Karen Ingram Vance: Ice Capades First African American Performer

Karen Ingram Vance became the first African American skater to perform with the Ice Capades in 1967 and later performed alongside “Mr. Debonair” with the Ice Follies.

Article Skater Spotlight Tuesday, May 3, 2022

By Jillian L. Martinez

Skating trailblazer Mabel Fairbanks left New York for Los Angeles in the 1940s. The Black and Seminole skater turned coach sought more opportunities for herself and fellow skaters of color to pursue the sport with less racism and prejudice. Over a decade later, up the coast in San Francisco, another Black skater named Karen Ingram Vance would become enamored with ice shows and eventually make her own mark in the sport. In 1967, Vance became the first African American skater to perform with the Ice Capades.

A newspaper clipping highlighting Karen Ingram Vance’s talent on ice.

“Ice Follies used to have a home base in San Francisco, so as a child, my parents would take me to see the shows,” Vance shared of her beginnings with skating. “One day, when I was about 10 years old, I told my parents I wanted to take skating lessons.”

Throughout her childhood, Vance took jazz, ballet and tap dance lessons, as well as cello and violin lessons. When she decided to add skating to her activities, it was purely for fun. According to Vance, she never had goals to become a competitor or a performer. However, Vance naturally took to the sport, and it was not long until skating became more than “just a hobby.”

“The thing was, I loved to skate,” Vance said. “I couldn’t go to the ice rink enough.”

In 1958, Vance had three ice rinks in the Bay Area from which she could choose to take lessons. The Ingram family chose the Phyllis and Harris Legg Skating School, run by the retired husband-wife Ice Follies’ team known for their performances on stilt skates. Unlike Fairbanks, who was denied access to her local rink due to her race, Vance was welcomed by the Leggs.

“Phyllis and Harris Legg were both very genuine,” Vance said. “[Phyllis] was really a warm person and always had a smile on her face. I never felt any prejudice or discrimination.”

In fact, Vance recalls other students of color being enrolled in skating lessons alongside her.

“We had a little bit of everything,” Vance referenced to the diversity of races at the Legg Skating School. Alongside Vance, there were fellow African American skaters enrolled in the school, in addition to Asian and Hispanic skaters.

Uniquely, the Legg Skating School was not sanctioned and, consequently, could not allow its skaters to compete. Instead, Vance and her peers were trained to perform in skating shows. Harris was a record holder in barrel jumping, and Phyllis produced the historic annual Christmas show at the San Francisco Emporium department store. Along with her performances at Emporium, Vance skated with the Leggette Precision Group’s shows at the Cow Palace and Oakland Coliseum before ultimately auditioning for the Ice Capades.

“I was in junior college when I decided I wanted to go into [Ice Capades]. I had seen other girls I skated with go into the show, and I thought I wanted to go, as well,” said Vance, a physical education major at the time. “My coach called Ice Capades; [production assistant] Bill Bain came up from Hollywood; I auditioned and I was pretty much accepted immediately.”

Various newspaper clippings featuring Vance.

Vance made her debut with the Ice Capades on Nov. 16, 1967, at the Fresno Convention Center and gained the attention of the media as the first African American skater to sign to the major ice shows. For nearly two years, Vance was a part of the Ice Capades West family. Together, they toured 38 cities across the U.S. and Canada during the course of 42 weeks.

In 1969, Vance told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “The other kids judge me on how well I skate, not my color.”

Much like her time at the Leggs Skating School, Vance was welcomed and accepted.

“It was an exciting time! I enjoyed the skating, the traveling, the friendships. …Every time I went out [on the ice], I was doing something I loved.”

Tragically, on the evening April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis. When news reached the Ice Capades performers, they were preparing to travel to Little Rock, Arkansas, for their next show. Concerned for the unrest erupting across the nation, the Ice Capades adjusted travel plans to ensure safety for their skaters.

“It was scary because you didn’t know what to expect,” Vance said. “Some of the cities we were supposed to travel through were in an uproar. We flew part of the way and took a bus part of the way. My parents were very concerned and contacted the managers to make sure I would be fine. And, then, my grandmother and aunt and uncle drove from Texas to Little Rock to make sure I was OK.”

