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Compulsory figures

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Black and white photo of a young woman, dressed in a short dress and white ice skates, executing figures on ice, while three people, two men and one woman, look on behind her
Sonja Morgenstern skates a compulsory figure.

Compulsory figures or school figures were formerly a segment of figure skating, and gave the sport its name. They are the "circular patterns which skaters trace on the ice to demonstrate skill in placing clean turns evenly on round circles".[1] For approximately the first 50 years of figure skating as a sport, until 1947, compulsory figures made up 60 percent of the total score at most competitions around the world. These figures continued to dominate the sport, although they steadily declined in importance, until the International Skating Union (ISU) voted to discontinue them as a part of competitions in 1990. Learning and training in compulsory figures instilled discipline and control; some in the figure skating community considered them necessary to teach skaters basic skills. Skaters would train for hours to learn and execute them well, and competing and judging figures would often take up to eight hours during competitions.

Skaters traced compulsory figures, and were judged according to their smoothness and accuracy. The circle is the basis of all figures. Other elements in compulsory figures include curves, change of foot, change of edge, and turns. Skaters had to trace precise circles while completing difficult turns and edges. The simple "figure eight" shape was executed by connecting two circles; other figures included the three turn, the counter turn, the rocker turn, the bracket turn, and the loop.

Although few skaters continue to practice compulsory figures, and few coaches still teach them to skaters, some skaters and coaches believe compulsory figures give skaters an advantage in developing alignment, core strength, body control, and discipline. The World Figure Sport Society has conducted festivals and competitions of compulsory figures, endorsed by the Ice Skating Institute, since 2015.

Execution of figures[edit]

Compulsory figures, also called school figures, are the "circular patterns which skaters trace on the ice to demonstrate skill in placing clean turns evenly on round circles".[1] Compulsory figures are also called "patch", a reference to the patch of ice allocated to each skater to practice figures.[2][note 1] Skaters were required to trace these circles using one foot at a time, demonstrating their mastery of control, balance, flow, and edge to execute accurate and clean tracings on the ice.[1] The compulsory figures used by the International Skating Union (ISU) in 1897 for international competitions consisted of "two or three tangent circles with one, one and a half, or two full circles skated on each foot, in some with turns or loops included on the circles".[3] The patterns skaters left on the ice, rather than the shapes the body made executing them, became the focus of artistic expression in figure skating up until the 1930s.[4]

The highest quality figures had tracings on top of each other; their edges were placed precisely, and the turns lined up exactly. The slightest misalignment or shift of body weight could cause errors in the execution of figures.[2] American figure skating champion Irving Brokaw insisted that form was more essential to the production of figures than the tracings themselves because the skater needed to find a comfortable and natural position in which to perform them.[5] He expected skaters to trace figures without looking down at them because it gave "a very slovenly appearance",[5] and recommended that they not use their arms excessively or for balance like tightrope walkers. Brokaw wanted skaters to remain upright and avoid bending over as much as they could. Brokaw also thought that the unemployed leg, which he called the "balance leg", was as important as the tracing leg because it was used as much in the execution of a figure as the tracing leg. The balance leg also should only be bent slightly, since he believed bending it too much removed its usefulness and appeared clumsy.[6]

Man in his 30s, wearing dark trousers and coat, skating on an outdoor rink, facing to the right and looking downward towards the ice
American Olympic figure skater Irving Brokaw, who wrote one of the earliest books about figure skating and compulsory figures, The Art of Skating (1915)

Writer Ellyn Kestnbaum noted that skaters who were adept at performing compulsory figures had to practice for hours to have precise body control and to become "intimately familiar with how subtle shifts in the body's balance over the blade affected the tracings left on the ice".[7] She added that many skaters found figures and their visible results calming and rewarding.[8] Sports writer Christie Sausa insisted that training in figures "helps create better skaters and instills discipline, and can be practiced over a lifetime by skaters of all ages and abilities".[2] The German magazine Der Spiegel declared in 1983 that compulsory figures stifled skaters' creativity because not much about figures had changed in 100 years of competitions.[9]

Figure elements[edit]

All compulsory figures had the following: circles, curves, change of foot, change of edge, and turns. The circle, the basis of all figures, was performed on both its long and short axes. Skaters had to trace precise circles, while completing difficult turns and edges.[2][10] Each figure consisted of two or three tangent circles. Each circle's diameter had to be about three times the skater's height, and the radii of all half-circles and circles had to be approximately the same length. Half-circles and circles had to begin and end as near as possible to the point in which the long and short axes intersected. The figure's long axis divided it longitudinally into equal-sized halves, and the figure's short axes divided the figures into equal-sized lobes.[10]

