The Rhythm Dance – It is a Changing: Part III

by Anne Calder

IDC concluded its discussion of the the 2022-2023 Rhythm Dance changes with interviews at the Ice Dance Final in Norwood, MA. 

Coach Ben Agosto sat down with IDC at the Skating Club of Boston after congratulating his young team, Grace & Luke Fischer for winning the Intermediate gold medal.

Agosto and partner Tanith Belbin are the 2006 Olympic silver medalists, four-time World medalist, Four Continents Champion 2004-2006 and five-time U.S. National Champions. He has choreographed for Disney on Ice and Cirque du Soliel. He currently coaches with his wife, Katherine Hill, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“The removal of the pattern from the Rhythm Dance is hard for me – it’s bitter sweet,” Agosto said. “I personally feel like I didn’t really learn how to skate until I mastered the Golden Waltz for the competition at the Olympics (2006). That was such a long way into my career, and it felt like it was something that was important for me to learn to do my job correctly. So it’s difficult for me to see that aspect going away because I think it still has a lot to offer. 

“That being said I think everyone is doing a great job creatively trying to come up with whatever they can to fill that gap and maybe that will be the direction we go where we’re starting to have more Golden Waltzes – these very fast pattern dances will be basically invented like they were way back when Torvill & Dean were competing and they were making the Original Set Patterns. (OSP) 

“That’s where a lot of our patterns come from now. It’s interesting and the sport is always evolving. I will certainly miss seeing some of that from a technical aspect and for the athletes who train it, it will be something that will be missed. But, like people were worrying about [losing] figures and, we’re still moving forward with great champions and incredible skaters.  So it will be exciting to see where it goes. “

Agosto assessed the possible concern that maybe younger coaches were too far removed from the Compulsory Dance, resulting in a problem of no one to teach it.

“I don’t know if that’s the reason, but I’ve woken up with the nightmare that I was getting very advanced in my age, and I was the only person left who knew how to partner one of these dances the kids needed for testing. I was like, “Who’s going to take over these partnering dances?” Down the road it could be challenging. 

“There’s nothing like competing these pattern dances at a high level to hone the skill of it. It’s one thing to train a month or two to test it, but when you have to train a whole year to compete at a World level, there’s such precision that’s required. All these skaters are having to skate with great precision in all different aspects but there’s something very uniquely “ice dance” about those Compulsory and Pattern Dances that will start to drift and change.

“Rules are so nuanced. It isn’t just that they fell or they stayed on their feet. It’s very small details that make or break an element or a key point and really affects the score. I can see where it’s difficult to watch for the average viewer if they can’t tell why a team didn’t score well. It’s important to be able to convey it in a way that makes sense and is accessible.”

Greg Zuerlein is a former competitive skater, a current coach and co-founder of Michigan Ice Dance Academy. (MIDA)

I think the Choreographic Rhythm Sequence is nice. It shows more dance, more variety of dance. I do miss the basic compulsory dance. It showed the difference between the top teams. I don’t know if I’d like to go back to Compulsories, but I do like the Rhythm Dance having a pattern. This year it would have been Rhumba, but they took it out and added the Choreographic Rhythm Sequence. Maybe in the future they could have both. It makes a difference when you watch the teams.”

Ryan Stevens is the author of the Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating and Skate Guard Blog.

“I think that getting rid of compulsory dances in seniors was an unusual choice. I’m also of two minds about the decision to incorporate them into the short/rhythm dance in the first place. When figures were cut in the early 90’s, you didn’t see them being incorporated into free skating, because they were two very different things. Compulsory dances and the OD/SD/RD were really two very different things altogether too. 

“If it was up to me – and it’s not – I’d bring back one compulsory dance and make the OD/SD/RD one rhythm each year – not the choice of Samba, Merengue, Cha Cha, Mambo, Rhumba, etc. which are all their own very specific dances. What made compulsory dances and the OD/SD/RD great was the fact they forced ice dancers to master all manner of very specific rhythms and styles of dance. 

