Choctaws, Costumes And Charisma: The Courtney Jones Story

"Courtney himself was awe-inspiring too: urbane, sophisticated, a million miles from anything in our experience... As we talked, we began to relax. Courtney began to show a different side to his personality - nothing he liked more than fish and chips and apple pie, he used to say. 'Common as muck,' he'd say, putting on a northern accent." - Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, "Facing The Music"

June Markham and Courtney Jones

Born April 30, 1933 in Poole, England, Courtney John Lyndhurst Jones was an only child. He came from Bournemouth to begin training at the Queen's Ice Club after winning the Southern Regional pairs title in 1954 with Heather Birtwistle. He had first competed at the British Ice Dance Championships in 1951 with partner Faith 'Paddy' Sylvester. Though he passed his silver free skating test, competed with five different partners in ice dance and with two as a pairs skater on and off since 1947, it was his instruction from Miss Gladys Hogg that propelled him to such fast success with June Markham, the daughter of a professional magician who had previously danced with Lawrence Demmy's cousin Michael Marks.

At six foot one and a half with brown hair and blue eyes, Courtney was a "tall, dark and handsome" young man with a passion for figure skating. He only ended up skating with June Markham by sheer happenstance, when Miss Hogg (who was to partner Courtney for his Gold Dance Test) fell ill and suggested he team up with June, a strong singles and pairs skater. Needless to say, in no time it was apparent the partnership had potential. In only their first season together, June and Courtney won the silver medals at both the European and World Championships.

June Markham and Courtney Jones

On December 1, 1956 in Nottingham (after only fifteen months together) the duo won the British Ice Dance Championships in a field of six ahead of Barbara Thompson and Gerard Rigby and Catherine Morris and Michael Robinson despite a mishap in their free dance. Courtney took a six month leave from the Royal Air Force in hopes of claiming gold at the European and World Championships... and his decision paid off. At the 1957 European Championships in Vienna, June and Courtney would breeze through the Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Kilian and Argentine Tango and claim their first European title in a British podium sweep. They had only been skating together for about eighteen months at the time. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recounted their performances at the 1957 World Championships at the Broadmoor in Colorado thusly: "Markham/Jones, showed for the first place votes how the Argentine Tango and free dance ought to be. All five judges placed them first in the free dance... for their footwork and exquisite carriage." After winning their first World title, Courtney and June wowed Skating Club Of New York members and the public alike with an exhibition at Rockefeller Center.

In November 1957 in Nottingham, June and Courtney won their second British dance title ahead of and decided to start using their status as the world's top ice dancers to evoke change. Writing an editorial for that same month's "Skating" magazine, the dance duo suggested that the free dance be longer than three minutes and wrote: "We particularly noticed the continental trend towards a freer expression of dance steps, allied to a very strong feeling for the character of the dance... Are ice dancers getting too concerned with the correct execution of the dance steps and thereby losing the 'feel' of the dance itself?"

Their vocal suggestions didn't hurt the team in the least. They won their second European title in Bratislava in a convincing fashion and headed to the Palais de Glace in Paris, France for the 1958 World Championships. Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "The defending champions introduced a new element to the free dance: exceptionally fast timing (more than 200 beats per minute in the first movement) and footwork to match, similar to the best free skaters, and they made it look good!" T.D. Richardson tells us that they 'They are in a class apart and have mastered the art of presentation without that awful 'coyness' or showy nonsense seen alas! too often. What a wonderful programme is theirs, demanding real skating ability.' Although fast South American rhythms were common among the British and some of the other Europeans, only June and Courtney did not make this new style look awkward. They deserved the 6.0's they received." The March 4, 1957 edition of the "Ottawa Citizen" praised them effusively as well: "Jones and Miss Markham virtually wrapped up the dancing title Friday night in the compulsory dances and then clinched the crown with an exhibition of their own creation. Jones, 23, a member of the Royal Air Force recruiting division, skated with erect poise with his 18-year old blonde partner in perfect unison with him. There was little doubt after they glided through their first dance that they'd go back with the championship."