Following MLK’s assassination, Vance was on higher alert when traveling and out in public, but she continued to have the support of her Ice Capades peers. In 1969, during her third season with Ice Capades, Vance decided to stop performing with the show. After returning to San Francisco for three years, Vance returned to show business – this time with Ice Follies. Hired by Richard Dwyer, better known as “Mr. Debonair,” Vance performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“We were the opening act for [dancer and singer] Joey Heatherton and, later, Diana Ross,” Vance said. “It was really a lot of fun. People treated us like movie stars.”

Once Vance’s contract with Ice Follies concluded, she decided to hang up her skates and make a new career for herself. After her departure from skating, Vance worked for United Airlines for 27 years until she retired as a manager; became a manager at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; and served as a wedding coordinator. Today, she considers herself “finally retired.” She is a wife, mother and grandmother who loves to cook and drive her grandsons to/from school and their extracurriculars.

“No, I’m not an Olympic skater by any means but I did progress and did quite well. ‘Once upon a time, Karen Ingram was the first Black skater to join a major skating company.’ I did a little something along the way,” Vance humbly said. “I rarely ever skate now. Although, skating will always be in my heart and a part of me.”

U.S. Figure Skating Alumni Network

Whether you started your skating journey five years ago or 50 years ago, skating likely played a key role in the development of who you are today.

As a follow-up to the year-long Centennial Celebration, U.S. Figure Skating is piloting a new nationwide alumni program designed to bring U.S. Figure Skating alums together in a fun and meaningful way. With local happy hours, bucket-list skating adventures, professional networking opportunities and an online community, Alumni Connect members will have the chance to forge friendships and build connections with current and former figure skaters across the country.

Similar to a collegiate alumni association, Alumni Connect is rooted in local events, and opportunities for participation are dependent upon the wants, needs, motivations, and locations of our alumni base. This is where you come in!

As a former or current member of U.S. Figure Skating, we invite you to join Alumni Connect (for free) and help us steer the trajectory of this pilot program. Once you sign up, you’ll receive a free welcome gift in the mail, an invitation to our online networking group, and a promise of future communication.

Once enrollment is underway, the staff at U.S. Figure Skating will get to work identifying locations for an initial series of local meet-ups and will reach out to you for feedback in planning our kickoff destination events and bucket-list skating adventures.

We look forward to welcoming you back to the skating community in an on- or off-ice capacity!


Scott Hamilton Shows That The Greatest Strength Is A Lack Of Weakness

Dr. Ruth Gotian

Contributor -Feb 17, 2022

It’s been a dozen years since the United States was atop the Olympic gold medal podium in men’s figure skating. However, last week the clock recalibrated as Yale undergraduate Nathan Chen became the seventh American man to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating (it is the eighth gold medal as Dick Button won two back-to-back in 1948 and 1952). The 1984 Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton, knows how to end a figure skating drought. When he won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, it was the first time that an American won the top spot in twenty-four years. The iconic Olympic champion, known for dazzling audience members on the ice with his backflips, shared his incredible story with me.

Adopted at six weeks of age, Scott Hamilton was a very sick child, spending years in and out of hospitals as his growth stunted. Then, plagued by one misdiagnosis after another, doctors gave Hamilton a six-month life expectancy, news his mother refused to accept. 

The desire to live a normal life

After four years of sleeping on a chair at Hamilton’s bedside, his parents were exhausted and burned out. A doctor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital saw the toll this was taking on his family and instructed the family to remove Hamilton from all restrictive diets and let him live a normal life. For one morning a week, Hamilton was to play with other children and partake in regular childhood activities. The doctor recommended a new skating rink that recently opened at nearby Bowling Green University. 

Thrilled to be surrounded by healthy children, young Scott Hamilton went to the rink and skated with abandoned freedom. The consistency of his training led to improved skating. “Finally, after years of being stuck in the hospital and always being the last person selected for a team,” shared Hamilton, “I was the best in my skating class.” He also got his first dose of self-esteem. He wasn’t just good, he stood out.

Nurturing your talent

Realizing this was more than a passing interest, Hamilton started skating full time. A famous judge saw Hamilton’s potential and recommended he train with Janet Lynn, a renowned figure skater. Having the right coach made a difference as Hamilton eventually made it to the men’s championship. “I skated in front of a packed house and fell five times,” recalled Hamilton. He came in last place. The following year he competed again and only fell twice. His future wasn’t looking bright.

