The Joy of Figures

Over the past two weeks, the international competitive ice skating season has started, with the Skate America competition in Detroit and the Skate Canada competition in Saint John. In most countries, the local and regional competitions leading to national championships are also underway – and all these events are more intensely competitive than usual because of the upcoming 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. But I’m going to talk about a part of skating that sadly disappeared from competition almost 25 years ago. That’s the compulsory figures, and their elimination was a big loss to the sport.

Compulsory figures, also called school figures, gave their name to “figure skating”, because the earliest skating competitions were nothing but figures. As the name suggests, compulsory figures are a set of geometric figures, based on circles, that skaters “draw” with the tracings that their blades make on the ice. Every figure is done on an edge – if you think of the bottom of a skate blade as a very shallow arc, the edges are the two ends of the arc. A figure skating blade is about 1.5 centimeters or 1/8″ wide, so that should give you an idea of how narrow the two edges are. There were 17 basic figures used in competition, and skaters had to be able to do all of them starting backwards or forwards, on either an inside edge (the edge closest to the instep of the foot) or an outside edge, and on either the right foot or the left foot.

The first page of compulsory figures diagrams from the 1995 Skate Canada rulebook. There were nine levels of figures tests in Canada, and the figures shown on this page were used in the first five levels.

Compulsory figures diagrams, from the 1995 Canadian Figure Skating Association rulebook. There were nine levels of figure tests in Canada; the figures shown on this page were part of the first five test levels.

In diagrams of figures like the one above, some of the figures are shown with horizontal and vertical axes. That’s to indicate that the figure should have perfectly symmetrical and equally rounded circles of identical size, with the total length of the two circles equalling one-and-a-half times the skater’s height. But when you tested or competed in figures, you weren’t allowed to draw those axes, or even to mark the centre of the figure where the circles meet. You had to skate a perfectly symmetrical figure of a specified length, with circles of identical size and shape, and with turns or changes in the exact same place on each circle. And you had to do that without any marks to guide you, while travelling on a single foot and a single edge without making any scrapes or flats – and then you had to do that three times, in exactly the same way each time. It’s insanely difficult. And that is why I love figures, because doing them well is truly an art and a unique skill.

Figures used to be worth 60% of a skater’s overall mark in competitions. In 1968, the percentage of marks assigned to figures was reduced to 50%, and then figures gradually were given less and less weight until, in 1990, they were eliminated entirely from international skating competition. This happened for a couple of reasons, one of the big ones being television. Figure competitions don’t make for good TV, because you have to be able to see the actual figures up close to assess how good they are – although, having said that, I don’t think TV broadcasters really tried all that hard to find ways to accomplish this. TV viewers also were confused when they saw a skater perform a kick-ass freeskating program and then not win because he or she got lousy marks in a part of the competition they didn’t see. Doing figures took a lot of time at competitions, especially when each skater had to do several figures and a lot of skaters were competing. And training in figures was very time-consuming and expensive. Figures have to be done on clean ice to see the tracings, and you have to look at the figure while you’re doing it – not dodging other skaters –  so figures sessions can’t be combined with any other kind of skating practice. A lot of skaters thought doing figures was boring, or hated getting up before the crack of dawn to go to early-morning figure sessions. And requiring figures in competitions was discouraging to skaters who were bad at figures but good at freeskating.

I started getting into figures as an adult skater. My coach taught me a couple of figures, and I was really intrigued by how challenging they were and how many different things you needed to do well to be good at them. At that time, figure tests were no longer required, but because I enjoyed doing figures, I took the preliminary figure test, which was the first test in the Canadian Figure Skating Association figure test system. And I failed – which was one of the most disheartening experiences of my entire skating career. I was in tears after that test, because I knew that I could do the figures, but it was so frustrating not to be able to do them correctly in front of a panel of judges standing very close to you and watching your every move. And then, just as I was almost ready to take the test again, figure tests were eliminated from the Canadian test system. I really regret that I never got to pass that test, but I did take and pass the Figure 1 test in the Ice Skating Institute (ISI) test system. And I competed in figures at the 1999 ISI World Recreational Team Championships, which was probably the most terrifying thing I have ever done in a competition. It was absolutely nerve-wracking to have to concentrate that hard and to not make stupid mistakes while being watched so closely.

