With her partner Norris Bowden, Frances Dafoe was a four-time Canadian Champion in Pairs, one-time Champion in Ice Dance, twice World Champion, and the 1956 Olympic Silver Medalist. She discusses their controversial silver medal, how they changed the rules of pair skating, why Strawberry Ice was her favorite project for costume design, and her new book “Figure Skating and the Arts.” 52 minutes, 29 seconds.
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Read my review of her book “Figure Skating and the Arts” There is also information on how and where to order the book online at the end of the review.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: I don’t think I ever had a really embarrassing moment. My zipper broke once, at the Canadian championships, and they had to sew me into the dress, but I never really thought of that as anything embarrassing. It just happened [laughs].
On competing outdoors: We were training indoors and suddenly we were skating outdoors, battling all the elements out there. There were many things that we never even thought about. There was one year when we skated and it was about four below zero, in Oslo, Norway. Actually it was the year we won the world championship. But it was so cold, and of course when you’re pair skating you can’t wear gloves or anything, and when you’re in that type of cold weather — what makes your blade move is the friction between the blade and the ice, and that gives you the forward movement. When you’re in that kind of situation, your blade goes squeak, squeak, squeak, and there’s literally no run. And we at that time were skating for five minutes. And when I came in at the end of five minutes I was in mortal agony. My hands were starting to freeze, and as I knew we were coming to the end of the program, I kept thinking, I must concentrate on trying to close my hands even though I can’t feel them. But when I went into the dressing room, I didn’t want the other pairs skaters to see what I was suffering, so I ran right into the ladies room, and right behind was the little Swiss pair skater. And she said, Frannie, you’ve got to drink this brandy now [laughs]. I’d never had brandy in my life before! But to think that she cared enough to be concerned was really overwhelming to me.
On the start of her partnership with Norris Bowden: Norrie and I started as dancers. We were dating and we thought, oh, this is kind of fun. Norrie was a far superior skater to me and he had won every event open to a man at a Canadian championship. And he said, oh, I’ve never tried dancing, so why don’t we do that. So I said, oh, that’s a good idea. Because all our friends were involved and we thought it would be fun. And then we started to win dance events, and Sheldon Galbraith took a look at us, and he said, you know something? You people could be really good pairs skaters. And I said, oh, but I’m not nearly as good as Norrie. And he said, yes, but you have something else. So the two of you together, I’ll teach you to be up to Norrie, but I’ll teach him some of the ways you sell your skating [laughs]. So that’s how that happened.
On being coached by Sheldon Galbraith: He was not only a coach, he was a trainer. At that time, of course, there wasn’t tape and video, but he used a camera, a movie camera, and he would photograph everything we were doing. And then he’d have them developed, and we’d go back and look at them, and he’d say, now do you see all the mistakes you’re making? And he had been an instructor with the US Air Corps, so he knew how to motivate people. And he also had a great feeling of music, and we used music a lot, and we used interpretation. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. No question. When we went over to Europe with him, they always referred to Sheldon as the master coach. They had a great regard for the man.
On creating new pairs moves: Sheldon had a great idea. He looked at [film of] all the skaters who were competing, and he’d run them backwards. And he’d say, oh, there’s an interesting move, we’ll do that from the front [laughs]. And I was interested in the ballet and the modern dance, and studying what they were doing, and learning a lot. And incidentally that’s exactly what Tamara [Moskvina] does today. I’ve sent her a lot of films, and what she does is ask her skaters to do what we did, which is watch film and watch ballet and develop new moves. And so the idea may be an old idea, but it’s still being acted on today.
Our first throw jump — you’d laugh, and I laugh — was a three-jump. And our twist was a loop twist [laughs]. And we did change the face of pairs skating as it was at that time. Throw jumps at that time were illegal, I used to do an axel into Morrie’s arms and they claimed that was illegal, it just went on and on. And it used to be very funny, because when I used to judge, the referee would say, well, here’s the list of rules that our judge created [laughs]. But skating now is just wonderful. If I have a criticism, it’s that we are now looking at two technical programs and we’ve lost the feeling of artistry. But that’s just my opinion.
