Reginald Wilkie, The Father of Modern Ice Dancing

Photo courtesy "Ice & Roller Skate" magazine

"Mr. Wilkie was without a doubt one of the greatest authorities on skating and the title 'Mr. Ice Dancing' was surely his. His vast knowledge was deeply respected, and he gave freely of his time to help beginner and champion alike." - Lawrence Demmy

Born in 1907 in the London borough of Wandsworth, Reginald Joseph Wilkie grew up in Clapham, North Yorkshire. Instead of gravitating to the ice in his youth, he studied the violin and without a doubt, his early musical education helped him once he took up the sport in 1930 at the age of twenty-three at the Hammersmith Ice Drome. While other skaters focused on singles and pairs skating, ice dancing was Reginald's first love. It was at Hammersmith that he met his first ice dance partner, Daphne (Wallis) Ward and invited her to be his partner, saying, "There is quite a lot in this dancing business. I think we could really make something of it if we try."

Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Daphne Ward Collection

Daphne and Reginald's partnership was a success from the start. A feature in "Skating World" magazine in 1951 noted, "In March, 1931, they won he first competition they entered, and went on to win no less than fourteen dance events off the reel in the following season. In 1932, they joined the Ice Club, Westminster and Park Lane Ice Club (Grosvenor House). Their success continued - in 1935 they took up pair skating - and by the time war came they had more than eighty firsts to their credit, including the following challenge cups won outright after three or more consecutive first places - Vivian Cup, Courtauld Trophy, Argenti Cups, Brilliant Cup, Ice Club Dance Cups, also "Skating Times" Cup (twice), Count de la Feld Trophy, Cannan Prize, Lillywhite Cups (four times), Manchester Ice Dance Trophy (four times), Queen's "End Of Season" Cup, Nicholson Rhumba Cups and many others." 

Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Daphne Ward Collection

In November 1934, Reginald and Daphne Wallis were the first to take (and pass) the Association's Third Class Dance Test. Two years later, Reginald and Daphne again made history as the first to take (and pass) the Association's Second Class Dance Test. After both of these tests, Reginald judged the next candidates in line. Reginald also had the unique distinction of judging the first First Class Dance Test in 1939.

After diagramming dances for Skating magazine's book "Ice Dances" in 1936, Reginald and Daphne entered the first British Ice Dance Championships in Richmond in April 1937 and won. They repeated their feat the following two years at Westminster and in addition, held the British pairs silver medal behind Violet and Leslie Cliff those three years as well. BIS historian Elaine Hooper clarified, "This was because there were more pairs competitions than dance and the dancers all skated in pairs as well. I am told they did not skate different programmes for the two."

Facing great opposition from 'the powers that be' at the National Skating Association, Reginald, judge John Blaver a group of ice dancers led a movement aimed at influencing the Association to officially recognize the discipline by introducing a testing system. Reginald and his like-minded friends were successful and went on to form the first National Skating Association Dance Committee in 1933. Reginald served on this very committee in one capacity or another continuously for the rest of his life.

Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Daphne Ward Collection

Reginald and Daphne's most significant contribution to the sport during their competitive career was their invention of three compulsory dances at the British New Dance Competition in 1938 at Westminster. The dances, as we've mentioned before on the blog, were the Argentine Tango, Paso Doble and Quickstep... so if you didn't know before who to thank/blame for those Argentine twizzles, you now have your man. He was the person who came up with the word twizzle in the first place. Anecdotally speaking of one of his creations, Reginald noted that the Paso is "quite an easy dance to do badly".

Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Daphne Ward Collection

Although Reginald and Daphne received many invitations to exhibit their dances in other countries in the late thirties, the onset of World War II kept the duo's skates firmly planted on British ice. The Van den Bergh trophies they won in 1939 would remain in their name for almost a decade, as another British Dance Championship wouldn't be held until the War; they were undefeated until Pauline Barrajo and Albert 'Sonny' Edmonds claimed the title in 1947. During the War, Reginald helped keep the passion for ice dance alive in England and by 1940, all three of Reginald and Daphne's new dances had been added to the finalized structure of the National Skating Association's Gold Dance Test.

