Sally VanDeMark remembers when ice dancing was very, very different from what it is today.
There weren’t any fancy lifts or much acrobatics – it was more like watching two people ballroom dancing together, and contestants were much older than say, Charlie White and Meryl Davis.
It also wasn’t nearly as popular.
“Ice dancing was sort of looked down upon – the stepsister of skating – just because it was older people doing it mostly,” VanDeMark said.
That didn’t stop her from becoming interested in the sport, though.
After years of competing in singles – which she started doing in 1952 – she switched to ice dancing after meeting U.S. ice dancing national champions.
VanDeMark would even compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with her partner William Lincoln in 1961. The Birmingham resident said she only made it to nationals once – and didn’t place – but it’s still one of her favorite ice skating memories.
Her other notable skating memory was when she got her gold medal in ice dancing. Not the kind of gold medal you’re probably thinking of, though.
“It gets confusing because we call it a gold medal when you pass the top levels of the figures or freestyle for dance or pairs,” said VanDeMark, who did just that in ice dancing. VanDeMark believes she was the first person in Michigan to pass all those levels in ice dancing.
“That was such a goal for me from a young level,” she said.
VanDeMark’s skating story began when she was seven-years-old. After seeing Sonja Henie – a Norwegian ice skater and Olympic medalist – she told her mom that she wanted to do that.
So, she did. VanDeMark’s mom and aunt would shave off the ice rink at a local pond where neighborhood kids played hockey, and one day they saw a girl doing spins on the ice who was taking ice skating lessons in Windsor, where VanDeMark began her training.
From there, she went to the Detroit Skating Club once it opened and continued training with them for years. (The DSC is now located in Bloomfield Township, its home for decades.) She kept skating while she was at Michigan State University, as well.
But then her focus switched to teaching the next generation of skaters.
“I was teaching school and I just wanted to switch over because I loved skating and I wanted to teach that,” she said.
VanDeMark taught skating for just under 40 years all over metro Detroit, in cities like Livonia, Birmingham, and St. Clair Shores. Her first teaching job was at a familiar rink – DSC.
Even though she’s since retired that love for teaching is something VanDeMark still has. It can now be found coming through when she attends adult skating sessions at the Birmingham Ice Arena.
“We’re just friendly so they don’t mind if I tell some of their pupils...give them a little tip here and there about what they’re doing,” she said.
VanDeMark may be nearing 80 but she can still be found on the ice at least twice a week. Her knees are giving her some problems, but she doesn’t mind – she’s just happy to be on the ice.
“I like walking into a rink and smelling the ice, seeing it when it’s pristine and empty,” VanDeMark said. “I like to go out and do my figure eight. I can still do a pretty round, traced figure eight...Then I just like to feel the wind and feel myself moving on the ice.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent