Divine Duos Of The British Ice Dance Dynasty

Fashionably late to the game, ice dancing was first officially contested at both the World and European Championships in the early fifties. Although it was an American pair (Lois Waring and Michael McGean) that won the first international ice dance competition held in conjunction with the World Championships in 1950, British couples won every single European and World dance title from 1951 to 1959.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

The very first World and European Champions, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy, were succeeded by Pamela Weight and Paul Thomas in 1956. In the late fifties, Courtney Jones dominated the international dance scene. With partners June Markham and Doreen Denny, Jones won every ISU Championship he entered from 1957 until his retirement in 1961.

June Markham and Courtney Jones. Video courtesy Frazer Ormondroyd.

It is important to recognize that the domination of British dancers during this period extended far beyond this particular string of gold-medal winning couples. Today's Skate Guard blog celebrates the achievements of some of the other British teams who medalled at these early international dance events in the fifties... divine duos whose stories are often overlooked.


Kay Morris and Michael Robinson. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Like 1984 Olympic Gold Medallists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Catherine 'Kay' Morris and Michael Robinson came from Nottingham. Throughout their skating career, they regularly travelled to London to perfect their craft with some of the best instructors in England. Though they worked with Jacques Gerschwiler and Monty Readhead early in their career, their coach at the height of their career was Len Liggett, who then taught at Queen's.

Christiane and Jean-Paul Guhel, Doreen Denny and Courtney Jones and Kay Morris and Michael Robinson on the podium at the 1959 European Championships. Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archives.

Kay and Michael won three consecutive medals at the European Championships in 1957, 1958 and 1959. Their best finish at the World Championships was fourth in 1958. At their first World Championships in 1957, they placed only sixth. Some thought the fact they drew first to skate in the free dance played a role in their result. They finished a disappointing seventh at their last trip to Worlds in 1959. They married in 1960 and both later served on the NSA Council and Ice Dance Committee and as international judges. Michael invented a Variation Foxtrot that was adopted as part of the NSA's Inter-Gold Dance schedule in the sixties. Kay sadly passed away last month. BIS Historian Elaine Hooper penned an outstanding obituary that highlights her important contributions to British skating. You can read it here.


Bunty Radford and Ray Lockwood on the podium at the 1955 World Championships

Raymond 'Ray' Lockwood got his start as a pairs skater. He and Peri Horne placed fifth at the 1953 World Championship, defeating future Olympic Gold Medallists Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt. When Peri turned professional to teach at Queen's, he teamed up with Alex D.C. Gordon's former partner Barbara 'Bunty' Radford to win bronze medals at the 1954 and 1955 European Championships and the 1955 World Championships. 

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Bunty and Ray's partnership ended when Ray turned professional. He and wife Rosina Blackburn won the World and British Open Professional pairs title in 1957 and 1958 and the dance title in 1958. Ray later taught at the Minto Skating Club, University Skating Club, Granite Club and Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. Among his students were Canada's Virginia Thompson and Bill McLachlan, two-time World Medallists, North American and Canadian Champions. Ray sadly passed away on New Year's Eve in 2009.

Ray Lockwood. Photo courtesy "Skate" magazine

Bunty teamed up with Terence Orton after Ray turned pro but finished only fourth at the 1956 British Championships, missing a spot on the European and World teams by a hair. She later designed her own line of skating fashions called 'Bunty Sportswear' and coached at Streatham Ice Rink in London, in Italy with Guiliano Grossi and Alex McGowan and in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Troy, Ohio.


Photo courtesy "Ice Skate" magazine

Like Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy, Joan Dewhirst and John Slater hailed from Manchester. John was actually Jean's partner previous to her teaming up with Lawrence. Joan and John and Jean and Lawrence were close rivals in the early fifties. Jean and Lawrence were more known for their precision, speed and strong technique, whereas the Joan and John had "freer movement" and flashier skating. T.D. Richardson recalled, "In their free skating they skated, instead of kicking their legs in the air, waving their arms and tails about, swaying like straws in the breeze with both feet firmly planted." Joan and John finished second to Jean and Lawrence in the dance events held in conjunction with the World Championships in 1951, 1952 and 1953 but defeated Jean and Lawrence at the British Championships in both 1952 and 1953. Interestingly, some of the same judges who voted for Joan and John to win their British dance titles over the World Champion gave them lower marks when they competed internationally.

Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive

Joan and John got married and turned professional in 1954, toured for a time in North America with the Ice Cycles and were perennial winners at the World's and British Open Professional Championships in the late fifties and early sixties. 

Left: Joan (Dewhirst) Slater. Right: John and Nicky Slater

Joan and John both went on to impressive coaching careers, working everywhere from the Molitor Rink in Paris to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to the Liverpool, Manchester and Altricham rinks in England. Together, they invented the Jamaican Rhumba and in 1964 made history as one of the first professional couples to demonstrate compulsory dances at the World Championships. Joan's students over the years included Susan Getty and Roy Bradshaw, Isabella Micheli and Roberto Pelizzola, Sharon Jones and Paul Askham and of course, her son Nicky Slater and his partner Karen Barber. John passed away in 1989; Joan in 2020.


