A lesson from Dancing on Ice’s Robin Cousins

Feet at ten to two. Knees slightly bent. Leaning forward, as if a thread is pulling me gently from the chest. Arms thrown out wide, like wings. “What happens when a plane has no wings?” asks Robin Cousins.

Robin Cousins made a special appearance on the Edinburgh Ice Rink. Picture: Jane Barlow

It’s a rhetorical question, I suppose, but I answer anyway, eager to please. When you have an Olympic champion coaching you, it pays to do what you’re told. “It falls?” I venture. And he nods, smiling, as I glide effortlessly across the ice. I’m a natural (or so he tells me – before he realises I don’t know how to stop).

Add to that figure skating Olympic gold, if you will, European champion, three-time world champ and four-time British national champ. He may come across as a little cool – certainly a hard man to please – when he takes his head judge seat for the final time in Dancing on Ice tomorrow night, but in person he’s charming, patient, and so warm that the ice below his feet must surely be in danger of melting.

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Back in 1980, we watched agog – the nation, my skating fanatic mother and me – as he leapt and twirled his way to gold at the Winter Olympics. Cousins was, if you like, the meat in the British skating sensation sandwich – providing the filling between John Curry, who won Olympic gold in 1976, and Torvill and Dean, who broke all kinds of records with their Bolero in 1984. But Cousins never really wanted to be an ice skater in the first place. For him, it was all about the dance. The performance. The getting on stage and putting a routine to music. He wanted to be a song and dance man.

“I wanted to be Gene Kelly,” he says. “I didn’t want to compete, I wanted to dance. But this gave me a chance to dance my way, to throw my body into the air and twirl around and across the ice in a way I’d never imagined I could.”

Even when training for those Lake Placid Olympics, he already knew he would soon be leaving the sport to do what he loved most. “Win, place or show, I knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to choreograph, and I knew I wanted to perform. As it worked out, the doors were opened and I got to do shows and have my own company for a few seasons and to tour. But even if it hadn’t, I’d have kicked the door down. Because you do what you’ve got to do to make things happen for you, you don’t rely on anybody else to make them happen for you.”

Born in Bristol in 1957, Cousins took his first tenative steps on skates on holiday in Bournemouth, when he and his mother passed the open door of the Westover Road ice rink and decided to give it a go. He was nine years old. “I suppose the telling moment – and this is my mother’s story – was that this gentleman came up and asked where I skated. He said, ‘he’s very good,’ and she said, ‘he’s never been on the ice before. We’re from Bristol, we don’t have an ice rink.’”

A year and a half later young Robin asked for skating lessons for his Christmas. He wore second-hand girls’ skates that were painted black, and was told he would never make it: he was too tall, too impetuous and his feet were too big. “But if you want to skate,” he says, “you’ll do what you have to do. Nowadays kids want to know what they’re going to get out of something before they have a go.”

He started competing internationally at the age of 13, leaving school at 16 to focus on the sport. “I was in East Germany, I was in Russia, I was in South Africa – we were told off because we acknowledged the cleaners from the rink in the street. But why wouldn’t I?”

When he moved to London, he famously cooked his meals on a bunsen burner and made ends meet by stacking shelves in Whiteley’s department store, fitting in skating practice before and after the public sessions, sometimes finishing after 2am.

“You call it sacrifices,” he says, “but you suffered the consequences if you didn’t do it. Sacrifice was a tough word in our house; it wasn’t one we used. We chose to do these things. What was more important was that we were aware people were giving up their time to make it happen that morning at the ice rink, or when my brothers were going to play rugby or cricket at the weekends, or playing with a youth orchestra in the evenings. We mucked in to do what we wanted to do.”

His parents, he insists – civil servant Fred and secretary Jo – were far from pushy. “As long as I used my time on the ice the way my coach had asked me to do it, that was all my parents were concerned about,” he says. “My mother, to my Olympic days, couldn’t tell you one trick from another. She’d say, ‘I don’t care, as long as you come off the way you went on, in one piece. And that you respect the time you’ve been given to do this.’

“I had an opportunity to do something I loved to do,” he adds, “but it never occurred to me that I was doing this because I wanted to go to the Olympics. I just wanted to skate. Fortunately there weren’t that many boys so I was pretty much medalled at every competition. It meant I was somewhat fast-tracked and had to cope with it.”

The judging system, though, was always a source of frustration. “It’s all about collecting points. You get X number of points for doing this triple combination, you get an extra 20 per cent if you do that jump at the end, you have to have five changes of position in that spin and sometimes you go, ‘It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, and the only reason they’re doing it is to get points.’ Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should see it.

“I admit that, as a skater, when I’m watching I just go, ‘For God’s sake, just slow down.’ When I was competing and choreographing for competitors, my whole thing was, if you fell on every jump or if you took every jump out, would your routine still be interesting to look at? I want to bring the beauty back.”

