Ice Dance 101: Rhythm Dance

Ice dance is the least understood discipline in figure skating. Spotting the difference between the winning team and the duo in 10th place is complicated by arcane rules and technical subtleties. Ice dance at it’s best, however, is thrilling. In an effort to help more people enjoy that thrill, I’m breaking down the ice dance competition for 2018-19, starting with the rhythm dance!

What’s the difference between a rhythm dance and a short program?

While commentators will often interchange the terms short program, rhythm dance, and short dance, they are not quite the same thing. The rhythm dance (RD) is a short technical program with required elements, much like singles or pairs. Unlike those disciplines, ice dancers have restrictions on the rhythm and tempo of their music, and are often completing the exact same dance pattern–or portion thereof—as their competitors. 

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Wasn’t the rhythm dance called something else last year? Has it always existed?

Ice dance competitions have gone through several permutations. Last year, this portion of the competition was the short dance (SD), and in seasons prior to that, the original dance (OD). The RD, SD, and OD all descend from the practice of compulsory dances (CD), now called pattern dances.

Thanks for the alphabet soup. What’s a pattern dance? Is is plaid? 

Pattern dances are dances with set ice patterns, step sequences, holds, and timing. For club level training and test days teams will often skate to identical music as well as identical patterns. Fun party trick: play the opening bars of the Dutch Waltz and watch the nearest ice dancer you know break out into hives and start miming swing rolls. 

Sidebar: it wasn’t until the 2013-14 season that Skate Canada approved alternative “contemporary” music choices for pattern dances. It announced this development via a zippy press release titled “Contemporary Music for Pattern Dances: The New Age of Ice Dance.” Why this couldn’t have happened in the early 2000s when I was lurching through my umpteenth drill of the Yankee Polka accompanied by the Skate Canada Series 8 CD skipping on a boombox in my sub-Arctic rink, I don’t know. Better late than never.

Step descriptions and set patterns for the Starlight Waltz

The ISU has 33 pattern dances with set diagrams and protocols of increasing difficulty, from the bottom Novice rung (the aforementioned Dutch Waltz), to the dizzying patterns that senior level ice dancers skate in elite competition. Most of these pattern dances have existed for decades, but new ones are occasionally added. My favourites (and yours, too, if you know what’s good for you) Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier created the March (along with coaches Carol Lane and Juris Razgulajevs), which they debuted in 2016.

What’s a Compulsory Dance? (CD)

Pattern dances are the former compulsory dance (CD) portion of ice dance competition. Prior to 1967, ice dancers skated two compulsory dances as the first portion of their competitions, both selected in advance of the season by the ISU. Each team would perform the same pattern and be judged on their execution of this set dance. Compulsory dances are analogous to the compulsory figures formerly required of singles skaters. Much like pattern dance, skaters traced patterns on the ice and were judged on their ability to match the original pattern. Compulsory figures were eliminated from competition in 1990, much to the delight of everyone who loves joy.

Nothing with the word “compulsory” in the title sounds fun. What replaced the CD?

Compulsory dances lingered on until the 2009-10 season. Yes, when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won their first Olympic gold medal, they had to do it on the strength of their compulsory dances. The 2009-10 season was also the last time the Tango Romantica–this year’s pattern portion of the rhythm dance–was the season’s compulsory dance. 

Compulsory dances were slowly phased out with the addition of the original dance (OD) in 1967. The OD was intended to liven up the ice dance competition by giving teams the option to interpret a set rhythm with freely chosen music. Certain elements and restrictions shifted from season to season, but the general idea was to give dance teams two minutes and a rhythm–tango, charleston, samba, etc–and judge them based on their interpretation of the “character” of that rhythm. 

If that vague set of judging instructions sounds sketchy and ripe for exploitation you are 100% correct. In a sport plagued with judging scandals ice dance was ground zero for questionable placements based on nationality and reputation. The 1990s were an especially dark time, one where a bucket of sequins and a European passport could net you a world medal. Or maybe I just remember it with the particular frustration born from watching Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz place 3rd at Worlds four years in a row.

We’ve made it to 2010. Now what is this section of the competition called?

The original dance was replaced with the short dance (SD) in the 2010-11 season. The SD blended elements of the compulsory dances and the original dance into a new form. Ice dancers were given a rhythm and their choice of music (the OD spirit) to perform a program that incorporated sections of a predetermined pattern dance (the CD rigorousness). Dancers had the freedom to musically interpret the pattern dances in the way they saw fit, within a certain beats per minute tolerance. This theoretically provided judges grounds for apples-to-apples comparison between teams.

The 2017-18 was the last season to include the short dance segment in competition. Ice dancers completed one specific sequence from the Rhumba pattern in addition to incorporating Latin dance rhythm throughout the program. You can see Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron enter the Rhumba pattern starting at 0:45 in the video below:

2018-19 is the season of the Rhythm Dance. What does that mean?

Renaming the short dance to the rhythm dance (RD) emphasizes the core feature of this part of the competition: interpretation of a set rhythm. Ice dancers are still skating portions of a pattern dance (the aforementioned Tango Romantica) and their music much be within certain rhythmic and tempo tolerances. The rebranding of the SD is mostly semantic, just like switching the name from original dance to short dance was an attempt to standardize competition component naming across the disciplines. 

But when has ice dance ever been like the other disciplines? Figure skating in general is an explosion of glitter mixed with near nudity and questionable music choices. Ice dance elevates those tendencies into art.

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What should I look for in a good rhythm dance?

Judges are looking for superior execution of the required pattern dance section, along with clear and original interpretation of the designated rhythm. To aid this, the ISU notes the Key Points for the pattern dance segment. The Key Points ensure skaters execute clean, correct, and distinct edges, along with the correct holds. Oh, and all of this should be done musically, and at speed, with a sultry look at the judges as you pass by. Teams can earn extra GOE points by demonstrating deeper lobes in their patterns, excellent speed, and clean transitions between elements: no grasping, flailing, dead feet, or wilted free legs! 

What have we learned?

  • The rhythm dance is the new short dance, which was the old original dance, which mostly replaced compulsory dances.
  • The rhythm dance is all about the beat…and the pattern!
  • Setting tango as the required rhythm virtually ensures a sea or red and black costumes, with skaters demonstrating varied degrees of proficiency in applying red lipstick.
  • Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are going to run away with the ice dance competition this season. #BoldPrediction 

Advanced Reading

ISU Communication No. 2148, which outlines the rules and requirements for the rhythm dance in the 2018-19 season.

The technical descriptions for the Tango Romantica. This outlines the set pattern, required steps, and intended character of this year’s pattern dance.

Header/feature image ¬©International Skating Union (ISU)

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