Courtney Jones and June Markham, Paul Thomas and Pamela Weight and Barbara Thompson and Gerry Rigby in 1956. Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Courtney Jones Collection.

Gerrard 'Gerry' Joseph Rigby was born March 23, 1932. He grew up on City Road in the market-town of St. Helens in southwest Lancashire. He learned to skate at the Ice Palace rink on Prescott Road, next to the Casino Cinema in Liverpool and soon teamed up with Barbara Thompson of Oldham. The unlikely duo of small-town skaters were taught by Fred Borrodaile, a mechanic who gave up his job at a garage to coach them.

In 1955, Barbara and Gerry won the very first British junior dance title ever contested, having tried out their free dance during a hockey game interval in Liverpool. That autumn, they finished third in their very first go at the senior title and earned spots on the European and World teams. Though they had absolutely zero international experience, Barbara and Gerry surprised many by claiming the bronze medals at both the 1956 European and World Championships.

Kay Morris and Michael Robinson, June Markham and Courtney Jones and Barbara Thompson and Gerard Rigby, 1958 British dance medallists. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

The following season, Barbara and Gerry claimed the Northern and Midland Counties dance titles and moved up to second at the British and European Championships. At the World Championships in in Colorado Springs, nerves affected their compulsories. The Canadian judge gave them a 3.8 on the Foxtrot and had them tenth of the eleven couples and they had to come from behind to finish fifth. In 1957, Barbara and Gerry dropped to third at the British and European Championships and remained fifth at Worlds. In their final competition together, the British Championships in November of 1958, they finished second ahead of Catherine Morris and Michael Robinson, the team that had bumped them out of the second slot the year before. Two judges even had them first over World Champion Courtney Jones and his new partner Doreen Denny.

Joyce Coates, Anthony Holles, Gerry Rigby and Barbara Thompson taking a tea break from practice in Liverpool in 1958

Though named to the 1959 European and World teams, Barbara and Gerry's partnership ended abruptly when she announced her engagement and plans to move to America to be with her future husband. After a time overseas, she later returned to England, partnered up with Alan Hickman in Nottingham for a time and took up judging.

Gerry taught dance in Southampton and at Birmingham's Silver Blades ice rink. Among his students were European Champions and World Medallists Linda Shearman and Michael Phillips. In 1961, Gerry was involved in a serious car accident, where firefighters had to release him when he became trapped in his vehicle. He recovered, returned to coaching and skated with Gillian Thorpe in the televised program "Hot Ice And Cool Music" and the British and World Professional Championships.

While Barbara enjoyed married life, Gerry's fate wasn't so happy. He was found dead in his Solihull flat on May 23, 1971 at the age of thirty-nine. An inquest determined that Gerry had committed suicide. The cause of death was ruled to be a barbiturate overdose. He had lost his job as a skating instructor "because of nervous tension" and checked himself into the Birmingham Nerve Hospital. His friend Jane Martin claimed that when he was discharged, the "Inland Revenue descended on him, saying that he owed nearly three thousand pounds." Gerry had been facing bankruptcy proceedings as a result.


Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Bob Hudson hailed from the Old Swan area of Liverpool; Sybil Cooke from the nearby town of Warrington. They trained in both pairs and dance in the afternoons and evenings with Len Liggett, later working with Miss Gladys Hogg in London. They were a very popular couple at the time, known for their rhythm and "fast, energetic style", regulars in the Northern Ice Dance League's contests and winners of the Manchester Skating Club's prestigious Ice Dance Trophy, Liverpool's Pairs and Dance Competitions and Birmingham's Laughton Trophy for pairs.

After winning the 1949 British dance title, Sybil and Bob became the first team in history to win both the British pairs and dance crowns in the same year in 1950. At that year's World Championships, they competed in both disciplines as well, placing a dismal eleventh out of twelve couples in pairs but second in dance. Esteemed British judge Reginald Wilkie had them in first. Though they were the first British couple in history to medal in an ice dance event held at the World Championships, their achievement has historically been overlooked because the ISU didn't officially deem the dance event an 'official' World Championships until 1952.

Sybil Cooke and Bob Hudson (center) as winners of the 1949 British Ice Dance Championships. Second (left) were Julie and Bill Barrett and third (right) were Bunty Radford and Alex D.C. Gordon. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Sybil married William Hartley after the 1950 World Championships and her partnership with Bob came to an end. Skating with sisters Vivien and Jean Higson, he won another two British pairs titles and place fourth at the 1953 European Championships. 

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

In 1954, Jean married Forest Morton, a farmer from Lanarkshire and took up coaching for a time. At the time, Bob remarked, "At twenty-six, I am an old man for championship skating. Jean and I were the oldest pair at the championships last year - the rest were teenagers. Children have more time to practise." Rather than hang up his skates, he reunited with Sybil the following year for a final, unsuccessful kick at the British dance crown. After retiring, Bob was active for many years as a high-level dance judge. He judged at the 1969 World Championships in Colorado Springs, when Diane Towler and Bernard Ford won their final World title.

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