On winning the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics: It was a dicey thing. They’d drawn the number of judges, and at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, [the Canadian] judge said, okay, we’ve got a fair shot here, there are seven judges and there’s a neutral one in there. We went out on the ice two hours later and suddenly there were nine judges. So you’re not talking judging now, you’re talking manipulation. But I really have to emphasize that it was not the skaters. The Austrian skating federation were very good politickers [laughs].
On judging, and on being suspended by the Canadian Figure Skating Association: Norrie and I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility [after retiring] because in all honesty we were the only people at that time who understood pairs skating. So Norrie and I approached it as honest judges, and even if that means we could get thrown off the panel, we would judge it as we see it. And that’s what we honestly would do. Lots of times you can be considered as being too patriotic, or something of that kind, and that wasn’t something that occurred to either of us.
All I know about [the suspension] — Norrie had written a letter and asked for permission to come and speak at [the CFSA meeting] and they said, absolutely not. So then Norrie sent a letter recommending certain things that could happen, like pair tests and things like that, and they were so furious to think that Norrie had written this letter that they suspended us both. And I knew nothing about the letter at all. I’m not making an excuse, because I would have supported him anyway. And then a couple of years later someone woke up to the fact that I didn’t know, and said, okay, we’ll reinstate you. And I said, well, are you going to reinstate Norrie? And they said, oh, no. And I said, well, then, I’m not being reinstated either because I agree with what he said. So another several years went by [laughs] and they wanted us to sign a letter saying we would abide by the rules, which we had. So the compromise was, I signed a letter saying I would abide by the rules and regulations as I have always done in the past. So that was fine. But that was really splitting hairs.
On her work as a costume designer: It was [Canadian singer] Juliette, who took a look at me and said, I like what you design, I want you to design all my clothes. Well, I was a lowly wardrobe attendant, and you just didn’t do that sort of thing. So I said, Julie, I don’t think they’ll let me. And she said, I’ll fix that. Which she proceeded to do [laugh] and so they had to promote me. And I worked with her for quite a while.
And Alan Lund, a marvelous man. Alan actually came into our lives when Norrie and I were competing, because he showed us how to lift. He and his wife were dancers. [I ended up] doing costumes for his shows for 18 years. I just adored that man.
On designing costumes for Toller Cranston’s 1982 Strawberry Ice TV special: One of my favorites. I understood it very well because Joyce Hisey and I had proposed a ballet on ice about eight years earlier, and the CBC, I guess because I was a lowly costume designer, just didn’t pay any attention to me, even though I had done a detailed storyboard. So when Toller came along with a much more sophisticated idea, then I knew exactly what he wanted. I said to him, Toller, I know exactly what you want, I can do that show. And he looked at me for a few moments and said, yes, I think you can, because you have my sense of color. So I had a wonderful time working with him. We ended up doing four shows together.
On creating her book, Figure Skating and the Arts: I wanted to give back to a sport that had really totally enriched my life and stayed with me in my professional life as well. And when I was traveling as a judge, I’d meet all these wonderful people, and they’d take me into their homes and they’d show me their collections. And I’m looking at all this fantastic artwork, and thinking, I’m the only person seeing this — isn’t that a shame? And this was in the back of my mind. But it was a team effort that did the book, it wasn’t just me. I’m a visual person, but Joyce Hisey is a detail person. She was checking everything I was doing. And then Ben Wright, who is a historian, he was making sure that everything in that book was absolutely perfect. And then John Vollmer, who is a museum curator and also a superb writer, sort of controlled us all to make sure we all worked together. And we did and we had a wonderful time.
And so many people, I’d write to them and say, we’re doing a book, and they’d say, oh, what about this, I’ve got this and I’ll just send it to you and it’s a great photograph and you can use it. I just felt so lucky, and everyone I spoke to was so gracious. And I hope the book will be around for a few years because nothing that I know of has been written about this extent of the [figure skating] history. And I had to learn how to be a photographer because there was no money [laughs].