Meet swiss native, SBF Member Tania Bühlmann, who started ice skating when she was very young and made her showbiz debut in 1977, when she was hired by Holiday on Ice. Tania also achieved her dream of a lifetime, when she became Gold medalist in 1981 at the World Professional Championships, in Spain with her long time skating partner, Edgar Pfanner. Tania's career has allowed her to work for world renowned names in showbiz, such as Ted Shuffle, Marjorie Chase and Cristina Riba. It has also taken her to variuos countries, like the UK and South Africa, but Spain, and Madrid in particular was to become Tania's homeland, when she started working at the Scala Theatre.
We asked Tania to tell us about her fulfilling showbiz life...
...Just be yourself! Try to give your best every day... and never put yourself on a pedestal...
How old were you when you started skating and what inspired you to take it up?
I don't exactly know how old I was when I took up skating, perhaps five or six… but I remember it was a rather bumpy beginning. My parents brought me some blades which I had to screw onto my ski boots! Of course that didn't work and I was very disappointed. Finally I got some real skates and from then on, nothing could hold me back. From October to March, in every free minute I had, I went to the rink. It didn't matter if it was raining or snowing.
I had my favourite skaters. At that time I just loved watching Peggy Fleming and Janet Lynn.
Please tell us more about your partnership with Edgar Pfanner. How did it come about?
It's amazing how much Edgar Pfanner and I have in common. We both grew up in the same city called Thun, in Switzerland, went to the same school and trained at the same ice rink, and… we are both rather tall for ice skaters! In the early years we were both single-skaters. As amateur I did my tests up to gold and participated in Junior Nationals.
Then the time came for me to decide either to quit ice skating or, as somebody suggested, to audition for Holiday on Ice, which I did. Edgar had joined the show a few months earlier and so we both gained our first experience in show business around the same time.
Then in 1978 the famous Holiday on Ice choreographer Ted Shuffle opened his own new ice show called Hollywood on Ice. Edgar took up the opportunity to work for him, whereas I decided to return to Switzerland to continue with my studies. However, that didn't last for very long. After a year of skating for Ted and having the chance to learn the basics of adagio-pair skating, Edgar came back to his hometown. What did he do? He convinced me to put my skates back on again and form a partnership on the ice. We firstly had to practice all the small and big lifts on the floor. Then when our rink opened in the autumn, we transferred the Table-top, the Sit-lift, etc. onto the ice. What fun we had! Finally we added the music. We were fortunate to have a very well-known skating teacher from Berne, Heinz Wirz, who helped us to perfect our technique. He also suggested that we should participate in the World Professional Championships in Jaca, Spain. Well, we had our doubts at first, but then there we were, competing for Switzerland.
Can you please tell us about the World Professional Championships that you participated in?
It was like jumping into the cold water when Edgar and I participated for the first time at the World Professional Championships. Competing at Professional Worlds is quite different from competing at Amateurs.
In the first place there are different rules, especially for pair skaters. For example, the adagio lifts are pure 'showbiz stuff', which are not allowed at Amateur Championships.
When we had our first training session, my heart almost stood still! There was a Canadian pair, Sandra & Val Bezic, who are very well known in the skating world and a strong Japanese couple. Well, my motto was, not to look at the others, concentrate on our performances and try to do our best. First we had to skate a short programme, which was more technical, then the day after we had our 'free'. We were quite satisfied how we opened the competition and were looking forward to showing the free programme, which was a kind of love-story, to the audience and judges. We performed our number as always but... nobody wanted to applaud, until all of a sudden, there was a climax in our choreography and in the last thirty seconds the spectators were clapping with such enthusiasm, that we had difficulty in hearing the music! As you can see from our faces in the photo, we were so overwhelmed by this reaction.
How did your partnership develop into a showbiz act?
The World Professional Championships was our turning point and it reopened the door for us to get back into show business again.
Edgar and I came home from these Championships with a bronze medal and a contract for a summer season in Bournemouth, England. Then the snowball kept on rolling. We went to South Africa where we performed in Marjorie Chase's pantomime called Humpty Dumpty on Ice. First we played in Durban and a year later in Cape Town. Meanwhile we had a lot of time to prepare again for the Worlds. This time we won the Professional Competition and caught the attention of Ted Shuffle, who worked again for Holiday on Ice and was responsible for choreographing a new show for them.
In 1984 Edgar and I had our last big change in our showbiz life. We accepted a contract from the Scala Madrid, Spain. This work was totally different from what we were used to. First of all the size of the ice!
