#Unearthed: Progress In Ice Dancing?

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. This month's 'buried treasure' is an essay by Erik van der Weyden who (with his wife Eva Keats) invented the Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz and Westminster Waltz. His essay appeared in the January 1958 issue of "Skating World" magazine and discusses progress in ice dance at that point in history.


In the last twenty years, how far have we progressed in dancing on ice? For that matter, has dancing progressed or deteriorated? Those and similar questions have occupied my mind while considering what the ultimate goal really is, and what developments we may expect in the next decade. Will dancing become a purely technical achievement - figure skating to music, with accurate superimposed patterns, with a veto on all the subtle little variations, so that all dancers look alike - or will the pendulum swing back towards art, with less emphasis on pattern and the stilting effect it brings in its train?

Each younger generation tends to feel that it enjoys a new peak of achievement, and views the efforts of its elders with a degree of pity and even of condescension, whereas the older generation looks back nostalgically, and wishes that it could once again see dancing as an art and enjoyable pastime, rather than a grim business requiring such wooden determination, as exemplified by many whose dancing is governed by the yard-stick. Several times in recent years, when a test candidate has failed for manner of performance and has asked for the reason, he has been completely bewildered and not a little indignant when told that while time-keeping, correctness of steps and pattern were all in order, never-the-less the execution was below standard. Is it not likely that this very perfection of technique makes people look like automatons moving along a rail, completely artless and sexless?

The point at issue is, 'Is dancing an art or a science, and can the two be blended more happily?' My own feeling is that science is but a necessary adjunct to the art, with the accent on art. I think we may legitimately compare the ease of a painter (and I mean a real painter, rather than one of the modern extremists who specialize in puzzles rather than pictures) whose art cannot be complete without a sound knowledge of perspective, light and shade, and colour values, but in whom these purely technical achievements are of no avail unless directed by something stemming from the soul - it is this combination of inspiration and technique which enables the great artist to display a subject to the public, through his trained eyes, bringing out the points which need emphasizing, and softening others so as not to detract from the main theme.

We encounter a similar situation in photography - the inspired use of lighting, angle, pose and background can all make the difference between two treatments of the same subject - the one alive, and the other dead.

Of course, these two examples are of purely static arts, but in the case of skating (dancing and figures) it is permissible to make a direct comparison. Surely we may allow individual interpretations of such points as flow, suppleness, carriage, continuity of movement, and body-line, etc., without detracting from the basic correctness of performance - always remembering that in view of the numerous re-shuffles of steps, edges, timing and free leg positions, the officially approved method of today may be frowned upon in the future.

Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy at the 1955 European Championships

Of course, I do not think all dancers of today are wooden and bad. On the contrary, it is a fact that in the last few years we have seen a few top-notchers whose performance has been so superb that one cannot imagine anything better. Rather have I in mind the masses who comprise the backbone of modern dancing, and whose sole object is passing the next test in the shortest possible time, as opposed to the old school of pre-war dancers who danced for the fun and social enjoyment they got out of it. Of course, in the early 1930s, with practically no sort of standard to work to, we did see some most extraordinary interpretations of dancing - wildly swinging free legs, pump-handle arm movements, bodies swaying in all directions from the hips - but no authority could say who was wrong, and in terms of sheer exhilarated enjoyment, there was no doubt at all. The bolder skaters were at liberty to improvise steps without notice, and in the waltz made frequent use of rockers, mohawks, deliberate deep changes of edge and inside threes, quite impromptu. The general effect was frequently enchanting, while the ladies for their part really had to learn to follow, for they never knew what was coming. Today, let any man try to turn a rocker when approaching the end of the rink, and he will find himself looking for a new partner for the next waltz. Poor dear, it's not in the schedule, so spoils her dancing, in which the placing of every three on a more or less fixed point is pre-ordained.

It was all very jolly, but a change was inevitable, and no doubt what we lost on the swings we gained on the roundabouts when the advent of the third class test for ice dancing the whole atmosphere of the dance intervals began to change.

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