The Evolution of Compulsory Dances 

by Morgan Matthews Pennington

Utter the words “compulsory dances” to a group of young ice dancers and you’re likely to elicit groans. The set steps, rigid patterns, and most of all, the great-great-grandmother approved music do not appeal to most audiences born since the invention of the gramophone. However, the steps, turns, holds, and rhythms you see in all ice dance programs today have their roots in compulsory dances. Most ice dancers today still learned everything from how to lead and follow a partner to how to skate to a beat from compulsory dances. And the near elimination of them from the top levels of ice dance causes some to fear that as compulsory dances fade into history, so will the qualities that have classically characterized ice dance. 

It wasn’t that long ago that compulsory dances were a major focus in even a senior ice dance team’s training regimen. In my day, most ice dancers split their training day into two parts: compulsory dances and original dance in the morning and free dance in the afternoon. When I first started ice dancing with a partner, four compulsory dances were selected by the technical ice dance committee for each level each season. For most competitions, two compulsory dances were drawn from among those four to compete. This not only meant that ice dancers had to train four compulsory dances in addition to their other two programs, but they had to have four costumes made to match. One can understand why it was common in those days for male ice dancers to wear one tuxedo-style costume for all four dances to cut down on costs. Worst of all was when competition dances were drawn too close to a competition date, which meant carrying six costumes onto an airplane to travel to a competition. I can confirm that no garment bag exists that can carry all those sequins and feathers without compromises to either comfort or style. Sometimes I still wonder if the increasingly restrictive airline carry-on rules might have had something to do with the increasing disappearance of compulsory dances in qualifying competition. 

Due to the greater training time and costume costs associated with including compulsory dances in competition, many ice dancers and their training teams breathed a sigh of relief when the compulsory dance requirement was first reduced. In 2003, the number of compulsory dances selected per level per season was reduced to two. In 2010, the compulsory dance and original dance events were combined to create the short dance for Junior and Senior level competition. And compulsory dances were renamed to pattern dances. The purpose of this change, on the surface, was to align the structure of ice dance events with the singles and pairs events, which just include a short program and long program. However, the change also had a lot to do with the fact that the compulsory dances could not be capitalized on through television contracts, since the compulsory dance event did not translate well to television. Later, in 2018, the short dance got a much needed rebranding. The ISU officially changed the name of the short dance to the rhythm dance, which better characterized the nature of the event, or at least it just sounded better than short dance. With this latest change, compulsory dances, now known as pattern dances, were nearly erased from Junior and Senior Ice Dance, since the rhythm dance requirements replaced the full pattern dance element that was included in the short dance with small sections of pattern dance steps that partners could complete either separately or in conjunction. And like fashion freed itself from the corset, Ice Dance has now nearly liberated itself from the old fashioned confines of the compulsory dance. 

Whether or not pattern dances should still be competed at the Junior and Senior level is debatable. However, the current, as of the 2023-24 season, pattern dance requirements in the rhythm dance don’t pose the same challenge to ice dancers as full compulsory dance patterns did. Compulsory dances at the Junior and Senior level were very challenging. And the challenges that compulsory dances posed made it easier to rank ice dance teams, since all the skaters had to perform the same steps to the same music. It provided judges with an apples-to-apples comparison of ice dancers’ skills that doesn’t exist in the rhythm dance and free dance events, where teams select their own steps and can optimize those steps both to highlight their strong suits and minimize their weaknesses. 

There are several key aspects of performing a pattern dance well that the new pattern dance requirements in the rhythm dance don’t touch on. First of all, it was very challenging to perform all patterns (standalone pattern dances have to be repeated 1-4 times in a row, depending on the dance) on the same tracings, which is a key objective for all pattern dances. In my day, many teams could complete a big pattern with deep edges on the first round, but each successive pattern would get smaller and shallower. On a senior level pattern dance, such as the Golden Waltz, one’s legs start to burn after just the first pattern, so to perform successive patterns with the same strength and gusto as the first pattern required both immense skill and endurance. Secondly, when performed as originally intended, pattern dances require ice dance teams to skate close together with precise alignment and edge tracking. The 2023-24 rhythm dance requirements allowed each skater within a team to perform the required pattern dance steps either separately or in conjunction. Whether or not the ISU intended for the requirements to be interpreted this way, in practice it allowed one skater to perform a pattern dance step while the other performed steps that were more comfortable and easy than the original steps would be. Many teams took this route. Additionally, pattern dances, when performed to set music, stretched ice dancers to aspire to a “chef’s kiss” level of musical precision. Now that ice dancers can perform pattern dance moves to the music they selected for their rhythm dance, it’s harder for judges to compare one team’s mastery of timing and rhythm over another team’s, especially when the rhythms might not be the same. Overall, standalone pattern dances require a mix of power, precision, musicality, and partnering that the current requirements do not. 

