“Skating is about freedom… and being able to express yourself through music.” Documentary photographer Debby Besford talks about artistic roller skating and keeping those times alive through her work
By Rachel Ifans
Photography by Debby Besford
“When I gave up skating, I spent many years on and off having dreams about jumping in the air. If I landed in my dream, I felt euphoric.” Debby Besford is a documentary photographer who grew up in Great Yarmouth and was a competitive artistic roller skater when she was young. Her recent exhibition The Art of Roller Skating celebrates the artistic roller skating heritage of Great Yarmouth and the impact it’s had on her life and the lives of many other young people growing up in the area. Artistic roller skating is an oft-forgotten sport which hasn’t gained Olympic status and has stayed in the shadow of its glitzy ice-skating cousin despite its myriad of exciting forms – from artistic figure and free skating to disco and street – and Debby was keen to showcase it with an original eye.
Artistic roller skating was in its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s when Debby was growing up, and the Norfolk seaside town became an unlikely mecca for the sport, she explains. “I think that Great Yarmouth Roller Skating Club was probably one of the most successful skating clubs in the country in terms of the calibre of the skaters, and there were so many fantastic skaters from there who took part in the Artistic Skating World Championships.
“I got into it because my mum found out there was a skating centre in Great Yarmouth Winter Gardens. It was like a big Victorian greenhouse that had been dismantled and moved to Great Yarmouth from Torquay in the early 1900s.” Skating quickly became a huge focus for the family, who would turn their house into a B&B in the summer months to earn extra cash for roller-skating lessons, sessions, costumes and trips for Debby and her two brothers. Debby reached national level in the sport and went on to train as a judge when she was older. “It was another world where you could switch off from all your worries,” she explains. “Skating is about freedom. It’s about being in your own world and being able to express yourself through music. Also, it was a way to face some of my own fears by performing in front of hundreds of people.”
Wheels In Motion
Debby, now in her 50s, and living back in the area, is so grateful for those days. “I’m so thankful that my parents found ways to let us do it and that I was allowed to just be myself… That’s a gift, you know,” she smiles. Before her parents died, she’d go and visit them and they’d often end up looking at old photos of Debby taken in the front room after competitions, wearing her wide-collared ’70s skate dresses and clutching her trophies. “My mum was quite shy,” Debby says, “so she wasn’t one for doing the photos at the rink, but she’d get me to put all the gear back on once we were back at the house.”
Debby loved the idea of taking the skater out of the spotlight and photographing them in their home environment like that, and it was her mother’s photos that gave her the idea for The Art of Roller Skating project. For the past five years, Debby has been documenting the journeys of seven local artistic roller-skaters as they train and develop their skills. The resulting exhibition, partly funded by The Arts Council and originalprojects, which works with contemporary artists and communities in Great Yarmouth, took place recently at PRIMEYARC in the town centre, where co-directors Kaavous Clayton and Jules Devonshire supported Debby with a huge space to exhibit. It was a great success locally and also attracted interest from top London fashion stores. It is set to tour the UK later this year.
The portraits are truly arresting and manage to feel very current as well as nostalgic of a time gone by. Debby wanted to create a visual contrast by removing the skaters from the ‘show’ of the rink and instead using the background of a domestic situation. She says: “I think the images have a slightly surreal quality, showing the girls in their performance clothes out of context, with the dissonance between the domestic setting, highlighting the balance between growing up as a teenager and the dedication and commitment required to become a professional sportsperson.”
The project was a collaborative effort in which Debby spent a lot of time with the skaters and their families. Not only do the portraits document the girls’ skating lives, they show the girls growing up into young sportswomen. Debby says of the photographic process: “I’d ask the girls if they could think about a skating moment when they were really happy, whether it was seeing friends or winning a competition. I wanted them to re-enact it through a pose or their gaze and I think it helped to make them feel comfortable in their bodies.
“Once they got used to me, they knew what I wanted. All of a sudden, they would just put their arms up in the air or pose and hold it. I wanted the photos to be about them, projecting what they want people to see, not just what I was seeing through the lens.” And setting the pictures at home really gets across how important roller skating is to the girls and their families and how it is woven into the fabric of their lives. “I think the interiors speak so much about the process. It was all about the girls’ identity, and I really think that shines through. Quite often, I’d arrive and the parents would be rushing around to tidy up and shoving stuff under the bed. I always said I was fine with whatever they wanted because it was really important for everyone to feel happy, but actually the tidiness really worked for me because it emphasised the skaters more than the backdrops.” Debby says one of her favourite shots is of Molly: “I love the one of her standing on a bedside table in a white bedroom with pink curtains. We were talking about how great it would be to have a rostrum in your bedroom and I love how theatrical this shot is. It’s like she’s standing on a mini stage looking poised and powerful.”
In A Spin
The second part of Debby’s project was to capture each skater on a video camera at 200 frames per second. She wanted to show what a skater looks like at high speed, when they’re jumping. “When you’re skating, all of a sudden, you don’t hear the music anymore. It’s like a void. It’s like your moment and you’re totally engrossed. You’re taking off and then you’re thinking about landing and that rotation in the air – for those two, three or maybe four seconds – is a very private moment.”
For the exhibition, Debby was lucky enough to be given a huge space with which to work. It was big enough for her to recreate an actual rink and exhibit the portrait photos as well as the big-screen jump videos. She also contacted many skaters from Great Yarmouth’s roller-skating past, and exhibited lots of memorabilia like trophies, medals, boots and costumes, as well as letters from coaches to skaters and certificates. She says: “I managed to gather a fantastic amount of material to include and that was really important to me because the exhibition is all about the heritage and it brought people from all around the country to come and see the show.
“A couple came who were in their mid-80s, and they brought in lots of photos of when they’d skate in the Winter Gardens. Although they gave up in 1960 because they ended up marrying one another through skating, they still had their original skates! “And there was also British Champion Solo Skater Corrina Haylett, who started off skating at the rink in Great Yarmouth but then moved to Colchester to be coached by Jocelyn Taylor, who is in her 90s now. Jocelyn is a fantastic woman who was a nine-time British champion for pair, dance, figure and free-skating and who only put her skates up in her eighties when she stopped competing and coaching.
“I went to Corrina’s mother’s house in Great Yarmouth and a whole bedroom was still dedicated to her daughter’s roller skating with all the medals, trophies and costumes. Corrina had been sponsored by a famous design brand called Chrisanne Clover, which was also responsible for some of Torvill and Dean’s comeback outfits, so that she could afford to travel the world with her skating, and there were all these sketches of the dresses the Chrisanne team had made for Corrina.”
From the thousands of people who came to the exhibition in Great Yarmouth, the message was loud and clear: a rebirth of the town’s roller skating heritage is long overdue. In 2008, the Grade II-listed Winter Gardens building fell into disrepair and was closed down but last year the town secured £10m of lottery funding to restore the space, so hope is on the horizon. And thanks to Debby’s photos, the wonderful sport of artistic roller skating is getting more of the exposure it deserves.