figure skating, sport in which ice skaters, singly or in pairs, perform freestyle movements of jumps, spins, lifts, and footwork in a graceful manner. Its name derives from the patterns (or figures) skaters make on the ice, an element that was a major part of the sport until recently. There are various kinds of figure skating, including freestyle, pairs, ice dance, and synchronized team skating. The style of competition, as well as the moves and techniques of the skaters, varies for each category of skating. Figure skating has become one of the most popular sports of the Winter Olympics.
Pioneers of the sport
A Treatise on Skating (1772) by Robert Jones, an Englishman, is apparently the first account of figure skating. The sport had a cramped and formal style until American Jackson Haines introduced his free and expressive techniques based on dance movement in the mid-1860s. Although popular in Europe, Haines’s style (called the International style) did not catch on in the United States until long after he had died at the age of 35.
In the early 20th century, Americans Irving Brokaw and George H. Browne helped formalize the style created by Haines by demonstrating it to American audiences. Brokaw, the first American to represent the country at international competitions, participated in the 1908 Olympics, where he finished sixth. Browne, who organized the first U.S. championships in 1914 for men, women, and pairs, wrote two important books on skating and was involved in the establishment of a national skating organization.
Canadian Louis Rubenstein, a former student of Jackson Haines, was also instrumental in the development of figure skating. He led the effort to formalize competitions and tests by establishing governing bodies for skating in the United States and Canada. He helped organize the Amateur Skating Association of Canada (now called Skate Canada) and the National Amateur Skating Association of the United States. The latter organization and the International Skating Union of America (founded in 1914), which had American and Canadian members, were the predecessors of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), founded in 1921. Established with only seven skating clubs across the nation, by the 21st century it oversaw more than 400 clubs with some 100,000 members.
The International Skating Union (ISU), founded in the Netherlands in 1892, was created to oversee skating internationally. It sanctions speed skating as well as figure skating and sponsors the world championships held annually since 1896. With more than 50 member nations, the ISU establishes rules about the conduct of skating and skating competitions.
Also notable for their important contributions to the sport of figure skating are Axel Paulsen, Ulrich Salchow, and Alois Lutz. Each man created a jump that is now named after him. Paulsen, a Norwegian equally expert in figure and speed skating, introduced his jump in Vienna in 1882 at what is generally regarded as the first international championship. The “axel” was later perfected by Swedish figure skater Gillis Grafström. Salchow of Sweden first performed his trademark jump (the “salchow”) in competition in 1909. In London in 1908 he also won the first Olympic gold medal given for figure skating. Lutz, an Austrian, invented his jump (the “lutz”) in 1913.
While the English diarist Samuel Pepys claimed to have danced on the ice during London’s hard winter of 1662, modern ice dancing most likely developed out of the Vienna Skating Club’s adaptation of the waltz in the 1880s. The sport grew rapidly in popularity during and after the 1930s. Although the first U.S. national championship for ice dancing was held in 1914, it did not become an Olympic sport until 1976.
Figure skating currently contains more female than male participants, but this has not always been the case. At the first world championships, held in St. Petersburg in 1896, only a men’s event was skated. Pairs were not introduced until 1908 and ice dancing not until 1952. The first woman to participate in a world championship event, Madge Syers of Great Britain, did so in 1902. Because the rules did not specify the sex of participants, Syers entered the world championships held in London, and she finished second only to Salchow, who offered her his gold medal because he thought she should have won the event. The next year the ISU rules were changed to specify that women could not enter the event, but a separate women’s category, which Syers won for the first two years, was finally created three years later.
Twenty-one years later Sonja Henie emerged as the first major female skating star. She reigned as world champion from 1927 to 1936 and parlayed her fame into a Hollywood career. Winning her first world title at the age of 14, she was the youngest champion until Tara Lipinski won the world championship in 1997 at an age two months younger than Henie. Lipinski also dethroned Henie as the youngest female Olympic champion by winning the gold medal in 1998 when she was 15. Canadian Barbara Ann Scott, the first non-European to win a world championship, became a professional skater, as did both Henie and Lipinski, after she won an Olympic gold medal in 1948.
Dick Button was the first great American male star of the 20th century. Now regarded as the “voice of figure skating,” he won five world titles (from 1948 through 1952) and two Olympic gold medals (1948 and 1952) along with seven U.S. national championships (from 1947 through 1953). Button also completed a double axel at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the first skater to land such a jump in competition. While Button’s success paved the way for the emergence of more multirevolution jumps in figure skating, other male skaters developed different aspects of the sport. Karl Schäfer, for example, introduced new elements into spinning by creating a “blur spin,” or scratch spin, where the skater rapidly spins on one foot in an upright position.
