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Just The Perfect Couple

Nov. 07, 1983
Nov. 07, 1983

Table of Contents
Nov. 7, 1983

Pro Basketball
Pro Football
TV/Radio
Roberto Duran
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Just The Perfect Couple

Ice dancers Torvill and Dean are nonpareil—on top of the Worlds and all but assured of Olympic gold

They're the best thing to come out of Nottingham since D.H. Lawrence and Raleigh bicycles.
—THE LONDON MAIL ON SUNDAY

This is an article from the Nov. 7, 1983 issue Original Layout

This is the story of two ice dancers from Nottingham. They're so smooth, so elegant, that together they've picked up their sport, shaken it vigorously and changed it all around. One skater is named Jayne Torvill, the other, Christopher Dean. He's an ex-rookie cop, and she's a former insurance clerk; he has dimples, she hasn't. They started out with different partners, but when they teamed up in 1975, something magic happened. Magic.

It's still happening. The most vivid proof of that came last March 12 in the ice-dancing competition at the 1983 world figure skating championships in Helsinki. At the conclusion of Torvill and Dean's free-dance program, the scoreboard first flashed a row of nine 5.9 scores—out of a possible 6.0—for technical merit; then it lit up with a display of nine 6.0s for artistic impression, something that had never before occurred in any form of figure skating. Those scores, of course, gave them the 1983 world title, their third in a row.

Since then, Torvill and Dean have continued to grow and build, deliberately weaving mystery around everything they do, opening a gap on the rest of the ice-dancing field that assuredly won't close before they turn pro early next year. If there was ever a gut-sure bet, it's that Torvill and Dean will win the gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in February, and then knock off still another championship at the world meet in Ottawa a month later. After that, they will step aside. They won't just join an ice show. Not these two. Torvill and Dean are an ice show.

"Well," says Dean, "all sports lay down certain rules, and we have a lot of them in ours. In the free program—which counts for 50% of the score—we've got to wrap it all up in four minutes. Not much time. So there's only one thing to do: We turn on the music and try to lead the audience into fantasy."

"The idea," says Torvill, "is to take an ordinary sports event and bring to it a sense of occasion."

Torvill and Dean are saying this between rounds six weeks ago at a London meet called Ice International. T & D, as they are affectionately called by the British press, have just finished an ice-dancing exhibition and, as usual, have brought down the house. Bouquets of flowers have come raining down onto the rink in graceful arcs. Also as usual, the crowd seems overwrought at what it has just seen. Cool British reserve is nowhere in evidence this evening.

T & D have just presented the musical Barnum condensed into four minutes, complete with miming of clowns, tightrope walkers, tumblers and jugglers. T & D did it all so expertly that one half-expected to see bright balls and tenpins spinning in the air. Every move, even the deeply carved turns that slanted them perilously close to the ice, came off in such unison that there was no sense' of the athleticism involved. A roll-her-over-his-head move, if one looked closely, brought all the muscles across Dean's back into play; they trembled with the effort as he otherwise made the move look fluid and easy.

T & D created an illusion, as promised, but it was more than that. That something more was evident again when Torvill and Dean flowed through a soft and slow dance as the raspy voice of Robert Preston sang I Won't Send Roses from the musical Mack and Mabel. The members of the audience were perfectly still; they were identifying. It seemed that every woman in the crowd was out there skating with this handsome young hunk, and every man was lifting Torvill as easily and caressing her as sensuously as Dean was. No matter how fat or dowdy they were, or how much their feet hurt, for this brief moment they were transported away from the drab business of their lives. And that's the magic. As Dean had said earlier, "People relate to what we do because we make it look so easy and fluid. They get the feeling, 'Ahh, God, I can do that,' or they feel, 'That's really me out there.' "

As T & D's coach, Betty Callaway, puts it, "This is a couple performing, not a pair. They're interpreting a piece of music, and you don't see the incredible stamina involved. It's not like watching Scott Hamilton or Elaine Zayak doing their triples and spins, or Randy Gardner twirling Tai Babilonia high overhead. The fans understand that they can't do any of that, and so, while they appreciate the work involved in single and pairs skating, they don't truly relate to it. Pairs skaters are totally athletic and don't skate with each other as ice dancers do."

In Torvill & Dean, a just-published biography by veteran Sportswriter John Hennessy, a former world champion, Bernard Ford, says, "Watching them skate, the way they caress the ice, it's like watching God skate."

