Fact Checked

What is Figure Skating?

A Kaminsky
A Kaminsky

Figure skating is one of the most popular sports in the world. The combination of grace and athleticism needed to perform the steps, spins, and jumps while staking on blades on the ice often captures the imagination when world-class skaters make it look so easy. Of course, performing at the world level is anything but easy, and it requires years of discipline, training and practice. It is an expensive sport and one in which serious injury is possible.

People have skated for as long as they found out how to slide across ice in a productive way. The very first ice skates were made from bone, and date back to 3000 B.C. Not surprisingly, skating was most widely known in Russia, Scandinavia, and other areas that received a great deal of ice and snow. The Dutch started honing steel blades in the 13th and 14th centuries and popularized the pastime for everyone. It was one of the few sports in which men and women participated equally.

Figure skaters wear ice skates that are lighter than those worn by hockey players.
Figure skaters wear ice skates that are lighter than those worn by hockey players.

Figure skating probably got its English name from the compulsory figures, such as figure eights, that all beginning skaters had to learn. It was quite basic until an American named Jackson Haines wowed audiences in the mid-1800s with his artistic, free-form style. This style of skating took a while to catch on, but Haines' innovative technique is the basis for modern skating.

Pair figure skating is an Olympic sport.
Pair figure skating is an Olympic sport.

The sport really took off worldwide after World War II. Skating champion Sonja Henie had already starred in several films in the 1930s, exciting interest in many people. In the 1950s, the international competition structure began to be reshaped as Europe was rebuilt. The U.S. and Canadian skaters had not lost their rinks, as many European skaters had, so they were able to continue practicing and innovating. They worked on developing many of the jumps, spins, and glides so popular now.

Figure skaters perform a number of moves as part of a set.
Figure skaters perform a number of moves as part of a set.

Today, figure skating looks like the perfect blend of power and beauty. In the Olympic structure, there are ladies', mens', and pairs competitions, along with ice dancing. Each competition is a little different and makes different demands on the skater. In the individual competitions, strong emphasis has lately been placed on the spectacular jumps the skaters perform and their athleticism, and some critics have said this has diminished the artistic side of the sport. There have also been controversies over "fixing" competitions, even at the Olympic level, where judges made behind-the-scenes deals to favor a skater in one competition so that their country's skater might do well in a later event.

Figure skating is big business everywhere, at the amateur and professional levels. Television networks broadcast competitions worldwide, skaters make big money on endorsements, and through their patronage, skate makers, costumers, and even couture designers like Vera Wang are made even more famous. Many children ask to take skating lessons and dream of being the next Michelle Kwan or Alexei Yagudin. It's a safe bet that figure skating will remain tremendously popular as long as it is broadcast and kids can imagine flying across an ice rink on a single steel blade.

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Discussion Comments


Figure skating is a lot harder than it looks. Some people think it is just easy as pie, but it isn't. I tell them that you have to balance yourself perfectly or somewhat perfectly to stay on your feet.

I love figure skating a lot and when I was able to get my friend to do it, she started loving it. We had a blast and I hope we can do it again one day.


@ddljohn & @anon341889: I started skating at age 9, which is considered really late, so your five year old daughter can absolutely start skating already! I've quit skating myself but I'm currently a coach and we train kids from three years and up!

When it comes to how long it will take for her to start competing, it depends on what country you're from, what competitions your club enters, etc., not to mention how fast your daughter learns.

I entered my first competition only six months after skating for the first time. I'd say it's rare for anyone to skate for over a year and a half without entering a competition where I'm from and I usually start teaching kids (around ages five to eight) how to spin and do the most basic jump after only 8-15 hours on ice.

The time it takes to fully master the basic jumps and spins is really individual and takes anywhere from two to 10 years. This also depends on how much ice time your child gets, so if she's really into skating and wants to go for this sport, then I suggest you find a club that allows her to practice on ice for at least four hours a week.


@ddljohn: If your daughter has never skated before, it could take from three to six years before she starts working on the basic jumps and spins. Figure skating is a ton of fun, but it can get very expensive. I started skating when I was about five or six, so yes, you can definitely start at age five.

@kylee07drg: We work really hard and that keeps us warm. I sometimes skate in a tank top and shorts. Or maybe we're just used to it.


How expensive is figure skating equipment?