“The point of ice dancing in the first place was that teams should be just as good at a foxtrot as at a waltz or tango. That’s what we should be seeing at an elite level and instead, we have two free dances, one shorter and one longer.”

According to some members of the ice dance community – It’s all about the Key Points.

Ben Agosto: The key points are difficult. I think their whole idea was to create a way to objectively grade the pattern dances because it felt very subjective. They were supposed to make it more objective and something that could be scored and also help the audience understand how the result was coming about. 

I always felt that every step needed to be treated the way each key point is treated. When I was training, I was told every step needs to be perfect. What I think is the struggles with the lower levels it’s so difficult that everyone is skating to the key points and there are many other aspects of the skating that need to be developed.

Carol Lane: I do think the problem became not about the Pattern Dances, but about those Key Points in the Pattern Dances. We weren’t working on [the whole] patten anymore, we are working on two or three steps.  We weren’t seeing good dances, we were seeing people trying to get technical points. The Juniors still do the Pattern Dance, and I like it. I would want the Pattern Dances back in an instant if it weren’t for the Key Points. I think that’s what killed it. 

Simon Shnapir: I will say with my limited knowledge it seems like there’s so much emphasis and attention paid to that part of the dance and not on other parts. The entire dance should be judged from a technical standpoint.

Jean-Luc Baker: Everyone is only focused on how to do an outside and inside edge and get this key point as clean as possible.

Danielle Earl: I’m sure as a skater it must be frustrating to not get the key points even though you felt you were on time, but it’s up to the technical panel. It’s hard for me since I’m not a skater any more to make a judgement call on that. It would be interesting though to see if the pattern were judged as a whole instead of specific steps.

Greg Zuerlein: Emphasis used to be on the flow. Now the focus is how they put their foot down on one step, and it might not be the nicest step to watch. It’s just to achieve the level. It takes away from what the compulsory dances used to look like just so they can achieve the level. I do miss that effortless look of the compulsory dance. Instead everyone is only focusing on having to put my foot down on an outside edge and you lose the flow. 

If you notice, the patterns look different now. They’re not filling up the corners. It depends on the dance, and how you’re going to attack it. Everyone is going for the level because it’s important to get the technical points. If you can mix both the technical and have it flow and be effortless that’s the solution.

The Fan Perspective

Figure Skating Analyst Jackie Wong asked his Twitter followers – Do you miss having the Pattern in the Rhythm Dance?  He received 1,533 responses (Yes – 89%  /   No – 11%).

Jackie Wong: “The weird thing about not having a set pattern dance is that I keep expecting a change of rhythm accompanied by two crossovers to then go into some compulsory pattern. I’m disappointed when it doesn’t.”

Fan #1: “As a spectator, it’s way less monotonous. The pattern dance made the RD kind of tedious to watch.”

Fan #2: “It’s complicated. The pattern gets boring, but it’s a good way to compare teams.”

Fan #3: “I think it’s the most important technical aspect of ice dance, and it’s so much harder to compare teams now. Choreographically, a lot of Rhythm Dances feel empty to me now.”

Linda: “ I miss the pattern because you could see if they were hitting the Key Points or not, and it gives you a direct comparison of who has better skating skills. Having everyone doing the same thing separates the good from the great. I miss that because It limits knowing who really should be on top”.

Jennifer: “I like having the pattern included  because it is easier to clearly see the talent levels of the teams.”

Claudyne, a long-time fan and tour owner told IDC, “I love the compulsory dance because you’re able to see if they have flats, missing their edges or how far the pattern is going. That determines who is skating cleanly. Now the Rhythm Dance is like a long program (Free Dance) that’s short. There are so many neat patterns, they could have at least one pattern around the arena. That’s the best thing to do. The Compulsory Dances are where you learn your edges, your positioning and placement of legs and hips and arms.”