This year he’s taking his Ice show on the road to do just that. It’s the culmination of both his Olympic training and years of theatre work (he’s performed in Cats, The Rocky Horror Show and either produced, directed and/or choreographed spectaculars ranging from Sleeping Beauty on Ice, The Wizard of Oz on Ice, Toy Story on Ice and Starlight Express on Ice). “Now, all these years later, I can say I’ve been on skates and I’ve been a song and dance man and I can bring all that to a show like this. If I haven’t got it right now,” he laughs, “I should probably go home.

“It’s taking everything I know about the craft of my sport and putting it on the theatrical stage. I’m not governed by a one-and-a-half minute routine that has to have all the bells and whistles; I’m not governed by tick boxes from a competitive routine; I can actually find beautiful music that allows me to choreograph and create skating tricks where they need to be; where the music requires them to be. I can actually create the beauty and allow the skating to speak for itself and not feel the skating has been shoehorned in just for the sake of it.”

A cast of 14 from all over the world, including Glasgow’s Natalie Cunningham, will perform a variety of routines choreographed by Cousins. Cousins himself, however, will not be taking to the ice. His professional days ended in 2000 when he officially retired, though he returned for a one-time-only performance on Dancing on Ice in 2012. “I used to leap and twirl and the body can’t cope with it any more,” says the 56-year-old. “I don’t want to go out and be a poor version of myself. And I have no need to. I’ve been there, done that, I’ve been very fortunate, and I now get my joy from having other people do things that I used to love to do.”

Indeed, while he still skates for the pure joy of it, and will be on the ice for 12 hours a day when rehearsals begin for Ice, the punishing years of training and performance have taken their toll on his joints and his bones. He has been under the knife a total of eight times, the first before he even got to the Olympics, when he had both knees operated on. In 1977 he was carried off the ice at the World Championships in Japan after his cartilage ripped and locked in place. “When I put my foot down my leg was still bent and I went – whoosh.” He finally had a knee replacement a year ago. “I’ve been very, very lucky,” he laughs. “I was always very bow-legged and that was the reason I could jump and skate the way I did, but now, look ...” And he stretches out both of his legs to demonstrate. They’re poker straight.

“I literally spent most of last winter learning to walk because when I put my foot down it would feel like it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. When I put my skates on for the first time, my blades were in completely in the wrong place.”

The aspect of creating an ice rink in a space normally reserved for musicals and touring theatre he leaves to his technical team, but says: “The technology within the refrigeration system is more advanced these days. But sometimes it can go wrong. I mean, opening night for me in London 13 odd years ago, the stage doorkeeper went off duty and his replacement didn’t come in so he switched everything off. We came in the next morning to a swimming pool instead of an ice rink.”

That sort of thing is unlikely to be an occupational hazard when Dancing on Ice triple axels on to our screens for the final time tomorrow. “It’s run its course for now maybe,” says Cousins. “The format, we know, works. I suppose what we never expected was that celebrities would put the effort in.

“There is a lot of smoke and mirrors,” he adds, “a lot of shortcutting. People say, ‘We tried to do that and it’s a lot more difficult, isn’t it?’ And of course they’re taught what they need to know for the show and to make it happen, but they’re certainly not skaters.

“But those who have been good have been good. And what’s been even nicer is that a lot of them have kept their skates close by, they go to the local rinks with their families, and skating is still a part of their lives. Then there are those – who shall remain nameless and unmentionable – who might well be back again this series, we’ll wait and see. It might be a case of the best of the best and the worst of the worst.”

Who could he mean? Those taking part include gymnast Beth Tweddle, Bonnie Langford, David Seaman, Gareth Gates, Todd Carty and Joe Pasquale – take your pick.

“You don’t appreciate the really good people if you don’t see the people who are on their way there,” he says. “And nine million people can’t be wrong. If there was a chance that it could come back in the future in some way, shape or form it would be lovely. Whether all the same people are involved is another matter. But I suppose we only expected three or four years – which is what a lot of the other countries that have tried this have made – and here we are in year nine.”

The absence of Dancing on Ice is unlikely to leave an enormous gap in Cousins’ diary – he remains extraordinarily busy, what with his performances and commentating duties, and will be taking his BBC seat for the figure skating competition in the controversial Sochi Games next month (he does not support a ban in protest of Russia’s anti-gay legislation, saying: “I just want athletes to show up and be able to be athletes.”) But such an itinerant existence must take its toll on a person’s private life.

“I am learning to say no to work,” he claims. “But there’s going to be a time when nobody wants to know anymore, so you think, ‘Now’s the time you have to do it.’ It’s down to your other half to accommodate that. I have a wonderful family life and a wonderful personal life, but it’s an understanding of priorities. And when priorities change and you come off the road, you try and plan ahead as much as possible. You have to have people around you who understand what the job requires. You work accordingly and hopefully it all works out.”

• The final series of Dancing on Ice starts tomorrow on STV, 6:15pm.

Robin Cousins’ Ice is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 26-30 March, tickets £15-£36.50, premium seats £27.50-£40, www.edtheatres.com