My younger daughter who is five really wants to learn figure skating. Can she start at this age?

How many years of training is necessary for someone to enter competitive figure skating?


My favorite competition in the Olympics has always been ice skating and I've been watching couples' figure skating competitions on TV since I was a kid.

I never had the opportunity to take skating classes but I have always been mesmerized by figure skating as a dancer. Figure skating is probably one of the most elegant and the most difficult forms of dance ever. It's just beautiful and those who get a chance to do it are very lucky.


How do figure skaters keep from getting extremely cold? It appears that the girls in dresses have only pantyhose to keep their legs warm.

Are they in danger of frostbite? Are the pantyhose some sort of specialized thermal underwear that just look like hose?

I've been on the ice before, and I know how the cold air shoots its frigidness upward. I can't imagine staying out on it for even five minutes without layers of clothing on.


@BrickBack – I never could get the hang of roller blading, so that explains why I can't figure skate. I was a good roller skater on the old school skates, though! However, it's a lot harder to do spins and jumps on those skates than on ice skates, I'm sure.


@John57 – I wish I knew! You are doing better than I can if you can stand up for ten minutes.

When I first tried to skate, my ankles wobbled so badly my first time around the rink that I had to hold onto the support rail constantly. There was a referee at the rink who kept skating by me and blowing her whistle, because I wasn't going fast enough and I think she viewed me as a danger to the other skaters!

So, I gave up. I love watching professional skaters do their thing, but this is just one dream I will never be able to fulfill.


I think the best figure skating music is ballads. These slow yet powerful songs give the skaters plenty of opportunities to add drama to the performance and accentuate their graceful moves.

Some of the best routines I've ever seen have been set to slow love songs. Whether they are 80s rock ballads or soulful tunes, they let the skaters show off their beautiful moves better than fast music, in my opinion.


I don't know if throwing on a pair of ice skates and figure skating are considered the same thing, but I am not very good at it. After trying to stay up on a pair of ice skates for about 10 minutes, my ankles are very sore and I have to take off my skates.

Is there something you can do so that your ankles don't get so sore? I am not sure if it is the figure skates I am wearing or if it is just me.


I never get tired of watching both the male and female figure skaters. I also love the pairs skating and am amazed by their strength and poise.

One year shortly after the winter Olympics, several of the stars went on a tour and my mom and I went to the event. Our seats were as close as you could get and were right on the ice.

This was even more exhilarating than watching them on TV. Being this close to the figure skaters really made you appreciate how hard they work. They still made it look easy, and I can't imagine how many hours of practice each one has put in to make it where they are today.


I pay just about as much attention to the elaborate figure skating apparel as I do the figure skaters. Through the years their outfits have really changed.

Some of them are not all that appropriate and I think are too revealing. I like the female figure skating outfits that are elegant, yet in good taste.

I know each figure skater has their own personal style, and I think it would be fun to choose from all the glittery, sequined outfits that are available.


I remember receiving my first pair of ice skates as a Christmas present when I was a young girl. Back then all we had were cheap outdoor rinks or ponds that were frozen over to skate on.

I think everyone who has ever put on a pair of ice skates imagines themselves gracefully skating over the ice with ease. This is much harder to do than it looks.

Even though I had a lot of fun on my ice skates and got to the point where I could even skate backward, it was a far cry from the grace and athleticism you see with the professional figure skaters.


Figure skating is really fun but it is a lot harder than it looks. You really have to balance yourself well.

If you can rollerblade then you should have no problem ice skating. My daughter loves to ice skate. We went on a Royal Caribbean Cruise on the Oasis of the Seas and it had an ice skating rink and my daughter was in heaven.

You really have to slightly bend your knees and keep your arms out in order balance yourself and to get used to the ice.

After a while you do get used to it but ice figure skating is very intimidating at first.

I love all that little figure skating clothing like the figure skating dress and the costumes that the professional skaters wear. Figure ice skating is such a graceful sport.

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    • Figure skaters wear ice skates that are lighter than those worn by hockey players.
      By: vnlit
      Figure skaters wear ice skates that are lighter than those worn by hockey players.
    • Pair figure skating is an Olympic sport.
      By: Lsantilli
      Pair figure skating is an Olympic sport.
    • Figure skaters perform a number of moves as part of a set.
      By: Galina Barskaya
      Figure skaters perform a number of moves as part of a set.