The History And Evolution Of Spinning

Scottish Champion Ronnie McKenzie performing a flying sit spin

Boys doing Biellmann spins, four-feature level four spins... Figure skating's 'new' judging system has both unnecessarily complicated the art of spinning and forced skaters to treat spins as seriously as they do jumps. After all, "you don't want to leave points on the table" and such. Ardent supporters of the IJS seemingly delight in pointing out how spins were often throwaway elements under the 6.0 system; rest periods between cross-cuts, telegraphed jumps and wonderfully musical though technically less demanding footwork sequences. We all know that narrative, just as we know that Ulrich Salchow and Axel Paulsen invented the jumps that bear their names, Donald Jackson landed the first triple Lutz in international competition and the delightful Dick Button performed the first double Axel and triple loop. The history of skating's all important jumps has been wonderfully documented, yet unfortunately the evolution of spins has never been offered the same treatment. In order to fully understand how we got to where we are today, it's probably a good idea to start at the very beginning.

The three-turn, known as far back as 1772 when Robert Jones wrote the first instructional manual on figure skating, was of course the forerunner of double and triple three-turn's which Jean Garcin of the Gilets Rouge called 'hooks'. Swiss skating historian Nigel Brown recalled, "It was the single hook or three turn that was employed to join up one skating movement with another. This simple turn was often called a half-spin and was considered a very graceful movement as well as an indispensable one. The spin, consisting of two or three revolutions, was used mainly to terminate a series of skating movements. It completed a small free-skating programme as it were, bringing the performance to an exciting finish. This pirouette was often placed between two distinct skating movements but it was never encouraged as it was considered ugly and out of place."

In the 1850's, skaters from Boston, Philadelphia and New York began experimenting with spins. George Henry Browne, who lobbied for the introduction of the International Style in North America in the early twentieth century, claimed that Charles H. Fuller and his brother William performed "spins, rolls and acrobatic feats" during this period and that Joseph H. Murch of Boston was the first to introduce the two-foot whirl. The crossfoot spin was already known as early as the 1860's, being included in the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society's repertoire of club figures. Browne claimed that Jackson Haines and E.B. Cook introduced Ringlet-Spins circa 1862, which were defined as "complete revolutions on an edge on one-foot", usually added as flourishes to loop figures. George Meagher noted that Ringlets differed from loops only in the shape of the marks left upon the ice, a loop being cycloid, and a Ringlet being perfectly round. In 1863, E.B. Cook endeavoured to differentiate between the terms spin and whirl, suggesting that one-footed pirouettes should be termed spins and two-footed pirouettes should be termed whirls.

During the period that followed, flat-foot spins on both one and two feet, crossfoot spins and two-foot whirls became wildly popular and North America's top 'fancy' skaters began adding their own variations to the extremely limited variety of spins then known. Albert Howard started his two-foot spin from a backward entrance; Charles V. Dodge would start out with a two-foot whirl and then jump on his toes until his feet wound around then drop back to the blade and finish with a crossfoot spin. George Browne noted, "Callie Curtis, in the 60's, could make several revolutions on the toe at the end of a one-foot eight and return to the eight without any intermediate strokes or steps. Curtis could also jump from one toe-spin to another." Toe-spins - or toe-pirouettes - didn't really gain a lot of steam until Halifax and New York club skates with toe rakes came into vogue. Without the evolutions in skate-making during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, spinning never would have evolved past upright spins and toe-spins never would have been the ever popular flourishes to early twentieth century free skating programs that they became.

The Jackson Haines spin

While North American skaters were spinning standing up, legendary figure skating pioneer Jackson Haines was dropping it like it was hot in Vienna with the introduction of his Jackson Haines spin. Starting with a right outside forward flat-foot spin then bending clear down to the ice in a sitting position and straightening up again while evolving at a rapid pace and finishing with a pirouette on the toe, the Jackson Haines spin was in essence skating's first true combination spin, which included the sit spin position that would of course later become one of figure skating's primary spin positions. Haines' spin spread like wildfire. In Germany, they called it the 'Sitzpirouette'. In Canada in the early twentieth century, it was called the 'Bowsprit'. Well into the thirties and forties, people still called it the Jackson Haines, even if they were just executing a sit spin on its own.