June Markham and Courtney Jones atop the podium at the World Championships

Following the 1958 World Championships, June announced her retirement from competition and her plans to teach at Queen's Ice Rink. That year, June and Courtney were the third ice dance team to ever receive the prestigious Vandervell Trophy, a feat Jones would later repeat with his subsequent partner. Courtney was dejected by the team's split, later admitting, "I was very disheartened because it was a very sudden stop. I was working in a factory. I had three jobs actually. And I gave up." He had no reason too, though. Miss Hogg found him a new partner in no time flat.

Doreen Denny and Courtney Jones

That November, Courtney Jones arrived at the British Ice Dance Championships with eighteen year old partner Doreen Denny, a former singles skater, and defended his title in a decision of five judges to two ahead of teams who had significantly more experience together. Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "Because of Courtney's job as a dress designer after leaving the RAF, training time was precious to the new champions. They practiced late at night after the regular Queen's Ice Club session [Courtney worked from 6 AM to 6 PM] and got so used to cut up ice that good ice made dancing seem easy. Courtney had been with the firm less than a year, but he would be allowed to leave for Worlds because his skating involvement would make money for the firm. Doreen already was testing his skating fashions for durability while skating and for shrinkage." Courtney had actually been designing matching costumes for years and was absolutely one of the pioneers in ushering in new trends in ice dance fashion.

Doreen Denny and Courtney Jones. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

At the 1959 European Championships in Davos, any doubts as to the efficacy of this new partnership were dismissed when Denny and Jones soundly claimed the top spot on the podium in a field of fifteen. Jones continued to push the envelope at the 1959 World Championships, ruffling feathers in the compulsory dances by starting on the weak beat in the Fourteenstep. Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "The British skaters always thought the American preoccupation with strong and weak beats was a little far-fetched and it wasn't against the rules. They skated a great dance, followed it up with a solid European Waltz and Paso Doble and an excellent Argentine Tango." Skating in pale blue matching costumes, they won their first World title ahead of strong American and Canadian teams skating on home turf, infusing elements of ballroom dance and trademark fast footwork into what was at the time a very staid discipline. After winning in Colorado Springs, Doreen and Courtney won the Vandervell Trophy, and Doreen took and passed her NSA Gold Ice Dance test, which she'd never taken despite now being European and World Champion. British Pathé even made a ten minute film about the team called "Courtney Jones and Doreen Denny" that aired in British cinemas.

Doreen Denny and Courtney Jones

After repeating as British Dance Champions, Doreen and Courtney headed to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany for the 1960 European Championships, where they claimed yet another title, this time in the pouring rain. At the World Championships in Vancouver, British Columbia, the couple again caused a commotion in the compulsory dances when Courtney forgot his skates during one round. Despite this, they won all four compulsories and the free dance. In "Skating" magazine, Edith Ray commented on the brilliance of their free dance: "Their program was better constructed than last year, and showed masterful composition, with moves flowing into one another in kaleidoscopic variety. They covered the surface with these interesting moves and dance steps, into which they wove their highlights. Skating in matching gray outfits, they gave a superb performance, with a seemingly flawless rhythm, although, just as everyone else does, they wasted time and motion on a few 'cutenesses.'" Doreen and Courtney almost retired after the 1960 World Championships. Doreen wanted to turn professional and Courtney's commitments in dress design were dictating that it was almost time to call it quits... but they decided to hang on for one more year.

At the 1960 European Championships in West Berlin, the team claimed their final gold medal ahead of France's Christiane and Jean-Paul Guhel of France. Their goal and reason for continuing was one final farewell competitive performance at the 1961 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Because of the cancellation of the event due to the Sabena Crash, that didn't happen. In her book "Indelible Tracings", Patricia Shelley Bushman explained that at the time of the disaster that killed the entire U.S. figure skating team, "Doreen Denny was in England but her partner Courtney Jones was in Zurich on business, and she didn't know how to reach him, nor did her association know what to tell them." Ultimately, Doreen and Courtney retired from skating with a farewell performance at the Queen's Ice Rink on April 16, 1961, which was broadcast on BBC. Having graduated from the Bournemouth College Of Art, Courtney began judging and finally had more time to devote to his dress design work. Doreen married Gianfranco Canepa in June of 1961 and left for Villars, Switzerland to teach skating.

