Competitive Figure Skating FAQ:
Technical Elements

This article is part of the FAQ list for (amateur) competitive figure skating. This section covers technical elements of figure skating, such as jumps and spins.


Table of Contents


[1] What are the different jumps? How did they get such funny names?

The thing that distinguishes the different jumps is the takeoff. Most right-handed skaters jump in a counterclockwise direction and land all the jumps on a right back outside edge. I'll describe all the jumps in this sense to minimize confusion.

These are the jumps you see in competition most often, in approximate order from least to most difficult:

toe loop
the approach is on a right back outside edge. The skater then reaches back with the left foot and jabs the toe pick into the ice to provide assistance for the jump at takeoff. Often done as the second jump of a combination, or as a solo jump after an inside three turn. If the jump is approached from an outside three turn and step instead, it's sometimes called a "toe walley"; technically the toe walley is supposed to be done from an inside edge, but otherwise the two jumps are considered equivalent. (The toe loop is the same jump that roller skaters call the "mapes", and that is called a "cherry flip" in some parts of the world.)
salchow
the takeoff is from a left back inside edge; the typical approach is from a three turn. The right leg swings to the front with a scooping motion just prior to takeoff. (But, watch out -- some skaters incorrectly scull the right leg on the ice to assist the takeoff.) The jump is named after Ulrich Salchow, who dominated skating in the early 1900's.
loop
this is also an edge jump, with takeoff from a right back outside edge. Usually skaters approach this jump by skating backwards on two feet, with the left foot crossed in front of the right. Often they look like they are sitting in an invisible chair. Unlike the salchow, there's no swinging of the free leg into the jump; the skater simply springs upward in a cross-legged position. (In Europe, this is also known as a Rittberger jump, after its inventor Werner Rittberger.)
flip
this is a toe-assisted jump from the left back inside edge and right toe pick. Like the salchow, the usual entrance is a three turn, but usually from a straight-line approach instead of a curved one. (This jump is sometimes called a "toe salchow" in Europe.)

The flip and toe loop look much alike and even experienced observers sometimes have trouble distinguishing them. Here are some things that may help:

  • For the flip, the skater picks with the same foot they land on, while with the toe loop they pick with the opposite foot.
  • For the flip, the skater picks inside the curve of the jump, while with the toe loop they pick outside the curve.
  • For the flip, the skater turns away from the picking foot as they jump, while with the toe loop the skater jumps towards the picking foot.
lutz
this is a toe-assisted jump from the left back outside edge and right toe pick; this means that the approach curve has the opposite "direction" than the landing curve. The most typical approach for this jump is a long, shallow edge diagonally across the rink. Named after Alois Lutz.
axel
this is the only common jump with a forward takeoff, from a left front outside edge. Because of this, a single jump is actually 1.5 rotations. Named after Axel Paulsen, who invented it. (The half-rotation jump with the same takeoff and landing edges is called a "waltz jump".)
You also sometimes see these jumps, usually only as single jumps:

walley
takeoff from a right back inside edge. You sometimes see a skater do two or three of them in a row, shifting from the right back outside landing edge to an inside edge to begin the next jump.
half loop
this is a jump with a takeoff like the loop jump, but that is landed on a left back inside edge. This is a full-revolution jump in spite of the name. It's mainly used as a linking element with a salchow in jump combinations, or in footwork sequences. (This jump is also known as an "Euler".)
one-foot axel
this is a jump with a takeoff like an axel, but that is landed on a left back inside edge like the half loop. (Roller skaters sometimes call this jump a "Colledge", after 1937 world champion Cecilia Colledge.)
inside axel
another forward-takeoff jump, this time from a right front inside edge to a normal landing on the right back outside edge. It's usually approached from a backwards-to-forwards three turn on the right foot, and you might mistake this jump for a double loop if you don't watch carefully. (Roller skaters call this one a "Boeckl", after 1925-28 world champion Willy Boeckl.)
split jump
the takeoff is the same as a flip, and the jump is landed facing forwards on the left toe pick and right inside edge. If the skater does a full rotation and lands backwards in the usual way, the jump is called a "split flip". You can also do a split jump from a lutz takeoff. A split jump done from a loop takeoff is called a "split falling leaf". Another variation is the "stag jump", with the left leg tucked up instead of extended.
And, sometimes these terms are used to refer to jumps with problems:

waxel
a failed axel attempt, when the skater slips off the forward takeoff edge. A "wowcow" is a similarly botched salchow.
toe axel
a jump that is supposed to be a double toe loop, but where the skater incorrectly does an axel-like forward takeoff from the toe pick instead of the correct backwards toe-assisted takeoff.
flutz
a jump that is supposed to be a lutz, but where the skater incorrectly changes to an inside edge just before the toe pick (the same edge as for a flip). A flutz is scored as a bad lutz, not as a flip. The inverse term, for a supposed flip that is actually a lutz, is generally agreed to be "lip". Lips are not as common as flutzes.
"cheat"
used to describe jumps where the skater doesn't perform the full rotation of the jump in the air, and does a half-turn on the ice or a skidded or badly hooked edge instead. It's possible to "cheat" both the takeoff and landing of jumps.
Midori
refers to a skater jumping into or over the boards around the edge of the rink, the canonical example being Midori Ito's jump into the camera pit at 1991 Worlds.
Wanda Beazel
refers to the skater falling on the entrance edge to a jump, the canonical example being from an exhibition program Debi Thomas used to perform where she portrayed a beginning skater named "Wanda Beazel".
Finally, here is a list of all possible jumps by takeoff edge. Note that "natural" rotation refers to a jump that rotates in the same direction (e.g., counterclockwise) as the entrance edge, while "counter" rotation refers to the entrance edge being in the opposite sense to the jump rotation.

Except for the "bunny hop", a toe assist is never used on jumps with a forward takeoff.

[2] What about spins and other moves?

back spin
performed in the same rotation sense as a forward spin, but on the opposite foot. Most right-handed skaters spin counterclockwise, doing a forward spin on the left foot and a back spin on the right foot. Somewhat confusingly, a forward spin is usually done on a shallow backward inside edge and a back spin on a shallow forward outside edge. Occasionally you will see skaters flipping a forward spin onto a strong forward outside edge or a back spin onto a strong backward inside edge, which is considered to add difficulty to the spin.
scratch spin
a fast upright spin. So called because it is done on the forward part of the blade, so that the toe pick scratches the ice slightly.
layback spin
a spin with a backward or sideways lean of the torso.
camel
a spin in the "airplane" position, e.g. the torso and free leg in a horizontal position. A flying camel is a back spin in the camel position entered by means of a jump with a forward takeoff, similar to an axel.
grafstrom spin
a low camel spin, skated with a bent knee. Named after Gillis Grafstrom.
hamill camel
this is a transition from a back camel spin to a back sit spin by first bending the knee of the skating leg and then turning out the free hip to "flip over" into the sitting position. Named after Dorothy Hamill.
biellmann spin
this is the spin where the skater arches her back and pulls her free leg high over her head. Named after Denise Biellmann.
illusion (or windmill)
this is similar to a camel spin, but the skater bobs her torso and free leg up and down in phase with the spin. It looks kind of like a windmill.
harding spin
this is a spin that looks kind of a like a cross between a camel and a layback. It's usually entered from a camel spin; the skater twists into a face-up position and bends the free leg so that the foot is held near the knee of the skating leg. Named after Tonya Harding, but more often associated with Josee Chouinard.
death drop
a flying spin with an axel-like takeoff where the skater achieves a horizontal position in the air before dropping into a back sitspin. Officially, this element is known as an "open axel sitspin".
butterfly
similar to a death drop, but the jump is from a backward edge and toe tap. As well as being done as a spin entrance, butterflies can be done by themselves just as a kind of leap or acrobatic move, often in a series of two or three in a row.
spiral
an edge skated with the free leg extended and held higher than hip level. A relatively easy move, but effective when done with good stretch and speed.
spread eagle
a figure skated on two feet with the toes pointing in opposite directions. It can be done either on outside or inside edges. Again, this is a fairly easy move -- at least for skaters with open hip joints -- and its effectiveness depends on being done with speed and a good body position (namely, without the skater's bottom jutting out awkwardly).
ina bauer
a spread eagle variant where one knee is deeply bent and the other leg stretched behind the body. Typically done with an arched back.
besti squat
a spread eagle skated in a squatting position, with bent knees; named from its use by Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin in their 1988 free dance.
shoot-the-duck
a move in which the skater glides on one foot in a squatting position, with the free leg extended in front, similar to a sit spin position. In some parts of the world this is known as a "teapot" or "pistol".
mohawk, choctaw
these are two-foot front-to-back or back-to-front turns. A mohawk is done on from inside-to-inside or outside-to-outside edges, while a choctaw involves a change of edge. Mohawks are commonly used in free skating as a simple turn or in step sequences, but choctaws are more typically used only in ice dancing.
three turn
the common one-foot turn, done on a circle with the cusp of the turn pointing inward. (The tracing is like a numeral 3.) Other one-foot turns are brackets, rockers, and counters, and are mostly only used in step sequences and ice dancing.

