Are You Ready To Rhumba?

Poster for the French release of Paramount's 1935 film "Rumba"

The roots of the Rhumba as a social dance trace back hundreds of years to Cuba at the time when the West Indies were the first port of call for slave traders . The dance's roots come from percussive traditional dances from the Senegalese, Yoruba, Dahomean and Ashanti people that were adapted to sensual Latin American rhythms. In the thirties, Don Aspiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra and the Paramount film "Rumba" helped bring popularity to Rhumba music and dance. A toned down version of the dance called the 'Son' became widely accepted in American ballroom circles in the thirties, but the first attempts to translate the dance to the ice came out of England.

In 1932, Howard Nicholson devised the Rhumba Tango, a pattern ice dance which first appeared in the "London Times". Nicholson's dance was known to both British and American skaters, but it didn't really catch on. Walter Gregory's Rhumba, created in 1938, proved to be the Rhumba that stuck. Though its reverse choctaw was considered worrisome to some, Gregory's Rhumba was adopted quickly into the National Skating Association's new First Class (Gold) Dance Test, which Walter was the first to pass. He performed the dance with Muriel Roberts to win the National Skating Association's Open Professional Dance Championship in April 1939. Sadly, Walter Gregory was killed during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force.

Patterns for The Rhumba Tango and Walter Gregory's Rhumba

Though the Kilian hold has been consistent over time and the pattern of Gregory's Rhumba endured few changes, the tempo increased from forty four measures of four bars per minute in 1941 to forty eight by 1950. The National Skating Association developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the dance, making it an optional Gold dance in 1948 and scrapping it altogether the following year in favour of the American Waltz. It returned, only to be discontinued again in 1965 and reintroduced three years later as part of the Intermediate Gold Dance Test.

In 1944, Gregory's Rhumba inspired two spin-offs - the Preusch Tango (created by Edith and Arthur Preusch) and the Winterland Rhumba (created by Betty Abbott and Harry Doose). Interestingly, the Winterland Rhumba - named after San Francisco's Winterland rink - was designed so that two thirds of the steps were performed on a straight line. Like Nicholson's Rhumba Tango, neither the Preusch Tango or Winterland Rhumba generated the same interest as Gregory's Rhumba. That said, it wasn't exactly a hugely popular or well-received dance outside of Great Britain for many years.

In his 1950 book "Dancing On Ice", Erik van der Weyden, a contemporary of Gregory who invented the Foxtrot, Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz and Westminster Waltz with Eva Keats remarked, "No dance has ever created so much controversy, or has caused so many minor storms in a tea-cup - with much to be said for the views of either side. This dance never became sufficiently popular to be incorporated in the dance intervals of the majority of rinks. Even where it was normally included the numbers dancing it were few, and in most cases consisted of skaters of little more than Bronze standard, who were unable to do justice to the movements or rhythm, with the exception, of course, of occasional Silver dancers working up for their Golds. My own feelings on the Rhumba are that the steps can be quite delightful when skated to a different and smoother rhythm, so as to give more play to the essence of skating, and to eliminate that snatch effect which is characteristic of the dance. The actual Rhumba rhythm is for me even more fascinating than that of the Tango, so I feel that surely the solution would have been for the Rhumba steps to have been adapted for more suitable music, and for a new dance to have been created for Rhumba rhythm."

The Jamaican Rhumba

In 1962, two new Rhumbas were presented at Queens - the Jamaican Rhumba (created by Joan Dewhirst and John Slater) and the Cuban Rhumba (created by Peri Horne and Courtney Jones). These dances were exhibited at the 1964 World Championships in Dortmund and placed under consideration for adoption as new compulsories, but the ISU didn't ultimately adopt them. The Jamaican Rhumba, however, was adopted in 1965 as a replacement for Gregory's Rhumba in the National Skating Association's Gold Dance Test.

In September of 1969, the ISU ultimately adopted Gregory's Rhumba as part of its First Class (Gold) Test and added it to the international schedule of compulsory dances. When nearly all of the teams at the 1973 World Championships in Bratislava struggled with the dance, Polly Nelson suggested in "Skating" magazine that it be eliminated from the international schedule altogether. Rather than scrap the dance, the ISU Dance Committee chose to replace the dance's third step with a serpentine LFO-LFI-LFO step. This change would prove to be the first pattern amendment to the dance since its creation.

Revised 1973 pattern for Walter Gregory's Rhumba

The Rhumba was drawn as the OSP rhythm for the 1975/1976 season, and proved to be a major roadblock for many of the world's top dancers. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "Ice dancers most wanted Rhumba lessons because they had so little experience with the Rhumba as a ballroom dance. Many pros knew no more about this rhythm than their pupils. Ice dancers move in half circles; ballroom dancers move in straight lines forward, backward, or to the side... Rhumba rhythm called for the body to work as a figure 8, in one direction from the waist up, in the other direction from the hips down." The most successful Rhumba that season was that of Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov, who studied traditional Rhumba music in libraries and worked with ballroom coaches who specialized in the rhythm to ensure authenticity.

In November of 1983, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean made history by receiving the first perfect marks of 6.0 for a compulsory dance ever at the British Dance Championship. The dance they received them for was the Rhumba, which Dean had actually failed when he first tested it seven years prior. Torvill and Dean received another four 6.0's for the Rhumba at the 1984 World Championships in Ottawa. Their original dance set to the same rhythm at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer would go down in history as one of the most memorable Rhumbas of all time.

The Rhumbas we see on ice today may have evolved from the Rhumbas of years past, but understanding the history and evolution of the dance can only add to our enjoyment of it.

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":