How Do Ice Dancing and Figure Skating Differ?

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As we near the 2014 Winter Olympics, U.S. Figure Skating (USFS), the national governing body for the sport of figure skating, is hoping to make a comeback and capture people's attention in a sport that has become known for—despite the glittery costumes, graceful routines, and seemingly effortless jumps and spins—scandals, controversies, and losing competitions.

Figure skating has a long, sometimes-controversial history as one of the most-watched Olympic sports (who doesn't remember the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal?). Recently the figure skating world found itself in the spotlight after USFS awarded Ashley Wagner the third spot on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, despite a disappointing fourth-place finish, instead of giving it to Mirai Nagasu, who finished third (the official ladies team currently includes Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds, and Wagner). Although there's no official rule that says the skating federation has to base the Olympic team roster solely on the results of Nationals, it's often considered an unspoken rule that Nationals usually does determine who goes to the Olympics. USFS has only disregarded this rule a few times in history, a famous example being in 1994, when USFS gave a spot on the Olympic team to Kerrigan over Michelle Kwan who placed second in the 1994 National Championships, despite the fact that Kerrigan didn't compete in Nationals at all that year due to her (now-infamous) injury.

Ice dancing is not without its own fair share of controversy. In 2002, at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, French judge Marie-Reigne Le Gougne admitted she had been "bought off." Le Gougne voted for Russian pairs skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidz rather than Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier in exchange for a first-place vote for the French in the ice dancing competition. Ultimately her vote was discarded, and the Russian and Canadian pairs skaters shared the gold medal that year, but the incident left many people with a bad taste in their mouths about the validity of ice dancing as an Olympic sport.

There are some basic differences between the two discplines, though they are in the same "envelope" of figure skating. Probably the most notable difference is that ice dancing is thought of as ballroom dancing on ice, so the emphasis is on a graceful and entertaining routine that could easily be done on the ground. Ice dancers must dance to music that has a steady beat or rhythm, it is the only discpline in which competitors can use music with vocals, and they are scored. Figure skating focuses more on jumps, lifts, death spirals (in pairs skating), and spins, and while figure skaters are scored on the connecting footwork between all of those elements, ice dancers are judged more on the precision of their footwork. [Tweet this fact!]

Currently Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning Olympic silver medalists in ice dancing, are America's best bet for bringing home Olympic skating gold. Many analysts agree that it's unlikely that any of the top U.S. figure skaters will medal—the international competition from countries like South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Russia is just too strong. While the female American figure skaters were a dominating force for decades, over the last eight years there's been a "panic as our ladies stopped earning medals," writes Dave Lease of The Skating Lesson, and none of the ladies going this year, save for Wagner, are that widely known yet. As for the men, Jeremy Abott and Jason Brown (who became an overnight YouTube sensation after the national championships in January) could medal, but both are unpredictable.

Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see who brings home gold. Tell us: Will you be watching the Olympic figure skating competition this year? Let us know in the comments below or Tweet us @Shape_Magazine!

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