[3] What are the required elements for the short program?

For men:
(a) double or triple axel
(b) a triple or quadruple jump preceded by connecting steps
(c) a combination of a double jump and a triple jump, two triple jumps, or a quadruple jump and a double or triple jump; the jumps from elements (a) or (b) may not be repeated here, and skaters may only do one quadruple jump in the program
(d) a flying spin; the flying position must be achieved in the air, and the skater must do at least 8 rotations in the spinning position
(e) a camel spin or sit spin with a change of foot; at least 6 rotations on each foot
(f) a spin combination with a change of foot and at least two changes of position; the spin must include camel, sit, and upright positions, and there must be at least 6 rotations on each foot
(g), (h) two different step sequences

For ladies:
(a) double axel
(b) a triple jump preceded by connecting steps
(c) a combination of a double jump and a triple jump or two triple jumps, without intervening steps or turns
(d) a flying spin; the flying position must be achieved in the air, and the skater must do at least 8 rotations in the spinning position
(e) a layback spin; at least 8 rotations in layback position
(f) a spin combination with a change of foot and at least two changes of position; the spin must include camel, sit, and upright positions, and there must be at least 6 rotations on each foot
(g) a spiral step sequence including at least 3 spiral positions with at least one change of foot
(h) another step sequence

For pairs:
(a) overhead lift (with a specific takeoff that changes each year)
(b) double or triple twist lift
(c) side-by-side double or triple jumps
(d) side-by-side spin combinations, with a change of foot, at least one change of position, and at least 5 rotations on each foot
(e) pair spin combination with a change of foot and at least one change in position and at least 8 rotations in all
(f) death spiral (on a specific edge that changes each year)
(g) a step sequence or a spiral step sequence (the specific requirement changes each year)
(h) a double or triple throw jump

[4] Are there any required elements in the long program?

Yes. Under the Code of Points, the former guidelines for a "well-balanced" program have been replaced with de facto requirements. What were formerly given as minimum requirements have been replaced with maximums; while there are no deductions for doing fewer elements, skaters have to include the maximum number of each element type in order to achieve the highest possible score.

Senior men:
(a) A maximum of 8 jump elements (each solo jump, combination, or sequence counts as an "element"), one of which must be an Axel type jump, and including a maximum of 3 jump combinations or sequences
(b) A maximum of 3 spins, including one spin combination, one flying spin, and one spin with only one position
(c) A maximum of two step sequences.

Senior ladies:
(a) A maximum of 7 jump elements, one of which must be an Axel type jump, and including a maximum of 3 jump combinations or sequences
(b) A maximum of 3 spins, including one spin combination, one flying spin, and one spin with only one position
(c) A maximum of two step sequences, one of which must be a spiral step sequence.

Senior pairs:
(a) A maximum of 4 lifts, including 1 or 2 twist lifts
(b) A maximum of 2 different throw jumps
(c) A maximum of 1 solo jump
(d) A maximum of 1 jump combination or sequence
(e) A maximum of 1 solo spin combination
(f) A maximum of 1 pair spin combination
(g) A maximum of 1 death spiral
(h) A maximum of 1 step sequence

Senior dance:
(a) A maximum of 5 different lifts
(b) A maximum of 2 different dance spins
(c) 2 different types of step sequences
(d) A maximum of 2 different sets of synchronized twizzles

[5] What's the difference between ice dancing and pair skating?

Ice dancing is derived from ballroom or folk dancing, adapted to ice. In practice, the difference is that ice dancers are prohibited from doing the athletic free-skating moves that pair skaters do (jumps, spins, lifts, etc) and concentrate on fancy choreography instead. Also, ice dancers can only separate briefly while changing positions or holds.

While the compulsory dances and original dance are based on traditional ballroom dance rhythms, the rules for the free dance have been changed so that dancers are no longer restricted to using music suitable for ballroom or folk dancing. However, it is still required that they use music that has a definite rhythm, and that they actually dance to the beat of the music. This is another distinction between pairs and dance: a pair team may interpret the melody or phrasing of the music, but dancers must interpret its rhythm.