By the time he was sixteen, Hamilton’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and no money was available to continue his training, but they committed to one more year where he ended up winning the Junior National Title. A couple heard about Hamilton’s dilemma and sponsored his training. Hamilton’s newfound independence, complete with an apartment and sponsor, resulted in him being distracted. He came in ninth place at the next national championships in a disastrous performance. Sadly, that was the last time his mother would see him skate as she died four months later. 

Hamilton was at a loss and did not know how to resume without the one person who always had his back and loved him unconditionally. Hoping to honor his mother’s memory, Hamilton decided he would work harder than ever. With a newfound focus, Hamilton returned to his training with an unstoppable mindset. Fearing not trying more than he feared failing, he completed jumps he never could before. 

The top spot is in sight

Hamilton soon became fifth in the world. Two of the top five decided to turn professional, and one decided to go to medical school. The top spot was now in view, and Hamilton wanted it badly. There was only one problem. He excelled as a free skater but struggled to perfect his figures– the practice of tracing circles with your blades so precise that leaning on the wrong side of the skate could result in point deductions. 

Fall in love with what you hate the most

For years, on and off the ice, Scott Hamilton is a cancer survivor, performer, Olympic commentator, Hamilton decided he was going to find a way to fall in love with figures, the skill he hated most. “The greatest strength is a lack of weakness,” Hamilton shared. Determined to excel at this core skill, day and night Hamilton worked on his figures. He felt he had no choice, as it was the only thing standing between him and a gold medal. Hamilton saw them improving and within time, learned to love figures. He had half the ice for three hours every morning, and he worked non-stop at perfecting this skill. “I knew I had to master this foundational skill if I was ever to win a competition,” exclaimed Hamilton.

In the next event in England, Hamilton came in second place. After that, a four-year winning streak commenced. “In Sarajevo, standing on the top spot on the Olympic podium was a relief,” said Hamilton. 

As the exuberance set in, Hamilton realized he was only the fourth American man to ever win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. His predecessor was not far away. David Jenkins, who won gold in 1960, was now a physician and volunteered to be a team doctor at the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships to make sure Hamilton was supported heading into his Olympic season. 

While retired from competitive skating, his love for the sport never waned. He became a fixture in the professional skating shows, was a commentator at numerous Olympic Games, and coaches students at the Scott Hamilton Skating Academy in Tennessee.

After losing his mother to cancer, and a survivor himself, Scott Hamilton, dedicates much of his efforts to the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education, and Survivorship), which focuses on cancer research and caring for the patient.

More of Olympic champion Scott Hamilton’s story can be found in the books Finish First and The Success Factor.

Ice Capades Reunion Update – new dates

NEW DATES for the Ice Capades Reunion – June 14, 15, 16, 2022, at the stunning and spacious OMNI Resort & Spa, Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs), CA.

If already registered, your event registration will be transferred to June 2022! While it may seem to be a long wait The Ice Capades Reunion 2022 committee is still excited and committed to providing a fun experience, in what could very well be the last chance to gather ‘this many’ of us in one spot. Please save any requests for cancellations, for extreme personal situations only. Much appreciated.

If you already have a hotel reservation, know the OMNI Resort has moved all reservations over to the new date(s). Feel free to call and confirm, to ease your mind. The 2022 OMNI Resort Reservation Website is not up yet. Know they are working on a skeleton crew, but I am told the website will be Live in a few days. Info regarding the new OMNI Resort website will be posted soon. Our hotel rates, will remain the same in 2022.

We are all getting older. (Still glamorous, but older). And after all this Covid-19 craziness it will be so good to see old friends again! So, please make a plan to come join us, and fully enjoy this special, unique reunion!

Click here for 2022 registration form, which can be printed out

Click here to register:  New Hotel Reservation Link

HOTEL RESERVATIONS UPDATE FROM STEPHANIEHere’s who the OMNI Resort & Spa has reservations for – in 2022! If you have made a reservation for 2020 or 2021, but your name is not here, please call the hotel with your Confirmation Number to be sure your reservation has been changed to 2022. They feel confident all reservations have been moved… but please check if your name is not here, and you know you already made a reservation. Remember to use our Code to get our Special Rate: 061422Capade Thank you! Sorry for any confusion.

Questions:  — Stephanie Perom, Event Producer, (310) 962-5908 -Cell, IceCapadesReunion@outlook.com