How do ice dancing and figure skating differ? Here’s the answer to the question you ask every four years

Every four years, people all over the world gather around and become superfans of sports we don’t really know anything about. We spend hours watching — and commenting on — ice dancing, figure skating, and much more to the point where we’ve developed very serious opinions, despite not being entirely clear on the rules. For 16 days, we tune in at all hours of the day to watch the best athletes in the world compete to bring Olympic medals home, pretending we know everything there is to know about slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, the biathlon, and bobsledding. But keeping up with the Olympics is a lot of work — and requires serious research — because, while to the casual viewer, many events may seem very similar to one another, they actually have very subtle and important differences.

By now, everyone has seen Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada’s jaw-dropping Moulin Rouge ice dance, which secured Canada’s gold medal in the Figure Skating Team Event. It was gorgeous, made you ship the pair — who are apparently just friends — and made us, once again, pose the question that comes up every four years: What’s the difference between figure skating and ice dancing?

Yes, they’re both figure skating events, but there are very specific differences that set the two apart. While pairs figure skating is known for elaborate lifts and jaw-dropping throws — an important element in every figure skating movie ever — these moves are strictly forbidden in ice dancing, which is more focused on a precise, fully choreographed dance routine.

Ice dancer Evan Bates, who is competing for Team USA with partner Madison Chock, recently broke down the differences between the two to People.

“Ice dancing has more restrictions, Bates said. “We can only do lifts that are below the head, so I can’t raise my hands above my head, which is a really easy distinction when you’re trying to differentiate between pairs and ice dancing.

He added, “We’re really more like ballroom dancers. We’re interpreting music, putting a lot of emphasis on the connection between the couple and on the connection to the music.”

But if you’re still not convinced that there are serious differences between ice skating and ice dancing, all you have to do is watch to see just how distinct they are from one another.

Here is Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot in their gold medal-winning ice skating performance:

While the two must be in sync during their routine, the focus is not only on how the couple moves together, but how they execute impressive moves like lifts, tosses, and spins. It’s the style of skating people are most familiar with.

To compare, here are Moir and Virtue performing their Moulin Rouge routine:

Right off the bat, their performance is fundamentally different from figure skating. Naturally, like the name suggests, the couple are dancing, meaning the entire routine is choreographed, with the couple moving rhythmically along with the music. You won’t see any tosses here, with all lifts serving a specific purpose within the dance routine — and like Bates said, nothing above the head.

So next time you settle in to watch the skating events, you’ll be able to channel your inner Olympic commentator to really be able to understand the difference between figure skating and ice dancing.

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