The U.S. figure-skating community was devastated in 1961 by a plane crash that killed the entire U.S. team. The team was on its way to Prague for the world championships when the plane crashed on approach to Brussels. The championships were canceled. Although the United States had lost such potential world champions as Laurence Owen, American skating returned to world prominence in 1966 when Peggy Fleming, renowned for her elegance and grace, won the women’s world title in Davos, Switzerland, and an Olympic gold medal two years later in Grenoble, France. Fleming followed in the footsteps of such great American Olympic champions as Tenley Albright (1956) and Carol Heiss (1960). Janet Lynn, an Olympic bronze medalist in 1972 in Sapporo, Japan, and Dorothy Hamill, an Olympic gold medalist in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria, were also part of the ascension of women’s skating in the United States. New coaches who went to the United States included Carlo Fassi, an Italian singles champion in the 1940s and ’50s. He coached Americans Fleming and Hamill as well as British Olympic champions John Curry and Robin Cousins.
Katarina Witt of East Germany, dominating women’s singles in a manner that had not been seen since Henie, won Olympic gold medals at both the 1984 (Sarajevo, Yugoslavia) and 1988 (Calgary, Alberta) Winter Games. American Scott Hamilton (see Sidebar: Scott Hamilton: Training for Olympic Gold) won four world championships (1981–84) as well as an Olympic gold medal in 1984. Earlier, American brothers Hayes and David Jenkins had won successive Olympic gold medals at the 1956 and 1960 Games. Brian Boitano continued the American Olympic dominance by winning the gold medal in 1988.
While the United States continued to produce singles champions, the Soviet Union was the master of pairs. French pairs skaters Andrée and Pierre Brunet won Olympic gold medals in both 1928 and 1932, but the dominance of the Soviet Union became apparent in the 1960s and lasted into the 21st century. Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov won Olympic gold medals at the 1964 (Innsbruck) and 1968 (Grenoble) Games. Irina Rodnina won three Olympic gold medals (from 1972 through 1980) with two different partners, Aleksey Ulanov and Aleksandr Zaytsev. This dominance continued into the 1980s when Yelena Valova and Oleg Vassilyev won the gold in 1984 (Sarajevo). Yekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov won the gold twice (1988 and 1994), as did Artur Dmitriyev (1992 and 1998) with two different partners, Natalya Mishkutenok and Oksana Kazakova. The 2002 Olympic gold medal was shared by two pairs because of a judging controversy—Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada.
Ice dancing was introduced as an Olympic event in 1976, and Soviet teams dominated the sport. Teams from that country won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 (Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov), 1980 (Natalia Linichuk and Gennady Karponosov), 1988 (Natalia Bestemianova and Andrey Bukin), 1992 (Marina Klimova and Sergey Ponomarenko), and 1994 and 1998 (Oksana Grichuk and Yevgeny Platov). However, Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean took the gold in 1984, and Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France placed first in 2002, winning France’s first gold medal in figure skating since 1932.
Theories vary on the reason for the dominance of the former Soviet Union. One school of thought says the political and cultural forces in the country emphasized group accomplishments over individual achievement. The cultural emphasis on dance and ballet may also have been a factor, as well as the inclination of pairs and dance teams to stay together, since athletes were rewarded handsomely under the Soviet regime. Furthermore, the top singles coaches resided not in Russia but in western Europe and the United States. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, many Russian coaches and their skaters moved to the United States to take advantage of its superior training facilities. European and American pairs and dance teams benefited from Russian coaching, and the gap between Russia and the rest of the world began to close. At the same time, the Russians began to produce better singles skaters, partially because of access to American facilities and coaching and partially because they used different training techniques, which set them apart. Russians began to dominate men’s figure skating in 1992 when Viktor Petrenko won the Olympic gold medal. In 1994 Aleksey Urmanov won the Olympic gold medal, while Ilya Kulik won it in 1998 and Aleksey Yagudin in 2002.
Recent trends and changes
During the Cold War (1947–89), judges tended to vote in East-West blocs, a practice that influenced the outcomes of some close competitions. The Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria often voted as a unit, while the United States, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, and Italy often showed support for athletes from their countries. However, not all the judging that was alleged to have been politically motivated was necessarily so; some preferences were simply a matter of taste. For instance, judges from the eastern bloc countries have long displayed a preference for classical music and balletic choreography over music and dance that contained more pop-cultural themes. Although this situation has moderated since the early 1990s, some voting along political and cultural lines continues.
The evolution of increasingly difficult jumps continues to be a hallmark of the sport. Triple jumps, for example, became significant for men and women in the 1980s, and quadruple jumps became increasingly more important for men in the 1990s. The triple axel, the most difficult triple jump, was first landed in competition by Canadian Vern Taylor at the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa. Eleven years later, at the world championships in Paris, Midori Ito of Japan became the first woman to complete the jump. Canadian Kurt Browning, the first person to complete a quadruple jump, landed a quad toe loop at the 1988 World Championships in Budapest. Elvis Stojko, also a Canadian, holds two records with respect to the quad; he was the first to land a quad in combination with a double toe loop (at the 1991 World Championships in Munich) and with a triple toe loop (at the 1997 Champions Series final in Munich). Timothy Goebel, an American, completed the first quad salchow in 1998 at the Junior Grand Prix finals. He also was the first to land three quads in one program, two quad salchows and one quad toe loop at the 2001 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston.
