Jun 23, 2013

Baby pairs and dance

If you have a boy in figure skating, sooner or later someone is going to approach you about pairs or dance. If you have the time and financial wherewithall, think about it.

Especially if you have Nationals ambitions, pairs and dance is a great route, because the field is so small. While the rules have recently been changed to make Sectionals more competitive in these disciplines, you're still up against maybe 10 or 12 teams in your level, rather than hundreds (girls) or dozens (boys) of other skaters.

Thank you to Christopher Hyland, national dance coach (and good friend), for help with this post.

Here are some issues you might encounter: 

Ew, girls
Coaches will start eyeballing boys for the team disciplines as early as Delta, but more commonly around FS4-5/Pre Juvenile. When a boy lasts in figure skating long enough to reach low freestyle  he's generally over the ew-girl factor, because he spends all his time in the girl zone.

When do you need a coach who specializes in pairs and dance?  
For beginners, especially if you're doing something like ISI "Couples", your freestyle coach is probably fine for the very beginner skills. For dance you will need a dance coach from the outset to teach the patterns. As you progress, competitive teams will have a multitude of coaches-- personal coach, team coach, spin coach, jump coach, choreographer.  This is because the elements in dance and pairs are highly specialized.  However, at ISI Pairs 1, most coaches with competence through high freestyle know the basic lifts and pairs spins.  Kids that low are not doing throws, but even throw waltz jumps are generally within the capability of many coaches.

How do I know if my coach really knows what they're doing?
Ask the coaches whether they have taught or competed the following elements-- simple pairs/couples spin, throw waltz jump, lasso lift, drapes. Over Couples/Pairs 3 you must have a specialized Pairs coach, for safety if nothing else. Ask for the resume and check the resume. I hate to tell you but coaches have been known to exaggerate their background. If you are competing at USFS Pairs or Dance you need a coach who has either competed or had competitive teams in the discipline.

How does the coaching fee work when there are two kids in the lesson?
 It is typical for Pairs and Dance coaches to split a lesson fee between the skaters for joint lessons. You can expect coaches in specialty disciplines to charge a higher fee than non-specialty coaches (although they don't always). Sometimes a coach will add a small premium of 10-20% for joint lessons, but are still splitting the hourly fee.  I do hear of specialty Pairs/Dance coaches charging full fee to both parties (and thereby getting double their regular hourly rate). I asked Chris about this and he thought it was an abusive practice, and should be questioned, especially if your coach is not a pairs/dance specialist.

You will also still need to continue your freestyle lessons (with the same or a different coach), and will have to work off-ice, either with the pairs/dance coach or an off-ice specialist.

Off Ice training
For dance and pairs, because of the lifts, and in pairs the throws, strength training is an absolute must. Teams will also need to do additional off-ice artistic training to learn the lifts and throws on the floor first, before taking them onto the ice.

I hear stories of Lobby Parents accusing boys of being out of control, of "stealing" the idea of doing Pairs or Dance, as well as crueler insinuations about children's sexuality (really) and more.  And here's the only thing I can say: Stay. Out. Of. The. Stands.  When parents accost you with bullshit just smile and say, "Oh? uh hunh, uh hunh, I see." over and over. As someone said to me the other day, dealing with figure skating parents is like dealing with panhandlers-- do not make eye contact, do not engage.

Copycatting? People say that? Really?
Yes, apparently. But even if you got the idea of doing pairs because you saw someone at the rink doing pairs (or dance), it's not exactly a secret that this is a skating discipline. If you copy choreography, music or costuming, shame on you. But deciding to do pairs because that little team at the rink looked like they were having so much fun is not copycatting, it's flattery.

Issues involved with training are largely concerned with cost and scheduling-- you now have another family to coordinate with, and you've added a discipline that needs its own hours. Some free style time can be dedicated to the new discipline but there is no question that your skaters will be on the ice more.

