What Is Ice Dancing and How to Watch It, from an Olympic Medalist

BY: Aimee Algas Alker |Feb 14, 2014

"I don't want to spend my life on an ice rink," Ben Agosto used to say. Though he began skating as a child and won a silver medal in the 2006 Olympics, he never planned to become a coach after he stopped competing. But he did, and, he says, a whole new side of the Olympic ice sport opened up to him—he found it gave him a new challenge. "Now I understand why the great coaches, like Frank Carroll and John Nicks, have this Yoda-like quality. They are still learning."

While many of us watch ice dancing for the flourishes and costumes, which Ben is equally eager to talk about, we wanted something more. So Ben explains what is ice dancing and shares tips that would help us up our game and talk about ice dancing like pros. And, of course, we couldn't let Ben get away without talking about the time he skated in a full tuxedo.

What is ice dancing?

It's a form of figure skating that is more show, less acrobatics. Theoretically, the skaters perform moves that could be replicated on solid ground. According to Ben, ice dancing, as opposed to pair skating, requires that couples stay within two arm lengths of each other at all times. This also means that, also unlike pair skating, skaters do not perform any jumps or throws.

The skating is also done to the beat of the music, which must have a discernible rhythm, rather than matching movement to melody as in pair skating. It's often said that the sport is like ballroom dancing on ice.

What should I watch for?

"It almost looks like flying, the way skaters move effortly across the ice," Ben says. Because of this, most of us see the separate elements: the lifts, flourishes, and turns. But to tell whether an ice dancer is really good, Ben says spectators should focus what happens between those elements—in other words, "how they get from point A to point B." Here are some questions to help you gauge what's happening between the jumps.

How do they move?

Ben says we should take note of how the skaters propel themselves from point A to point B. Do they take little hops, almost skipping on the ice? Or do they push hard and glide there? Those long strides are more difficult, as it's easy to gain drag and lose momentum.

Are they "cutting deep"?

"Imagine the blade is like a motorcycle racing around the track," Ben says. On a turn, a skilled rider can take the bike almost to the ground. Now imagine that bike is a skate at the same angle—that sort of move, "just to the point of a broken ankle," is the mark of a great skater.

How much of the rink do they use?

One of Ben's coaches once said to him, "Feet must be like hungry sharks and eat as much ice as possible." Skaters should traverse the entire rink, covering as much ice as it takes to make their skates full, so to speak.

How close do they skate?

Moves in which the skaters are actually touching are called holds. Open holds—when just the skaters' hands are touching—look more dynamic, because the skaters can make flourishes and gestures; however, closed holds—when the skaters' bodies are touching—are actually much more difficult, as staying in sync and in balance is more of a challenge. So while the routine should show a good balance of closed and open holds, Ben stresses that it's the closed holds that show a pair's true skill, especially if they can keep the hold while they gain speed.

What are they wearing?

Make fun of them as much as you want, but according to Ben, the flowy, glittery costumes highlight how fast the skaters are moving. "If the pirate factor is high," he says, "a flapping shirt can have a performance all on its own."

When he performed, Ben generally preferred costumes that were more like real clothing. "I didn't want to wear a spandex onesie that looks like a tuxedo. I wanted to wear a real tuxedo." So he did: he skated in a real tuxedo, tails and all, at Skate America in 2009.

But even costumes that look more like street clothes are tailored in such a way to make them more suitable for action on the ice. For example, Ben's tuxedo had elastic stirrups on the bottom to secure them around the skates, and the jacket had elastic loops that attached to the pants to keep it from flapping open. The armholes were also made to fit in such a way that they would be more comfortable when Ben's hands were raised upward. And, of course, there's this: "Any skating shirt has briefs sewn to it so it stays tucked. I like to call this the man diaper."

Photo by Michelle Harvath



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