British skater Graham Sharp, 1939 world champion, practicing figures. If only we could all look this dapper on the ice. (Photo from the 1938 book [i] Modern Figure Skating [/i] by T.D. Richardson.)

British skater Graham Sharp, 1939 world champion, practicing figures. If only we could all look this dapper on the ice. (Photo from the 1938 book Modern Figure Skating by T.D. Richardson.)

So what do skaters get out of doing figures? Figures teach you clean edges, controlled turns, balance, and proper technique, all of which are so essential to everything else in skating. For example, every jump takes off from and lands on an edge. Figures help you learn what the edge feels like when it’s done correctly, and a clean edge gives you more momentum and power going into the jump, and better control when you land it. Figures teach you to concentrate, to be “in the moment”, and to be completely aware of where every part of your body is and how your body is moving. Doing figures is also very humbling because they’re so hard; you can’t fake your way through them with bad technique, so they really force you to develop your skills. And when a figure goes well, and you produce a beautiful symmetric clean tracing, the sense of accomplishment is incredible.

A lot of skating fans think that figures are dull to watch. I couldn’t disagree more. If you know what to look for, they’re mesmerizing. Take a look at this video; starting at about 2 minutes and 47 seconds in, it shows Scott Hamilton performing a paragraph bracket figure. The video gives some idea of why it’s hard to show figures on television, but Hamilton is demonstrating the figure in a darkened arena with special lighting on the ice, which makes the tracings easier to see. Notice how Hamilton traces the figure three times, lays each tracing right on top of the others, and completes each tracing only on one foot and using only one edge for each part of the figure. Now think about how he’s doing this on edges that are a fraction of an inch wide, and look at the speed at which he’s traveling, and the beautiful glide and precision of his movements. That is truly impressive.

And here at the start of this video is some footage of Trixi Schuba doing figures in the ladies’ skating competition at the 1972 Winter Olympics. By all accounts, Schuba was one of the best figure skaters ever; at competitions, other skaters used to come over and look at her tracings because they were so flawless. This video shows the body control, excellent balance, and intense concentration that you need to be great, or even to be good, at figures.

Figures have been replaced in skating tests by programs like Moves in the Field in the US and Skills in Canada, which also teach edges and turns, but in the context of large fast patterns across the ice. I think pretty much anyone involved in skating would agree that these programs don’t even come close to developing the same sort of skating expertise that figures did. But, realistically, figures will likely never be reinstated in International Skating Union-governed competitions, and that’s a huge shame. Skaters can still take figure tests in some skating programs (thank you, ISI), and compete in figures at some events – but the last generation of coaches that learned and taught figures is starting to retire, and a lot of very specialized expertise is being lost and going unrecorded.

So if you skate, ask your coach or an older skater to teach you some figures. They’ll love to share what they know, and you just might end up enjoying it and learning some very useful skating skills. And if you don’t skate, I hope you can appreciate just how special figures are, and their contribution to skating becoming the great sport that it is.


  1. This is a great commentary and tribute to a very integral part of the sport of figure skating that most people have no idea about. Figures shaped this sport and were a unique speciality discipline that took skill and grace to master. I was very sad to see them retired from the sport and wish they would come back. As a former U.S. National Figure Skating Championships silver and bronze medalist in Sr. Ladies figures from in ’93 & ’94, I thank you for writing such a thoughtful commentary on a part of this sport that I hold so dear to my heart. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this!!
    I skated (tested, traveled, competed, everything) growing up, and the figures were my favorite part! My kids are now starting to show an interest in the ice and I’m getting back into it… My first love 😉
    I’m actually hoping to find a place to test and/or compete, so if anyone out there has any leads, please keep me in *the loop*!

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