Nearly 60 years before the first Winter Olympics, long before figure skating was even a sport, an American named Jackson Haines became known for the pirouettes, dances and dramatic jumps he performed on the ice.

Haines’ road to fame and fortune wasn’t an easy one. He was laughed off the ice in his home country and spent years trying to convince European audiences that they wanted to watch ice dancing. But with a bit of talent and an ingenious head for business, the American athlete changed the way the world thinks about skating.

Thanks to Haines—now known as the Father of Figure Skating—dancing on ice has become a sport loved the world over.

Ice skating has been around for thousands of years—since around 3000 B.C., when indigenous Scandinavians used trimmed animal bones to propel themselves across the ice. But figure skating took a bit longer to come into existence. Though ice skating was a beloved pastime by the Victorian era, there was little artistry involved. During cold spells, skating enthusiasts would take to frozen ponds and lakes on rough hand-forged blades attached by leather straps to shoes.

In the years before the Civil War, the United States fell under the spell of a skating craze, forming clubs and ushering in the dawn of skating as a competitive sport. However, the stiff movements of these early skaters—most of whom practiced skating in “the English style”—would be nearly unrecognizable to modern-day audiences. On the ice, they performed their moves in response to a “caller,” who shouted the names of formations and movements to those moving about on the ice. In response, skaters would perform the different postures. Knees had to remain unbent and arms unlifted. It was formal, stuffy and technically exacting.

Jackson Haines.
NordicPhotos/Alamy Stock Photo
Jackson Haines.

It took Jackson Haines to loosen things up on the ice. Born in New York in 1840, Haines was a trained dancer and a born entertainer. He wanted to translate his ballet moves to the ice. During the 1860s, Haines began to skate to music instead of callers’ instructions, performing fluid movements that were completely different from the frosty formations practiced by English-style skaters.

By all accounts, audiences weren’t sure of what to make of Haines’ improvisational, free-flowing skating. So he headed to Europe—leaving his wife and two small children behind—in search of more liberal audiences. Though it is unclear how he was received in England, records show he was appreciated by spectators in Sweden, Norway and Russia.

Haines’ skating exhibitions—complete with music, leaps and spins—became a must-see attraction for audiences throughout Europe, and he won prizes like a gold medal encrusted with precious gems and a diamond ring for his performances. To make his movements easier to achieve, Haines attached his skate blades directly to his boots.

Haines was creative, but he was also enterprising. When he became a darling of Viennese audiences, he capitalized on the Austrian capital’s obsession with waltzing by incorporating it into his program. At an 1868 performance attended by Emperor Franz Joseph I and other local luminaries, Haines showed off his dramatic new style of skating.

“He shot in on a long outside [spiral] which took in the whole circumference of the area, performed a pirouette and took off his hat to a Grand Duke who was present,” wrote one American spectator. “When the band turned from the overture to the waltz-tune, he broke into a double cross-roll backwards.”

The performance caused a “great sensation,” the spectator wrote—and Haines capitalized on the excitement. He set up at least one skating school in Vienna, and his style of ice dancing became known as the Viennese—and later the International—style. For the first time, spurred on by Haines, people began to perform social dances on ice.

In Vienna, Haines befriended a pupil named Franz Bellazzi. Together, they performed what appears to have been among the first examples of paired skating on ice during a routine in which Haines—dressed as a bear—waltzed with his “trainer.” Because of his participation in same-sex ice dancing, some sports historians consider him to be an LGBT pioneer.

Haines never got a chance to bring his popular ice dances back to the United States. In January 1875 (some sources say 1876), he died in Finland after supposedly contracting pneumonia while traveling from St. Petersburg to Stockholm by sled in a blizzard. As sports historian James R. Hines points out, this dramatic cause of death—and many other details of Haines’ life—is likely a legend. (Haines probably died of tuberculosis.)

Today’s artistic and athletic figure skating styles don’t bear much resemblance to the ice dancing that Haines helped make popular. But fans of the sport can still spot his influence on the ice in one of figure skating’s most basic moves: the sit spin. Next time you see a skater squatting on one leg while spinning in place, thank Haines—the flamboyant first gentleman of figure skating.