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 a little bit more confusing. Both might feature a man and a woman competing together, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Ice dancing became a Winter Olympic sport in 1976 in Innsburck, Austra. 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 lifts cannot go above the male partner’s head. Partners don’t skate apart very often, and must stay within two arm lengths of each other. Timing and precision are key in an ice dancing routine. Spinning out of sync or at the wrong angle can cost a couple big points.
The ice dancing competition has two parts. The short dance lasts about three minutes, and the free dance lasts about four minutes.
The music theme and rhythm for the short dance are assigned every year, and all competing pairs must complete the same required elements in their routine. The free skate, as the name implies, gives skaters more flexibility to choose their theme, music, tempos and choreography. Ice dancing used to be the only figure skating event that allows music with vocals. This year is the first year that all skaters are allowed to use music with lyrics in their routines.
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 Olympic events since 1924, at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France.
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 thrown 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.
During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxin Trankov won the gold medal for pairs skating.