Curves, which are parts of circles, had to be performed with an uninterrupted tracing and with a single clean edge, with no subcurves or wobbles.[11] Brokaw insisted that curves had to be done on all four edges of the skate, as well as on the inside and outside edges while skating both backwards and forwards.[12] He stated, "It is the control of these circles that gives strength and power, and the holding of the body in the proper and graceful attitudes, while it is the execution of these large circles, changes of edges, threes and double-threes, brackets, loops, rockers and counters, which makes up the art of skating".[12] Curves also included the forced turn (or bracket) and the serpentine.[12]

A change of foot, which happened during the short time the skater transferred weight from one foot to the other, was allowed in the execution of figures, but had to be done in a symmetrical zone of each side of the long axis. Skaters could choose the exact point in which they placed their foot in this zone, although it typically was just after the long axis, with the full weight of the body on the skate. It was at this point when the tracing began.[10] A change of edge happened at the point in which the long and short axes intersected. Its trace had to be continuously and symmetrically traced and could not be S-shaped. The edge change had to be as short as possible, and could not be longer than the length of the skate blade. Turns were skated with a single clean edge up to and after the turn, but with no double tracings, no skids or scrapes, or no illegal edge change either before, during, or after a turn. The turns' cusps had to be the same size, and the entry into and out of a turn had to be symmetrical.[11]

The simple "figure eight" shape was executed by connecting two circles[4] "about three times the height of the skater with one circle skated on each foot".[13] The figure eight has four variations: inside edges, outside edges, backward, and forward. A turn added at the halfway point of each circle increased the level of complexity. Other figures included three-lobed figures with a counter turn or a rocker turn, which were completed at the points where the lobes touched.[13] Counters and rockers had to be executed symmetrically, with no change of edge, with the points of their turns either pointing up or down or lying along the figure's long axis, and could not be beaked or hooked. Brackets, like threes, had to be skated on a circle, its turns' points either pointing up or down or lying along the figure's long axis.[11]

Skaters also performed a group of smaller figures called loops.[13] The diameter of the loop's circular shape had to be about the same height of the skater, and they could not have any scrapes or points on the ice. The place in which the skater entered into or exited out of the crossing of both the loop tracing and the center of the loop had to sit on the figure's long axis, where the loop was divided into symmetrical halves. The center of the loop figure to the place in which the skater entered into or exited out of the loop's crossing had to measure five-sixths of the circle's diameter. The loop's length had to be about one-third of the distance from the place in which the skater entered into or exited out of the loop's crossing of the loop tracing to the figure's short axis. The loop's width had to be about two-thirds of its length.[11]

There were three types of three turns: the standard three, the double three, and the paragraph double three. The three turn had to be skated on a circle, its turns' points either pointing up or down or lying along the figure's long axis.[11][13] For the double three, the points of both threes had to be directed towards the center of each circle, and had to divide the circle into three equal curves. The middle curve had to divide the circles into halves by the figure's long axis.[11] The paragraph double three, which was executed at the highest levels of competition, was done by tracing "two circles with two turns at each circle, all on one foot from one push-off".[13] The paragraph double three was difficult to accomplish because the shape and placement of the turns had to be perfectly symmetrical, the turns had to be done on a true edge with no scrapes on the ice, and the circles had to be the same size and exactly round.[13]


Early history[edit]

Until 1947, for approximately the first 50 years of the existence of figure skating as a sport, compulsory figures made up 60 percent of the total score at most competitions around the world.[13] According to Ellyn Kestnbaum, the Edinburgh Skating Club, which was established before 1784, required prospective members to pass proficiency tests in what became compulsory figures.[14] The Skating Club, founded in 1830 in London, also required proficiency tests for members and pioneered "combined skating", a series of symmetrical patterns created on the ice that contributed to the evolution of school figures.[15]

In 1868, the American Skating Congress, precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, adopted a series of movements used during competitions between skaters from the U.S. and Canada. Other competitions held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included special figures, freeskating, and compulsories, most of the points they earned going towards how they performed the same set of compulsory moves.[16] The first international figure skating competition was in Vienna in 1882;[17][18] according to Kestnbaum, it established a precedent for future competitions.[19] Skaters were required to perform 23 compulsory figures, as well as a four-minute freeskating program, and a section called "special figures", in which they had to perform moves or combinations of moves that highlighted their advanced skills.[19]

Man on the left and woman on the right crouching on a piece of ice on a rink, the man tracing a figure on the ice with his thumb
Ralph Borghardt and Gabriele Seyfert examine the print of a loop figure at the 1964 East German Championships.

