Figure Skating 101 - March 21

What are compulsory dances?

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are trading simple costumes for a more bedazzled look this season. (Getty Images)


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By Jo Ann Schneider Farris, special to
(03/21/2008) - Ice dancing competitions at higher levels include three segments: the compulsory dance, the original dance and the free dance. Of these, the most familiar to skating fans is the free dance, since it is the segment most often shown on TV. In the compulsory dance, the rules define the steps and pattern on the ice, as well as the rhythm and tempo of the music. Since these are the same for all of the ice dance competitors, the compulsory dance is usually considered less entertaining to most viewers and seldom televised. However, this segment is very precise and difficult.

Not just a competition, it's also for tests and fun

In addition to ice dancing competitions, compulsory dances are also part of the figure skating test structure in which ice dancers progress through a series of stages -- from beginning to highly-advanced levels. Also, ice dancing can be done at a social and recreational level. Some rinks have ice dance sessions in which music is played, the name of a dance is called, and many skaters all skate the prescribed steps and pattern in a column, one ahead of the other. Many of the skaters skate as couples, and some skate the steps alone as "solo" dancers.

Ice dancing steps

Most compulsory ice dances include certain basic and standard ice dance steps that are known as strokes, progressives, chassés, slide chassés, swing rolls, cross steps, mohawks and three turns. These simple steps are learned in the beginning compulsory dances. There are more difficult steps at the higher ice dance levels.

For example, a progressive is a sequence of strokes executed on a curve. A forward progressive can look a bit like a forward crossover, but it is slightly different. In a crossover, the new skating foot is placed over the old skating foot. In a forward progressive, the new skating foot must be first placed to the side of the old skating foot and then should slide over the old skating foot. Often, progressives are done in a run or series of three steps: forward outside, forward inside, forward outside.

The Dutch Waltz -- an easy ice dance

The first ice dance that most figure skaters learn is the Dutch Waltz. All of the steps in the Dutch Waltz are forward. If a skater is able to skate forward and do some edges, he or she is usually ready to learn the steps of the Dutch Waltz.

The dance consists of a forward progressive sequence, two swing rolls, another progressive sequence, followed by an outside and inside stroke, another progressive, another swing roll, and then another forward outside and forward inside stroke. The dance is skated to waltz music.

Although the steps of the Dutch Waltz may sound simple, new ice dancers must not only learn the steps of the dance but do each step to an exact count. Edges must be held, feet must be tidy, and a certain dance posture must be attained.

Ice dancing partner holds

Even though the dances can be skated solo, compulsory ice dances are meant to be done with a partner, and there are a number of partner holds or positions. The first of these that new ice dancers learn is the Kilian position. Most beginning ice dances (like the Dutch Waltz) are skated in Kilian position. Even advanced dances can be done in this position, and one of the very fast and difficult compulsory ice dances done entirely in Kilian position is itself called, "the Kilian."

In the Kilian position, the lady and man both skate facing the same direction, with the lady on the man's right. The man holds the lady's left hand with his left hand and skates slightly behind and to her left, with his right hand placed on the right side of her waist. The lady places and holds her right hand on and around the man's right hand while bending her arm in a triangle.

In the waltz position, skaters skate facing one another with one partner skating forward and the other skating backward. The waltz position looks very much like the familiar waltz position of traditional ballroom dancing.

Another ice dancing position is the Foxtrot. When executing this, both skaters skate and face the same direction, but the hold is otherwise similar to that of the waltz position.

The Argentine Tango

The Argentine Tango was the compulsory dance chosen for the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships. The dance begins with both partners skating in Foxtrot position. The skaters perform very deep edges as they work toward the highlight step of the dance, which is the lady's twizzle done from Kilian position but concluding in waltz position. The dance is done on deep and strong edges.

If you do get to watch ice dancers compete in the compulsory dance segment of a competition, see if you can recognize any of the steps and positions that they do. Try to count to the music. Check out their footwork. Take a look at their knee bends and their body positions. Although no jumping and spinning is involved, you will soon see that what is required is very difficult.

Happy Skating!

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