The 1990s were a tumultuous decade for figure skating. The elimination of compulsory figures from competition in 1991 gave an advantage to the more athletic freestyle skaters. Until the late 1980s, skaters who were good at figures could win competitions without having strong freestyle-skating techniques, since compulsory figures were the most important part of the sport. They constituted 60 percent of the total score at national and international championships held in the 1960s but had been reduced to 50 percent by 1968. The short program was introduced in 1973, and at that time figures were reduced to 40 percent of the score. Over the next 17 years, the ISU continued to reduce the weight of figures until they were eliminated completely from international competitions after the 1990 World Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Proponents of figures said they developed fine edge control, balance, and footwork, while critics thought them boring and mundane, compared with the athleticism and beauty of freestyle skating.
Another change occurred in the 1990s with the rules dividing professionals and amateurs. Since then the ISU has allowed amateurs, even at the lower levels of novice and junior, to earn money from endorsements and in ISU-sanctioned events. The ISU created a new system of eligibility: skaters who were “eligible” for ISU-sanctioned events, including worlds and the Olympics, and those who were not (“ineligible”). Ineligible skaters, buoyed by high television ratings, entered professional competitions with prize money and starred in their own professional ice shows.
Television became very significant for skating. Nowhere was that more evident than in 1994 when skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the kneecap by an advocate of Kerrigan’s competitor Tonya Harding at the U.S. nationals in Detroit. International interest in the situation translated into high television ratings at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The women’s short program was watched by millions of spectators as Harding competed against Kerrigan, the eventual Olympic silver-medal winner.
As figure skating entered the 21st century, the level of athleticism continued to rise, with more men performing quad jumps in both the short and long programs. Increasingly, the world-level women’s champions were expected to have triple-triple jump combinations (two consecutive triple jumps) in their long programs. However, the top skaters achieved success only by combining difficult jumps with artistic and elegant skating.
Some believe that, with the growing emphasis on jumps, good skating is declining. Compulsory figures provided excellent training in edge work and balance, and the difficulty of figures made it hard for skaters to move up quickly through the levels of skating. Today, very few skaters practice figures; a typical eligible skater can look awkward compared with the best ineligible performers, even though he or she may have superior jumping skills.
Although there have always been young competitors, the rule changes encouraged younger females to move up the ranks faster, since little girls can achieve triples quickly, thanks to their narrow hips and lightweight bodies. Lipinski, the youngest ever to win an Olympic gold medal, was only the beginning of this trend, which 16-year-old American Sarah Hughes continued by winning the Olympic gold medal at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Although American Michelle Kwan moved up to the senior level at age 12, she did not win her first world championship until 1996, when she was 16. “Older” skaters such as Kwan and Maria Butyrskaya (who at age 27 won a gold medal at the 1999 World Championships in Helsinki) now compete against younger skaters because the great equalizer, compulsory figures, is gone. Wider hips and heavier bodies are harder to control in the air, but what the older women may lack in athleticism they can often make up in elegance and overall skating and competitive experience.
Equipment and technique
Boots and blades
Skaters wear leather boots, sometimes custom-fitted, reinforced with thick padding to brace the ankle and with wide tongues for control and flexibility. The figure skate’s blade is about 3/16 inch (4 mm) thick. It is hollow-ground to emphasize its two edges, although the skater usually uses only one edge at a time. The front of the blade, called the toe pick, contains serrations, which are planted into the ice and help the skater in certain jumps. The blade also allows the skater to pivot quickly on the ice in order to perform rapid 360-degree spins. Ice dancers wear skates with shorter blades and looser padding to facilitate quick foot movement.
Figure skating and ice dancingThe rink used for ice-skating competitions has a maximum length of 60 metres (197 feet) and a maximum width of 30 metres (98.4 feet). Ice dancers and figure skaters use a skate with the same basic design. A high boot provides extra support for the ankles, and the toe pick helps in jumping. The blade is thicker than those used in other skates, slightly longer than the boot, and curved gently all along its length to allow greater control during maneuvers.
Figure skating and ice dancingThe rink used for ice-skating competitions has a maximum length of 60 metres (197 feet) and a maximum width of 30 metres (98.4 feet). Ice dancers and figure skaters use a skate with the same basic design. A high boot provides extra support for the ankles, and the toe pick helps in jumping. The blade is thicker than those used in other skates, slightly longer than the boot, and curved gently all along its length to allow greater control during maneuvers.
Figures and moves in the field
Figure-skating movements are performed on either the inside (the edge nearer the inside of the foot) or the outside edge of the blade while moving forward or backward. Most movements are based on what are called school figures, the elements of which are curves and turns performed in a precise manner to form two or three connected circles. Figures have many degrees of difficulty and develop edge control, balance, and turning skills on a single skate over a small area of ice called a patch. For mastering figures the USFSA required a skater to complete nine tests. In all there were more than three dozen separate figures to perfect, and many had to be traced with each foot. The simplest was the outside and inner figure 8, and the most difficult was the paragraph loop or the paragraph double three, which required two complete circles on one foot.
