Toward the end of World War II, when Joseph Vanterpool was finishing up his military service in Europe, he saw an ice show. He was so taken with figure skating that when he returned to the U.S., he bought himself a pair of skates and taught himself how to ice skate. At the time, there was no opportunity for African American skaters to receive proper coaching, so Vanterpool and others gathered at New York’s public rinks. In 1946, they even created a show called Harlem on Ice.
Last weekend, a multi-media presentation titled “The Unseen” debuted at ONX Studios. Created by LaJuné McMillian, a descendant of Vanterpool, in collaboration with Ice Theatre of New York, the presentation included taped interviews with Vanterpool’s son, Akbar-Rashaad Vanterpool, and skater Theron James. Utilizing a synthetic ice surface, James then performed, telling the history of Black skaters and his own skating journey.
“Harlem on Ice was a blessing, although it probably didn’t reach the potential that it could have due to segregation,” said Akbar-Rashaad Vanterpool, who appreciated James’ split jump, a trademark move of his father’s. “It still provided a platform for my dad and so many others that were longing to get their names out there and have the exposure.”
Little is known about this piece of skating history. McMillian, a multidisciplinary artist and educator, created “The Unseen” to explore how to honor and channel the stories of the ancestors as an embodied experience.
“This is the first iteration of the piece,” said McMillian. “I’m excited to continue building on it. The next few years, I’m really going to focus on the research for the past—trying to find different footage and pictures—anything I can find on Harlem on Ice and also all types of Black figure skaters from that time period. I’m also going to focus on meeting new skaters, so we can grow this into a large full-fledged performance.”
James, who has toured the world as a principal skater with companies such as Disney on Ice and Holiday on Ice, said being a part of this project was incredibly special. “We were able to craft this vision,” he said. “I was so excited to be able to finally tell my story because I respect the ones that came before us, but there are so many that go unrecognized. It’s something I’ve always wanted to bring to the forefront.”