Feb 17, 2010

A tutorial

As always, every four years, everyone's talking about figure skating. I won't even dignify the "it can't be a sport because sequins" haterz. Icemom said it pretty well already anyway.

This is the first games I've watched with the world, so to speak, via social media on Twitter, Facebook, Skype and the SM links on the Olympic site. And it was quite a revelation. I spend my days around figure skaters, former figure skaters, parents of figure skaters and people who work at skating rinks.

We all know a LOT about figure skating.

What I didn't know is that other figure skating fans don't know a lot about figure skating. I always figured that if you're a fan you know the difference between a lutz, a loop, a toe loop and a flip. I figured you could tell when a spin is slow, or when a skater has superior edge quality.

But if Twitter is any guide, this is not the case. People are utterly mystified by the scoring because they really don't think of it as sport-- they think of it as art, and everyone knows, as the old joke says that with art, you don't have to understand it, you just have to know what you like. And people LIKE Patrick Chan. They liked some of the also-rans who scored low.

So here's a quick tutorial on the FAQs from last night. You can really train yourself to spot these subtleties, and it will help you understand that, yes, it's a sport.

There are 8 basic jumps, in order of difficulty- Salchow, Toe Walley, Toe Loop, Loop, Walley, Flip, Axel, Lutz. No one does walleys anymore, and I haven't seen a toe walley in decades, so don't worry about them. Skaters love it when performers do walleys, and the announcers will go crazy if someone does one.

Edge jumps lift off the gliding edge. Toe jumps use the toe of the free leg as a vault. On an inside edge the skater's upper body will be facing into the circle he or she is on. On an outside edge the skaters body will be facing out of the circle he's on.

All jumps described for clockwise skaters (only 1 in 15 or so skaters are ccw, Johnny Weir being one). For CCW, same edge, other foot.

Salchow is an edge jump off a left back inside edge. Toe Loop: toe assisted jump off right back outside edge (RBO). Loop, edge jump RBO. Flip, toe assisted LBInside. A footwork sequence into a flip is a required element in singles skating. Actual back flips ala Michael Weiss, Surya Bonaly and Scott Hamilton are illegal (and I once saw someone faceplant out of a back flip, so I'm with them on this one). Axel, edge jump with forward take off, LFO edge (everyone recognizes this one because of the dramatic forward launch). Lutz, toe assist, LBO. Lutz is a "counter jump," that is it changes rotational direction at the launch. The edge traces a clockwise circle, but the jump rotates CCW. Lutz is the jump with the long entry edge.

It matters if the skater takes off on the correct edge, because it changes the difficulty of the jump. It matters if the jump is underrotated. It's not a triple if it doesn't go around 3 times, just like a touchdown doesn't count if it doesn't cross the goal line, no matter how long the run or the pass was, or how elegant the player.

If you get good at watching, you can tell what jump is coming up by the skater's body language and positions. One of the wonderful things about YuNa Kim is that you cannot tell what jump she is going to do, in fact sometimes you can't even tell that she is setting up for a jump. Kwan had this ability as well; it's one of the things that makes their skating look so "easy."

A jump combination is two or more jumps in a row with no connecting steps. A jump sequence is any number of jumps with connecting steps between any of them. The little half and whole rotation hops that skaters do don't get points for jumping, but are counted as footwork and transition.

Edge quality
Edge quality refers to the skater's control of their blade. Someone with good edge quality skates with minimal snowy curves, no ankle wobble, and steady-as-a-rock upper body. You can really see this on the ladies' spiral sequences. Good edge quality also gives you clean turns and steps (no scraping sound). Edge quality is the defining skill of a high level skater. You don't get the big jumps without the edge quality. As I like to tell my little skaters, my 90-year-old granny can jump, but she can't hold a back outside edge all the way around a face-off circle on a single push.

Quickie on spins
There are three basic spin positions: upright, camel, sit. Upright inludes those leg stretchers, and Biellmans (the upright backbend). That hideous spin where the skater bends at the waist FORWARDS and grabs a foot (butt is now sticking up in the air) is actually an upright spin, as is a layback. The camel is the one in the arabesque position. Skaters wave their arms around and keep changing the g*ddam position because the scoring system gives them points for multiple "features" i.e. waving their arms around and changing positions.

The other disciplines
Pairs skating is mostly singles skills with the addition of lifts, which makes you wonder why so many failed singles skaters switch to pairs. Man, if you can't do the singles, you're not going suddenly be a genius at pairs.

Ice dance focuses on partnering and edge quality, and believe it or not is the most demanding from a training standpoint, because dancers have to master four programs a year-- 2 compulsories, a short program (the Original Dance) and a long program (the Free Dance). The ISU chooses which compulsories will be skated; everyone trains the same ones. Don't get me started on how Code of Points has ruined ice dancing, we'll be here all night.

Twitters' a blast-- come follow me and all my "tweeps" during all the skating. If you're really into it, you can watch the skaters that NBC doesn't care about, or that they're apparently blocking on the west coast, on Bulgarian National TV, here, in real time.


  1. :x this is awesome, thanks.

    I've always been _interested_ in figure skating, but never really tried following it properly until now (which, considering the time difference between Canada and Norway is a rather insane thing to do during a regular work week 8D).

    I'm a very musical person, so my main interest in figure skating to begin with was to see how they interpret the music chosen and make the choreography work. I was surprised to find that I genuinely love watching this sport, and would love to try and follow it more regularly. But yeah, as to be expected, all the different jumps and techniques and such is a completely mystery to me. I definitely have some studying to do, ahahha. In the meantime I hope you can forgive that the main things I comment on when watching is the music and the costumes ;)

  2. I love any comments that are to the point. It's the people who apparently hate figure skating yet feel compelled to say stupid hateful things that I could do without.

  3. how do they judge the compulsory dance?

  4. Compulsory dance is judged on accuracy of steps and pattern, proper partnering such as matching extension and body line, good use of dance holds, size of pattern, speed and deep edges, and proper expression of the dance (last part very subjective. My daughter failed her Silver Tango 3 times bc they didn't like her "tango expression"). Specifics on Tango Ro here: http://www.ice-dance.com/events-results/reports/2010/tech.html