Ice Dance: Crisis or Opportunity?


It has recently come to my attention that the ISU is considering downsizing Ice Dance from three events – Compulsories, Original Dance, Freedance – to two in order to make it commensurate with Singles and Pairs. This is a way to cut costs at competitions and it does make logical sense.

The problem is that most arrows point toward the eradication of Compulsory Dance at ISU competitions.

This would be catastrophic for Ice Dance and for the entire sport. As we saw with figures, their elimination from competition has resulted in extinction. If the ISU makes this decision when they discuss this topic this week at the World Championships, compulsory dances will be in similar jeopardy.

Taking compulsories out of the competitive “arena” will have serious, far-reaching and immediate ramifications. I write from the perspective of a dedicated ice dance coach who, in addition to teaching other aspects of skating, enjoys teaching compulsory ice dances and who has had anywhere from 10-15 students testing compulsory ice dances every three months for the last eight or so years. In that time, I have had a handful of ice dance teams in the competitive ranks.

I think it’s obvious that a new era of ice dance has dawned (here in the U.S., anyway). We have more ice dancers placing well in both Junior and Senior Events around the world than ever before. At Nationals this year, there were more spectators in the stands for ice dance. In fact, Senior Dance was a Saturday night, primetime event, sharing top billing with Senior Ladies. If handled correctly, this proposed downsizing could actually result in changes that would further popularize ice dance and benefit the entire sport. Eliminating compulsories all together is not the answer.

First, it’s necessary to ask the question: What is the most important factor in the continuation of this particular activity? What, in other words, does skating need in order to thrive? The answer is simple: Participation. The more kids who try skating and continue with it, the higher the level of competition, which leads to higher entertainment value, which leads to higher TV ratings and, finally to higher revenue for governing bodies. And the more exposure there is, the more skaters who are inspired to give it a try. It’s a chicken and egg situation: the ever-important bottom line is driven from both the grass roots (i.e. every local rink in the world) and from the top down (i.e. how compelling competitive skating and its stars seem.)

But in order for a large number of skaters to continue in a sport where the body type necessary to perform triple jumps (at least for girls/women) is becoming more and more specific, namely small, it’s necessary for there to be Options. This is why I am a proponent of both Ice Dance and Synchronized Skating, because a larger number of athletes and body types have the opportunity to participate and excel throughout their teenage years.

If I had never been introduced to the Dutch Waltz and then taken that test as an 8 year-old, it’s unlikely that I would ever had found my way to competitive ice dance in the first place, as a Preliminary then Novice dance team with my older brother. It is equally unlikely that I would have returned to competitive ice dance at the Junior level once it was clear that I was too tall for pair skating. It is probable that I would have quit skating at the age of 16 all together, quite possible that I would not have been drawn to coaching, and would therefore not be in the position to encourage more skaters to get interested in the sport and continue with it. And I was one of the fortunate few who had a built-in partner. It seems even less likely that skaters without partners (who might join up with partners in the future) would get involved with ice dance were it not for compulsory ice dance tests.    

One of the best parts about Figure Skating in the United States is this highly organized merit-based testing system. I can say that, as a former skater and as a coach, this series of achievable goals helps considerably to get skaters motivated and educated…in other words, hooked. No matter what skaters and their families have seen on television, it is the testing process that lends structure to those burgeoning dreams. Skating is complex and the skill set is cumulative: this is perfectly demonstrated through testing. 

In no other aspect of the sport is the testing process more effective, more-specifically focused, more rigorous and, in the end, more prestigious than in Ice Dance. The standards are high and obtaining a gold medal is extremely challenging. Many single skaters in my fleet, several of whom earn their gold medals in Moves in the Field and Freestyle, have taken up dance in order to improve their basic skating. These skaters will attest to the fact that mastering the requirements of silver, pre-gold, and gold ice dance tests is a serious undertaking indeed, requiring a great deal of practice and dedication. 

This is not a matter of comparing Ice Dance tests to Moves in the Field or Freestyle tests, because I think they all have merit. It’s a matter of identifying what differentiates Ice Dance from Singles and Pairs and how the compulsory dances contribute to that. These dances promote posture, edgework, power, neat footwork, extension, rhythm, performance, timing, and dance ability, the translation of music into movement, in both subtle and overt ways through knee action, facial expression, and body movements. The fact that these patterns have a specific layout on the ice and that they are accompanied by music is critical.    

Not only are the fundamentals of compulsory ice dances vital to performing accomplished, edge-filled and danced Freedances, but these skills are also becoming more and more essential to single skaters for step sequences, for overall transitional skating, and therefore for earning points in both their technical and component scores.

The same can be said for Pair Skating and echoed for Synchronized Skating. In fact, more and more, coaches of Synchronized teams are highly recommending and even requiring ice dance tests as a way to improve the ability of their team members and intricacy of their programs thereby increasing the competitive and entertainment value of this discipline. I dare say that, more than ever before, all parts of skating are recognizing and capitalizing on the specific skills of ice dance. And compulsory dances are the heart of this. If the ISU takes away compulsories, it will be harmful to the entire sport.

