A Quick GIF Guide to Ice Dance

The ice dancing competition begins Sunday with the short dance program, and features one of the most exciting rivalries at this year's Olympics between the Vancouver gold winners, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the U.S.'s dream team Meryl Davis and Charlie White. 

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The ice dancing competition begins Sunday with the short dance program, and features one of the most exciting rivalries at this year's Olympics between Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and the American dream team Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

But ice dance can be hard for the outsider to get a hang on. Without the dramatic falls of the individual or pairs figure skating competition, a viewer has to look for more nuance to determine who actually deserves to win. To help explain, we enlisted the help of Pilar Bosley, a former competitive dancer, and Colin McManus, who currently competes alongside Anastasia Cannuscio and placed seventh in this year's nationals. Here are the major elements, illustrated with GIFs.


A twizzle is ultimately just three consecutive turns across the ice. "Three turns in general aren’t considered one of the most difficult moves in skating, but when a twizzle is done properly the three turns are done so quickly that the naked eye can’t really tell that that turn is happening," Bosley explained. The skater must be constantly rotating and moving across the ice on one foot. This, is done by "a quick controlled rocking action on the blade," McManus said.

"You must have equal strength in each rotational direction, and have perfect synchronicity with your partner. That in addition to leg features (ex. blade grab/extended leg) and arm features (ex. moving arms/arm over the head or behind the back) will get you the highest level of difficulty. There is so much finesse in this skill, which makes it very easy to run into issues like putting your foot down or hitting your toe pick!"

Take for instance the twizzle sequence at right from Davis and White's free dance at the National Championships. Pairs can increase the difficulty of their twizzles to gain more points. "They have a difficult entry as they hop into the first twizzle and then immediately catch their blade with one hand (catch-foot twizzle) while they extend the other arm over their head," Bosley said. After the first turn, they "quickly push back into the second twizzle of the sequence and clasp both hands behind their back completing another 4 revolutions. All of these features combined allow Meryl and Charlie to receive the highest level for their twizzle sequence-a level 4."


Bosley said that you won't see the height in the ice dancers' lifts as you will in pairs figure skating, because the lifts can't be supported above the man's shoulder. That said, the lifts in dance have become "much more acrobatic" over the years, she noted. "They are going to rotate a lot faster than the pairs," Bosley said. "There is going to be a lot of changing of positions in the lifts. Just a lot of creative positions and transitions in the lifts just to gain the maximum level of difficulty."  To achieve a certain level of difficulty, dance teams have to hit certain patterns and positions. "There are specific lift patterns (ex. straight line, curve, and rotational), lifting positions for the man (ex. spread eagle, one foot, crouch and rotating) and positions for the lady in the lift (ex. foot to head, arched position, full split and change of pose)," McManus explained. "Within those categories there is a lot of room for creativity, especially with the way you get into a lift and exit the lift."

In the short dance one short lift, lasting six seconds, is the only lift. If a pair goes over six seconds there could be a deduction. Bosley pointed us to Madison Chock and Evan Bates's short dance from Nationals in January. "Madison moves threw a series of positions as Evan turns quickly moving across the ice," Bosley explained. "The idea is to have an effortless entry and exit out of the lift, which is hard to do when you're turning that quickly."

In the free dance, skaters are allowed to do four short lifts or two short lifts and one long lift, which lasts 12 seconds. They are allowed a fifth lift, "basically just for creativity," McManus said. McManus explained that "usually a team’s opening lift is always pretty much their most impressive," pointing to the first lift in the free dance from Russian skaters Elena Ilinkyh and Nikita Katsalapov. "She’s pretty much standing on him," McManus said. "A lot of lifts like that just have to do with a really specific balance point, and finding that balance point.

The Finnstep

In 2010, ice dance underwent a major change. The three dance competition structure — the original dance, the compulsory dance, and the free dance — was scrapped. Now there is just the free dance and the short dance. That said, within the short dance is a compulsory element, "like a ballroom on ice," Bosley said. Basically, that means, in the short dance you'll see each pair do the same pattern, and this pattern happens to be the Finnstep.

The Finnstep is, according to Ice-Dance.com, "a ballroom type Quickstep, and should be danced very lightly, so to speak 'over-the-top.' This dance is not serious, so it can even be performed a bit comically." Within the Finnstep section of their program the teams have certain steps they need to accomplish, like, for instance a move where they stop and perform steps in place. See, at right, Davis and White doing this. "The dance consists of quick footwork, twizzles, and difficult partnering," McManus explained. "One feature unique to the Finnstep is the stop dance section about half way through the dance, and that is a great opportunity for the couple to show the light character of the Finnstep."  

You'll know when a team is launching into their Finnstep because they all start the same way. You can see Virtue and Moir start their Finnstep sequence at right. McManus explained that White and Davis and Virtue and Moir have "the best Finnsteps in the world right now. That's kind of the standard that every body's put against." How can a newbie judge whether or not a Finnstep sequence is good?  McManus said: "If you feel uncomfortable watching people do the Finnstep then odds are it's not a good Finnstep." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.