What's the difference between pairs skating and ice dancing?

Some winter sport disciplines may seem similar, but a closer look shows the differences between them are extensive. Do you know your ice dancing from your pairs skating? Could you explain the difference between slopestyle and Big Air? Don’t worry; Olympics.com has you covered with a new series explaining the nuances of the sports you’ll see at Beijing 2022. 

By Indira Shestakova
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

For inexperienced spectators, the figure skating disciplines of pairs skating and ice dancing may seem exactly the same; but if you look closely, you'll notice key differences in several elements of each.

Ice dancing made its Olympic debut at the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, while pairs (and men's and women's singles) has been on the programme since 1908. Initially, pairs simply danced on ice but over time this discipline started turning into a more "acrobatic" one.

What are the differences between the sports?

Clothing

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that the two events in the disciplines have different names. Competition is held in the short and free program in the pairs discipline, while in ice dancing the events are rhythm dance and free dance.

At first glace, it seems impossible to determine which competitors are performing on the ice - pairs or ice dancers - because the skaters look the same. There was a time when the distinction was obvious thanks to a rule in ice dancing stating female skaters must wear skirts or dresses; whereas in pairs skating trousers were permitted. However that rule has since changed and female athletes can now wear trousers in ice dancing as well.

Before the 2021/22 season ladies in Ice dancing were allowed to wear trousers only in the rhythmic dance. In that photo Alexandra Stepanova of Russia and Ivan Bukin compete at the 2016 Skate Canada
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Competition elements

The main difference between the two disciplines is a glaring one: in ice dancing, the skaters barely jump. It's the only figure skating discipline in which no jumps are allowed (outside of single jumps). The other elements prohibited in ice dancing are throw jumps, twist lifts, overhead lifts and other moves which are close to acrobatics. Besides that, partners in this discipline should not skate separately for a long time and ice dancers should be no more than two arms’ lengths apart; whereas in pairs skating, figure skaters can perform a number of elements at a distance.

In ice dancing the key elements are twizzle (a travelling turn on one foot with one or more rotations which is quickly rotated with a continuous action), pattern dance, lift, spin, step sequence and choreographic elements.

The main elements in pairs skating are difficult to perform; these include twist lifts (the male athlete lifts his partner over his head and tosses her into the air; the female skater completes up to three rotations before being caught at the waist), pair lifts, throw jumps (partner assisted jumps in which the lady is thrown into the air by the man on the take-off and lands without assistance from her partner), jumps, death spirals and spins.

Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot in the middle of the throw jump
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

The most decorated skaters in ice dancing and pairs

  • Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the 2010 and 2018 Olympic champions (they are also the 2018 Olympic gold medallists and 2014 silver medallists in the team event) and the 2014 Olympic silver medallists.
  • Soviet athlete Irina Rodnina is the only pairs skater to win three Olympic gold medals (with Alexei Ulanov in 1972 and with Alexander Zaitsev in 1976 and 1980).

Music

Only 12 years ago, at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, there was a difference between ice dancing and the other figure skating events – it had three performances, not two. Instead of short and free programs, ice dancers performed compulsory dance, original dance and free dance. In the 2010–2011 season a new ice dance competition format was introduced, incorporating just two segments: the short dance (renamed the rhythm dance) and the free dance. For the former, the ISU determines a specific theme for each season; for the Olympic year of Beijing 2022 that theme is blues and street dance.

Thus, the skaters in the compulsory segment of the program, which is called the pattern, need to show exactly the type of a dance that was set for the season, a step sequence and spins that meet the ISU requirements. The music for the rhythm dance is chosen by the teams, but it must match the assigned theme, rhythm and tempo.

The difference in pairs skating is that the athletes themselves choose any musical theme for their performances in both programs.

Number of participants

There is an opinion that ice dancing is easier than pairs skating, which could explain where there are usually more participants in ice dancing at the World Championships. For example, in 2021, 32 duets participated in ice dancing, and 24 in pairs skating. In 2019 the ratio was 27 to 19.

The number of participants at the Olympics is limited. At Beijing 2022, only 19 duets will be able to perform in pairs skating, and 23 in ice dancing.

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