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Elite coach Ellen Burka made figure skating an art

Canadian figure skater Petra Burka with her mother and coach, Ellen Burka, at Toronto International Airport, on March 11, 1965.

Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

During her youth, Ellen Burka's love of skating helped her escape deportation to a Nazi death camp. Years later, when she became the visionary coach of Canadian figure skater Toller Cranston and others, Mrs. Burka changed the face of the sport forever.

She died at age 95 on Sept. 12 of congestive heart failure in Toronto, her home for 66 years. Mrs. Burka was still coaching at 93 and had passed her driver's test. She seemed unstoppable.

When young Mr. Cranston arrived on her doorstep, she found the perfect disciple. He would realize her vision of bringing dance and artistic interpretation to figure skating, which was rather staid in style during the 1960s, with men not raising their arms above their shoulders.

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Mr. Cranston wasn't her first star. Mrs. Burka also coached her daughter Petra, who became the first woman to land a triple jump in competition, and, three years later, won the 1965 world championship. "She was an old-school coach and the old school got results because she was a disciplinarian," Petra said. "She was a combination of disciplinarian and a creative soul … of toughness and sensitivity."

Brian Orser, the 1987 world champion who is now a renowned Olympic coach, admired her "feisty" style of teaching. "She always had a very strong opinion, which was always very accurate," Mr. Orser said.

Feisty? Two-time Canadian champion Karen Preston recalls her very first day training at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, where Mrs. Burka plied her trade. "She was chastising a young lady for a messy hairdo," Ms. Preston recalled.

Mrs. Burka wasted no time in solving the problem. She chopped off the girl's ponytail with a pair of scissors.

"Okay," Ms. Preston thought. "So you don't mess around with her and you pay attention and you do your business." Ms. Preston eventually became a student under Mrs. Burka, who took her to the 1992 Olympics, where she finished eighth with a clean long program.

Ms. Preston recalls the dread she felt during a group lesson in which Mrs. Burka asked everybody to do a triple loop jump. Ms. Preston tried to hide at the back of the line, but Mrs. Burka called out in a loud voice: "You, you, blond girl, blond girl. Your turn."

"I've never done one," Ms. Preston admitted.

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"What's da problem?" Mrs. Burka replied. "Go up and squeeze."

Ms. Preston skated down the ice – reasoning that if she broke her leg in the spring it would heal in time for sectional competitions in late fall – and did exactly what Mrs. Burka had told her. She landed the first triple loop she ever tried.

Both Ms. Preston and Mr. Orser greatly valued Mrs. Burka's advice. Once, Mrs. Burka bluntly asked Ms. Preston what she was doing when she saw her practising compulsory figures after they had been dropped from international competition in 1990. "Well I'm going to coach one day and I'm going to need them," Ms. Preston told her.

"What the hell for?" Mrs. Burka said. "Oh for crissakes, by the time you're coaching, this will be like Jurassic Park." Spending time going in circles wasn't going to help her win a national title, Mrs. Burka reasoned. Some time spent in ballet class would.

Several weeks later, Ms. Preston decided to switch from coach Osborne Colson to Mrs. Burka. Ms. Preston was one of the top skaters in the country at the time, but Mrs. Burka demanded to know if she had talked to Mr. Colson, Mrs. Burka's close and long-time friend, with whom she had some famous spats. Ms. Preston had not.

"Stop," Mrs. Burka said. "Stop talking. I'm not talking to you. You must talk to Mr. Colson." And she hung up the phone.

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"Their friendship was worth more than any figure skating student," Ms. Preston said. "That phone call proved to me her level of loyalty, trust and integrity."

Mrs. Burka's extensive coaching experience made her a valuable mentor for other coaches. Mr. Orser went to her after he lost a couple of notable students early in his career. "They come and they go," Mrs. Burka shrugged. "You'll get over it. And it will happen again."

The 1973 world champion, Karen Magnussen, who trained in Vancouver under Linda Brauckmann, spent a summer studying with Mrs. Burka to hone her skills. A couple of times, Mrs. Burka read Ms. Magnussen "the riot act," she said. "My summer with her changed me forever," Ms. Magnussen said. "She made me aware of what I was capable of from my skating and what to expect from myself. Mrs. Brauckmann knew Ellen would shake me up and push me to do things I didn't know I could do."

Mrs. Burka was named to the Order of Canada in 1978 "for elevating skating to an art form and for imaginative choreography on the ice." Her other honours included induction into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (1996) and the International Sports Hall of Fame (2013).

