Camel Spins In The Caribbean

Piña coladas on sunny beaches, five star all-inclusive resorts, snorkeling, shopping and Scotch bonnet peppers... these are just some of the images conjured to mind when we think about the beautiful Caribbean islands. Owing to the climate, the impoverished conditions that many residents in these tourism hot-spots live and the culture, figure skating just isn't a sport that has flourished in the region. However, some fascinating skating history has played out in these paradises over the years... and we're going to take a look at some of it today.

Advertisement for the show "Ice Follies" in Havana, Cuba. Photo courtesy Daisy Mae.

Though little is known about the affair, the first ice show believed to have been performed in the Caribbean was in the early twenties, when German skater Charlotte Oelschlägel brought her ice ballet to Havana, Cuba after giving a performance in a bullring in Mexico City in 1922. In 1940, a cast of thirty skaters from the All American Ice Revue headed to the city to perform in a show called the "Ice Follies", which had no affiliation to the famous touring production of the same name. They stayed at the Montserrat Hotel and performed their show three times a day on tank ice at the Teatro Nacional.

Performers from the All American Ice Revue in Havana in 1940. Photo courtesy Daisy Mae

Holiday On Ice first brought their touring production to Havana in 1947. The following year, "Hielo y Estrellas" (or "Stars And Ice"), a touring production starring Elizabeth and Fritz Chandler that had taken South America by storm, brought their portable ice rink to Curaçao, Havana and Aruba. The tour, run by Samuel Bakerman and Jose Borges Villegas, had a portable ice rink and tent that seated three thousand. In 1950, Bob Turk brought his Los Angeles production "Rhapsody On Ice" to the Teatro Blanquita. During an era when segregation was very much a reality in America, Turk included Mabel Fairbanks, a woman of colour, in the cast. The show's star was Belita Jepson-Turner. On the show's opening night, Belita's husband Joel, singing a dramatic song about temptation, was to shoot a blank from a pistol at his wife as part of the act. Things went terribly wrong when the wadding in the pistol was so heavy it knocked Belita down. The shot broke her skin and gave her two serious powder burns but incredibly she finished the show, patched up with cotton gauze. The show had a two week run and afterwards, two of the skaters in her show (Art Franklin and Patricia Wallace) remained in Havana for a couple of months to teach the Cubans skating, using the tank ice set-up from the production.

In the fifties, cabaret choreographer Roderico Neyra installed an ice rink at Havana's Arcos de Cristal for one of its productions. In a 2011 interview for "Vanity Fair" magazine, Rosa Lowinger recalled, "Everything in the shows was over the top. The choreographer, Roderico Neyra, who was known as Rodney, was crazy, and they let him get away with whatever he wanted because he was brilliant and he drew in such huge crowds. For one show, he filled Arcos de Cristal with ice and created an ice-skating rink. For another, 'Goddesses of the Flesh,' the dancer Clarita Castillo was in a giant goblet bathing in champagne. He'd bring lions and elephants onstage, and one time the showgirls came in on a zeppelin. The club first said no to the zeppelin, but Rodney threw a hissy fit and stormed out, so of course they begged him to come back. Rodney got his zeppelin. Rodney had contracted leprosy early in life, and by the time he arrived at Tropicana, he’d turned into a crotchety, foulmouthed, funny-as-hell guy who’d call his dancers guajiras, putas, all manner of insults, as a form of endearment. The showgirls understood and they loved him. This was a man who in his early days had to be rescued time and again after being carted off by the police to the local leprosarium."

Jamaica was the birthplace of British skating 'dandy' Anthony Morris Storer and French Champion and ice hockey pioneer Louis Magnus. It was also the place where two time World Champion Megan Taylor passed away on July 23, 1993.

Haiti got its introduction to figure skating in 1967. That year, "Skating" magazine reported, "Donkeys ambling sleepily along the road in Kenscoff, Haiti, raise sagging eyebrows at a modern Swedish-style building, set among the mountains of the sub-tropical Negro republic, which houses a skating rink built in July by Ernst Casseus. Skating has become 'the thing to do' for wealthy Haitians. It costs 55 cents to rent skates - a small fortune in a country where the per capita income is 50 dollars. Unfortunately there are no instructors and Haitians are hardly naturals." A quartet of Canadian skaters - Toller Cranston, Lise Gauthier, Raymonde Corbo and Tom Hayim - performed at the opening of this rink.

Performers in "Broadway On Ice" in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo courtesy The National Library and Information System of Trinidad and Tobago.

Fast forward to April of 2003, when a group of professional skaters headlined the "Broadway On Ice" show in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Trinidad and Tobago. After facing challenges freezing filtered sea water to make the show's portable rink in the Virgin Islands, they brought in a truck of distilled water and found success. The show's headliners were Christian Hendricks, Kova Sharp, Laurie Welch and Robb Ness and juggler Tommy Curtin.

One of Bermuda's first tastes of figure skating was in January of 1991, when a Rotarian named David Sullivan arranged for a portable rink to be set up at White Hill Field in Hog Bay. Sullivan's three day skating 'extravaganza' drew over six thousand curious locals who'd never seen an ice rink before let alone skated on one. The event featured both a public skating session with rental skates and a performance of "Holiday On Ice" starring backflipping U.S. Open Champion Lori Benton.  Though Sullivan admitted that he was "surprised at the agility of Bermudian skaters", the 'extravaganza' barely broke even and had to be delayed due to refrigeration issues. He explained, "Because of the salt in the air and the particularly high humidity... the second layer of ice did not freeze."

Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn performing at St. George's Rink in 2016. Photo courtesy Bermuda National Library.

In November in 2016, an ice rink opened in Somers Garden in St. George's, Bermuda. The partially enclosed, seasonal outdoor rink used synthetic ice and was set up by an event management company called Planning Factory Bermuda. Through sponsorship from the Bank of Butterfield, 2003 U.S. Champions Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn were brought in for the grand opening.

Though no Caribbean countries are currently members of the ISU, figure skating continues to become a worldwide sport, with ice rinks popping up in some of the most unexpected places imaginable. Who knows? The next time you visit a sunny beach in the Dominican Republic, you may want to pack your skates.

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":