At the same time fancy skaters in North America were experimenting with upright spins and Haines was thrilling audiences from Stockholm to St. Petersburg with his signature spin, the stiff English Style skaters in Great Britain were having a minor fit about all of this uncivilized spinning business.
Henry Eugene Vandervell and T. Maxwell Witham showed enthusiasm for double and quadruple three-turns on one foot (referring to the latter as a 'double-double') but warned members of The Skating Club in London of allowing these three turns to "degenerate" into "mere" spins. Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams went so far as to say that spins "often proved themselves to be absolutely destructive to the good form of those who practiced them", believing they had no place in English Style or 'combined' skating. "Toe-spins, performed by our Canadian and Swedish friends," he scoffed, "are quite unsuited to concerted skating." Witham described the forward outside one-foot spin as an "abominably ugly position which has undoubtedly been the cause of its unpopularity in England." George Wood added that if 'kicked figures' such as cross-cuts and toe-spins became part of the English Style, it would be reduced to "a niggling, ungraceful, petty, and hybrid style."

Excerpt from Frederick Toombs' 1879 book "How to become a skater"

To the shagrin of these well-to-do Victorian gentlemen, the evolution of spinning continued at a rapid pace. Both Leopold Frey and Eduard Engelmann performed spins at the 1882 Great International Skating Tournament in Vienna. In 1895, George Meagher described two Canadian additions to the upright spin repertoire - the 'Letter K' spin and the 'Toronto Spin'. The latter, described as starting "with a sharp outside edge spin on one foot, and, whilst revolving at good speed, the toe of the balance leg is gradually lowered, with the point of the skate resting upon the boot of the other foot" certainly sounds like the a scratch spin if you ask me.

After the formation of the International Skating Union, spins quickly made their way into the free skating performances of many of the sport's first World champions. George Henry Browne recalled how Austria's Gustav Hügel amazed spectators at the 1900 World Championships in Davos with "his corkscrew spin on bended leg, coiling around it the unemployed held in both hands, and finishing it with a pirouette on the toe, all that tremendous speed." An Austrian, Georg Wassmuth, was the first to perform a spin on his heels known as an 'apple' and Henning Grenander of Sweden made a speciality of his 'heel spin eight', striking off from a right forward outside edge, crossing his feet at the end of the circle and spinning counterclockwise on the heel of his skate. Irving Brokaw recalled that Ulrich Salchow once ended his program with a Jackson Haines spin and that Fritz Kachler upstaged him by performing two Jackson Haines spins in succession, separated by a 'spectacle move'. It was during this period that the first of many, many women to make spinning history came on the scene. At the 1906 World Championships in Davos - the very first ISU championship for 'ladies' - Jenny Herz of the Cottage-Eislaufverein made history as the first woman to perform the Jackson Haines spin in competition... wearing an ankle-length dress.

Jenny Herz performing the Jackson Haines spin in Davos in 1906

Through the 1910's, professional skaters were pushing the spinning envelope far more than the amateurs. Remember Isabella Butler? The university educated mother who jumped "The Dip Of Death" with Barnum And Bailey, toured America skating on artificial ice and taught women to skate before they could vote? Well, her husband Tom, a stunt bicycle rider and circus man, met Joseph Chapman at the Brooklyn Rink and positively blew his mind with his spinning prowess. Chapman recalled, "I can see in my mind's eye [Butler] doing a sitting (or Haines) spin with one of his flexible legs reared straight up in front of him. Upon seeing this leg projecting straight and high in front of his face he, with the instinct that made him the highest paid clown at the Hippodrome, snatched his cap off his head and hung it on his upright toe, without interrupting in any way his gay and speedy whirl." Charlotte Oelschlägel, star of the Berlin Eisballets and the Hippodrome in New York City, often ended her programs not with her famous Charlotte spiral but with a Jackson Haines spin. She recalled, "On the stage of the Hippodrome I frequently execute difficult spins and jumps on one foot, and then on the other foot, not for the purpose of prolonging the number but for the purpose of showing I can do them equally well on either foot."