This is why I support the idea of combining the Original Dance and Compulsory Dance together as one event, literally combining them into one program. This is one of the innovative proposals of coach Bob Mock, Member of the National Ice Dance Committee. As he has recently pointed out, the Original Dance in its current form is really just another Freedance, and many teams use the same step sequences, lifts, and spins in both programs. But if teams were required to include one or two patterns of an already-existing compulsory dance into their choreography, this would have several happy consequences.

First of all, it would secure the testing process. In addition to all of the above arguments for this, it would foster the continuation of dance test sessions, which earn money for skating clubs. Second, if compulsory ice dances are couched amid original choreography, they will receive more exposure. Aspiring ice dancers would still have the opportunity to see their heroes performing recognizable patterns that they, too, have learned or will learn in the future.

Keep in mind that Single Skaters and Pair skaters attempt many of the same elements as one another such as Double Axels and Split Twists. In Freedances and Original Dances, due to the high level of innovation, there is less that is standardized and therefore recognizable. Keeping compulsory dances in the competitive realm maintains an essential sense of continuity between the lower and higher levels. (This, by the way, is the primary argument against those who would contend that compulsory dances could effectively remain in the background just like Moves in the Field. Beginner ice dancers need to be able to see some connection between what they are doing and what the dance stars are doing and this needs to happen in a public forum, in case they do not have high level dancers in their rink.) 

Furthermore, combining the two events in this manner would more firmly attach ice dance to its roots in ballroom dance: Foxtrots, Polkas, Waltzes, Sambas, Tangos, etc. In fact, the name of this combined event could be changed to something like Ballroom Dance, closely associating it with something that is extremely popular and experiencing a resurgence in our culture. Notice the popularity of the television show, Dancing with the Stars. Note also the increased tendency of couples to take ballroom lessons leading up to their weddings in order to smoothly perform that celebrated “first dance.” The term Ballroom Dance would also nicely differentiate it from the Freedance, which refers to a greater freedom as far as musical and stylistic choices. Alternatively, Bob Mock suggests that it could be called Creative Compulsory Original Dance (CCOD).        

Finally, it would be beneficial to offer more modern and appealing music for this new combined event. Perhaps the ISU could provide 3-5 songs with the appropriate rhythm for whatever dance is assigned for that competitive season and couples can choose from one of these. Or couples could obtain their own music as long as it has the number of beats per minute that correspond with compulsory requirements.  

Incidentally, over the years, I have had many skaters who have begged to work on their ice dances in their lessons or to learn the next ice dance. I repeat: I have students who beg to work on their compulsory ice dances. When time permits, and we spice them up ever so slightly with an arm movement or a bit of introductory or ending choreography, they are thrilled. Likewise, I would be remiss to not mention the large population of adult ice dancers who attend dance weekends, skate on social dance sessions, and who comprise a huge portion of the ice dance fan base. It would be a shame to lose this entire opportunity for figure skating enthusiasm. 

This potential downsizing is valid. The eradication of compulsory dances is not. Combining Compulsory Dance with Original Dance is the most logical solution. Think of it as The New Adventures of the Old Compulsory Dance: it brings compulsories more into the spotlight and lends a more standardized and recognizable aspect to original choreography. It is a win-win concept and one that I hope will be given serious consideration.


If you are similarly concerned about this situation, whether you are a coach, a skater, a parent, or a fan, please pass this link onto others and lend your voice by leaving a comment below. Other ideas and suggestions are encouraged. The ISU is tackling this issue THIS WEEK so now is the time for members of the American skating community to be heard. 

Update, April 1, 2008: For those of you wondering how “The Fate of Compulsory Dance” discussions went at Worlds, it sounds like the ISU is going to very likely downsize the dance to two events BUT so far, they have approved the idea of combining the Compulsory Dance and Original Dance into one. This has to go through a few more rounds of approval within the ISU, but tentatively, it is good news. Thanks to everyone who has written comments on this site on this topic.      




  1. Jenn · March 18, 2008

    I agree with the idea of combining the two rounds into one.

    For what its worth I’ve never thought that the word “compulsory” was all that exciting.

  2. plasma · March 18, 2008

    I am not an ice dancer, but it does seem like since the new judging system ice dance has influenced the step sequences and transition skating. And I can see how it will be difficult to get new ice dancers involved if you don’t have anything for them to do as a single skater/beginning skater.

  3. Zenskate · March 18, 2008

    I took up ice dance as an adult and it would be sad for me as an individual if these dances were phased out. But Ms Cox has also well demonstrated how this would be an unfortunate plan for skatin on the whole.

  4. Spicedaddy · March 18, 2008

    I see your concern, Jocelyn, you make and win your case.

    Even if the dances are removed from competition, which would have all the negatives you point out, I would think/hope that the compulsory dances would still fare better in an “afterlife” than figures. Why? As you point out, people like to do the compulsory dances! You say you have students who beg to do them, right? Adults like to do them, alone or together, even as a social thing, right? Now, how many skaters (save the Trixie Schubas of the world) ever begged to do figures? Probably not so many.