“Moves in the field,” instituted after the elimination of figures, are intended to develop balance, power, stroking, extension, and edge skills. Starting with such basic edges as crossovers, spirals, and 3-turns, skaters progress to more intricate moves called mohawks, cross rolls, and edge pulls. However, unlike figures, which were confined to a small patch of ice, moves in the field are performed on the full extent of the ice. In the United States the USFSA requires skaters to complete eight tests of these moves in order to reach the top, or senior, level.
Training and injuries
Most beginning skaters, whether children or adults, enroll in classes where they learn such basic skills as falling down, standing up, and forward and backward crossovers. As skaters advance in skill level, they turn to private coaches to provide more in-depth instruction.
Competitive skaters now spend more time on conditioning and weight training than they did in the 1970s and ’80s. Because they no longer have to spend up to four hours a day practicing figures, they can now spend that time on freestyle skating. To counterbalance the additional stress, they do more off-ice training, including lifting weights, endurance conditioning, stretching, and dance. On a typical day a skater may spend two or three hours on the ice and two hours in adjunct training.
The downside to the increased emphasis on athleticism is the increase in injuries. Skaters are also staying in the sport much longer than in the past, and this accounts for the high rate of injuries seen in male skaters starting in their late 20s. Triple axels and quads are very stressful on skaters’ ankles, knees, and backs. Younger skaters are also injured more frequently because they start attempting triple jumps at much earlier ages. Of course, medical care and technology are much more sophisticated as well, and all athletes are taking advantage of the medical advances. Conditioning, too, is starting at an earlier age, and it is hoped that this will cut down on injury rates.
Some injuries will continue to occur, however, such as the fall that U.S. pairs skater Paul Binnebose took in September 1999. He was practicing a lift with his partner when he fell backward, hitting his head on the ice. The injury nearly cost him his life, but he recovered enough to work as a skating coach. Now there is interest in requiring pairs skaters to wear special helmets in practice to prevent such catastrophic injuries.
Freestyle combines intricate footwork, spirals (sustained one-foot glides on a single edge), spins, and jumps. Footwork includes step maneuvers that are performed the length of the ice or in a circle and done in sequences demonstrating agility, dexterity, and speed. The skater changes position and moves in a straight line, circle, or serpentine patterns. Footwork also shows a skater’s ability to interpret the music. At most amateur competitions the programs (a short and a long for intermediate level and above) must be performed to instrumental music, and skaters wear costumes made out of lightweight fabrics that allow for maximum flexibility and rigorous body movement. The costumes should be related to the music and express the musical themes the skaters are trying to relay.
Jumps are probably the most recognized element of figure skating. All jumps share the same rotational position in the air, and all are landed on one foot, but they are distinguished by their takeoff positions. They fall into two main groups: edge jumps (salchow, loop, and axel) and toe jumps (toe loop, flip, and lutz), which are edge jumps assisted by a vault off the toe pick. The axel is distinct for two reasons: it is the only jump requiring the skater to lift off while skating forward, and it contains an extra half-revolution. (The double axel is actually two and a half revolutions.) Jumps are further classified as single, double, triple, or quadruple, depending on the number of rotations in the air. Jumps can also be done in combination; for example, a jump such as a triple axel can be immediately followed by another jump such as a triple toe loop.
Spins are generally performed on either the back outside or the back inside edge of the blade. A sit spin is done in sitting position, with the body supported by the leg that controls the spin as the free leg extends beside the bent skating leg. The layback spin, usually performed by women, requires an upright position; the skater arches her back and drops her head and shoulders toward the ice. The camel spin requires one leg to be extended parallel to the ice as the other leg controls the speed of the spin. A scratch spin is done in an upright position, and, depending on which foot the skater is spinning on, the spin can be done on either a back inside or a back outside edge, with the toe pick occasionally scratching the surface of the ice for balance. Skaters simultaneously pull in their arms and free leg, creating centrifugal force, which transforms the athlete into a blur. A combination spin combines several spins as the skater changes feet and position. Even though the spins last for many seconds, a skater recovers quickly from dizziness after years of practice.
Pairs skating consists of a man and a woman performing jumps and spins in unison as well as such partnered elements as lifts, throw jumps, and death spirals. Good pairs skaters demonstrate symmetry and parallel flow across the ice. Unison elements are important in pairs skating. When the partners are not touching, they perform identical elements, including double and triple jumps, spins, and footwork. The elements are executed side by side and must be performed in symmetry at the same rate of speed.
Lifts are among the more spectacular elements of pairs skating. A basic lift is the overhead lift, in which the man raises his partner off the ice and balances her overhead with his arms fully extended as he moves across the ice. The star lift requires the man to raise his partner into the air by her hip while she forms a five-point “star” position with her extended legs, arms, and head. The twist lift requires both partners to skate backward as the man lifts his partner over his head and tosses her into the air. The airborne woman completes up to three rotations before being caught at the waist by the man and smoothly placed back on the ice. Another lift is the hydrant lift, in which the man tosses his partner over his head while skating backward; he then rotates one half-turn and catches his partner facing him. In the toe overhead lift the couple skates down the ice with the man facing forward and the woman backward. She taps her toe into the ice, assisting her takeoff, as the man lifts her into an overhead position before placing her back on the ice.
