Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Competitive Figure Skating Works

        Entertainment | Olympics

Competitive Figure Skating: Testing and Types
Oksana Baiul competes in the 2000 Winter Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Oksana Baiul competes in the 2000 Winter Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Photo by Craig Ambrosio

Names such as Katarina Witt, Oksana Baiul and Brian Boitano elicit images of grace, beauty and explosive strength in the minds of people who dream of filling their skates. For most skaters, reaching superstardom is a long shot -- it takes an immense amount of dedication and time to get there. Fortunately, there are many levels that figure skaters of all ages can compete at, including championship, juvenile, intermediate, novice, junior, senior and adult. U.S. Figure Skating enforces only two age requirements for testing purposes: Skaters testing for an adult level must be at least 21 years old, and those testing for senior status must be 50 or older.

At each level there are different classes of tests that all competitive skaters must pass to participate in qualifying competitions. The intensity and required proficiency increases with every testing level. U.S. Figure Skating (which abides by the stipulations set forth by the International Skating Union) classifies these tests as follows.

  • Moves in the field -- Skaters must display smooth turns, great posture and seemingly effortless flow on the ice.
  • Free skate -- Skaters are required to show good form and precise choreography while completing axels, lutzes, two other single jumps and solo spins. (You'll read more about these maneuvers in the next section: "Key Moves in Competitive Figure Skating.")
  • Pairs -- Testing requires partners to complete synchronized double or single jumps, jump combinations, one pair and one solo sit spin and three different lifts, among other elements.
  • Compulsory dance -- Testers must show excellent technique, timing and expression in any one of a number of styles, including swing dance, cha-cha, European waltz and the tango.
  • Free dance -- This test includes elements such as lifts, spins and step sequences.

To compete at the top level, skaters must qualify first at regional events, then the sectional championships. If a skater qualifies at sectionals, he or she receives an invitation to the U.S. Championships, a huge honor considering that only the top four competitors at each of the three sectional events are invited.

There are five major types of competitive figure skating: men's singles, ladies' singles, pairs, ice dancing and synchronized team skating. Components for each of these competition types may not be exactly the same at international competitions, such as the Olympic Games, but they're very similar.

In individual skating, competitors must perform both a short and long program. The short program requires skaters to showcase eight elements (a combination of jumps, footwork and spins) in less than two minutes and 40 seconds. The long program, or free skate, allows skaters to showcase more artistic ability and is worth two-thirds of the skater's score. Men are given four minutes, 30 seconds, and women have four minutes to perform the long program, which has few (if any) technical requirements.

Pairs skating requires many of the same technical elements as individual skating, but also specifies that each pair perform lifts and throw jumps. Pairs must also prove their mettle by skating in sync with each other.

In synchronized/precision skating, teams of 16 to 24 members compete. Complex formations, single jumps and synchronized footwork are all required elements of a good program. Teams perform both a short and long/free skate program. Judges pay particular attention to synchronicity, formations, spacing, footwork and arm motions.

Ice dancing is an offshoot of ballroom dancing and requires strong attention to timing and rhythm. Ice dance partners are prohibited from doing lifts any higher than the male partner's shoulders, and jumps aren't allowed. Ice dancing competitions require pairs to perform two compulsories, dances chosen by the International Skating Union (ISU), such as the tango or waltz. Skaters perform an original dance, which they choreograph and choose the music for, as well as a free dance (similar to a free skate).

Next, we'll take a closer look at the technical elements of the skaters' programs.