Why you should care
Perfection comes in many guises but only once donned purple silk chiffon.
If you were making a movie about one of the greatest moments in British sporting history, chances are you would not set it in the city where World War I started, score it to a French composer’s greatest orchestral piece or cast a former police constable and insurance clerk as your leads. Nor would the words “pairs ice dancing,” “Valentine’s Day” or “purple silk chiffon” likely be found in the script.
For five years, the pair skated on weekends and evenings — often staying as late as 3 in the morning.
Strange as it sounds, that’s precisely what happened on February 14, 1984, at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Anyone who saw British ice legends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skate to Ravel’s Bolero that night has probably never felt the same about ice dancing, French orchestral music or maybe even Valentine’s Day. And if you’re gearing up for this year’s Olympic ice dancing competition on Sunday and Monday in Sochi, there’s no better starting point than to revisit Sarajevo and Torvill and Dean’s near flawless performance.
But a perfect score at the Olympics begins long before the first judge hangs out the first 10 (or 6 as skaters were scored at the time). It begins at 11. Or more precisely, at 11 p.m. — after everyone else’s day has ended. That’s when the local ice rink in Nottingham, England, closed to the public and practice began for teenagers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
The pair started skating together in 1975 after Torvill, 17, and Dean, 16, had both been dumped by their skating partners. They each came from working class backgrounds: Jayne was the daughter of news agents, and Christopher, a coal miner’s son whose mother had abandoned him when he was 6. But their work ethic would put the pair in a class of their own on the ice.
For five years the pair skated on weekends and evenings — often staying as late as 3 in the morning and Dean learning to use an ice tractor to resurface the ice before the rink re-opened to the public. Even skating part time while Torvill worked as an insurance clerk and Dean trained to be a police constable, the duo became British champions in 1978 and finished fifth at the 1980 Winter Olympics while skating against full-time skaters from the Soviet Union and other ice-dominant nations.
That’s when Torvill and Dean wrote a letter to the Nottingham City Council requesting help, and they were awarded a four-year grant allowing the skaters to devote themselves full time to preparing for the 1984 Olympics. From 1981 on, the pair was almost unbeatable: Dean’s perfectionism and aesthetic sense, combined with Torvill’s technical mastery and athleticism quickly turned the painfully shy blonde duo into audience favorites.
Ice dancing, which did not become an Olympic event until 1976, had long been considered figure skating’s somewhat frivolous step-sister. Enter Torvill and Dean, who transformed it into a sport resembling exhibition ballroom dancing on ice — culminating with their Olympic free program performance on Valentine’s Day in Sarajevo’s Zetra ice rink (which would be destroyed in the Bosnian war a decade later).
One-third of the British public — over 24 million people — tuned in for the event, and what they got was not just a gold medal performance but a breathtaking tour de force that continues to define the sport today.
Wearing costumes consisting of what the BBC called “iconic dip-dyed purple pleated chiffon,” the pair began their routine kneeling in the center of the ice. Despite having chiseled Ravel’s Bolero down to four minutes from its original 16, the music was still slightly too long, and they had to hold the blades of their skates above the ice for the first 18 seconds of the routine to avoid disqualification.
But from those first 18 seconds until the final swirling climax in which Torvill and Dean collapsed upon the ice, the enraptured arena was treated to a flawlessly executed and meticulously choreographed performance that was ballet, ballroom dancing and figure skating all rolled into one. Even those of us with untrained eyes watching at home knew we were witnessing something astonishing. But when the Olympic judges awarded the performance a record-setting 12 full 6.0 marks, including 6s across the board for artistic impression, it was official. They’d attained Olympic perfection.
This year Torvill and Dean will … return to the Bosnian capital to perform their famous routine.
Torvill and Dean were welcomed like royalty when they returned home to England. In Nottingham, they were more popular than Robin Hood. And, of course, what their legions of fans most wanted to know was whether the legendary couple had been — or would ever be — a couple off the ice as well.
They recently admitted to CNN’s Piers Morgan that they “may have dabbled slightly” in something more than platonic jumps and arabesques, but it didn’t go far. “We decided early on that if we had slept together we couldn’t have skated together,” Torvill, now 56, observed. “If you’re dating your skating partner and the relationship breaks down, you won’t have your skating partner either.”
Their partnership was of a different mettle than most romantic relationships anyway. Dean estimates that in their four decades of skating together — including their hit television show Dancing on Ice — the pair has skated 250,000 miles together, or 10 times around the world. And that endows a relationship with a romance all its own: Dean gave Torvill an orchid on the morning of their Bolero performance, and every year since they have wished each other “Happy Bolero Day” on February 14.
This year Torvill and Dean will celebrate Bolero Day by returning to the Bosnian capital to perform their famous routine one more time to raise money for a new ice rink in the city. And while Bolero Day may not conjure images of chocolates and roses, it is nonetheless a grand celebration of enduring partnership — the sort that comes from mutual sacrifice and respect, from skating around the world in each other’s arms toward a shared dream, night after night, long after everyone else has left the building.