By the roaring twenties, the idea of finishing spins on a sustained backward edge as opposed to abruptly stabbing the ice with one's toe-pick or finishing with a toe-spin began to gain steam but Maribel Vinson Owen recalled that in the women's ranks "spins were frowned upon in many circles as late as 1927." Gillis Grafström introduced the Grafström spin, done in a back outside position entered from a forward outside counter, with his tracing shoulder and arm held forward and free leg and hip back, his head looking over his free shoulder. He also introduced the earliest version of the flying sit spin and the change-foot sit spin. While amateur pairs teams peppered their performances with a couple of very basic waltz spins, professional pairs teams were already wowing audiences with the neck spin and an early incarnation of the headbanger. Vinson Owen aptly noted in 1940 that in the amateur ranks prior to the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a spin as rudimentary as the camel spin would have undoubtedly been frowned upon if it had suddenly made its appearance in competition, not to mention the hold-the-foot and back-bend variations which are accepted almost casually today." And that brings us to the camel spin and the layback spin... You might want to put a shot of Bailey's in your coffee before we get into this historical hot mess!

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Famous Swiss born coaches Jacques Gerschwiler and Gustave Lussi made their marks as great teachers of skating on different sites of the Atlantic... and both had connections to the 'origin story' of the camel spin. Before we get to those, it's important to clarify that the camel spin wasn't originally called a camel spin. In the thirties when it rose to prominence - mainly in the women's ranks - it was known as an arabesque, parallel or airplane spin. Only when a skater performed the airplane spin poorly, claimed Maribel Vinson Owen, it was referred to as a camel. Gerschwiler's young protégé Cecilia Colledge has historically been the skater given credit for the invention of both the camel and the layback (or backbend) as she was the first to perform them in international competition in the early thirties.

Cecilia Colledge performing a camel spin in 1934

However, Lussi frequently told his students that the spin originated at the Toronto Skating Club in the twenties and was called the Campbell spin, named after an Australian named Campbell who came to Toronto and created it. In a skating equivalent of the telephone game, claimed Lussi, 'Campbell' devolved into 'camel'. Who was this Australian who came to North America named Campbell that Lussi spoke of? Primary sources offer a clue to that little mystery. In May of 1930, Australian professional skaters Sadie Cambridge - not Campbell - and Albert Enders arrived in New York City aboard the S.S. Mauretania. That autumn, they performed at the St. Regis Hotel in New York... where Lussi directed and choreographed shows... and washed dishes back in 1915 after immigrating from Switzerland. Though Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders didn't move to Canada to teach skating until the early thirties, it's entirely possible that they made a trip to Toronto during their visit to North America in 1930. After all, the duo were performing adagio neck spins in the early twenties... certainly an advanced skill during that era. Maribel Vinson had a different theory entirely, stating in 1951, "I have been told... that [Charlotte Oelschlägel's] combination spins have never been excelled, including the camel spin, a move which was forgotten after Charlotte's return to Europe, only to be 'discovered' again in England in 1934." Whether Charlotte, Colledge, Sadie Cambridge or another Australian mystery skater named Campbell was the camel spin's inventor, by the late thirties, the spin was incredibly popular and the inside camel was being performed as well.

Sonja Henie performing a crossfoot spin

Sonja Henie, better known for her exceptionally fast flat-foot and crossfoot spins, originally performed the camel spin with a bent free leg position. After turning professional, she took a cue from another Jacques Gerschwiler student and straightened out her leg. Bill Unwin explained, "Although Sonja never admitted that she saw Belita [Jepson-Turner] skate, she did see Belita's 'Suspense' and 'Silver Skates'. Ted Shuffle said that once she'd seen Belita in those shows, she straightened her leg out on her camel [spin] and he said the line improved in Sonja's skating dramatically. He said Sonja skated way better in her films after she'd seen Belita's films than the previous ones."

Freddie Tomlins, one of the best male spinners during the thirties

The foot-in-hand Jackson Haines or 'Figure Four' spin in Canada - a precursor to the spin position we know today as the cannonball - also rose to prominence in the thirties, popularized by the students of Willie Frick.

