Torvill and Dean and the Meaning of Life

by Michelle Erica Green

I'm often asked about my love-hate relationship with popular media, particularly with the portrayals of women and the characterization of relationships therein. I'd love to claim that this is purely an intellectual discussion for me, that I have no personal emotional investment in pop-culture constructions of femininity and romance. Sometimes I wish I could be more politically correct about it and enthusiastically join with, say, the feminist Voyager fans who saw a Janeway/Seven relationship where I saw only more media clichés. But I'm afraid my obsession with media romance is slanted toward heterosexual paradigms, and I can posit the moment it started:

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean did not get married on February 14, 1985. You remember them, right, the British ice dancers who skated at the 1984 Winter Olympics to 'Bolero' -- and to a perfect artistic expression score on the way to a gold medal. Probably there were ice skating fans who rhapsodized over their footwork yet never gave a thought to Torvill and Dean's off-ice relationship, and undoubtedly there were many viewers who'd never even paid attention to ice dance before who were simply riveted by the skill and artistry of this pair. Who couldn’t admire their skill on the ice?

But the sudden surge of interest in ice dance in general and Torvill and Dean in particular didn't stem primarily from an interest in their skating. In fact, most people at the time and to this day remain clueless about the technical rules of the sport, the constantly-changing ISU requirements about which lifts and spins should be left to pairs skating and which belong to dance, what kind of music is acceptable, how skaters can best show a variety of interpretations within an internally consistent program. We're all too familiar now with the vicissitudes of judging, the favoritism, the underhanded deals, but that's a different soap opera. The soap opera on which we were sold in 1984 told the story of two working-class kids from Nottingham who had an incredible gift to go with their hard work and dedication, who had sacrificed everything to become the best, who had finally ascended that pinnacle and had adulation and riches waiting but those were secondary rewards.

They were supposed to be in love.

There was near-universal agreement in the media on this point, not just on both sides of the Atlantic but even in Asia; on the night of the gold medal, a Japanese reporter asked them when they planned to marry, and when Christopher Dean laughingly replied, "Not this week," the comment was widely taken to mean that of course they intended to do so later on, when the media spotlight allowed them a little privacy. Asked the question again a few months after the Olympics, upon returning from a trip to the Caribbean, Dean answered, "That's for the future." February 14 was the date the media decided to focus our fantasies upon. It was Valentine's Day; it was the one-year anniversary of their Olympic gold medal; and it was About Time.

I was a teenager in 1984, well-read but still very naïve about the ways of the media. It never occurred to me that perhaps Torvill and Dean were playing a cynical game, leading on the reporters so that the publicity would keep coming. Perhaps that's unfair to them; maybe Jayne and Chris just wanted to make people happy, telling them what they wanted to hear. Or maybe they hadn't even figured things out for themselves -- maybe, like so many of us, they were a bit swept up as well in the fairy tale as it was being constructed around them. I was certain that if T&D got together, this absolute proof that perfect endings existed would sustain me for the rest of my days, and it's quite evident that I was not alone.

Everyone who covered their meteoric rise was agreement that Torvill and Dean were the love story of the century. The London tabloids had reporters paying their hotel room maids to reveal whether one's shoes had been spotted by the side of the other's bed. The Washington Post quoted Oleg Protopopov (half of the legendary married Russian pairs skating duo) as being bowled over by their intimacy. The pictures chosen by the papers of their victory celebration all involved hugging, kissing, displays of togetherness. Their official biographer quoted their coach as saying that of course they'd had crushes on one another.

Christopher and Jayne started skating when they were ten. They both had to drop out of high school to make money -- she as an insurance clerk, he as a policeman -- but skating was their passion and they continued to practice long after their friends and previous partners had quit. They were both bashful, unassuming, hard-working...adorable. Their home town of Nottingham -- characterized in the official BBC documentary on T&D as a city of manufacturers who moonlighted as soccer hooligans -- fell in love and put them on the payroll. Within a couple of years they had won the British ice dance title. Then they became world champions, invited to dine with the Queen and given awards by the government, but they still went home to their proletarian parents and fought for increased funding for athletics in impoverished areas. About this time, reporters started asking, politely at first but with growing insistence, about their "personal relationship." They were coy but charming; she blushed, he stammered. Meanwhile, they revolutionized the sport.

