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Figure Skating 101 - Feb. 1

The scary world of death spirals

New U.S. pairs champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker perform a death spiral during their short program at the 2008 U.S. Championships.
New U.S. pairs champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker perform a death spiral during their short program at the 2008 U.S. Championships. (Paul Harvath)

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By Jo Ann Schneider Farris, special to icenetwork.com
(02/01/2008) - Every week icenetwork.com takes you through the ins and outs of figure skating. This week, Jo Ann Schneider Farris looks at death spirals, breaking down the move's basics, as well as its origin.

A death spiral is a beautiful and dramatic pairs skating move. In a death spiral, the man does a back outside pivot and holds the lady's hand. The woman circles the man on a forward or backward, outside or inside edge. As the move is performed, the lady's body is in an almost parallel position to the ice, and her head is dropped back.

The one-handed death spiral was first performed by Canadian pairs champions and 1948 Olympic bronze medalists Suzanne Morrow and Wallace Distelmeyer. Later, the move was made famous by pairs skating legends Liudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, the 1964 and '68 Olympic champions. Liudmila's head came very close to touching the ice when they did the move. Belousova and Protopopov are also credited for inventing variations of the death spiral.

Those new to pairs skating sometimes try an easier move called a pivot spiral. In a pivot spiral, the lady performs either a forward or backward spiral around the man as he does a pivot. Like the death spiral, the man holds the lady by the hand and pulls her around in a circle.

The man must be able to do a good back outside pivot in order to do a death spiral. The back outside pivot begins by skating backward on one foot with the free leg extended back. The back outside edge will make a complete circle as the skater continues to reach back with the free leg. Finally, the free toe is placed into the ice. Next, the skater makes a complete back outside circle around the planted toe. Doing a good back outside pivot is not easy. To get credit for a death spiral, the man must make the pivot last for a full revolution while the lady maintains the death spiral position.

New pairs skating teams have trouble with death spirals at first, but once the move is mastered, most pair skaters enjoy doing the move. Cynthia Van Valkenburg, a prominent figure skating coach and former U.S. junior national pairs champion, talked about her long program, one that ended with a back outside death spiral. She said that when she entered the move, she just laid back, took a breath, and relaxed.

So, the next time you watch pairs skaters do a death spiral, remember that, although the move looks hard, the skaters may actually be having fun performing it!

Happy Skating!

For more information on the fundamentals of figure skating, visit the U.S. Figure Skating's Basic Skills Program.