[6] The scoring in ice dancing often seem totally random to me. What are judges really looking for in ice dancing?

It's often harder for a casual spectator to evaluate ice dancing performances than free skating because ice dancers rarely make major mistakes such as falling. However, ice dancing is probably the most technical of all the skating disciplines; the steps and turns dancers perform are not only very difficult, but they also have to be executed with extreme attention to neatness and precision and timing.

Some of the criteria that the judges use are how close the man and woman skate together, whether they change positions and holds frequently, whether they skate different steps or in a face-to-face position instead of doing a lot of side-by-side shadow skating, whether they do lots of edges and turns instead of plain stroking and two-foot skating, whether the man's steps are as difficult as the woman's, how much speed they have as they move across the ice, and whether they skate in exact unison and in time with the music. In general, what the dancers are doing with their feet is much more important than their upper-body motions or facial expressions, but the judges do look at the posture of the skaters, and the extension, turnout, and toe point of the free leg.

Some spectators think that, since falls are so rare in ice dancing, they ought to be heavily penalized in the judging, but this is not the case. Actually, falls are not considered major errors in ice dancing unless it really takes the skaters a long time to get up again. In singles skating, a fall on an element like a jump can be costly because the skaters are attempting relatively few jumps in the program and that is where the difficulty is concentrated. But ice dance programs consist entirely of footwork, and a few seconds missed because of a fall amounts to a very small part of a 4-minute free dance.

Some spectators think that the rules for ice dancing are supposed to penalize theatrical-style dancing as compared to ballroom-style dancing. Again, this is not the case. During the 1980's and into the early 1990's, the emphasis in ice dancing was becoming so excessively theatrical and dancers were incorporating so many non-skating elements into their programs that dance events were becoming very hard to judge by any objective technical standards, so the ISU added more restrictions, including requiring dancers to use music suitable "for the dance floor". More recently, apparently in reaction to criticisms that the sport was becoming too boring, they have loosened up the music rules again. The current rules for the free dance allow skaters to use any music that has a definite beat. However, at the same time the restrictions against non-skating elements have been tightened up, and now dancers are required to do specific technical elements -- lifts, spins, and footwork sequences -- in their free dances.

[7] I've heard the TV commentators talking about the skaters' speed. What is this all about?

The commentators are referring to how fast the skaters are moving across the ice, not to whether they are performing fast footwork or rushing through their elements (which is called "quickness" instead). When you see skating live and in person, speed is a quality that's immediately obvious even to an untrained eye, but it's usually much less obvious when you watch the same skating on TV.

The judges look not only for strong, powerful stroking, but also expect skaters to carry the speed through elements like jumps, footwork, and lifts, and to flow out of them cleanly. It's especially impressive when the skaters can build and maintain speed without obvious pushing, through footwork and turns instead of plain stroking or crossovers.

[8] Why do men so rarely do layback spins?

It's said that men generally have less flexibility in their backs than most women do. On the other hand, even women skaters who are not naturally flexible still have to learn how to do a decent layback spin because it's a required element in the short program for them. Men don't have this requirement so they don't have the same motivation to learn this spin. Some men are probably also hypersensitive about doing something that has a reputation as a "girl's move". For those men who do take the trouble to learn a layback spin, it's a beautiful element that adds variety to their programs.

[9][Some TV commentator] is always complaining about poor free leg positions in layback spins. So what's a good position?

The general rule is that the free leg is supposed to be turned out at the hip and carried with the toe pointed, but there are a lot of possible variations in position -- e.g., held high in attitude position with a bent knee, extended out to the side with the knee straight, held closer to the skating leg with the knee straight, etc. In a good position, the free leg will continue the curve of the arched back through the hip and thigh, and it will look like the leg is being held with some tension, rather than simply dangling there. A very common fault is for the free leg to be lifted at the knee rather than the hip, which is the ugly position the TV commentators are most inclined to complain about.

Incidentally, judges tend to be more concerned with the back position than the free leg position. A skater who doesn't actually "lay back" in the spin won't get full credit for it, no matter how pretty the free leg position is.

[10]What are compulsory figures?

