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.