    Nonetheless, let’s hope the (a) grassroots interest in compulsory dances and (b) the intrinsic skating-quality value that they impart to skaters of all disciplines, let’s hope that these two things win the day to keep your dances alive and kicking in competition.

    Hey, let’s organize a lock-down/human chain around the ISU headquarters building in protest! Si Se Puede! The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated! 🙂 Just kidding. Sort of.

    Either way, don’t worry, there will still always be folks like me who wind up turning to the Dutch Waltz (soon, I promise) after getting their gold medal in moves in the field because they realize that they STILL don’t know how to skate! HA!

  5. hyael · March 18, 2008

    if it wasn’t for compulsory dances, i definitly would have quit ice dance a long time ago. they are the only thing that keep me skating, testing, and taking lessons. if they were to be “phased out” it would be a big loss for me, and for general skating community.

  6. J. Walker · March 18, 2008

    I find this information SO important to the continuity of the purity of skating. Each area that is brought forth is so logical and should be considered seriously.

  7. AR · March 19, 2008

    Combining the compulsory dance and original dance events into one is an interesting concept with much merit. I am a long-time adult ice dancer as well as a figure skating judge who fully supports your argument that the increased popularity in ice dancing not only improves the quality of skating for all disciplines but also supports lifelong participation in the sport. My observation, over my years of observing the Free dance, and even the Original Dance events, is that ice dancing is evolving more and more into “Pairs Skating without the Overhead Lifts.” Tieing at least a portion of the event to a more traditional, ballroom approach to dance will help to differentiate ice dancing from the Pairs event and will allow the athletes to demonstrate a “danced” interpretation of the music. Incorporating a portion of an existing “compulsory dance” into the overall dance helps both the judges and the spectators to truly compare technique and interpretation on the same playing field. Bravo to Mr. Mock for his creative alternative. I hope we continue to see Compulsory Dance in competition for all of the reasons that you list, but if the powers to be decide otherwise, I hope that there is a component to the event that emphasizes the Ballroom Dance roots of Ice Dancing.

  8. sitspin · March 19, 2008

    I agree that compulsory dances should be maintained somehow in competition, but if they are phased out I don’t think they’ll completely disappear like figures did because you don’t need seperate sessions for compulsory dances. It’s nice to have seperate dance sessions but it isn’t 100 percent necessary and I think in the end that was one of the biggest counts against figures.

  9. gecko · March 19, 2008

    The thought of eradicating the Compulsories is ridiculous!! I would gladly join Spicedaddy’s human chain around ISU HQ.

  10. MKasper · March 19, 2008

    AS a former dancer and as the father of a former competitive ice dancer and current synchronized team skater I can only echo your comments. If, as a culture, we keep pairing away the classical from the contemporary we are sure to lose our history. Then what are we left with: the latest craze??

  11. Jason · March 20, 2008

    I’m a long time adult ice dancer. Personally, I don’t care if ice dancing gets TV coverage. Nevertheless, I value the CD more than the OD or FD. Whenever I had to work on FD’s or OD’s for competitions, my general level of skating has suffered. This has never been true for the FD. To remove the compulsories to have only FD+OD is a movement in the wrong direction. If you really need to remove a component, remove one of the other components. So at any given level there would be CD + OD or CD + FD. And if the TV networks don’t want to show the CD, that’s fine with me. The CD is not there for the audience. It’s there help keep an objective standard of quality. With out an effective standard, it’s an art, not a sport, and shouldn’t be in the olympics. The CD’s also there to promote development of ice dance skills and to help provide a standard for social ice dancing. Regarding the latter, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of leading/following in ice dance, so having prechoreographed dances is essential for social ice dancing.

  12. BA · March 20, 2008

    I think combining the OD and CD is a good idea. Doing away with figures was the worst thing that has happened to Figure Skating in its entire history as a competitive sport. Surely doing away with the CDs would result in a similar horrific result. I hope the ISU reads the comments to your blog!

  13. Martina · March 24, 2008

    Ice Dance is a beautiful sport and they should leave it just as it is. Not all change is good. Is skating better w/out figures??
    Go Joc!!

  14. sony · March 25, 2008

    for the sake of the sport and all skating disciplines, i truly hope the isu strongly considers the combo option. spice up the boring, don’t be redundant and stay true to the roots. keep us posted.

  15. Old Skool · March 25, 2008

    I am having difficulty letting go of the comupulsory dances in their current form. We have reduced the number of patterns required in competition, reduced the number of patterns required for testing, and repeatedly raised the level where solos are required for tests. If the choice is between combining them and deleting them, then combine away, but I wish they could have a larger and more traditional roll. Give us atleast something where we can compare the competitive teams apples-to-apples…..

  16. Stacey · July 26, 2009

    I don’t understand why having three dance events is an issue. They hold qualifying rounds at most of these events for the singles skaters so they technically get three events too. The compulsories are such an important event to rank in. I can’t imagine the chaos of trying to sort out placement without that benchmark.

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