“If somebody had said it five years ago, we wouldn’t have done it, but it’s the right timing – and it isn’t always of your own making,” remarks British ice-skating champion Christopher Dean of his latest sub-zero adventure.
Together with dance partner Jayne Torvill, the pair have swapped the confines of the Dancing On Ice rink for the expansive lakes of Alaska as part of new show Dancing On Thin Ice.
“It just felt like something new and fresh – something we hadn’t experienced,” he says.
“But at the same time, it had been a passion of ours, wanting to perform outdoors in a natural environment.
“As a kid, when I saw the skaters on the ice, there was this freedom and it’s like you’re flying, but when you’re on a lake and you can’t see the end of the lake, that was real freedom.”
Set to air on ITV this new year, the one-off special sees the duo venture to North America in a bid to fulfil their lifelong ambition of ice-skating on a natural rink surrounded by nature.
Taking in some of the world’s most picturesque scenery, including glaciers, natural ponds and snow-dusted forests, the breathtaking cinematography is but a snapshot of what the US state has to offer.
“The glaciers have been there for thousands of years,” says Dean, 62.
“There was a pond area that we skated on the glacier and that ice was potentially six or seven thousand years old.
“It is disappearing, this ice is not regenerating. The permafrost is starting to melt and so, you can lose this. The ice is so much a part of our ecosystem, it’s so necessary.”
For Dean, his dream of skating in the great outdoors was planted at a young age, a memory that can be traced back to his first ever skating encounter.
“The first time I ever walked into an ice rink was in Nottingham,” recalls Dean.
“You come in and you go up to the first level, to a foyer area, and if you look over your shoulder, there was this huge mural of these two skaters – like a 1950s poster of Davos in Switzerland, out there with the mountains and the snow and their 1950s jumpers.
“Subconsciously, my brain, I think, said, ‘you’ve found the place, this is what you’re going to be doing’.
“[It] was a moment in time – and as a 10-year-old, I looked at that and I’d never experienced anything like that, it just looked magical to me.”
What made you take on the challenge?
“It was a new challenge, a new experience, and something uplifting. It didn’t feel like ‘oh, we’re going to do this project and it’s another skating project’. This was more than that. It was more of a personal thing than anything.”
What was the biggest difference between skating in Alaska and on an ice rink?
“In an ice rink you skate round in circles and there’s a barrier, so the thought of being able to go to Alaska, to a lake that was miles and miles long and you could keep going one way, for me, that was mind-blowing. It was really being free.”
Climate change plays a key role in the show too, doesn’t it?
“It was a real personal thing to be able to go and do it, but also, it sort of turned into ‘being aware of climate change’ at the same time. The underlying story as well – where is the ice? It’s too warm at the moment and it’s not available here, so we’ve got to go here.
“Just talking to the locals and listening to them and their experience of the last five years – things have been getting warmer. They can noticeably see and feel it, so it’s almost chasing the ice and finding it. Not knowing whether we’re going to be able to complete our dream, this personal experience.”
Were there any memorable moments?
“I think sitting on the train going to Fairbanks and meeting all the characters and certainly the conductor there, that was quite an experience. He said, ‘yeah, we can stop the train, we’ll have a look there, see if there’s any ice’, and I said, ‘excuse me, what do you mean stop the train?’.
“We looked around at all the other people that were on the train and thought ‘they’re not going to be happy with us! But they all got off and sort of watched and gave us a little round of applause, so we were the entertainment for a little bit I think. Then being on the glacier.”
Was it an emotional challenge?
“I think, at the end of it, I don’t know if you could tell but it was a moment, a real emotional moment, a lump in your throat moment. When you’re skating, just that feeling of looking out at the mountains and that sense of what we’d just done; it felt like when you climb the mountain and you look down, it’s that moment.”
Did Covid-19 impact filming or your ability to practise?
“We finished filming the week before lockdown. From my point of view, it hasn’t changed our schedule. It’s changed what we can do as individuals but not our schedule.
“The only thing for me was I came over here to start prepping for Dancing On Ice and then I was going to go back to America. [In total] I’d have been 16 weeks in quarantine effectively, so I’ve stayed [in the UK] throughout, and we’ve been able to train, so we feel ready.”
Dancing On Thin Ice airs on ITV on January 1