Spins and throws
Other moves unique to pairs include the death spiral, in which the man pivots on the toe pick of one skate and the edge of another while the woman clasps his hand with an extended arm. She then leans horizontally over the ice on a single edge and drops her head toward the ice, with her body in an arched position. Throw jumps begin with the couple skating together at a high rate of speed. The man then helps the woman jump by using his arm to propel her into the air; the momentum carries her forward as she performs as many as three rotations (quads have recently been attempted) in the air and lands skating backward. The type of throw—salchow, toe loop, loop, or axel—like jumps in singles skating, is determined by which edge the female skater uses on takeoff.
Ice dance is similar to pairs in that two people skate together, but, unlike pairs, ice dancers do not do jumps and do only certain kinds of lifts. Instead, ice dancers focus on creating footwork and body movements that express dance on ice.
To maintain the semblance of a dance rather than a pairs routine, limits are placed on the amount of time partners can be separated from each other and how far the distance can be between them. Unless the team is changing positions or performing a regulation lift, partners should be together in dance position. A requirement for the original dance is that one of the skates must be on the ice throughout the routine, and in the free dance both dancers must keep one skate on the ice at all times, except during lifts.
Ice dancing does not allow the introduction of such singles elements as jumps and intricate spins or such pairs moves as overhead lifts and throw jumps because they are thought to be inconsistent with the character of dance. Dance lifts, often done in the free dance, are legal, but moves that take the woman over the man’s shoulder are not allowed. Dancers instead perform moves low to the ice, such as pull-throughs (the man drawing the woman between his legs) and drapes (laying the woman over the man’s knee with a skate on the ice), to show their dexterity. Another common lift is the hand-to-hand hold lift, where the man primarily uses his hands to lift his partner.
Ice-dancing competitions have been controversial over the years because the judging is often more subjective than in pairs and singles. Among the greatest proponents of ice dance were Torvill and Dean of Great Britain, who became masters of incorporating balletic themes into their programs, in particular their 1984 free dance, which was skated to Boléro by Ravel. This program earned them an Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo and garnered them nine perfect scores for presentation, a feat that has not been duplicated. The ice-dance community, however, thought Torvill and Dean’s dramatic choreography strayed too far from dance tradition, and new rules were written that barred theatrical poses and penalized excessive posing at the beginning and end of a program.
Synchronized team skating
Synchronized team skating, also known as precision skating, is the newest and fastest-growing skating sport. It consists of a team of 8 or more skaters (in the United States) or 12 or more skaters (in Canada) who perform various movements, which are in unison with at least part of the team. The sport was created in 1956 by Richard Porter in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the Hockettes were the first precision team in the United States.
The skating elements consist of formations in such configurations as a circle, line, block, and wheel. Spirals are allowed, but jumps of more than one revolution are not allowed. Lifts are also not permitted. Synchronized team skating contains levels similar to those found in other types of skating. There are also national and world championships.
Programs and scoring
Pairs and singles skaters are judged on the basis of two programs: the short and the long program. According to ISU regulations, both programs must be performed to instrumental or vocal music. If the competition requires a qualifying round because of the number of skaters participating, the program first skated is a long program. Those skaters who qualify for the final round then skate a short and another long program.
The short program
The short program is made up of required elements. Singles skaters at the senior level are required to complete eight designated elements set to music lasting no longer than 2 minutes and 40 seconds. For example, in the 2001–02 season the elements chosen for U.S. senior women were a flying spin and a layback or sideways spin that contains at least eight revolutions, a spin combination, a spiral step sequence, a footwork step sequence, a double axel, a double or triple jump preceded by connecting steps, and a jump combination consisting of a double-double, triple-double, or triple-triple. Skaters choose their costume and music and may perform the elements in any sequence they choose, but they cannot repeat an element if they miss it.
The long program
The long program (also called the free skate) is designed to display skill and grace as well as jumping ability. Senior men skate four and a half minutes, while women skate for four minutes. Although there are no required elements, judges are looking for balanced programs that showcase the technical and artistic talent of the skater. Particular attention is paid to the difficulty of the jumps and how well the skater performs in harmony with the instrumental music. Elite women will include up to six different triples, some in combination, in their programs, and elite men perform at least seven triples, with some also in combination, and often one or two quads. The skaters choose their own spins but must demonstrate four different types. Pairs skaters at the senior level must include three different lifts (but no more than five) including one twist lift, at least one solo jump, a jump sequence, a throw jump, and only one solo spin.
Ice-dance competitions include two compulsory dances to prescribed music and steps. The second phase of a competition at the senior level is the two-and-a-half-minute original dance, which is performed to a previously announced rhythm, such as the cha-cha, mambo, waltz, tango, or fox trot. The music is chosen and the choreography created by the skaters, often with the help of choreographers. The final phase, the four-minute free dance, is a long program performed to music and choreography of the skaters’ choice, but the music must feature a dance rhythm.
