What Are the Different Ice Skating Disciplines?

Written By: Riedell | June 8, 2023

If you’re unfamiliar with the professional side of ice skating, it might seem as though the different disciplines of ice skating are very similar, but there are many subtle differences that make them unique. Competitive ice skating is complex, intense, and awe-inspiring to watch. The people who compete at these levels have put years of work and training into perfecting the movement and flow of every inch of their body while seamlessly and naturally performing on the ice. 

There are four main ice skating disciplines as defined by U.S. Figure Skating: singles, pairs, ice dance, and synchronized skating. Let’s explore what these ice skating disciplines are about and some of the unique aspects of each you’ll see from top level competitors. 

What is Singles in Figure Skating?

When most people think of competitive ice skating, they picture someone alone on the ice, landing complicated jumps and performing moves almost too quickly for the eye to see. Men’s and womens’ singles competitions are all about technique, style, form, concentration, and the ability to perform under intense pressure. 

Singles skating is a solo event where the skater is judged on their ability to maintain perfect form while demonstrating a range of moves. Skaters must have mastery over their posture and form as they perform spins, jumps, and complicated footwork. 

During a singles event, you’ll see the athleticism and talent of a professional ice skater who’s learned how to perform under the watchful eye of an enthusiastic crowd and sharp-eyed judges. Singles competitions are separated into two distinct parts; the short program and the free skate.

The short program is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a short section that involves spin elements, jump elements, and a step sequence. There’s very little room for error here, and skaters rely on a clean performance to earn a high score.

What is a Free Skate in Figure Skating?

The free skate section is longer, lasting four minutes for women and four-and-a-half minutes for men. This section allows skaters to show off their grace, skill, and jumping abilities. Skaters are given a broader set of requirements for this section and a maximum number of elements they’re allowed to perform. 

What is Pairs Skating?

This discipline is similar to singles, but pairs skating combines the technique and ability of singles movements with the grace, athleticism, and skill of skating in unison. You’ll see lifts, throws, and other forms of acrobatics in pairs events, which require precise timing and deep trust between partners. 

Pairs also have a short program and free skate aspect. The short program involves side-by-side jumps done in synchronicity, lifts, throw jumps, a death spiral, and a step sequence. Partners must perform using complicated technical skills and choreographed moves that display the trust and skill of the team during the free skate.

What is Shadow Skating and Mirror Skating?

Shadow skating and mirror skating are specific techniques of pairs skating that enhance the overall effect of the show. Shadow skating is when skaters perform identical movements while maintaining a distance between each other, and mirror skating is when skaters perform movements in opposite directions that mirror each other.

What is Ice Dance in Figure Skating?

Ice dance has its roots in ballroom dancing, and it’s a discipline that combines the precise technique and form of moves seen in pairs skating with exceptional choreography and the ability to move in time with the music. Teams perform complex dance patterns, maneuvers, and step sequences while showcasing a flawless interpretation of musical rhythm. 

As with singles and pairs, ice dance features two distinct segments; rhythm dance and free dance. During the rhythm dance, skaters must perform dance patterns to specific rhythms within specific tempo ranges. They must naturally execute their performance in time with the music while maintaining the precision each move requires. Elements in the rhythm dance include various lifts and step sequences that showcase the skaters’ techniques and musicality. 

The free dance segment features the same elements and moves seen in the rhythm dance, but the skaters have the freedom to choose their own music and tempo. This is the skaters’ chance to make their moves blend seamlessly with the rhythm of the music they’ve chosen and create an experience for the audience that appears effortless and flawless, despite its complex technicalities. 

What Is Synchronized Skating?

If you’ve ever seen a skating competition where 8-20 skaters perform in unison, then you’ve witnessed synchronized skating. This competition is known for the impressive demonstrations of teamwork, difficult step sequences, intricate formations, speed, and precision. As with the other disciplines we discussed, there are two segments to synchronized skating; a short program and a free skate.

You’ll see a variety of elements in synchronized skating, including some seen in other disciplines and some that only exist in this area of competition. Some elements you’ll see include creative elements, move elements, wheels, lines, blocks, circles, intersections, no holds elements, pairs maneuvers, and spins. 

The level of difficulty in synchronized skating is very high, which means every member of the team must be an accomplished athlete with experience in the other areas of skating. Synchronized skating requires advanced skills, the perfection of various techniques, and the ability to work in unison with a large group. Synchronized skating is not currently an Olympic sport, but it’s been proposed and discussed by the International Olympic Committee in the past and will hopefully be included in the near future.

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