Compulsory figures are variations on the figure 8, where the skater attempts to skate a perfectly round circle on a perfectly clean edge, and then do the same on the other foot. When you start to learn figures, there are four of them to learn: forward and backward edges on both inside and outside edges. The next step is to learn to put a turn at the top of each circle, which again has to be perfectly placed and executed on perfectly clean edges. There are also figures that involve tracing a serpentine pattern on a three-lobed figure. Figures are skated on circles 12 to 15 feet in diameter except for the group of figures called loops which are skated on much smaller circles. The hardest kinds of figures include things like paragraph double threes, where you skate two large circles with four turns all on one foot with one push, then take another push and retrace the figure on the other foot. When you're done, the judges come out on the ice and peer closely at the tracing you leave behind to make sure that your circles are perfectly round and your turns are perfectly placed, and that you didn't scrape or wobble anywhere on the figure or commit other horrible faults like doing the turns on the wrong edges or making their shape too deep or too shallow or too crooked.

Figures take an incredible amount of body control and patience to master. In the "old days", skaters used to spend hours every day working on them. Figure practice is called "patch" because each skater was assigned their own patch of ice on the rink to skate on.

Compulsory figures used to be worth 60% of the score in figure skating, but after 1968 they were progressively devalued and finally eliminated completely from international competition after the 1990 season. In the US, figures competitions were held as separate events between 1991 and 1999, but those, too, have now been phased out as few skaters take the time to learn figures any more and it is hard to find rinks that offer patch sessions.

[11]Can you explain the different lifts for pair skaters?

The ISU classifies overhead lifts by the way the man supports his partner on the way up, not by the position she assumes in the air. In order of increasing difficulty:

Hand to waist
E.g., forward platter. The man lifts the woman with both hands at her waist.

Hand to hand
Forward or back press lift, loop lift

Hand to hip
Star lift

Hand to hand lasso
Distinguished by the woman doing a half turn on the way up, so that she faces in the same direction as the man with her legs behind his shoulders. (In a back press lift, the woman also faces in the same direction as the man, but her legs remain in front of his shoulders.)

Pairs add difficulty to lifts by doing them one-handed (especially impressive on the mount), by changing grips and positions in the lift, and by doing a twisting or flipping dismount.

Rules for ISU-eligible competition now permit one lift in the free skate to be a "carry" lift without rotation, and another lift to include a "carry" in the dismount. In all other lifts, the man must turn continuously, doing a maximum of 3.5 rotations. The rules also require that the partners only support each other by hand-to-hand, hand-to-arm, or hand-to-body grips, and not by grips on the legs, neck, or head of their partner.

[12]Is a triple toe/half loop/triple salchow a jump combination or a jump series?

The half loop is considered a true jump, so this is a jump combination consisting of three jumps. It is not, however, a triple/triple combination (which would be two triple jumps back-to-back). The thing that distinguishes a jump combination from a jump series is that in a combination, there are no intervening steps or turns between the jumps; the landing edge for each jump forms the take-off edge for the next.

[13]Why do people make such a big fuss over flutzing? Don't all skaters flutz?

A skater who flutzes (switches to the inside edge on a lutz takeoff) does not show an ability to control the edge and to do the jump correctly, and should be penalized in the marking compared to skaters who do demonstrate proper control and technique. A flutz is a form of a "cheat" that makes it easier for skaters to do a jump that looks approximately like a lutz. It has become commonplace now for skaters to try to get a lutz as early as possible in their skating careers because it's perceived as an important competitive advantage, and as a result we see a lot of flutzes coming from skaters who aren't yet skilled enough to do a proper lutz. Unfortunately, this bad jump technique can be very hard for the skaters to un-learn and fix later on in their careers.

Some skaters truly are able to do a lutz from a completely pure outside edge. Others tend to roll over onto the flat or to a slight inside edge after they have planted the pick, a blade length or so before they actually leave the ice, but this is considered to be acceptable technique. The completely egregious categories of flutzes which the judges are supposed to penalize are those in which the skater switches from an outside edge to a deep inside edge several feet before planting the pick, making a big S-shaped tracing; and those in which the skater is never able to demonstrate a controlled outside edge at all on the entrance. Judges have a range of deductions which they can apply, depending on how close to the pick the skater can maintain the correct edge.

A flutz is judged as a bad lutz, not as a flip. In the short program, if a skater does a flutzed triple lutz in combination, and a triple flip as the solo jump out of footwork, they are penalized for doing a bad lutz, not for repeating the flip. Similarly, in the free skate, if a skater does both a flutzed triple lutz and a triple flip, they are not penalized for repeating a jump.

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