The day after their Ice International triumph, Torvill and Dean are hiding out at the little-known Forum Hotel in southwest London, resting up for that evening's performance at another rink. Outside the skaters' quarters, it seems that everybody in town wants to take a little bite of them: Figure skating, society and show business reporters clamor for interviews; they send in notes, they call constantly, and they lurk around the lobby. Messages are stacking up from the BBC, whose TV camera crews are at the ready. Says Hennessy, "It's because we're such a small island and don't have many world champions that we tend to go a bit bonkers over them."

What's making Britons especially screwy at this point is that everybody wants to find out about the new T & D free-dance routine. It will be unveiled, with great fanfare, at the British championships on Nov. 18. Until then, it's strictly secret, of course. In 1982, before introducing Barnum On Ice at the British championships, Torvill and Dean had practiced in total secrecy in Oberstdorf, West Germany, and when they presented it, the rest of the sport was caught with its spangles down.

In their hotel hideaway, T & D lean back and grin widely over their cups of cappuccino, the strongest thing they drink in training. Dean confides, "This secrecy thing about our skating can get a bit paranoid, but we're now caught up in it." Says Torvill, "It builds up and up until our appearance in a world competition seems to be more like a premiere. But this isn't done to psych our opponents—because we don't really care what they do."

What an odd sport, in which the tough stuff is deliberately hidden away so that all the audience sees is a smooth flow of movement and line. Callaway stands at rinkside in September; a former ice dancer, she has coached T & D for five years. "First, you've got to have enormous strength and stamina," she says, "and then one adds talent. After that, only by constant repetition year after year can you finally get it right. Some skaters never do; they wave their arms about prettily and smile gaily, but it takes more than that." On the ice, the 26-year-old Torvill, 5'½", 100 pounds, and the 25-year-old Dean, 5'10", 155 pounds and seemingly too skinny to pick up even Torvill—until one checks out his forearms and biceps—are wafting along with what pass for serene smiles locked into place. But one can see the shine of perspiration forming on their faces and the veins standing out like cables along each side of Dean's neck each time he lifts her. Earlier, Dean had pointed out that pairs skaters purposely plot a lot of easy moves between their difficult lifts and throws so that they can catch their breath, but ice dancers don't have such luxuries. In fact, says Callaway, "This discipline is so hard that they must learn to do their program by instinct."

The restrictions on ice dancing also make it a lot meaner than it looks: For years, certain members of the International Olympic Committee opposed accepting dance as an Olympic sport because, they huffed, it was art and not sport. But the International Skating Union kept the pressure on until finally ice dancing was allowed in as an exhibition event at the 1968 Winter Games. In 1976 it became an official event, though subject to several tight rules. Competition begins with the compulsory section, which constitutes 30% of the total score. Each season, six dances are available for use during the compulsories; one group of three is drawn from the hat, and the skaters then show off their mastery of such varied stuff as the Viennese waltz, the Yankee polka and the Argentine Tango. The OSP (Original Set Pattern) that follows is a bit more lively—a team's two-minute rendition of a predetermined dance form that counts for 20% of the score. At Sarajevo next year, it'll be a thing called the paso doble. Even in the free-dance routine that tops off the competition, there are strict rules. While skating their way through at least three changes in dance rhythm, the performers must never be apart on the ice for more than five seconds or two arm's lengths; they can't perform more than half-revolution jumps; and there can't be any lifts in which the man's arms are higher than his shoulders. No somersaults are allowed, and, finally, the skaters must interpret the music they're dancing to, whatever that means. It's that last part that Torvill and Dean spotted as a loophole big enough to drive an entire career through.

"We're not breaking the rules with the way we skate," says Dean, looking innocent. "We're pushing them; we stretch them." In Barnum On Ice, they fill the rink with circusy whoop-de-dos. "There is a sort of somersault in Barnum" Torvill says. "And there's an over-the-shoulder lift, which one might say technically isn't allowed. But Chris is bending down when he does it, so it's not quite over the shoulder then, is it? And the rules say no acrobatics—but, after all, we're doing a circus number, and the rules also say that we must interpret the music. And so it has all been accepted."

It sure has: The T & D innovations have now swept through the sport like a storm, and most other ice dancers are attempting the same stuff. The best of them is the U.S. team of Judy Blumberg and Michael Seibert (see box page 43), who are currently ranked third in the world.

"We don't deliberately use our championship status to evade the rules," Dean says. Then he shrugs just a bit. "But so far, we haven't been told no."