How different it was for you competing in a championship to performing in a show?
I can only say that fitness was a very important subject for me for the Worlds. The presentation of the numbers didn't vary much at all, except in a stage show (in our case the Scala) where the audience normally sit in the front. So for a show you sell it to the front!
What was your most challenging show?
A big challenge for us was always when we had to adapt our routines to a size of ice which was much smaller. At the beginning we were used to skating on an Olympic-size ice rink. The first big exhibition of our new partnership was at the World Professional Championships, where we had an enormous success with our free programme. So we were not surprised when the producer of the Bournemouth Ice Follies wanted to have this number for his new production. Now, how can you shrink this performance and skate it on a surface which was at least two-thirds smaller than a normal rink size? This was a totally new experience for us and we worked very hard on different timings of the lifts, etc.
The next big ice cut we had, was when we accepted the contract with the Scala Madrid. Luckily we had about two months in order to prepare for this adventure. Once more we moved to Switzerland. At the ice rink in Grindelwald we had the opportunity to squeeze into a corner, where we measured out a patch of approx. 4 x 6 m and marked it off with a rope. No wonder the other skaters looked at us a bit puzzled! The funniest reaction we had was from Oleg Protopopov, who, with his partner Ludmila Belousova, won the Olympics twice, in 1964 and 1968. He gave us a sermon several times about what ice skating was all about!
I was always glad that Edgar and I had the possibility to try out different ways to express our art on ice.
What was your funniest moment on stage?
Normally one shouldn't laugh about falls, and pair-skaters can have very nasty ones, but there are moments when, if something goes wrong (as long as nobody is hurt) it's better to take it with humour.
All show skaters have heard about the one-ankle spin and have seen it or done it as well. This spin is one of the highlights of an adagio performance and the couple mainly do it at the end of their number.
Well, in one of the hundreds of shows, when Edgar and I skated at the Scala Madrid, what we feared could have occurred, actually happened. Edgar caught a 'rat' while he was spinning and swinging me up and down. He fell... and the next picture was, each of us sitting in the opposite corner of this small ice rink! We looked at each other, stood up quickly and took our bow, as it was the end of our number. Everything went so quickly, there was no time to be scared at all!
Did you ever have a show, where everything went wrong?
I guess that the whole cast of the Scala Gran Canaria will never forget one evening when the sound technicians went on strike! Just a short time before the show, we heard that the music tapes were locked up somewhere and there was no way to reach an agreement with the sound crew in order to retrieve them. The audience must have noticed that there was something wrong, as they were very restless. Then somebody, maybe it was the line captain, had a brilliant idea: "Why don't we use the rehearsal tapes?" Okay, part of the problem was solved! All of a sudden the director came up to our dressing room and exclaimed: "The music for your number is missing!" It was quite normal that the ice act was part of a production number and so the music belonged to the show. Luckily I had a copy of the master tape... but at my apartment! Already dressed for the number, even with my skating boots on, I flew off to get the music in the director's car.
In the end, the show turned out a bit messy, but we did it!
How have your Showbiz years helped you in your life after the stage and if you could do it all over again, would you?
The first thing which comes to mind is that you get a great experience in living together with all different kinds of people. When you are on the road you share apartments, hotel rooms, etc.
...I was always glad that Edgar and I had the possibility to try out different ways to express our art on ice...
However, what surprised me more, was that my stage experience helped me a lot in teaching young children, especially in foreign languages. At university we were taught, among other things, how to create language lessons without making use of a translation. I remember one day I had to present my unit of work in front of the class. With all my things, pictures, games, exercises, etc. I was prepared for my 'show'. At the end of the presentation my teacher was speechless, and only added that it's great being such an outgoing person. I didn't want to start a discussion, but I knew from where I acquired this 'talent'.
So, no doubt: "Je ne regrette rien!"
What advice would you give to up and coming performers and what, from your own experience, are the 'dos & don'ts' of this business?
Just be yourself! Try to give your best every day... and never put yourself on a pedestal!
What do you think of ShowBiz Friends?
To start with I want to thank Lindsey, Sergio and all the collaborators for the immense work and dedication you put into ShowBiz Friends. SBF brings back many beautiful memories; not only about the shows I was part of, but also the plays, musicals, circuses, etc. I went to see.
Moreover, in my opinion, ShowBiz Friends is growing into an encyclopaedia where you can look up all kind of dates. And it's so interesting to observe how show business is changing. Looking at the pictures, programmes, videos... you learn about the different styles and stages of this fabulous world.