As the haunting strains of Gerardo Matos Rodriguez’ Argentine Tango “La Cumparsita” echoed throughout the arena at the 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the world was transfixed as they watched the first ice dance competition play out on Olympic ice.
And for two young Soviet stars it was a dream come true.
Years earlier, Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov had premiered “La Cumparsita” as a demonstration dance in do-or-die effort to have the discipline included on the Olympic roster. Their performance, which was beamed around the world, captivated millions of viewers. It sealed the deal and ice dance was finally introduced as an Olympic event.
Pakhomova and Gorshkov’s stunning free dance in Innsbruck brought the crowd to its feet and, in a fitting finale to the discipline’s debut, the duo danced away with the first Olympic ice dance crown.
“If there had been no Pakhomova and Gorshkov, there would have been no ice dancing in the Olympics,” said 1988 Olympic ice dance champion Natalia Bestemianova.
Pakhomova was a late bloomer. Her skating career did not begin until she was 18 years old, but her natural talent was obvious to the coaches at the Dynamo, Moscow’s oldest sports training facility.
A year later she was teamed with Viktor Rishkin and in 1966 the two made history when they competed at the World Championships. Though the discipline had been contested at the World level since 1952, Pakhomova and Rishkin were the first ice dance team ever fielded by the Soviet Union.
The couple did not fare well in the compulsory dance portion, but their expressive free dance earned them a 10th-place finish overall.
Pakhomova then teamed up with Gorshkov. Less than a year later they won the first of 10 Soviet titles and danced into sixth place at Worlds. Rising steadily through the ranks, they claimed their first international medals in 1969 — bronze at Europeans and silver at the World Championships.
At the 1970 World Championships, Pakhomova and Gorshkov stunned the skating fraternity when they debuted their free dance. Combining passion and drama with an innovative and imaginative flair that reflected Russia’s love of classical and national dance, the young pioneers ushered in a new and unprecedented style.
The purists railed to no avail. Pakhomova and Gorshkov were golden, claiming the Soviet Union’s first World ice dance title. It hailed the demise of the traditional English ballroom performances, which in an instant became passé.
“Lyudmila’s artistry was deep and heartfelt,” said former student Igor Shpilband.
Under the guidance of legendary coach Yelena Tchaikovskaya the young team developed its own unique style.
In 1974, Pakhomova and Gorshkov debuted the Tango Romantica, a dance they invented together with their coach. Based on an original set pattern, the dance demands deep edges and deliberate, precise movements. The International Skating Union subsequently adopted it as one of the set compulsory dances.
Shpilband said learning the dance from his coach was something he will never forget. “Lyudmila taught me this dance and it was so amazing to learn it from her. ”
Pakhomova also taught the dance to Bestemianova and her on-ice partner Andrei Bukin. “When Mila was five or six months pregnant she showed us the Tango,” Bestemianova recalled. “We had just started our career at that time but it still is my favorite obligatory dance.”
She recalled her first encounter with Pakhomova and Gorshkov. “When I was a singles skater, I was so happy to one day watch a coaching session of Mila and Sasha. They were dancing the Rumba, an obligatory dance. I have never seen a better version since then. I was standing right behind the boards and I remember it so clearly as if it happened yesterday.”
Despite her admiration for her Soviet counterparts, Bestemianova never considered Pakhomova and Gorshkov as her idols. “Idol, in my opinion, means something ‘stony,’” she said. “Mila and Sasha were very lively and reachable.”
During their career, Pakhomova and Gorshkov claimed all but one European title, losing to Angelika Buch and Erich Buch from West Germany in 1972.
Pakhomova and Gorshkov won six World crowns between 1970 and 1976. Misfortune struck in 1975 following the European Championships when Gorshkov fell ill and required lung surgery. The duo went to Colorado Springs to contest the World Championships but the high altitude caused breathing issues for the recovering Gorshkov and the team was forced to withdraw from the competition.
Though 26 years have passed since Shpilband trained under Pakhomova, his memories of that era are crystal clear. “Lyudmila was my coach for eight years from age 12 to 20 and played such a big role in my life,” he said. “All her students loved and respected her so much. She was a great coach. She had a great gift for teaching.
“She had a great sense of humor and a lighthearted approach to her work. Looking back now I can say that for sure she was very creative. We all laughed when she choreographed our programs. She always invented new moves — she never wanted to repeat herself. Our routines were extremely difficult for that era.”
As the daughter of a high-ranking Soviet air force general, Pakhomova enjoyed the luxury of living in an upscale Moscow residence. “Not everyone in the Soviet Union was able to live in such a nice building. It had so much atmosphere,” Shpilband recalled. “She always invited her students to her apartment to celebrate her birthday, which was on New Year’s Day. It was a tradition. Lyudmila had a VCR and we would spend the day watching videos of her skating. She was very special and we all really loved her. She was so dazzling.”
Shpilband described his training regimen under Pakhomova as hard work but fun. “In the mornings we all had to do a session of morning exercise, a conditioning session. Then we would skate for six hours, every day,” he said. “And sometimes she would take us to training camps in different cities. It was so great.”
Pakhomova and Gorshkov’s achievements extended far beyond any titles and medals the team won. Their innovations changed everything about the ice dance discipline, which generations of ice dancers have benefited from.
The couple married in 1970 and had a daughter, Yulia Gorshkova. They retired in 1976 and moved on to separate careers. Pakhomova turned to coaching and became the head of the Department of Sports Choreographers at the Theater Arts Institute in Moscow.
Gorshkov worked at the State Sports Committee and later became an ISU judge and referee. In 1988 he became the chairman of the ISU Ice Dance Technical Committee.
In 1979 Pakhomova began experiencing health issues. While she kept it a secret Shpilband said they all knew something was wrong. “Lyudmila never missed a coaching session and was always on the ice teaching us. We realized she was sick when she spent two weeks in hospital. But she never shared it with us.”
In 1986, at age 39, Pakhomova succumbed to leukemia. She was interred in Moscow’s Vagan’kovskoye Cemetery, which later became the final resting place of Sergei Grinkov.
“When she died I was 20 years old. I quit competing right after that,” Shpilband said. “She became a legend during her lifetime and she is still considered a national treasure.”