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What is Ice Dancing?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Ice dancing has a long and distinguished history as both an art form and a style of figure skating. First developed around the turn of the 20th century in the United Kingdom, it is meant to be an example of ballroom dancing that takes place on the ice. The sport continues to delight people all over the world.

This type of event requires the presence of two figure skaters working together. As with all types of pairs skating, there is a need to choreograph the routine, making sure the movement is fluid and natural. Unlike many forms of figure skating, ice dancing is not meant to include a number of gymnastic style moves and plunges.

The idea behind ice dancing is to present a graceful and entertaining routine that could easily be moved to a ballroom floor and still be performed with similar results. To that end, the dancers need accompanying music that has a steady beat, which is also a difference with other forms of pairs skating. Interestingly enough, this event is just about the only form of ice skating presentation that will allow the use of vocals in the accompanying music.

Ice dancers can be penalized in competitions if they attempt to incorporate more spectacular moves into their routines. For example, too many lifts would be frowned upon, as well as an overabundance of one partner swinging the other out. For many years, a pair that chose to present a dance had to remain within the traditional dance hold. To some degree, this requirement has been lifted for modern competitions, although the dances are not supposed to ever be any more than two arms lengths away from one another.

The event immediately caught on in the United Kingdom, becoming popular enough during the 1920s to inspire a number of competitions. By the middle of the 20th century, the event was beginning to cultivate an international audience. In 1952, it was first included in competitions at the World Figure Skating Championship. By 1976, it was also featured as a formal competition at the Winter Olympic Games.

Well into the 1970s, ice dancers from the United Kingdom dominated the competitions. During the 1980s, however, Russian contenders began to win awards for ice dancing and developed a reputation of providing a colorful and exciting element to the sport. Using brilliant costuming and exaggerated facial expressions, they began to carve their own niche in the field, and have remained a viable force to this day.

As the 20th century drew to a close, governing boards for various ice dancing competitions began to encourage a return to the more conservative style of dancing, pulling the sport back toward its ballroom dancing roots. This caused a bit of an uproar, stating that the restraints being placed on competing teams was resulting in boring routines. To compromise, many of the restrictions were lifted and the use of stage lighting and other technical effects were encouraged. This has kept some room for ice dancing to retain its connection to ballroom style moves, while still allowing for dancers to demonstrate their ability to perform unique routines and techniques.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Sports&Hobbies, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By anon143819 — On Jan 17, 2011

just because it requires advanced training doesn't make it a sport. Being a surgeon requires advanced training. I don't think surgery is a sport. (There are athletic competitions that are not sports, you know.)

By anon133671 — On Dec 11, 2010

I am an ice dancer and I can tell you that this article is full of mistakes.

To clarify, the only part of (modern) ice dancing that can be compared to ballroom dancing is the compulsory dances. There's approx 30 of them: set dance patterns of increasing difficulty with different styles (blues, tango, waltz, foxtrot, etc.) that you can take tests for and move up levels. Although Skate Canada is slowly taking the compulsory dances out of competition, they are still currently being used.

Next, there are restrictions in every discipline of skating. If you do too many lifts, you aren't just frowned upon, you get deducted points for illegal moves. Every level gets to do a certain amount of lifts, and only certain kinds. Same for pairs. Same for singles; they have a limit to the amount of jumps they can do.

And I have no idea what "an overabundance of one partner swinging the other out" is supposed to mean; I've never heard of that in my life.

Also, the music can be anything you want, for your free dance or short dance, anyway. Compulsories are skated to a set list of 6 different ISU songs per dance. But think about Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skating to "Great Gig in the Sky" and "Money" by Pink Floyd (last year?)... I'm pretty sure they didn't pick those songs for their "steady beat."

Furthermore, you're not going to see "stage lighting and other technical effects" at any respectable competition or practice. That kind of stuff is reserved for ice shows.

By anon124776 — On Nov 07, 2010

Ice dancing is a sport! It requires advanced training like any other.

By anon76026 — On Apr 08, 2010

i think if ballroom dancing is a sport and at the olympics then so should ice dancing. i am not sure if ballroom dancing is a sport by definition or at the winter olympics. -doing a report in america

By ivanka — On Jan 18, 2010

Just wondering if ice dancing was ever discussed as not being a sport therefore not belonging at the Winter Olympics?

Ice dancing is beautiful to watch, elegant and graceful, and I am sure demanding, but is it a sport?

After all, there are no ballroom dancing competitions at the Summer Olympics, correct?

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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