Diane Towler – Where It All Began
Photos: Diane Towler
Londoner Diane Towler, and Birmingham born Bernard Ford, were brought together as teenagers by the legendary Ice Dance Coach Gladys Hogg, to train at Queen's ice rink in central London, where they forged a formidable team that would go on to become British, European and World Champions. They dominated the world Ice Dance scene in the 1960s, introducing great innovation to the sport, winning 4 successive European and World titles from 1966 – 69, and participating in the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968, where Ice Dance was an exhibition event. Diane returned as a Coach to the 1972 European Championships in Gothenburg, where her couple Janet Sawbridge & Peter Dalby won the Bronze Medal.
During the Towler & Ford era, 4 Compulsory Dances were skated at each event, with a Free Dance. An Original Set Pattern Dance was introduced in 1968, but this was still classified as a Compulsory. Strangely, couples were allowed to choose a rhythm to interpret, until the 1971-2 season's Samba rhythm was scheduled.
British Ice Dancers were known for being technically accomplished at the Compulsories, ahead of the Russians, did you practice them most, or devote equal time to all aspects of training, the Free dance and Original as well during your competitive days?
When I was training a lot of work went into the Compulsories. They were broken down and practised until they were perfect. My coach wanted them perfect!!! We worked just as hard on the OD and FD, but technically, our coach was very strict on the compulsories. When I competed we worked on all the different Compulsories all the time, as they were drawn at the Championships itself. We had to do more sequences then as well.
Do you regret that they have been whittled down to one CD per event - if at all, the GP Final has none - as surely learning the Compulsories is the essence of learning to Ice Dance?
Yes, I do think it is a shame. It is the essence of learning Dance, but now an awful lot of work has to go into the OD and FD, it would probably be too much.
As a huge fan of the Compulsories, do you, like me, fear that one day they may eventually be abolished at major competition level?
I am a big fan myself. I think they will stay, as they are such a big part of Ice Dance and make it what it is.
What was the absolute highlight of your competitive career?
Many things! But I think it must be winning our first World title.
As you and Bernard Ford followed in a long line of British Champions who became World Champions, Demmy & Westwood, Jones & Markham, Jones & Denny, during the 1950s and 1960s, did you have an ambition with Bernard to move the discipline on into the modern era, and hopefully one day see it as an Olympic Sport, which eventually happened in 1976?
Well, actually Bernard and I brought Ice Dance to the Olympics. We did a test run in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. We did have an ambition to move it forward, we tried to be different with our costumes, music and ideas in our programmes. We started doing Lifts in our “Zorba the Greek” programme.
Many younger fans know your 1968 World Championship winning performance of the “Zorba The Greek” Free dance, because the BBC showed it in their '100 Greatest Sporting Moments' series, was that your favourite FD?
Yes, it was. The music is great! My mother actually heard the soundtrack while we were in America once. I fell in love with it, as did Bernard, and our coach Miss Hogg. It was a big risk when we did it, as music like that had never been used before.
I also saw a beautiful exhibition to "Moon River" which I loved, so soft and lyrical, skated at a show in Britain for BBC TV, do you have fond memories of that routine?
Yes, it was also one of my favourite programmes to skate to.
Did you choreograph your routines yourselves?
Our coach was great, she would let us put our own style and feelings into our routines, and advise us what looked good and what didn't. She was very strict, and made sure we were training hard and right.
What were your strengths and weaknesses as a partnership with Bernard? Also as skaters and ice dancers individually?
Our strengths as a partnership and skaters were the same. We were both hungry for success and worked as hard as we possibly could. We both gave 100% and never gave up even if we had bad results, bad skates or nasty comments. At our first Worlds we were 13th, and it was the lowest a British couple had ever come.
Do you keep in touch with Bernard?
It is hard, because Bernard is in Canada, but we had fun skating together, and the same passion and drive.
What was it like working with your coach, Gladys Hogg? Could you tell us a bit about her?
She was a great coach and very strict. She must be the only coach in history to have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in Dance at the European and World Championships in 1968.
[Towler & Ford, Yvonne Suddick & Malcolm Cannon, Janet Sawbridge & Jon Lane].
I thank her so much for everything that she did. She was a perfectionist, if we ever stopped running through, we would then have to go back and skate a back to back programme. I remember she made us wear matching tops for training, and once we didn't say “Good Morning”, so she wouldn't teach us for three weeks. She made us smart, polite and strong people.
What was the skater's life like back then?
It hasn't changed at all, the only thing is the money. Prize money never existed, which is a shame, because I would probably now have a big Holiday Home in the sun!