Where do you find ice?
This is a huge problem, even in large markets. We used to drive our daughter more than 30 miles to the rink that gave us dance ice. Many rinks restrict pairs and especially dance teams-- they're not allowed to work together on freestyle sessions.  Large districts will have dedicated dance ice, usually run by the clubs, but I've never heard of dedicated pairs ice outside a major training facility. Your best strategy is to always be really really nice to everyone--other coaches, club leadership, rink management--so they think of your problem as their problem and work with you.

What about jealousy from other coaches?
This also happens, sadly, and is a harder problem to overcome than jealous parents. Coaches can sometimes try to undermine a team by getting management to restrict the use of freestyle ice, by refusing to yield (a team executing a lift for instance, by standard accepted protocols always has the right of way), etc. This is another instance where being super nice to management and club leadership will pay off.  

Have you considered or done Pairs or Dance? Tell us about your experience.


  1. Having a boy skater gets you chatted up EARLY for pairs by aggressive skating moms. My Skater Boy is only 6 and is skating mostly because I want him doing something besides begging me for quarters for the video game while his sister is skating (and anything physical makes him happy). He's only in Basic 4. I was STILL approached by a "Hey, let's get our kids together - my daughter wants to try pairs!" lady.

  2. A pairs coach told me I didn't need strength training for pairs - I needed technique. However, I am a fit, full grown male, so that might not apply to children starting pairs.

    Single throw salchows require almost no strength to do at the basic level (we just did our first one). Pair spins, however, benefit from a lot of strength.

    I would describe the off-ice training I have been getting in beginning pairs as

    - technical
    - flexibility
    - upper body warmup for when we get on the ice

    Whereas the artistic stuff has all been on the ice. Practicing the technique repeatedly off-ice has built strength, but I would say that is not the primary goal.

    We only train pairs on sessions with few skaters. Adults only ice is good for pairs because adults understand what happens if they get in your way.

    Since there is a shortage of male partners, I suspect that at the elite level the female skater and her family are bearing more than their fair share of the cost.

    1. I stand by my statement that strength training is essential. It not only builds that actual strength needed for pairs, but also teaches control and isolation, two very important concepts for pairs. The idea that any throw "requires no strength" is wrong-- think about the forces in the landing of even a single throw. You may think, as the guy, that you don't need to be strong for this, but if the woman isn't strong, she's going splat.

      Pairs and dance sessions generally allow fewer skaters on the ice per session, for obvious reasons. As an adult skater I would blow a gasket at a high level pairs team (this does not seem to be you) practicing on adult ice because we "know what happens if we get in the way." Adult ice is not empty ice for high level skaters. It is specialty ice for skaters with special issues that need to be addressed.

      It is a common expectation that the girl will pay-- I consider this exploitative almost to a criminal level.

    2. Actually, pairs coach has me try both the man's part and the woman's part of the throw.

      The woman's part is more fun.

      For beginners the throw can be really small.

  3. My daughter just turned 8 and has started basic pairs training with a 12 year old. They will both be testing pre-pre at the end of summer. I've already heard "they shouldn't start skating pairs until they are Juvenile level." "They shouldn't skate pairs until they are 17 or 18." "Pairs is looked down upon until you are Junior level." "I heard his mom wants him to skate with his sister. Most pairs skaters are brother and sister." (Not true and not true) I could go on. Jealousy at its finest.

    Their coach was a pairs skater. At this point, his main goal is to get them as good as they can be as individual skaters and have them learn the basics of pairs skating as an extra. It takes years on and off the ice to get to know your partner. They look fantastic together and can already get themselves back in synch when they fall out. They have started with basic press lifts (not overhead) and throw Waltz jumps. They both have so much fun with it and are always asking when their next pairs lesson will be. I look at it as an extra benefit to their training and something that keeps them happy and motivated. And it's fun to watch!

  4. Xan, I emailed you about this a few months back. Thanks for taking this subject on.

    My son is about a FS3, is 11 and was approached by a parent and 8 year old daughter for pairs. ISI worlds is coming and is local and the mom wanted to give it a try. Rather then laugh if off, like I though he would, he went for it and loves it. I am so impressed by these two kids. They are taking this so seriously. My son is already asking the coach what elements are at pairs 2. People on my Facebook feed are probably fed up with videos...