Beyond the debatable merits of whether pattern dances should remain a part of competition, they have undoubtedly been key in the forming of ice dancers for as long as the sport has existed. Pattern dances have long been a rite of passage for ice dancers. In order to compete an ice dancer must pass pattern dance tests up to the level that they wish to compete. And in my day, many coaches wouldn’t allow their ice dance students to learn new pattern dances until they totally mastered the ones they were working on. A training mate once told me that Igor Shpilband had her practice the Dutch Waltz, the lowest level pattern dance, for years even though she had already passed much higher level pattern dances with her previous coach. My coaches often regaled me with stories about ice dance teams who had the perfect knee lilt on their Blues or a pattern that filled the ice rink from board-to-board on their Paso Doble. Pattern dances were a training tool that coaches used to teach their students how to master the art of ice dance. But with the gradual elimination of pattern dances from top level competition, it’s harder for coaches to motivate ice dancers to take pattern dances seriously, even as a training tool. This is changing the way ice dance is performed. 

Watching the 2024 US Championships, I could see a clear divide between the ice dance teams who started training during the time when pattern dances were still competed and respected as a key aspect of the sport, and those that did not. There was a new wave of ice dance teams that replaced a lack of classical ice dance skill with exciting freestyle-type moves. As someone who embraces change in the sport of ice dance, sometimes to a fault, I accepted this new wave of skating as progress and took it in with great joy. However, it was apparent from the scoring that many of the judges did not appreciate this change. And the fan reaction on social media was mixed. Replays of ice dance teams doing butterflies elicited flame emojis, while replays of Virtue and Moir performances inspired comments from fans who expressed woe over how far ice dance has strayed from its ballroom dance style roots, which Virtue and Moir expressed masterfully. 

The skaters and coaches I talked to about the evolution of the pattern dance requirements expressed similarly mixed views. Team USA ice dancer Isabella Flores, who placed 7th at her and her partner Ivan Desyatov’s first US Championships in 2024, explained: 

“I always liked compulsory (pattern) dances because they showcase technique over choreography, which evens the playing field in competition. I think they’re moving away from the dances to make things more interesting for the audience, which is something I think the sport needs but it’s hard to accomplish without sacrificing the technical side of skating a little bit. I believe they’re changing things a lot (every year since the last Olympics) to find that right balance of technique and performance, and hopefully something will stick soon. The rules this year are definitely much more strict regarding the pattern and partial step sequence— in a good way— and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

A last bastion of excellence in pattern dances may be Solo Dance. Whereas complete pattern dances are no longer competed at the Junior and Senior level in couples Ice Dance, solo ice dancers still have the option to compete full pattern dances at all levels. This is a win for ice dance purists, even if it does come with some complications. Dean Copley, founder of The Solo Dance Advantage explains some of the opportunities and challenges involved in competing pattern dances for solo ice dancers: 

“It’s always been vital for Solo Dance to not just look like showcase or freestyle without the jumps. Pattern Dances (formerly known as Compulsories) encourage the solo dancers to learn true ice dancing technique on steps like progressives and three turns and traditional styles of dance like the waltz, tango, and foxtrot. 

The somewhat recent addition of the Variation Dance to our Pattern Dance events has been a very useful tool in teaching our students about the different styles of dance. In the Variation dance, a traditional Pattern Dance is performed around the first half of the rink, and the second half is choreographed ourselves to reflect the same style of the chosen dance. There are certain steps typically seen in a waltz, certain usages of timing, and styles of arm movements and expressions that make the whole dance feel cohesive and true to the waltz style. A tango Variation would have a very different style of steps in the choreography, use the timing in the music differently, and have much sharper arm movements than a waltz would. I’m a fan of the Variation Dance because it maintains the opportunity for judges to compare apples to apples, having the section of prescribed steps, while still allowing the skaters to fully explore the style and grow as artists outside of the confines of a Compulsory Dance.”

The flexibility that currently exists in Solo Dance to include many different events that please both ice dance purists and those looking for more freedom in the form provides a unique opportunity for Solo Dance. Solo Dance, at the moment, doesn’t have to adhere to strict schedules and media coverage does not yet dictate the direction of the sport. Solo Dance is still mostly an athlete-led discipline and I hope it stays that way. 

Regardless of whether you are part of an ice dance couple, solo ice dancer, coach, or fan, pattern dances have shaped the way you see Ice Dance. Like it or not, pattern dances are embedded in the steps, holds, and styles that you see in ice dancers programs today. And while pattern dances may be an afterthought for some skaters and their coaches at the top level, the bar of excellence that was set for ice dance back when pattern dances were still a key requirements for all levels of the sport should be respected to ensure that ice dance maintains the classical qualities that make it a unique sport.