy bear suits, will demonstrate how well they can skate. They are among the 18 children enrolled in the High Park school, all of whom spend an hour a day, five days a week, on the ice in the St. Michael's arena with students from St. Michael's school. Norma Kelly, executive director of the foundation, said some of the proceeds from the show will go to find other blind pre-schoolers so they can be taught how to cope in a sighted world." Based on the resounding success of the 1981 show, The Vickie continued to be held at Maple Leaf Gardens through to at least March 1983.

The story of this particular skating event jumped out at me because visual impairment is something that has touched my own life. My grandmother Joyce, who I loved to death and pieces, lost her sight later in life and was an absolute inspiration to anyone she met. She was born in England and moved here to Canada with my grandfather while my father was only a young boy. After my grandfather passed away, she didn't have an easy go of it but she was the most feisty, full of life person you could ever meet. After suffering a stroke and Bell's Palsy, her sight declined. Instead of giving up, she wore the sunglasses, got the cane and with help from Nova Scotia's chapter of the Canadian National Institute Of The Blind learned the skills she needed to get around safely and live her life to the fullest while maintaining her independence. Even though she couldn't see, she'd be out shopping or doing this or that almost every day and had a fuller social calendar than most. She had such a beautiful spirit and I know she would have loved learning about The Vickie - almost like a real life version of the film "Ice Castles" - as much as I did.

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": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.