    Anyway, the reactions of fellow parents was surprising and there was a bit of jealousy by moms of girls who also wanted their kids to participate but the lack of boys is an issue. One parent actually said something negative about the little girl working with my son - something unfounded. This really irritated me. I will always be amazed that adults can comment on someone else's child.

    I think that one of the biggest advantages of pairs is that it allows the kids several more skill to learn as they make their way through some pretty tough individual elements. My son is pretty tired of working on his loop jump and is somewhat stuck. Allowing a new set of skills to get added to the mix keeps the lessons fresh and interesting.

    It is also fun watching the two kids attempt a move and then watching both fall over at the exact same time and land on top of each other. When this happens and they come up laughing then you know they are enjoying themselves and the extra money is worth it.

    1. Hi, Blue-Eyed-Cat,

      I posted the response above yours. I am learning as time goes on to wear ear plugs at the rink. The comments that have been made to me about pairs skating have been completely unfounded as well and meant only to discourage what they see as a little potential. I agree with pairs being something else to work on to keep from dwelling on what may not be going so well at the moment. I think skating needs to be fun and rewarding at the same time as being challenging. Best of luck to your pair!

    2. BEC-- you inspired the post! As an erstwhile dance mom, I feel your pain.

    3. I was so excited when I saw this post! I figured you didn't see the email! Thanks again...

    4. ? I sent you an extensive reply.

    5. Ummmm....maybe I better look in my spam filter. I didn't get it :(

  5. A coach at a rink I skated at had a son who skated. Another coach had a daughter of almost the same age who skated. The mothers got together and formed the kids into a pairs team. They were maybe 11ish.

    I asked the kids one day, "So how's pairs going?"

    They looked at me solemnly. The girl said, "We had each other." The boy nodded in agreement. It was hard not to laugh.

  6. "We HATE each other, " the girl said.

    God, sorry, worst typo ever,

    1. roflmao

      oh my god, thanks for a great start to the day.

  7. I have a son who has been skating pairs (with his sister) for almost three years, while also skating singles. For anyone who is interested, I have three comments/suggestions.

    First, anyone who tells you pairs is looked down on or not encouraged has no idea what they are talking about. USFSA is actively supporting and pushing for more and better young pairs teams. They even now have a National Pairs camp, held in Ft. Wayne every June. If you want to eventually skate pairs at USFSA Nationals, it is well worth attending.

    Second, strength is not important, it is critical, particularly upper body strength. The reason you see so many miss-matched teams (18 year old boy with 12 year old girl) is that younger boys cannot do the higher level lifts and twists that rack up big points. That mismatch may win a few titles at lower levels, but don't be discouraged, younger boys grow up too. Slow and steady will build the best skater, let nature (and hitting the Y three times a week) do the work.

    Third, skating skills, including excellent posture, good stroking and most of all, excellent jump technique must be emphasized early and often. A boy might grow 6 inches in a summer and suddenly have the strength for lifts, but nobody goes from single jumps to a double Axel quickly. Good skating skills take years to develop. A pairs team with better skating skills but not quite the level of lifts will do just fine at lower levels and excel as they mature.

    One final thought, regarding 'Lobby Parents'. They are in every rink and you know who they are. I know I have gone toe-to-toe with a few and sometimes you just have to. However, I have found that the pairs parents tend to be a different breed. There seems to be so few of us, that while we want our kids to win, we tend to be very supportive of each other. We have been to a few qualifying competitions and sat with several of the competitors parents and cheered on each other's kids. I also have seen the higher level pairs teams (senior level) finding time to offer support when they are at the same competitions. I can't promise you will have the same experiences we have had so far, but I hope you all do and hope you all have the best of luck.

  8. Thank you so much for these insights, and especially for confirming that strength, for boys AND girls, is critical for Pairs.

    Alison Scott, mother of Jeremy Abbott, once told me that the single most common reason for teams (Pairs or Dance) to break up, is that the parents sabotage it. I have personally seen this many times, with one set of parents wanting their child to be the "main" partner (Dept of Do-Not-Get-Concept-of_Team), or try to second guess the coach, or refuse to allow the skaters ownership of the team.