Reminiscing on his competitive career in the documentary "ISU: 100 Years Of Skating 1892-1992", Courtney remarked, "There was a concept of a free dance in those days. Everyone used organ music, without exception. All over the world, the music was always recorded by Douglas Walker at Nottingham Ice Stadium and it was the accepted thing that they had three pieces of music. They had a fast one, a slow one and a fast one to finish. And that was it. There was just no breaking that mould. When I first started skating with June Markham, that was also our mould. But, being a bit Bolshik, we did break that mould. When I first started with June Markham, she was a highly established solo skater. She never had anything in her mind except she was a winner. It didn't matter what it was - a European Championship, a World Championship, she was going to win. There was no second best for her and I think I learned an enormous amount from her. When our partnership broke up and she turned professional, I basically gave up. I was not going on and it was Miss Hogg who persuaded me to go on with this new partner, Doreen, where the position was reversed. I was the World Champion and she was a very capable free skater but actually had never danced in a dance championship in her life. She was the most fantastic partner. She was always happy. She would never be down."

If you think that winning four World titles was all that Courtney Jones did for ice dancing, think again. In 1963 at Queen's Ice Rink, he created the Starlight Waltz and Silver Samba with Peri Horne. In 1975 he judged at his first World Championships. In 1980, he was head ice dance referee at the Olympics in Lake Placid and was awarded the title of OBE (Order Of The British Empire) for his contributions to skating in England. He also designed the British Olympic team's uniforms in 1976 and 1984.

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

The story of Courtney and long time companion Bobby Thompson's role in the development of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's iconic "Bolero" program and costumes (over dinner) is famous in skating circles. In a January 22, 2014 BBC interview, Bobby shared his version of how it all went down: "Courtney was doing the cooking and I was in the kitchen and we heard 42nd Street go on, We both looked at each other and said - absolutely no way. Olympic year, it's too much like Mack and Mabel, Barnum - been there, done that. We need something completely different. Christopher's face dropped to the floor - he wasn't a very happy little warrior. And I remember Jayne's words; 'Chris, it's no good; they haven't led us wrong yet.' A quick dash to the car, a pile of cassettes, and when Bolero came on, there was instant agreement." Courtney and Bobby designed the "Bolero" costumes by hanging silk chiffon from a string in his basement with a bucket of purple dye underneath. The silk was pulled out a little more every few hours, leaving the bottom darker than the top. The wooden spoon they'd used for their casserole at dinner doubled as a dye-stirrer. Interestingly, Courtney was actually one of the judges in Sarajevo who gave Torvill and Dean those perfect 6.0's and continued to do costume design for their tours.

In 1985, Courtney began a ten year stint as President of the National Skating Association and then, in 1990, the National Ice Skating Association. Under his presidency, Great Britain hosted the European Championships in 1989 and cheered Torvill and Dean made their 1994 comeback. In the final year of Courtney's term as the President of the National Ice Skating Association, the 1995 World Championships were hosted in Birmingham. It was the first time Britain had hosted the World Championships since 1950. BIS historian Elaine Hooper recalled, "Courtney actually organized the whole event. I worked in his office at those championships."

Courtney served on the ISU Council and Ice Dancing Technical Committee for many years, well into the late 2000's. In 1991, he was awarded the prestigious Georg Häsler Medal for his contributions to international skating. Famously in 2000, he was the referee of the ice dance panel, when Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas of Lithuania protested the final result. He was later blasted by American judge Jon Jackson, who claimed that he dropped the petition into the garbage. In recent years, Courtney has staunchly defended the importance of the compulsory dances and taken on an active role in Gibraltar's bid for ISU membership. Inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1986, Courtney'has without a doubt left the wonderful world of figure skating better than he found it.

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