Not only the media but the skating judges called them perfect. During the 1983 world championships, they received nothing but perfect scores for artistic impression. That fall, at the start of the Olympic season, they created a free skate to Ravel's 'Bolero,' which previously had been canonized in pop culture via linkage with hot sex (asked in the film 10 what she liked to do while listening to 'Bolero,' Bo Derek memorably replied with the f-word). Torvill and Dean elevated Ravel's masterpiece from this tawdry association by performing a story about a pair of lovers who could never be together, so they climbed a volcano and threw themselves into the erupting flames. It was a piece about eternal commitment. Afterwards, when they were both crying and kissing each other, seemingly oblivious to their perfect scores, the arena erupted with roses hurled to the ice. It was Valentine's Day, the announcers were calling the performance the consummation of their careers. The ABC television crew was going on about how they had carved perfection into the ice. I visualized a figure-eight, symbol of eternity. Yeah, I bought it. The press bought it. Pretty much the whole world bought it.

As individuals, Chris and Jayne were irrelevant. Together they were Their Greatness, and if they weren't in love, then love just didn't make sense; if T&D couldn't have the perfect relationship, who could? Here were two people who'd spent every waking moment together for the past ten years, who claimed they never fought, who had as equal a working relationship as anyone could imagine, who got to try on all the romantic stereotypes. Had I not been so bitterly disappointed, I probably would have been frightened by the outrage and betrayal in the tabloids when rumors started circulating about them -- that he was gay, that she was dating a skater from the Soviet Union, though both turned out to be false. Eventually rumors erupted that turned out to be true -- that she was dating someone in the music industry, that he was dating a younger ice dancer. The British tabloid writers were so nasty that one suspects they were trying to break up those other relationships.

And when they launched a multi-million dollar skating tour the next year, far less glitzy than Ice Capades but certainly not the balletic company John Curry had tried to form, even the London Times ran an ugly caricature of T&D carving the shape of a pound note into the ice. The critic spoke truth for many when she said one couldn't help but feel the story should have ended with a quiet wedding in Nottingham. Even front-seat hundred-dollar ticket-holders would probably have rejoiced to open the paper and read, "TORVILL AND DEAN ABANDON MULTIMILLION DOLLAR SKATING TOUR, ELOPE." It would be the perfect last page for everyone's scrapbook.

Instead their story feels like an unfinished fairy tale, amplified by an dissatisfying comeback when the Olympics opened to professionals, even though Jayne and Chris are both happily married to other people and choreographing for a younger generation of skaters. I want them at least to be a metaphor for something. Why is frigid ice so appealing? The skating is sensual rather than explicit. We see lots of body, but little flesh; everything has to be covered by costume to protect it from the ice, everyone has to wear lots of makeup to disperse the pallor of the arena lights.

And when are they acting, and when aren't they? Torvill made headlines during their comeback by announcing that during the four minutes of their program, they are truly in love. For years beforehand, they had claimed they couldn't give one hundred percent to their performances if they didn't believe in the fantasy. Maybe they were just saying that, but they stopped performing passionate dances together, even though the choreography changed very little; they did a number called "Encounter" to a sad piano piece by George Winston, in which a man and a woman skate beautifully together but ultimately go their separate ways, and a joking tango mocking the conventions of romantic ballroom dance. In many of their performances, one of them plays an object manipulated by the other -- she plays a cape for his matador, he plays a trapeze for her circus performer.

I look at what I now know to be an ideologically constructed love affair -- not the "affair" that they apparently never had, but the affair that thousands of people had with them courtesy of the mass media. The Queen and Radical Party members were equally taken in. I'm coming close to the sneaking suspicion that we've all been taken in by a long-running plot to reinforce every status-quo stereotype for gender and relationships, but I'm up against a wall, because if love is just another ideology, I don't want to know.

I've seen Torvill and Dean many times since that fateful Valentine's Day, most recently at a big arena in a northeast American city in a beautifully packaged production with a multimillion dollar lighting design and incredible costumes. I bought a sweatshirt, a T-shirt, a pin, and two programs; I bought the whole thing. There has been quite a bit of erosion over the years; the performance wasn't standing room only, the crowd seemed a little quiet, even though the skating was as skilled as ever. But the arena erupted after T&D performed 'Bolero.' We were all so happy to believe in the myth again, even for a minute.