Ellen Danby was born into a seemingly idyllic world on Aug. 11, 1921, in Amsterdam to Rosie and Paul Danby, who largely hid their Jewish faith from their children. They celebrated Christmas and Easter. Her father was co-owner of a restaurant in the city, had his own wine import company and lived in a chic neighbourhood. Ellen discovered her love of music at a young age. When she heard it, she couldn't sit still. Her parents enrolled her in a dance class. One day, Mrs. Burka and Elsbeth Bon, her best friend from the age of eight, discovered figure skaters on an outdoor pond. Immediately, Mrs. Burka saw it as dancing on ice. They both signed up for lessons.

For many years, Mrs. Burka refused to talk about the next chapter of her life, during the Second World War. When her daughters were young, she told them that her own parents had been killed in a car crash rather than reveal their true fate.

Astra eventually persuaded Mrs. Burka to share her life story in a documentary that she directed, called Skate to Survive. "For mother to come to terms with her past, to me, that was my great accomplishment," Astra said.

The documentary told how she watched her parents and grandmother board a cattle car en route to the Nazi death camp Sobibor. She survived because the commander of the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands was a figure skating aficionado and asked her to skate for him. She was the only one that remained behind when 100 other female prisoners were sent to Auschwitz.

She met her husband-to-be, artist Jan Burka, in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They married in Amsterdam after the war.

When the family moved to Toronto in 1950, Mrs. Burka discovered an alien world: Yonge Street was like a dust bowl, covered in wooden planks during the construction of the subway. At first they lived in a dumpy hotel. Eventually, after an argument, Mr. Burka left. Mrs. Burka was left to raise their two daughters, Petra and Astra, as a single parent.

She sought work and membership at the elite skating clubs, but found they did not allow Jews. So Mrs. Burka raised Petra and Astra as Anglicans, concealing their Jewish heritage from them until they were 16 and 18.

"She took the high road and made something of her life," Petra said. "Probably her background gave her extra strength. … And I wouldn't have been what I was without her being so tough on me."

Astra also skated, but quit after she was a junior Ontario champion. She was a free spirit, like her mother. Sometimes they butted heads. Mrs. Burka expected and wanted the best for her daughters, as she did for her students. "She taught me in life to be the best at whatever I did," Astra said. "When I went to architecture school, it was like over my dead body will I ever fail."

Astra delighted in her mother's lifestyle. "She loved wild parties when she was young," Astra said. "My parents were bohemian. We had all those crazy parties when Toller was around: Fellini parties, where people would dress in togas. We would have a tent in the backyard, with Persian carpets inside. She was a fun, free spirit, but Canada wasn't ready for someone like that."

Mrs. Burka wasn't one for following rules and tradition. She spent three months studying mural art in San Miguel de Allende, before her marriage with Mr. Burka ended.

During the 1950s, Mrs. Burka gleefully produced several skating shows, including Carmen On Ice, at the Lakeshore Arena in Toronto, with Spanish dancers and castanets. "That was her Spanish period," Astra said. "She had El Toro [bull fighting] posters all over the house. She and [coach] Don Laws were going to Spanish dance class. [At the rink], whenever someone would do a figure turn, she would click the castanets."

She choreographed Mr. Cranston's extravagant, award-winning television special Strawberry Ice, but brought in former amateur and professional ice dancing champion John Rait to whip together some dancing parts. "She hated ice dancing," Mr. Rait said. "She placed no value on it." When they worked together again on another project, Mrs. Burka called him: "that ice dancer."

"Ellen was somebody you wanted to notice you," Mr. Rait said. "There was huge value in her approval." He continued to visit her to the end of her days.

Her relationship with another free spirit, Ms. Bon, lasted throughout their lifetimes. On the Skate to Survive documentary, they are seen giggling over mischiefs from their youth. More recently, however, Mrs. Burka grieved as Ms. Bon developed dementia.

"They had a fabulous relationship," Astra said. "They used to laugh their heads off on the phone, screaming about their childhood antics."

As young girls in Amsterdam, the two would slip into the room of Mrs. Burka's sister, a medical doctor, and stealthily learn about human anatomy from her medical journals. They'd howl with laughter when they saw the pictures.

They spoke German whenever they didn't want anybody to know what they were talking about. And they had their own secret language, too.

Later in life, they travelled the world together: Morocco, Istanbul. They went up the Nile in a boat. They camped out at Mr. Cranston's home in San Miguel.

When Ms. Bon died in May, Petra felt it was a turning point for her mother's health. Mrs. Burka developed congestive heart disease and it worsened during the summer. She found it difficult to breathe and to walk.

Mrs. Burka wished for no funeral, no celebration of life, no flowers, no fuss when she died. She leaves her daughters.

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