Figure skating events are scored on the points-based International Judging System (IJS) that the ISU introduced in 2004, which replaced the “6.0 system” that was often controversial because it depended upon the subjectivity of judges. (The 6.0 system is still used in some lower-level competitions not overseen by the ISU.) The IJS consists of two parts: the technical score and the presentation score. The technical score is determined by a five-member Technical Panel that assigns a “grade of execution” (+3, +2, +1, 0, −1, −2, or −3) for each element of a skater’s performance. This grade is then added to or subtracted from each element’s preassigned point value (which varies based on the difficulty of each element), and the results are added together to create the technical score. The presentation score is determined by a group of up to nine judges, who grade the presentation based on five components: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation of the music/timing. The judges grade each component on a scale of 0.25 to 10 points in 0.25-point increments. The technical and presentation scores are then added together to give the final score for a performance.
Judges are barred from coaching, and in the United States they receive no compensation for their work. To master the rules and regulations of skating, judges attend special schools and seminars, complete course work and exams, and demonstrate their ability during trial judging, test judging, and competition judging. The various levels of judging require specific expertise that increases with each rung of the hierarchy. To advance, judges must demonstrate ability at the level below the one for which they seek application. For instance, to apply as a national judge and mark senior skaters at the U.S. national championships, a judge must have judged senior events elsewhere and done trial judging at the regional and sectional competitions. The judge must also have judged novice and junior-level skaters at U.S. national championships.
In general, judges reward singles skaters for big clean jumps, fast spins, coverage of the ice, speed, grace, good stroking and power, impressive choreography, and the ability to perform in harmony with the music. In pairs they want to see similar skills but also unison skating and athleticism in the difficult throw jumps and overhead lifts. In ice dancing they are looking for precision dance steps, speed, timing, and expression.
Regional and national
The United States has some of the strongest amateur competition in the world and one of the most intricate structures of regional and national competition. Eligible singles skaters in the United States are divided by the USFSA into the following levels: pre-preliminary, preliminary, prejuvenile, juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, and senior. Skaters advance to the next level only when they have passed both the moves in the field test and the freestyle test prescribed for each level. The juvenile-level freestyle test requires a single axel among other elements, while the senior requires four different doubles or triples. Pairs and dance levels include preliminary, juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, and senior. Senior-level pairs skaters are required to include two synchronized double jumps, a pair spin, a double throw jump, and one double twist lift in their test program. Solo dance tests are divided into preliminary, prebronze, bronze, presilver, silver, pregold, and gold. Senior international dance competitors must pass 13 dance tests and master 31 different dances, from the relatively simple Dutch waltz to the very difficult tango romantica. Synchronized skating teams are divided into preliminary, juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, and senior levels. The entire team, including alternates, is credited if the team earns passing marks on a test.
In the United States many competitions are held throughout the year for skaters of all levels. These competitions are sanctioned by the USFSA, and the participants and their coaches must be members of that organization. The Ice Skating Institute (ISI) also holds amateur competitions, but, unlike the USFSA, which is the organization for those with interest in Olympic-level or world-level competition, the ISI focuses on the recreational aspect of skating. Its competitions seek to reward all participants.
For USFSA amateur competition the United States is divided into three sections—Eastern, Midwestern, and Pacific Coast. Each section is further split into three regions. Nine regional competitions are held each fall, and the top four skaters from each discipline (men’s, women’s, pairs, dance) advance to one of three sectionals (three regions are combined into one section). The top four skaters in the novice, junior, and senior events at each sectional competition progress to the U.S. nationals. These events contain a minimum of 12 qualifying skaters (for singles skating), plus those who have been granted byes for medical reasons or because they have done well at national-level competitions in the past season.
The top four juvenile and intermediate skaters from each discipline at each regional competition advance directly to junior nationals rather than going to sectionals or senior nationals. The winners at all national competitions must move up to the next level the following season. The winners of the senior-level singles, pairs, or dance, however, can remain to defend their titles as many times as they choose.
USFSA officials select the world team at senior nationals. The team represents the United States at the world championships and other international events throughout the year. The world team is usually composed of the top three performers at the senior level from each discipline, but the number of skaters who actually attend the championships depends on the U.S. team’s performance at the world championship held the previous calendar year. In Olympic years the Olympic team is also chosen at nationals.
Skate Canada is the ISU member organization overseeing figure skating in Canada. It qualifies judges, provides financial support for skaters, and conducts training for coaches. Skate Canada also holds junior and senior nationals for its top skaters, who qualify for national competition in a manner similar to that in the United States.
The Russian Figure Skating Federation is composed of more than 40 clubs, each with its own separate championships. The clubs are then split into several regions. To gain a berth at the Russian nationals, skaters must acquire a high number of competition points and finish in a high position in the qualifying regional championships. The top skaters competing at nationals are then considered by the federation for the Russian junior and senior world teams. The federation also has training programs for judges and coaches and establishes criteria for the 10 levels of advanced skaters. Junior and senior competitors must pass several tests in their respective levels before they can be considered a “master of the sport.”
