When considering the greatest and most famous British Olympic performances of all time, Torvill and Dean’s figure skating performance to Boléro makes every list. The famous couple competed at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo and, rather appropriately, danced the extremely poetic and romantic routine on Valentine’s Day.
They had a nail-biting wait as they were scheduled to perform last in their category. The pair had been making waves at figure skating competitions for some years. They had placed 5th at the previous Olympics, but since then had taken 1st place at the British, European and World Championships every year since. Expectations were high.
A record-breaking audience of 24 million tuned in in the UK to see their pair compete. All eyes in Sarajevo and around the world were glued to Torvill and Dean as they took their opening poses on the ice. Maurice Ravel’s Boléro starts with a compelling drum beat. While writing the music, Ravel is believed to have said to a friend:
“Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” This increasing intensity helped make Torvill and Dean’s performance so magical.
The routine was simply stunning and performed seemingly effortlessly. In fact, the most difficult part was cutting Boléro down to fit the length of the performance. The quickest performance recorded still took 14.5 minutes, well in excess of the 4 minutes allowed in the rules. Consultations with a music arranger determined that the bare minimum it could be cut to was 4 minutes twenty-eight. So what were the pair to do? They had set their hearts on this music.
They did what anyone determined to get their way does; they looked for a loophole! Eventually, they learned that their time did not start when the music started; it began when their skates touched the ice. Hence the pair began their routine on their knees, trading the cold for the time they needed to put on the performance of their lives.
Torvill and Dawn had choreographed one of the most romantic, beautiful and technically perfect performances the world had ever seen. It is still talked about and emulated to this day. They became the highest-scoring figure skaters in history with twelve scores of 6.0 (the highest possible), and six 5.9s. Of course, they won the gold! Almost anyone in Britain who was alive at the time can remember watching live.
Unfortunately, the brilliance of this routine isn’t something that can ever be repeated. In 1984 there were no rules requiring the inclusion of specific jumps, spins or other elements. They had freedom to create the routine exactly as they wanted to. Sadly, this is no longer the case. While fixed elements increase the difficulty and allow for uniform judging, it can also hinder creativity and expression. Let’s all be grateful that we have this glorious performance to look back on. Why not watch it again now?