So Sammi asked me tonight to write a bit about the difference between ice dance and pairs skating. Both disciplines are similar but they are very different! I’ll give you some of the similarities as well as highlight the differences. I’ll explain the difference in details and then at the end briefly cover the differences.

First in the short program/short dance

One of the first similarities is that in the short program, the time allotted is the same: two minutes and fifty seconds.  In both disciplines, the short dance/short program is more technical sort to speak because the couples need to pack in a list of elements into that short time. Lastly, the disciplines have a step sequence (though see later. This step sequence is different for ice dance).


Now the differences in the short program/short dance.


In Pairs skating, there is a list of seven required elements. They are as follows:

  • A Step Sequence
  • A hand to hand lift take off (usually a Lasso lift from either a forward or backward entry). A hand to hand means that the man cannot lift the lady by say her foot or thigh.
  • A Death spiral that is from a backward outside edge entry. This means the lady will be going backwards and leaning on her outside edge of her blade
  • A double or triple split twist. Most of the top couples do a split triple twist. Look for tight form in the ladies and a clean exit (not “crashing” down on to the man’s shoulder)
  • A spin combination that must have at least one change of foot and one change of position
  • A throw jump. In the short program, the top couples will do a throw triple. While several of the top couples have a throw quadruple, this throw is not allowed in the short program
  • One side by side solo jumps. Again, the top couples do triples



Ice dancing is the newest of the figure skating disciplines only starting in the 1976 Olympics (though been competing it since 1952). While it has definitely evolved since then, ice dance’s background is ballroom dance (probably why I’m drawn to it ;D). This root in ballroom is the main difference in style for the short program or “short dance”. Each year the International Skating Union (ISU) gets together and decides a step pattern that must be competed for the upcoming season. This season (2013/2014) it is the Finnstep. The Finnstep is probably the most complicated and hardest step pattern for ice dance. This video is an excellent source for understand the pattern! In addition to the Finnstep (which I love the music, hate the pattern ;)), the short dance requires:

  • A short lift, which cannot exceed six seconds. This is where you will probably see most of the decisions in the short dance
  • A midline (starting halfway through the ice) or circular step sequence
  • And one set of sequential twizzles (ie: more than one set)
  • Time in what those who watch ballroom dance or Dancing With the Stars, called, ballroom hold


So for ice dancing at the Olympics, because of the Finnstep, look for lots of quickstep music! 

In the long program (pairs skating)/ free dance (ice dancing), the differences are more glaring. 

In the Pairs free skate (long program), the time is four minutes and thirty seconds and is of course “more free”. It is one of the most difficult events in skating. In the pairs program you will see:

  • Three lifts (one must be from group 3 or 4 with fully extended arms for the man. There are different groups of lifts, each having its own unique style). 
  • One twist lift, usually a triple twist
  • Two different throw jumps. Here is where teams who have a quad will use it. 
  • One side by side jump
  • One jump combination or sequence (IE: side by side triple toe, triple loop)
  • One side by side spin combination
  • One pairs spin combination
  • One death spiral
  • And one step sequence


Like the men and ladies, jumping and throwing elements done past the halfway point have a 10% bonus.


As for the “free dance” in ice dancing, it’s all about the dance and the expression of the dance. I truly feel that the free dance is one of the most creative disciplines. The free dance is four minutes long and contains elements the following:

  • At least one set of synchronized twizzles (these will be key for the top teams)
  • Two different short lifts and one long lift or four short lifts that are of three different types
  • One transitional dance lift. 
  • Two step sequences (one has to be either midline or diagonal across the ice, the other either circular or serpentine)
  • One dance spin or “pairs” spin


So here are some of the major key differences:

  • In ice dance: vocals are allowed! The only discipline that allows them (though this will be changed by the 2018 games
  • In pairs: Lifts go OVER the head. This is not allowed in ice dance. If it does, it’s a deduction
  • In ice dance: look for more innovative lifts. Lifts in ice dance are very intricate while in pairs, they tend to be basic (though they are not). Now in pairs you will see complicated choreography into the lifts, the lifts in ice dancing are this plus intricate lifts.

I hope this helps in understanding the differences and similarities between Pairs and ice dancing!

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