Rocker 'n' Rollers: The Erik van der Weyden Story

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

"For any dance partnership to be really successful, something more than mere technical ability is required - that is, a real love by both partners of the art for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of pot-hunting and medal-gathering... By all means, go in for medals or competitions if you are able. They are an incentive to greater effort, and set a standard to work for, which adds greatly to the interest, but, for goodness sake, let it be in a sporting and friendly way, and learn to accept defeat when comes - knowing that the experience gained will serve its purpose in the end. Above all, try to keep a sense of humour... May you all continue to enjoy your skating as much as I have." - Erik van der Weyden, "Dancing On Ice", 1950

The son of Florence (Moore) and Harry 'Hal' van der Weyden, Erik van der Weyden was born on April 16, 1897 in Paris, France. His mother was a student from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; his father was born in Boston but raised in England, where Erik's Dutch-born grandfather was a pioneer in the use of electric light in photography. 

Though Erik's father was born in America, he came from a long line of Belgian and Dutch artists, most famously the acclaimed fifteenth century artist Rogier van der Weyden, whose religious triptychs and paintings are exhibited today at The Louvre in Paris, National Gallery in London and Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Erik's father was a renowned artist in his own right who studied at the Académie Julian and Jean-Paul Lauren's private academy in Paris before taking up residence at the hotel d’Acary de la Riviere in Montreuil-sur-Mer. He was the winner of several medals at the Antwerp International Exposition, Le Salon de 1891 and the Atlanta Exhibition. 

The threat of War brought the van der Weyden family to England in 1914. Erik's father set up a photographic studio in London but soon served as a camouflage officer with the Royal Engineers. Erik joined the Royal Air Force himself near the end of The Great War.

Erik had first been exposed to skating at the age of eight while growing up in France, taking to the ice on country ponds wearing Acme clamp-on skates and whirling around the family home on a pair of pin-bearing roller skates. After the War, when the Cricklewood Roller Rink re-opened, he began pursuing roller skating more seriously.  He joined the famous Aldwych Speed Club in 1921 and turned professional the following year to teach at the Holland Park rink. 

It was there Erik met and fell in love with Eva Lilian Keats. Eva and Erik married in Kingston, Surrey in 1923 and formed a skating partnership, winning the newly-organized British Roller Dance title for three successive years. Hearing of plans to open the Westminster Ice Club, they decided to leave the Holland Park Rink and make the switch from teaching roller skating to ice skating. After a year abroad teaching in Antwerp, they began working at the prestigious private club, where Eva made a name for herself. She was the very first instructor of a talented youngster named Cecilia Colledge, taking her through the National Skating Association's bronze test before she went to Jacques Gerschwiler. She also worked with another of Jacques' future students -1936 Olympian Belita Jepson-Turner.

Though Eva and Erik's decision to leave the Holland Park rink proved wise - it closed within a few years of their deaprture - the Westminster Ice Club was only open for about six months a year, so they filled in the rest of the year by acting as temporary staff at other rinks, including Harringay, Golders Green, Streatham and Southampton. Erik was known to his friends and pupils as 'Van' or 'Vandy'.

In the thirties, Eva and Erik appeared in the famous three-act ice spectacle "St. Moritz" at the London Coliseum with Pamela Prior, Erich Erdös, Sidney Charlton and Hermann Scheinschaden. Erik founded the Ice Teachers Guild, a predecessor to British Ice Teachers Association and Imperial Professional Skating Association, with Jacques Gerschwiler, Howard Nicholson and Miss Gladys Hogg. For many years he served on the I.P.S.A. Technical Committee, toiling long and hard to establish "the best methods of teaching to establish a sound and lasting foundation of a skater's technique." However, the most important contributions that Eva and Erik made to skating in the decade prior to the War were in the discipline of ice dance.

In April 1933, an ice dance competition open to both amateurs and professionals was held at the Westminster Ice Rink in London. Eva and Erik took home first prize. Two months later, a competition for professional ice dancers only was held at the Queen's Ice Club in London. Perhaps controversially dancing with a woman other than his wife, Erik took first prize with Elsie Heathcote. At these events and others, Eva and Erik presented a series of dances of their own creation, which went on to become compulsory dances that have been skated around the world, from tiny rural rinks to large stadiums at ISU Championships - the (Keats) Foxtrot, Rocker Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz and Westminster Waltz. The Westminster was originally called the Waltz 48, because it was skated at forty-eight bars per minute. The Rocker Foxtrot and Viennese Waltz were originally created for the stage. British Champion Michael Booker recalled, "The [Westminster Waltz] was choreographed to weave around and between the pillars at the Westminster Club, it not having a clear span roof over the ice... The Rocket Foxtrot was performed such that the rocker at the beginning of the dance was executed on left hand side of the proscenium with the leg thrown high revealing the ladies bloomers, the so-called 'promenade' section in a deep curve to center back stage, and the cut-back, Choctaw, on the right side of the proscenium again with the leg lifted high to reveal the bloomers - those bloomers got plenty of airing!  The Viennese Waltz was performed in a circle round the stage, in the round... How do I know all of this?  I was a pupil of Mr. Van at Queen's Ice Club where he coached me through to the equivalent of the Canadian seventh test, after which I went to Arnold [Gerschwiler].  He could skate English Style figures and he told me so much about those days and the old-time skaters."

