Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden – Beach Kids Who Became World Champion and Olympic Skaters
By Jack Ellis
Did you know that two kids from Rowntree Beach became World Champion and Olympic Medal winners in pairs skating in the 1950s?
Norris Bowden, born in August 1926, and Frances Dafoe, born in December 1929, were childhood friends and summer residents of Rowntree Beach where their parents rented the same cottage in the 1930s and early 1940s. They later went on to win two world championships and an Olympic silver medal.
How They Came to the Beach
In early 1931, Edith and Harry Bowden were very concerned about the health of their eldest son, Jim. The boy had been ill with pneumonia that winter and their doctor advised them to summer “in a place where there were lots of pine trees”. They looked up a friend in Midland, Mr. Pinchin, who knew that a certain Fred Rowntree was building beach cottages. They made a quick trip to Fred’s construction site in June and immediately agreed to rent the “Sunset View” cottage and spend that summer there with their children Jim, Jane and Norris. This turned out to be good for Jim’s health not only that season, but for ten more seasons as well!
The Dafoe family, with children Frances and William, rented a cottage on Cawaja Beach, just south of Rowntree, in the 1930s. Mrs. Dafoe had gone to school with Harry Bowden in Rosedale, and the families were friends in the city.
Frances recalls that after they nearly had a fire at their cottage on Cawaja in 1937 or 1938, her parents decided to move to a newer cottage with electricity. The coal oil lamps of that time were charming, but not without their dangers! Next summer found the family renting “Sunset View” cottage on Rowntree Beach. Dafoes rented in August and the Bowdens in July.
When they moved in, Fran always got a front bedroom that was hung every year with a set of cartoons clipped out of newspapers or magazines. Her first task was to take them all down. Years later she discovered that these cartoons had been put up by Norris, her skating partner. This gave them some good laughs.
Their Skating Career
As children, Frances and Norris were both members of the old Toronto Skating Club on Dupont St., which produced many excellent skaters. From an early age they won prizes, such as the one Norris took in 1938 dressed as a chipmunk!
Norris won the Canadian Junior Men’s championship in 1947, and went on to a skating career that proved to be unique in the world of figure skating. He won top honours in every discipline of figure skating; a feat never matched by anyone again in Canadian Figure Skating. He won the Junior Men’s Champion of Canada, the Senior Men’s Champion of Canada, and with Frances, the Junior Pairs Champions of Canada, the Senior Pairs Champions of Canada, the Senior Dance Champions of Canada, the Fours Champions of Canada, the Waltz Champions and the Ten-step Champions of Canada (these last three disciplines are no longer practiced)
Between 1950 and 1953, Norris and Frances won the Canadian Championships seven times in Dance, Waltz, and Ten-Step. In Senior Pairs skating they took the Canadian Championship four times, in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955.
World Championships: On the world scene, they were World Champions for two years in a row, and did well for five consecutive years:
1952 Paris 4th; 1953 Davos 2nd; 1954 Oslo 1st; 1955 Vienna 1st; 1956 Garmisch-Partenkirchen 2nd
At the 1953 World Championships they missed the gold by the narrowest margin in world championship history, finishing second by one-tenth of a point. That’s how close they came to being three-time world champions.
Olympics: Norris was invited to the 1948 Winter Olympics as a single skater, but chose to pursue his studies in Engineering and Business at the University of Toronto instead. At the 1952 Winter Olympic Games Frances and Norris placed 5th in pairs skating.
at the 1956 Olympics
Entering the 1956 Games Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo – the last one where skating events were held on an outdoor rink – as two-time world champions, they seemed poised to capture gold. Although they skated cleanly, a falter on a lift put them out of sync with their music. The panel split, with the Canadians receiving four first-place and five second-place marks, thus missing the Gold Medal by the narrowest margin in Olympic history up to that point. They accepted the Silver Medal gracefully.
Contributions to Figure Skating: Norris Bowden and Frances Dafoe were the first to bring a World Pairs title to Canada. Moreover, they changed the face of pairs skating forever by introducing six new elements: the airborne lasso lift, the twist lift, the throw lift, the axel into the arms, the catch /throw lift and the lasso onto the shoulders falling forward flipping over to land on a forward outside edge. Many of these moves are the base for elements performed by pairs skaters today.
Stylistically, Frances was considered to be very creative and Norris more athletic due to his long training as a single skater in figures and free skating. Frances often chose the music and the steps they performed. Furthermore, the changes of speed and mood in their programs in response to the music were considered unique. In their departures from the old rigidity, they brought a breath of fresh air to the art of pairs skating.
In 1955 they were elected Members of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Their Post-Skating Careers
After retiring from competitive skating, Frances and Norris went on to become Canadian, International, World and Olympic Judges, becoming two of only four former World Champions to contribute to their sport as judges.
Frances pursued a successful career as designer for ice extravaganzas and concerts on ice well into the 1990s. She designed costumes for the CBC, and as a freelance for theatre, dance and film. She designed the Closing Ceremonies of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary.
Her work includes dozens of figure skating specials and costume designs for champions such as Kurt Browning, Elizabeth Manley, Brian Orser, Toller Cranston, Katarina Witt, Kristy Yamaguchi, Scott Hamilton, Elvis Stoiko, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, among many others.
Frances was awarded the Order of Ontario in 1990 and the Order of Canada in 1991 for her outstanding contribution as a costume designer and as a former World Figure Skating Champion and Olympic Medallist. She also holds the Confederation Medal and the Golden Jubilee medal.
She now lives in Florida with husband Paul Bogin, making frequent visits to Toronto to be with her two sons and two granddaughters.
Norris went on to an outstanding career in the insurance business, serving for many years on the Board of Directors of the Life Underwriters Association of Canada, and, for a time, as President. He also continued to serve as an ISU judge for many years, and in 1984 he was the Canadian Olympic skating team manager.
Norris gave his time generously to a number of charities — helping establish a Toronto branch of “Cheshire Homes” for paraplegics, and serving as President of the Centennial Nursery School for Handicapped children. In 1982, he was awarded the “Martha Award” from the Engineering Society for volunteer work done without recognition.
Unfortunately, Norris died in 1991, just one day before the Order of Canada Selection Committee met to elect Frances a Member of the Order.
Dafoe & Bowden, as they will be remembered.