Your complete guide to Olympic ice dancing

February 16, 2014

Charlie White and Meryl Davis skate in October in Detroit. (Harry How/Getty Images)

If there is any competition you should be watching in the Winter Olympics, it should be ice dance.

I’m not kidding. There was a time when ice dancing was the joke of the Games, featuring avant garde performances and predictable results. But the best part of the convoluted judging system that replaced the accessible 6.0 system was that it found a quantifiable way to measure ice dance. The more objective standard coincided with a rise in the standings of teams of ice dancers from North America, who are guaranteed to provide one of the most compelling narratives in the games.

For the past five years, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White have been trading championships and placements with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won the Olympics in 2010. Davis and White usually win matchups through the year, with the Canadians getting stronger with each competition. Virtue and Moir are a clutch team, unlike their fellow Canadian Patrick Chan, and usually perform their best at the big events. No one knows who will win at the Olympics.

Their rivalry has been lifelong, starting when Charlie and Scott played hockey together as kids. They also train under the same coach, Marina Zueva, in the same rink. Together, they have pushed the sport of ice dance to stratospheric levels of athleticism and distanced themselves from their competitors.

But the competition doesn’t stop there: There will be at least five teams  two from Russia, one from France, another Canadian pair, and another from the U.S.  who will likely be  fighting for the bronze medal. This is the most competitive of the disciplines.


Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada perform in Sochi. (Barbara Walton/EPA)

Virtue and Moir are fighting to solidify their legitimacy as the best ice dancing team since Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They are a team of exquisite detail  pointed toes, extension body lines  and have tremendous chemistry on the ice.

Davis and White are different. They are rugged and powerful and fast. They are fighting for the United States’ first chance at a gold medal in ice dance, and likely the only medal for the U.S.  in figure skating’s individual disciplines.

Seriously, you should be watching this competition. If you like Dancing with the Stars, you’ll love ice dance. If you like impossible lifts based on Cirque Du Soleil, you’ll love ice dance. If you’re shallow enough to watch sports just to look at people’s bodies, of whatever gender, you’ll also love ice dancing. They are the sexiest athletes of the Olympics.

We’re going to go through some of the basics of ice dancing so you can distinguish one team from another. It’s good to get the basics down in the first phase of the competition, the short dance, because judges are evaluating on basics.

I’ll be live tweeting and fielding questions about ice dancing on twitter @newsbysamuels during television coverage this evening. We’ll go through the strengths and weaknesses of the top teams on Monday, along with some predictions for who might win.

You might be asking: What’s the difference between ice dancing and pairs?

The event starts Sunday with the short dance. Unlike the other three disciplines of figure skating, there are no jumps in ice dance. Unlike pairs, the dancers are also not allowed to lift their partners over the head. Instead they’ll impress judges with dizzying steps, deep edges (How can you tell an edge? A lean of the body), speed  and musicality. The only discipline that’s allowed to use lyrics in their routines, ice dancing is distinguishable because the routine must be able to be replicated in a ballroom or on a modern dance stage, not just the ice. Most pairs would fail epicly at this.

In the first phase of competition, every couple has two tasks to perform. The first is to interpret a form of dance  this year, it’s either the quickstep, the Charleston, a swing dance or a fox trot. These are joyous, fast dances akin to something you’d see in The Great Gatsby. At some point they all are required to do a pattern called a “Finnstep,” so named because it was first performed in 1995 by an energetic team, Susanna Rahkomo and Petri Kokko, from Finland. Every couple will perform a part of this routine in their original dance. Here it is:

If they are all basically doing the same thing, how can you tell the difference?

For ice dancing, it’s mostly in their feet. Don’t get distracted by anything else. Great couples skate quickly and close together. Their feet are usually in perfect sync with one another. They spend more time in a dance hold, with all four arms locked, than they do skating in an “open” fashion, with only two arms locked. And the edges here are most important. The deeper your body leans from side to side, the more points you get.

The big distinguishable move in ice dancing  it’s quadruple jump, if you will   is called the “twizzle.” It is the moment when the couple will grab one of their blades and do fast traveling spins on the ice. The best are in fast and done in perfect timing with one another. It looks like this:

Davis and White demonstrating the twizzle in this picture, from about.com Davis and White demonstrating the twizzle in this picture, from about.com

Watch the dancers’ feet when they do this move. If one puts the foot off the ice down before the other, it is a big mistake.

The twizzle is the weak spot of Canadian’s Virtue and Moir  and the American team has often used it to their advantage. Along the twizzles and the Finnstep, the dancers will have to complete a lift and a section of fancy footwork.

As for the costumes, they have to fit the character of the dance. Because the original dance is a pattern dance from the early 20th century, I wouldn’t expect to see anything to ridiculous. The last Olympic original dance was to “folk music,” which led to this epic fail:

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabilin lost their lead after wearing this ridiculous costume, patterned after Aboriginal garb.  From: Wikipedia. Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabilin lost their lead after wearing this ridiculous costume, patterned after Aboriginal garb. From: Wikipedia.

More Olympics news:

Ice dance gold could become a U.S.-Canada border war

At Winter Olympics, many medals rest on judges’ decisions

Kessel’s hat trick leads U.S. to 5-1 hockey win vs. Slovenia

Lindsey Jacobellis falls again while leading snowboard cross semifinal

U.S. Alpine skiing drought ends in unlikely fashion

Mikaela Shiffrin: “I’m going for a medal in two events’

If you like football, you’ll love curling

In Russia, U.S. hockey victory tainted by controversy

Wise: The night I was certain our Russian hockey bar was gone

Photos from Day 9 | Daily TV schedule | U.S. medal winners

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.
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