What did you do after retiring from competitive skating? Did you start coaching right away?
I did shows in England and Russia mostly, and coached for a while. Then Bernard went to Canada, and I started teaching full time in Streatham, and I am still there to this day!
What did you miss the most about competitive skating?
The thrill of competing.
Do you still skate?
Yes I do, but only demonstrating technical steps.
When Bernard Ford left for Canada, as many of our skaters and coaches do, were you tempted to follow him, or take up a post coaching in North America?
[We're very glad you stayed incidentally!]
No, I have had many offers, but London is where I was born and raised. It is such a big part of me and my family, I would miss it all too much. I am very happy where I am, and still skating.
How do you find coaching both your daughters and their partners, is it ever tricky being a Mother and Coach, or do you all just get on with it and not have any problems?
I have had so many skaters and experiences over the years. Skaters who are not your kids can be even more tricky! I can tell them how I feel.
It was something I never really expected with them both, it all happened so quickly!
I don't find it tricky at all, of course we have our moments, but being on the ice and off the ice, we are different. I told them when they were little, “I am your Coach on the ice, and your Mummy off.”
Do you feel it has been difficult for them, as their Mother had such an illustrious career, at times they may have felt the pressure of the famous Towler name when competing?
I think some people do think they are there through who I am, but they work hard and enjoy what they are doing. They are their own people, enjoying the sport like I did. If they get success then great! But they don't feel any pressure from many people.
Do you choreograph their programmes and choose the music each season, and does choreography come easily to you?
I work the same way my coach used to work. We all work together.
As the technical requirements are so precise for Ice Dance these days, and there is less room for creative freedom, what is your opinion of the merits of CoP? Do you think it's an improvement on the previous system?
I think it is still so new, but at the moment I think it has taken a lot of the creativity away. I think it needs to be worked on a bit more.
What is the biggest difference between Ice Dance when you competed and Ice Dance now? Is it possible to compare them?
The differences I think are the Lifts, they are amazing now! Skating technically in my day was still very precise, as it is now, but it has changed an awful lot.
What's it like when you meet rivals from your competitive career at competitions now? Is there still rivalry as coaches too?
The rivalry was only ever on the ice. I meet many friends now, and it is great. Skating is one big family.
What's the most stressful? Skating at a competition, or standing at the boards and seeing your pupils compete on the ice?
Standing at the boards, because you are not in control of what they are doing.
What is the best thing for a coach? Seeing your pupils skate a perfect programme, or sitting in the Kiss & Cry and looking up at good scores?
For me it is seeing pupils skate well. The scores are not always right, but if I know they have skated their best, I am happy.
Going back to the Compulsories, where Ice Dancing and this interview began, are you enjoying teaching the new CDs on the schedule, the Midnight Blues, the Austrian Waltz, and are you excited to see new CDs coming in, such as the proposed "Rhumba D'Amour," Torvill & Dean's converted 1994 OD?
It has been great learning the new dances and teaching them. Something new is always great. In the world of skating, you are always learning, it doesn't matter how long you have been in the sport. I am looking forward to the new dances too.
What do you think of British Figure Skating and Ice Dance now?
We have a great Performance Director at the moment. [Former British Pairs Champion, Catherine Barker]. She is working hard, making sure the Squad can reach their full potential in the sport. She is new, and we will see the results in coming years.
Do you think the Dancing On Ice TV Celebrity show has had a positive influence in raising the profile of skating generally in the UK?
Yes definitely, it's great. Last year our rink was very busy during the show.
What do you think we can do to have Skating broadcast regularly on the BBC again, as it was when you competed, to be shown along with Football, Rugby, Golf, etc. and no longer be a minority sport only for the diehard fans?
I don't know, as many people do enjoy watching skating, and I can't really understand why it isn't shown more. The only thing really is to have some more success in British skating.
Amongst your pupils, there were a lot of great skaters - British Champions - can you give us a few examples?
Janet Sawbridge & Peter Dalby - 3rd in Europeans, and 4th in Worlds
Numerous others who have been Junior champions.
Is there one most memorable moment from your coaching career?
Many, many in my coaching career.
Did you meet a special skating person in your life who made an impression? Did you have idols when you competed?
I met Sonja Henie just before she died. She was dressed head to foot in pale blue mink and looked stunning! A real diva. I admire all skaters who reach a high level, I understand the hardship and effort that goes into it.
I hope it wasn't too many questions for you Diane!
No, it was a pleasure. It's great someone has an interest in skating history in Great Britain, where it has been so successful.
It was a great honour, we wish you all the best for the future, and many thanks for talking to us!