Erik was very protective of the compulsory dances he and Eva created. As the steps, holds and character of dances regularly became distorted through rule changes, different instructor's interpretations and bad habits, he wasn't shy about penning articles to the skating magazines of his day to reiterate his original intentions. In "Skating World" magazine in 1950, he wrote, "The 'right way to do it' merchants have been so active that nothing will shake large numbers of skaters from these mistaken beliefs. Among those steps which are frequently the subject of discussion is the step following the man's counter and lady's rocker in the Westminster Waltz. Numerous skaters still insist on crossing behind, whereas this has never been intended... Another bad habit that refuses to die, even among leading dancers, is the incorrect and ugly hold in the Foxtrot. The proper hold was developed at the time the dance was created, and not as an afterthought... At the time when the Foxtrot made its debut (in pre-dance-test-days) partners were holding so far apart in the Waltz, Fourteenstep and Tango (the only dances of that time), each leaning forward so much that one could almost have pushed a dinner wagon between them without necessitating any change in position. It was because of this of absence of style and deportment that my wife and I were prompted to design a dance which could not only be skated closely together, but actually demanded it. The correct hold, as has frequently been pointed out, is with the lady's left hand on the man's right shoulder blade - in much the same position as is his hand on her back. This permits the elbows to be dropped, with the partners skating shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in the simultaneous forward movements, and close at other times... Another argument I have heard more than once during the season has been over whether the man crosses his left foot over the right in the Rocker Foxtrot after the lady's rocker. This point was thoroughly thrashed out soon after the creation of the dance, and the decision of that time has never been altered. A little trouble spent in referring to the NSA schedules of steps, or any of the articles which have appeared in the press during the past dozen years, would easily check all doubts on this matter."

During World War II, Erik worked in an aircraft plant, but made time to help Eva out with giving lessons some evenings during the blackout. After the War, Eva and Erik divided their time between Queen's Ice Rink and the outdoor ice rink in Wengen, Switzerland. 

Photo courtesy "Ice Skating" magazine

By the late forties, poor health forced Eva to retire from coaching but Erik was still going strong at Queen's. He worked alongside the grande dame of British ice dance, Miss Gladys Hogg, and worked with a who's who of British ice dance, including many teams associated with the Southern Counties Ice Dance League, as well as a number of up-and-coming singles skaters. One thing that was often written about him was that he was very unassuming, modest and not one for pretenses. 

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine 

In 1950, Erik published the first edition of his famous book "Dancing On Ice". The compilation of dance test information included became the National Skating Association's handbook supplement "Ice Dances". In 1957 came his second book, "Instructions To Young Skaters", which was translated into French. Both books were extremely popular and widely read by skaters and instructors alike.

Top: A party in the bar of Queen's Ice Club in 1951 celebrating the publication of Erik van der Weyden's book. Left to right: Don Crothswaite, Geoffrey Byatt, Myrtle Leeds, Angela Alsing, Erik van der Weyden, Leslie Ward, Daphne Ward Wallis and Eva Keats and Erik van Weyden's daughter. Bottom: Christmas greetings from Eva Keats and Erik van der Weyden. Photos courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Around the same time his first book came out, Erik passed the newly-created Gold Dance test with fellow professional Joan Hawkins. He was in his fifties at the time, and in doing so he made history. Cyril Beastall remarked, "Try to imagine the hard work which must have led to van der Weyden's achievement in passing no less than six first-class proficiency tests of the National Skating Association of Great Britain. No other skater in history can equal this record. The six 'golds' acquired include four first-class tests passed on ice and two on rollers - namely, International and English Style Ice Figure Skating, Ice Dance, Instructors' (ice), Roller Dance and English Style Roller Figure Skating. Additional to these, he has passed the second class test for both roller figure skating in the International Style and roller speed skating and third class pair skating on ice!"

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

For his contributions to the sport, Erik was bestowed an Honorary Life Membership to the National Skating Association in 1976. He sadly passed away in Kenton, Middlesex on December 3, 1983 at the age of eighty-six. Despite conceiving no less than four compulsory dances, he has yet to be inducted posthumously to the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame for his contributions to ice dancing.

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