For T & D, getting to this lofty state has been anything but glamorous; the grind has shut out everything else in their lives. This obsessiveness comes from Torvill and Dean's instinctive grasp that skating is their only way out of obscurity: Both come from modest circumstances. Dean is the son of an electrician; Torvill's folks operate a small newsstand-magazine shop and live in the flat above it. She began skating at 10. Dean got out on the ice after receiving a pair of skates for Christmas when he was also 10 years old. One of his early accomplishments was crashing into a rink barrier and breaking a leg. And their teaming up in 75 wasn't accompanied by a roll of drums and a bolt of lightning through the ceiling, as their fans now seem ready to believe; T & D, both of whom had been moderate successes to that point, were both simply at loose ends, and it seemed like a decent idea at the time. "We just felt right," Dean says now.

When they started skating together, Torvill was already bored with her clerk's job, and Dean was a rookie on the Nottingham force. For a time, T & D tried to combine both worlds—working out while their occupational colleagues slept. At one point they had regular training sessions from 4 to 6 a.m. After the workout, Torvill would dash home to get ready for work, and Dean would jump on the Zamboni to refinish the ice for the day's skaters. By 1978, they had won the British title, which they've held ever since, and were clearly on the move.

For T & D, their biggest break came in the summer of 1980 when they finally decided to give up everything else and make a run for No. 1 in the world: Skate Or bust. They figured out the barest budget that it would take to get them to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and in a surprise move that was bitterly opposed by the Conservative Party minority, the Nottingham City Council awarded them a grant for training expenses: £14,000 (about $21,000) a year to carry them to Sarajevo. It proved to be a helluva hunch bet. That year, T & D finished fourth in the world meet and fifth at the Lake Placid Olympics. In 1981 they won the European crown and their first world championship, a title dominated by the Soviets for the previous 12 years. T & D were No. 1 in the world again in 1982. With each victory came startling new records in scoring, row upon row of 5.9s and steadily growing strings of 6.0s, all of which would climax with that record string in Helsinki.

Other honors piled up as well: In both 1981 and '82 Torvill and Dean were voted Team of the Year by the British Sports Writers Association; T & D were received at No. 10 Downing St. in November 1979; two years later, they made the Queen's Honours list and trooped off to Buckingham Palace to receive MBEs.

Not that any of this turned their pretty heads. At Prime Minister Thatcher's reception, Torvill had to go to the bathroom, and she later told Hennessy that the loo "was nice, really nice. Lots of gold taps and things, gold door handles. Think of the people who must have used it!" After being received and decorated by the Queen, Torvill bubbled on and on about Buckingham Palace: "There was a man in funny dress, an usher I suppose, and there were some gawkers."

Said Dean, "Gurkhas, I think you mean."

Now, back at the Forum Hotel, T & D relax over their cappuccino. Their relationship, they insist, is difficult to explain. It might have been a sort of love once, some years ago, but it isn't now—it's an inexplicable closeness. And any romantic impulses either may feel for anyone else are firmly put aside until after the Olympics. They are closer than best friends; they're more than brother and sister, Torvill says, and less than husband and wife. It's a response they've both made several times, and they're clearly weary of it, but the press keeps boring in on them, unable to accept that two people who skate in such stunning unison aren't lovers. But then Dean points out the matter-of-fact, crushing lack of romance in their skating.

"This is constant, unglamorous work," he says. "Coming up to today, for example, we haven't taken one day off in 2½ months." Says Torvill, "Everything we've done is a progression to this goal. We've become a bit blinkered to any other life. And now, at last, we're here. But we're not surprised about it."

And they put down their cups, in perfect unison, and talk on, in nicely cadenced sentences, drawing pictures in the air with their hands while they explain things.

Dean: "You must lash yourself to the point where, if you're having a bad night, nobody will ever know."

Torvill: "Right. And the biggest secret of our success is this: We put the crowd at ease. When you get out there, the crowd should never be nervous for you."

Dean: "And if one of us makes a mistake during the routine, the other will automatically repeat it so that it appears to have been planned."

Torvill: "A lot of people don't understand about fitting all this to music. But we look upon a piece of music as a picture; we see it and not hear it."

And in unison, ever smoothly, they rise and get ready to face the crowds of people waiting for them. They're both obviously tuned to a fine edge; nothing will be permitted to upset that until after Sarajevo. "Maybe what we do is entertainment," Dean says at the door. "But it's within sport," says Torvill.

PHOTOT & D enjoy some R & R near their West German hideaway.TWO PHOTOSA string of 6.0s lit up the Helsinki scoreboard after T & D's "Barnum" program.THREE PHOTOSIn a recent exhibition at Nottingham, Torvill and Dean wowed the homefolks with one of their exuberant routines.PHOTOThe scenery outside the Oberstdorf rink can't lure Callaway & Co. from the serious work at hand.