The Japan Skating Federation is charged with developing eligible skaters, hosting coaching programs, and training judges. The country is split into six regions, and senior skaters (age 15 and up) must finish high in the standings to advance to the eastern or western sectionals. They must have reached the seventh test level on a scale of one to eight. Generally, 30 skaters in each discipline compete at the sectionals, with the top-half finishers moving on to nationals, where the world team is ultimately selected. Japan also holds separate national championships for skaters in the levels of novice A (ages 11 and 12), novice B (10 and younger), and juniors (ages 13–18).
The National Ice Skating Association of Great Britain (NISA) governs eligible skating in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1879, the association organizes tests for skaters and oversees competitions for figure skating, ice dancing, synchronized team skating, speed skating, and recreational skating. Figure skaters who hope to become Olympians must complete a 10-stage Skate UK program before they are eligible to take their first novice test in such disciplines as freestyle and dance. Novice skaters then become eligible to advance to junior status and finally senior.
To qualify for the British nationals, the NISA has set up 10 qualifying events for primary, junior, and senior skaters. Singles skaters must compete in a minimum of three events, while dance and pairs must compete in two events. At each competition the top 12 skaters are awarded points in descending order. When all 10 qualifying series events have concluded, the top 12 skaters in each discipline advance to primary, junior, and senior nationals.
Ice Skating Australia is the ISU member organization governing figure skating in Australia. The country is divided into five skating regions, each with its own regional championships. The top four from each discipline advance to nationals, at which the junior and senior world teams are selected. Ice Skating Australia also promotes a learn-to-skate program in ice rinks throughout the country. Skaters advance through preliminary, elementary, primary, novice, junior, and senior levels.
World championships (worlds)
Worlds are held annually, hosted by ISU member countries throughout the world. The number of skaters sent by each nation is based on the team’s performance from the previous year. A country’s final placements (in men’s, women’s, pairs, or dance) must total 11 or less in order for it to send three skaters in that discipline the next year. Otherwise, the country will be able to send one or two skaters. Not all countries automatically qualify to send even one skater, however, but skaters who would like to qualify may enter particular fall competitions that allow them to attend the world championships for that year if they place in the top six. In 1999 the ISU introduced a scoring change at worlds by instituting a qualifying round for the men’s and women’s singles events. Each skater performs a long program first. The top 30 advance to the second round—the short program—and then the final 24 compete another long program in the final round. However, all three performances count toward the final result. The first phase counts for 20 percent, the second phase (short program) 30 percent, and the final phase (free skate) 50 percent. Each team accumulates points in each discipline on the basis of order of finish. The points gained for each discipline determine how many skaters from that discipline the country is permitted to send the following year.
Junior worlds are held each year for the top junior- and certain senior-level skaters from ISU members countries. These skaters have not yet competed at the world championships and must be under 19 (for singles) or 21 (dance and pairs).
Grand Prix and Junior Grand Prix
Since the early 1990s the ISU has sponsored yearly Grand Prix and Junior Grand Prix events for the world’s top skaters. The Grand Prix consists of six events: Skate America, Skate Canada, Sparkassen Cup on Ice, Trophée Lalique, Cup of Russia, and NHK Trophy. Each event includes no more than 12 (singles events) or 10 (pairs events) entrants. Skaters who finished in the top six positions at the previous world championships are seeded at each event, and other top-level skaters from ISU member countries are also invited. Skaters earn money and points for each event they enter. Each of these skaters must enter at least two but no more than three events. Those placing in the top six from all the events will enter the Grand Prix Final, where each skater receives prize money based on final placement.
The Junior Grand Prix series gives international competition experience to promising future world-level skaters. Skaters are invited to participate by their home countries, and they must be under 19 (singles skaters) or 21 (pairs and dance) years of age when they enter. There are a total of eight events, but each skater may enter only two of them. Prize money and points are awarded for each placement, and a final event is held for the eight skaters who have accumulated the most points. Skaters who enter the Junior Grand Prix events may not enter Grand Prix events unless they participate in a different event—e.g., a singles skater who enters a pairs event at the senior level.
European and Four Continents championships
The European championships have been held since 1891 and are open to all countries in Europe. In 1948 no such restriction was stated, and two North Americans, American Dick Button and Canadian Barbara Ann Scott, both entered and won the competition as singles skaters. In Olympic years the Olympic team for those countries participating in the competition is chosen after the European championships have been completed. The Four Continents Championship was established in 1999, and participants include Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong/China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and Uzbekistan. The Olympic team for these countries is chosen at national competitions, however.
Held every four years, the Olympic Games are the most prestigious championship in figure skating. The top singles, pairs, and dance teams in the world compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals in their respective disciplines. Skaters must be 15 years of age by July 1 of the previous year to be eligible for the Olympics. The number of skaters sent by each country varies on the basis of how well its skaters performed in each discipline at the world championships the previous year. Men’s, women’s, and pairs events have been held at the Olympics since 1908, but ice dancing has been an Olympic sport only since 1976. In 2011 a team event—consisting of individual female and male skaters, a skating pair, and an ice dancing couple—was added to the schedule for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Professional ice skating
Most professional competitions are invitation-only events. Skaters competing in a professional event have usually passed their senior-level tests and competed at nationals, possibly even at worlds and the Olympics, and they may have medaled at one or more of these competitions. Because television ratings are a high priority, organizers of professional events like to fill their slots with high-profile skaters who made their name in eligible skating, although over the years a few unknowns have been able to break into professional skating because their skills blossomed after they left the eligible ranks.