Reginald Wilkie and Daphne Wallis in Celerina, Switzerland in 1939

After World War II, Reginald teamed up with Muriel Kay and continued to compete in smaller competitions for a time, until a serious fall that resulted in a skull fracture at the Manchester Skating Club forced him to the sidelines. When the International Skating Union formed an ad hoc committee to standardize the forms of ice dancing being practiced in Europe and North America at its first post-war Congress in Oslo in 1947,  Reginald's attention turned primarily to organizational work. He was appointed to this committee with American Bill O. Hickok IV and Belgian Marcel Nicaise and arranged an ice dance exhibition at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. That same year, he married Elsie Summers in Manchester. The couple had two daughters, Vanessa and Stephanie. With his on-ice partner Muriel Kay, he hosted a week-long International Ice Dance Conference at Wembley where - according to her 1958 book "The Key To Rhythmic Ice Dancing" - American and European skaters convened "to seek international agreement on ice dancing". Off the ice, he worked as a bank manager.

Photo courtesy BIS Archives, Daphne Ward Collection

In May 1949, Reginald, Bill Hickok and Marcel Nicaise gave a presentation with a proposed competitive structure for ice dancing to the delegates at the twenty-third ISU Congress in Paris. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves noted that "their proposal included the standard descriptions and diagrams for the 12 chosen international dances (later increased to 18) and complete rules for conducting international competitions and tests. In a sweeping move, the Congress voted to accept their proposal without amendment and agreed to try out the rules at an international dance competition in London under the direct auspices of the ISU. These three men had drafted such comprehensive rules that ice dancing could at least achieve a separate identity on par with the established branches of competitive skating." T.D. Richardson believed that it was "entirely owing to [Reginald's] study, knowledge, and persistence that ice dancing [came] to be recognized by the International Skating Union." As a result of that meeting, the three men were appointed to the ISU's first official Technical Committee for ice dance, chaired by Marcel Nicaise until 1953, when Reginald took over.

Photo courtesy BIS Archives

That first ISU-organized international competition referred to by Copley-Graves was of course held in conjunction with the 1950 World Championships at Wembley Pool. Reginald's Paso Doble was one of the four compulsory dances skated. Wearing one of his many hats, he served as the British judge and placed silver medallists Sybil Cooke and Robert Hudson of Great Britain first and champions Lois Waring and Michael McGean of America fifth. His decision was a glaring example of national bias, as the other four judges (two from Belgium, one from the United States and one from Czechoslovakia) all had the Americans in first.

Throughout the fifties, Reginald continued his pioneering work with the ISU and National Skating Association, wrote extensively about ice dance technique for the magazine "Skating World", championed further tweaks to the rules of both compulsory dances and the free dance and served as a World and European referee and judge and judged many tests in England, including those of World Champions Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy. He also served as a Vice-President of the Harringay Ice Dance Club, Liverpool Skating Club and Wembley Ice Dance and Figure Club.

Reginald also advocated for skaters who were taking tests practicing more with their test partners and the importance of timing and expression in compulsory dances. Alex D.C. Gordon, who later chaired the National Skating Association's Ice Dance Committee aptly noted, "It is safe to say that every nation, directly or indirectly, has benefited in some way from Mr. Wilkie's great knowledge and experience - a knowledge he was always happy to impart to those in need." Gordon further praised Reginald in a foreword to the 1976 book "Ice Dancing: A Manual For Judges And Skaters" by saying that "the success of ice dance has been fully established and has completely justified the confidence in it by that original group of enthusiasts, perhaps the most leading one of whom was the late R.J. Wilkie, who in conjunction with his colleagues did so much to achieve for the sport the recognition it now receives."

Reginald sadly passed away on August 9, 1962, at the age of fifty-five. Lynn Copley-Graves noted, "On vacation with his wife Elsie and their two daughters in Bournemouth, Reg Wilkie went to London for an NSA Ice Dance Committee meeting. He planned to return to Bournemouth to be with his family, but after the meeting, he suffered a stroke. Reg collapsed on the street and died 11 days later after never fully regaining consciousness. Only 55, Reg had devoted his adult life to developing, standardizing, and improving ice dancing and to achieving international acceptance of this branch of skating." 

Although he never lived to see his dream of ice dancing being included in the Olympic Games, Reginald was posthumously given honorary memberships to the National Skating Association and ISU in 1963 and inducted to the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1976, the same year ice dance was first contested at the Winter Olympics. The dedication he showed to developing ice dancing not only in England but internationally is quite frankly mind-boggling. If you ask me, I think his former partner Daphne (Wallis) Ward said it best in 1962: "If anyone can truly be said to be the father of ice dancing, then I think it is Reg."

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