Figure skating is one of the most visually exciting sports to watch during the Winter Olympics. Flashy costumes, sequins and spins are a given, but there are important distinctions between the sport’s four disciplines.
The men’s and women’s single competitions are pretty easy to distinguish from each other, as they feature one skater competing alone. The two partner competitions -- pairs and ice dancing -- might be more confusing. Both feature a man and a woman competing together to music, but that’s where the similarities begin to diverge.
Ice dancing became a Winter Olympic sport in 1976 in Innsburck, Austria. Think of the event as two people ballroom dancing on skates.
Rather than focusing on big jumps and throws, ice dancing focuses on maintaining rhythm and intricate footwork. Jumps aren’t allowed at all in an ice dancing routine and the types of lifts are limited. Partners are almost always physically connected in some sort of hold. Timing and precision are key in an ice dancing routine. Spinning out of sync or at the wrong angle can cost precious points.
The ice dancing competition has two parts. The short dance lasts about three minutes and the free dance lasts about four minutes.
The type of music for the short dance is assigned to be “a specific rhythm” and “within a required tempo range,” according to U.S. Figure Skating. All competing pairs must complete the same required elements in their routine “including lifts, step sequences and pre-determined dance patterns.” The free skate, as the name implies, gives skaters more flexibility to choose their theme, music, tempos and choreography.
The best way to understand ice dancing is to watch it. Team USA’s Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the gold medal at Sochi in 2014 with their free dance.
Pairs skating has been an Olympic sport much longer than ice dancing and is more similar to the men’s and women’s singles competitions. All three of these disciplines have been Winter Olympics events since the first Winter Games in 1924. Before that, figure skating was competed at the Summer Olympics.
The simplest way to identify the pairs skating competition is to watch for the powerful lifts and jumps. Female skaters are held high over their partners heads in overhead lifts. Female skaters are also tossed into the air for throws and twists. You’ll also see jumps that are featured in singles competitions, like the axel or the lutz. Intricate footwork connects all these elements, but pairs skating focuses on strength rather than rhythm.
In addition, there is shadow skating, in which the skaters do identical moves while separated and mirror skating in which the male and female mirror each other in opposite directions.
Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany won the gold at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.