At professional competitions skaters usually do two numbers—a technical and an artistic. The technical program will often include several triple jumps, footwork sequences, and spins. The artistic number includes fewer triples than would normally be seen at the eligible level, and a higher premium is put on presentation, style, and interpretation.
Professional events may also be team-oriented, so that four skaters from one country or group of countries are pitted against four from another. Scores from all the technical and artistic performances are totaled, and the team with the highest score earns the top prize.
In contrast to eligible skating, where judges must spend years honing their skills at obscure competitions, judges at professional competitions are usually selected from the ranks of international coaches and former skaters. In fact, ISU judges would lose their eligibility if they judged a professional event that was not sanctioned by the ISU. Scoring is much different as well. In eligible skating judges give technical merit and presentation marks after each performance. In the professional ranks only single marks are given for the technical and artistic events, ranging from a low of 1 to a high of 10. Professional skating also steers clear of the ordinal system, generally awarding placement solely on the basis of total points accumulated.
Ice shows are professional skating spectacles that combine the colourful movement of huge casts of skaters with all the arts of the theatre—brilliant lighting, elaborate costumes, special musical scores and choreography, and careful direction. Among the features of an ice show are big production numbers depicting fairy tales, films, classical stories, and romances.
One of the earliest ice shows was staged in 1915 at the Hippodrome in New York City. It featured German ice ballerina Charlotte Oelschlagel and an ice ballet imported from Berlin. The show, called Flirting in St. Moritz, created a sensation in New York City, ran for 300 days, and inspired The Frozen Warning (1916), the first motion picture centred on skating. Another pioneer ice show, Ice Follies, was first produced in 1936 by Oscar Johnson, Edward Shipstad, and Roy Shipstad. In 30 years it played to more than 60 million people. Later prominent shows in the United States were the Hollywood Ice Review and the Sonja Henie Ice Revue. The Holiday on Ice shows were presented on ingenious mobile rinks, complete with portable refrigeration equipment that could be set up indoors or out. In northern European countries, especially in Great Britain, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries, elaborate pantomimes with stories portrayed on ice have been popular.
Ice Capades opened in 1940 and dominated the show-skating scene for many decades. At its height the Ice Capades drew millions of fans each year and employed skaters in three different performing companies—east, west, and continental. Its stars have included Peggy Fleming, Dick Button, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn, Charlie Tickner, Scott Hamilton, Kitty and Peter Carruthers, and ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Hamill performed as a headliner in the late 1970s and then owned the Ice Capades herself for a few years in the 1990s. For years the show was successfully staging elaborate Rockettes-style showgirl themes, with gaudy props, comedy sketches, colourful costumes, and animated costumed characters from pop culture. Holiday on Ice and the Ice Follies put on similar variety shows. In the 1990s the big production numbers fell out of favour as the ice show evolved into more contemporary formats. Disney on Ice began in 1981 and signed a number of top skaters to headline. Not surprisingly, it often presents Disney’s animated movie characters on ice.
Stars on Ice was founded in 1986 by Scott Hamilton and sports agent Robert D. Kain. It features a relatively small international cast of elite skaters, many of whom are Olympic and world champions. Skaters perform individual and group numbers filled with sophisticated choreography and triple jumps. The show presents a new theme, individual routines, and original production numbers each year.
Champions on Ice, formerly known as the Tour of World and Olympic Champions, was founded and is still run by World Figure Skating Hall of Fame member Tom Collins. The primary distinction of the tour, now in its fourth decade, is that the cast includes recent world medalists and Olympic hopefuls from around the globe. In addition, the eligible cast is complemented by an impressive slate of veteran American and international stars, including Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Oksana Baiul. The cast performs individual exhibition programs, as well as elaborate opening and closing group production numbers.
Proscenium shows evolved in the late 1970s and ’80s, when skaters such as John Curry, Toller Cranston, and Robin Cousins pushed the creative boundaries of what constituted figure-skating entertainment. Many of their productions were put on in theatres. Cousins especially has distinguished himself in a variety of fields, starring in and producing Broadway-style musical ice shows in his home country of England, including Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.
Other skaters, including dance legends Torvill and Dean, put together innovative productions on regulation ice with spectacular lighting, choreography, and props. Feld Entertainment, which produces Disney on Ice, also made its mark in the 1990s by developing popular stories and stage shows such as the Wizard of Oz, Starlight Express, and Anastasia into on-ice entertainment. Meanwhile, producer Willy Bietak paired with choreographer Sarah Kawahara to produce the U.S. theatrical tour of Broadway on Ice.
Article Title: figure skating
Website Name: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Publisher: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Date Published: 13 May 2019