Louis Rubenstein performing the 'Figure Four' spin in the nineteenth century

Maribel Vinson Owen recalled, "One day in 1931 on my first visit to Willie's home city, Berlin, I was practicing at the Sports Palast, and in the course of things did a Jackson Haines, coming up holding my free leg with my hand close to my body, free knee bent at hip height and parallel to the ice. Immediately a man came dashing over to me, exclaiming, 'I know who your instructor is. Only Willie Frick could have taught you that spin.' At the time, of course, he was right, though since then pupils of many other teachers have learned it." Maribel adapted this spin to create her very own variation called the Vinson Spin, based on a pose suggested by Boston sculptor Leonard Craske. In the Vinson Spin, after spinning a few revolutions in the Foot-in-hand Jackson Haines position, the skater would stretch their free leg to the side "with a straight knee at head height, still of course holding the hand." Vinson Owen also claimed to be "the first to do, at least on this continent" the 'Flip' airplane, a variation on the camel where the skater first performed an upright flat-foot spin then dipped or 'flipped'  forward into the camel spin. Essentially this was a upright/camel spin combination without a change of foot.

Megan Taylor showing her spinning prowess in Australia in 1939

Despite the many innovations to spinning that occurred in the thirties, the most important development was the focus on being centred and not travelling. This seemed to be something that Gerschwiler, Lussi, Frick and the rest of the 'elite' coaches of the period all actually seemed to agree on! Eminent British skater, judge and historian T.D. Richardson recalled that Gerschwiler "holds the theory, a subtle one at that, that the rotation in the spin comes from the check of the forward movement by the marked turning of the body, and that when a spin is not centred, that is to say when the skater is travelling as opposed to remaining in one place, it is because this forward movement has not been sufficiently checked."

Evelyn Chandler spinning up a storm in a hotel show in 1938

During World War II and the Sonja Henie boom when touring and hotel ice shows drew throngs of new fans to the sport, it was common practice for ice show producers to feature an exceptional spinner in a prominent role. Few casts were complete without a comedy act or two, a beautiful ice queen, an adagio pair and a skater with an uncanny knack to make audiences dizzy with their fast revolving pirouettes. Evelyn Chandler, one of the first female skaters to perform the double Salchow jump, was considered one of the best spinners in the professional world during this period and long before he was Mr. Debonaire, Roy Shipstad was billed to audiences as 'The Human Top'. Long before triple jumps became the norm, audiences were simply captivated by the magic of spinning.

Roy Shipstad showing off his sublime spins

In the amateur world, Gustave Lussi led the way in another wave of spinning experimentation in the forties. "We tried all kinds of things like double Salchow into a toe spin," he recalled. Though Gillis Grafström and Marcus Nikkanen had experimented with a hop from a sit to back sit position in the twenties and thirties, it was Lussi's pupils who added the modern flying sit and flying open Axel sit spins to the repertoire of skating elements during this period.

Maribel Vinson Owen's description of Marcus Nikkanen's flying sit spin

Dick Button has claimed that Arthur Vaughn, Jr. and William Grimditch were the first to perform the flying sit spin and Axel sit spin "correctly" during the War years and by the late forties, Button, Johnny Lettengarver, Jimmy Grogan and Eileen Seigh were all including flying sit spins in their free skating routines. Lussi later recalled, "One night I was talking in my sleep and rolling all over in bed. My wife woke me up and I sat straight up in bed and said, 'I've just invented the flying sit spin.' So I went in the next day and taught it to Buddy Vaughn [in 1942]. It wasn't as open then. With Hayes [Jenkins in the 1950's] we really started to open it up. He would really fly. But the greatest flying sit I had was [John] Misha Petkevich... he came down the rink full speed and let go like anything... Everyone had to scatter to get out of his way."

Lussi student Dick Button gave his invention, the 'modern' flying camel spin, its international debut at the 1947 World Championships in Stockholm. By the next year, everyone and their dog were performing his novel new spin, many calling it the Button camel. Button later reminisced, "I recall how steadfastly Mr. Lussi and I had worked on a Button camel, or flying camel, and how jealously I had guarded it its first year for fear a rival would see it and beat me to the punch by skating it in a competition. In skating, as in any field, once you have shown an original idea in public, opponents are surely to copy it if they can, and soon the new movement becomes a part of the standard technique."

