Britain's Torvill and Dean lift sport of ice dancing to new heights

A group of British journalists was huddled over breakfast one morning here discussing possible stories on a quiet, pre-Winter Olympics day. ''Well,'' one concluded, ''I guess I can't go wrong blabbering on about Torvill and Dean again, now can I?''

Of course not. For if any couple approaches the popularity in Britain of Prince Charles and Lady Di it is the exquisite ice dancing team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

The suggestion that this could possibly be the case brings looks of embarrassed amusement to the bashful, soft-spoken skating artists, who hardly have royal backgrounds. The 25-year-old Dean, the son of an electrician, was once a British bobbie, while Torvill, the 26-year-old daughter of a news dealer, gave up a job as an insurance clerk to concentrate on her skating career.

Though celebrities in their homeland, they've managed to escape the media hordes between competitions by training in Oberstdorf, West Germany, where both the superb facilities and the peace and quiet are to their liking.

When not in intensive training, they spend their time knocking the socks off adoring audiences, who clamor after the three-time European and world champions as though they were Hollywood stars.

Despite their quiet, reclusive ways, Torvill and Dean are performers of the first order - and clear favorites to win the gold medal. Skating with ease and grace in the opening portion of the competition Friday, they won all three compulsory dances to take the lead as expected - and still to come Tuesday night is the concluding free dancing program which counts for 50% of the total score and in which they invariably stand out.

T&D, as the British press calls them, have a charisma that few skaters ever enjoy. They have stretched the parameters of their event in much the way that Olympic gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci established new horizons for their sport in 1972 1976. And like Comaneci, they have achieved the seemingly unobtainable perfect score, which in skating is 6.0. At last year's world championships in Helsinki they received a solid row of nine 6's for artistic impression in their free dance program, marking the first time such a score had ever been achieved in all of figure skating history. And here in the compulsory dances they were awarded three more perfect marks.

The sport of ice dancing began in Great Britain in the 1930s, and for the next decade or so produced a string of British world champions. By the time it was introduced into the Olympics in 1976, however, the Soviet Union had moved into a position of preeminence.

Torvill and Dean had been together for five years when they finished fifth at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. The top four teams from that competition have since moved on to other pursuits, leaving the door open for new stars to succeed them.

The only thing that seemingly could have held back T&D was the need to divide time between work and practice. The town of Nottingham took care of that little detail, voting the local heroes a grant of about $20,000 ((STR)14,000) a year to cover their training expenses.

They've been off and running ever since, sometimes almost too vigorously. ''Ice dancing is an obsession with them,'' says veteran British journalist Howard Bass, a skating observer since 1948. ''Betty Callaway (their coach) is afraid to leave them in the rink. She thinks they might skate all night and be there when she arrives at six the next morning.''

The two skaters claim to have no romantic inclinations, a fact that seems incredulous to many who witness their partnership either on or off the ice. The sentence that Dean begins, for instance, Torvill may complete.

''We've adapted to one another,'' Dean says in a gross understatement. ''We spend more time together - maybe eight or 10 hours a day - than many husbands and wives. We have to get on.''

Such togetherness manifests itself in fantastic teamwork. The synchronization is so complete that they can detect even the slightest deviation in their relative positions.

''If Jayne's eye level isn't right or if her body is an inch out of place, I know it,'' says Dean. When this happens, though, subtle adjustments are made almost involuntarily to restore the proper unison.

Britain has won only seven winter medals in its history, and with T&D the nation's only real medal hopes this time, it was suggested that they jointly carry the Union Jack in the opening ceremony. But when inflexible Olympic officials wouldn't hear of such a breach of protocol, Christopher assumed sole flag-bearing responsibilities.

The public has seldom seen them so far apart, for the rules of ice dancing say the skaters cannot be separated by more than two arm's lengths or for more than five seconds. They also are severely limited in the lifts and jumps they can attempt.

All the rules would seem to manacle the sport, but like houdinis, Torvill and Dean have helped ice dancing escape its old ballroom stereotype. Some would even say that dancers now steal the figure skating show. Part of the secret is to transport the audience on a four-minute fantasy trip, which Torvill and Dean do so effecitvely. Last year they put together a circus routine that had them mimmicking tightrope walkers, clowns, and other big-top performers.

It was dynamite, as is their latest free dance, a daring one-rhythm routine to the music of Ravel's ''Bolero.'' Most ice dancers incorporate several rhythms , even though it isn't a requirement.

The single tempo, they feel, helps them create a dream state to tell the story of lovers, destined never to be together, who make a pact to climb a volcano and plunge into its boiling crater.

Occasionally, stick-in-the-muds have accused them of taking liberties with the rules, as when the Soviet coach recently questioned the legality of a lift. Skating officials, however, found nothing wrong, since Dean's actual lifting hand never went above his shoulder, a fine-line distincition that T&D were certainly aware of. After all, they don't miss a beat.

Following the Olympics and the world championships in Ottawa in March, Torvill and Dean will step out of the competitive arena to pursue professional careers. Their love of skating and entertaining won't let them quit. ''We live what we do,'' Jayne summarized.

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