Cecilia Colledge performing the jump-airplane spin in the thirties

Similarly to the case with Grafström and the flying sit, skaters had attempted to 'fly' during the camel long before Button and Lussi developed the modern flying camel technique.  In 1940, Maribel Vinson Owen described a "jump-airplane" spin, however it was dissimilar to Button's flying camel in that the jump didn't occur until after several rotations and not long after the skater jumped, they pulled into an upright position, exited the spin and called it a day.

Maribel Vinson Owen demonstrating the jump-airplane spin 

According to Dick Button, we have France's Jacqueline du Bief to thank for the accidental invention of the illusion spin in the early thirties. He recalled, "Jacqueline, on beginning the [camel] spin, lost control, regained it, then lost it again, and was finally able to stabilize her position. At first she felt she was doing a terrible spin; then she began to emphasize her flailing arms, making the lurching of her body appear quite intentional. When a judge later questioned her about her unorthodox movements, she looked him dead straight in the eye, replying in complete sincerity that she had invented it (she didn't say when) to fit her style of skating and that she called it a 'Now I Have It, Now I Don't' spin. It gained her points in the competition."

Ronnie Robertson in action

Ronnie Robertson, who worked with Lussi, was a prodigal spinner known for his fast blur, corkscrew and crossfoot spins who earned international renown for his efforts in this department of skating in the fifties. Lussi's grandson claimed NASA once sent a team to study Robertson and how Lussi got his skaters to spin so fast and not get nauseous. Lussi claimed Robertson spun at 6.5 revolutions per second. In 1958, a roller skater named Rick Mullican invented the travelling camel entrance into the arabesque position. Though to this day more popular on rollers than on ice skates, figure skaters with roller skating backgrounds like Germany's Marina Kielmann, later translated the travelling camel entrance to the ice quite effectively.

Rosemarie Stewart and Bob Dench demonstrating the Dench Double Spin and pair camel spin

Though upstaged by dazzling lifts and death spirals, pairs spins developed greatly over the years as well. By the forties, amateur pairs teams had added the back outside double spin, combined double spin on inside edges in the spread eagle position and the Dench Double Spin to their routine. Germany's Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier and Austria's Ilse and Erik Pausin popularized side-by-side spins in the thirties. Herber and Baier have been credited as the first team to perform both the forward change-camel pair spin and change-foot side-by-side spins in the late thirties. Though Sadie Cambridge and Albert Enders popularized the side-by-side Jackson Haines spin back during the roaring twenties, the athleticism and innovation of Herber and Baier and the Pausin's was arguably what pushed pairs teams to push the spin envelope. By the late fifties, pair spins in the Killian and Tango positions and side-by-side spins were old hat.

Tatiana Nemtsova of Russia performing a half Biellmann spin

Though Toller Cranston was the one who popularized the broken leg sit spin in the seventies, multiple instructional books on skating reveal that the spin was already well-known in the early sixties.

Heather Belbin in broken leg spin position in 1951

At the 1952 Swiss Championships, Swiss skater Susi Wirz performed a variation of the camel spin where her boot was grasped by her her hand. This style of spin was later performed by Soviet skaters Tatiana Nemtsova and Tamara (Bratus) Moskvina. These efforts were precursors to the spin later popularized by Denise Biellmann as the Biellmann spin. Like the camel spin, the Biellmann spin's origin story is a fine example of why it is just plain irresponsible when studying history to definitively claim that anyone was 'the first' to do just about anything.

Jeannette Altwegg, Ája Vrzáňová and Joan Lister spinning up a storm in 1948

Swiss skater Karin Iten claimed that she'd invented the spin, child star Janet Champion was said to have performed it in the Ice Follies, World Professional Champion Pamela Prior was said to have performed it in the thirties. Cecilia Colledge even performed a one-handed spin that resembled the half Biellmann at the 1937 World Championships in London.

Patricia Pauley going in for the haircutter in the late fifties

Maribel Vinson Owen described a "hold the foot airplane" in 1940 "in which the skating hand reaches around and grasps the heel of the free skate over an exaggeratedly arched back, either at the very entrance into the spin or after a bit of speed has been lost and the pull-away of the free leg has consequently died down somewhat." Especially considering that in the forties, fifties and sixties touring ice shows, hotel shows and British ice pantomimes featured dozens upon dozens of inventive spinners. pinpointing that one skater who performed both the 'half' and 'full' Biellmann spin first is a futile task. It's worth noting that Otto Hügin, who coached Denise Biellmann, called it the 'Karin-Spin' in his 1973 book "The Technique Of Skating".

Before Denise Biellmann drew acclaim for the spin that became her namesake, Dorothy Hamill was delighting audiences with her 'Hamill camel', which she debuted in competition as a junior at the 1970 U.S. Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In her book "A Skating Life: My Story", she recalled, "Gus Lussi had tried to teach me an interesting transition between my back camel spin and my back sit spin... I did my best to translate what Mr. Lussi had said but it was difficult, since he was unable to demonstrate it himself. So I came up with my version of what I thought he meant. Vera Wang and her partner Jimmy Stewart were training in Toronto that summer also. Jimmy would playfully tease me about my steadfast devotion to this new spin. He'd say, 'Hey, Hamill, how's your camel?' And the name stuck around. Everyone started referring to it as the Hamill Camel. It remains my trademark to this day."

Many have argued that in the eighties when great strides were made in the evolution of jumping, spinning suffered a lull. Dick Button claimed that spinning "hadn't been done as well since [Lussi] stopped teaching." Though there is perhaps some truth to these arguments, the decade of Dynasty hair, gaudy sequinned dresses and Safety Dancing wasn't without its exceptional spinners. Canadians Liz Manley, Gary Beacom and Kay Thomson were all quite sensational, the latter including a back layback and several other innovative variations on standard positions in her free skating programs that were very much ahead of their time. Alexander Fadeev did a double Axel into a sit spin, while his Soviet teammate Victor Petrenko was performing the layback, a rarity in the men's ranks. Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev wowed audiences with their 'Natalia Spin', a unique pair spin where Mishkutenok held Dmitriev's ankle while he spun in an upright position and she was upside down. Their coach Tamara (Bratus) Moskvina admitted to stealing the move "from a Canadian couple".

As women started landing triple Axels and men quads in the late eighties and early nineties, the narrative about spins being 'throwaway' rest period elements under the 6.0 system became a go-to for skating commentators, sportswriters and fans alike. However, it was during this decade that Denise Biellmann brought the Biellmann spin and headless scratch spin to the masses by winning professional competition after professional competition. It was also during this decade that Evgeni Plushenko became the first man to perform the Biellmann spin in international competition. Most importantly though, it was in the nineties that two prodigal young Swiss skaters left the jaws of audiences on the floor by really taking spinning to 'the next level'. Nathalie Krieg and Lucinda Ruh, both ahead of their time, were performing 'IJS' spins long before Salt Lake City and earning ovations not for what they did on the air, but what they accomplished while spinning around on the ice.

On July 1, 1997, British Champion Neil Wilson became the first skater to hold a Guinness World Record for the most rotations (sixty) per minute on one foot in a spin. Ruh later topped Wilson's record with one hundred and three rotations per minute, only to best her own record later the same day with one hundred and fifteen rotations. In 2006, Russia's Natalia Kannounikova more than doubled Ruh's record with three hundred and eight rotations per minute and in 2015, Olivia Rybicka-Oliver of Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia - at eleven years of age - toppled Kannounikova's record with three hundred and forty two rotations.

Over the course of the centuries, the evolution of spinning has been nothing short of remarkable. Without innovations in skate-making and the human desire to push boundaries and experiment with new positions and combinations of spins, figure skating certainly wouldn't be what it is today. Though the current 'IJS' system has perhaps overvalued the difficulty of unattractive 'features' at the cost of aesthetics and musicality in spinning, there's no denying that spins are finally being given the credit they have long been due in competitive figure skating.

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":