Compulsory figures were an important part of figure skating for the rest of the 19th century until the 1930s and 1940s. The first European Championships in 1891 consisted of only compulsory figures.[20] In 1896, the newly formed ISU sponsored the first annual World Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg. The competition consisted of compulsory figures and freeskating.[21] Skaters had to perform six compulsory moves, or figures, so that judges could compare skaters according to an established standard. Compulsory figures were worth 60 percent of the competitors' total scores. Special figures were not included in World Championships, although they were included as a separate discipline in other competitions, including the Olympics in 1908.[3]

In 1897, the ISU adopted a schedule of 41 school figures, each of increasing difficultly, which were proposed by the British. They remained the standard compulsory figures used throughout the world in proficiency testing and competitions until 1990, and U.S. Figure Skating continued to use them as a separate discipline in the 1990s. After World War II, more countries were sending skaters to international competitions, so the ISU cut the numbers of figures to a maximum of six due to the extended time it took to judge them all.[3][13]


After 1968, figures began to be progressively devalued. First, values were decreased to 50 percent. In 1973, the number of figures was decreased from six to three, and their overall weight was decreased to 30 percent, to make room for the introduction of the short program.[13][22] According to sports writer Sandra Loosemore, television was "the driving force"[13] for the rule changes regarding figures in 1968 and the years following. Figures were not broadcast on television because they were not exciting enough, so viewers "found it incomprehensible that competitions could be won by skaters who had built up huge leads in the figures portion of the event but gave mediocre performances in the part of the competition shown on TV".[13]

Loosemore attributed the decrease in the importance of figures to a "lack of public accountability"[13] from the judges of international competitions and other discrepancies in judging, which Loosemore called "dirty judging".[13] She speculated that television coverage of the sport, which brought more attention to how it was judged, was also responsible and "since figures competitions weren't televised, fans could not be certain that the judges were on the level".[13] Loosemore also speculated that "the relative scarcity of rinks and practice ice for figures in Europe as compared to North America"[13] ultimately made the difference in the removal of figures from competitions. Kestnbaum agreed, stating that the elimination of figures was motivated by finances, countries with an affluent middle class or government-supported training for athletes having more of a competitive advantage over less affluent and smaller countries with fewer ice rinks and resources to spend the time necessary to train for proficiency in figures. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, there were discussions about eliminating them from international competitions.[23]

In 1988, the ISU voted to remove compulsory figures from international single skating competitions, for both men and women, starting in the 1990–1991 season. Of 31 voting national associations, only the U.S., Canada, Britain, and New Zealand voted against the decision.[22] The last two seasons that compulsory figures were competed at an international competition were in 1989 and 1990; only two figures were skated and they were worth only 20 percent of the competitors' overall scores.[13][23]

Compulsory figures have not been a part of any international or most national competitions since 1990. The U.S. was one of the last skating federations to keep figures as a part of skills tests for the lower levels. The last time figures were contested at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships was in 1999.[note 2] The U.S. created a separate track for figures instead of eliminating them as most other countries did, and finally voted to eliminate them in 1997. Canada also ended proficiency tests in figures in 1997. According to Loosemore, the U.S.' decision to replace the remaining figure proficiency test requirements for competition eligibility in the mid-1990s with moves in the field to test skating proficiency "killed figures as a separate competition discipline".[13][26] Sports writer Randy Harvey of the Los Angeles Times predicted that the free skate would become the focus in international competitions.[27]

According to Loosemore, after figures were no longer required, most skaters stopped doing them, resulting in rinks cutting back on the amount of time they offered to skaters who wanted to continue to practice them and a reduction in the number of judges capable of scoring them.[13] Despite the apparent demise of compulsory figures from figure skating, coaches continued to teach figures and skaters continued to practice them because figures gave skaters an advantage in developing alignment, core strength, body control, and discipline.[2] Proponents stated that figures taught basic skating skills, insisting that if skaters did not become proficient in figures, they would not be able to perform well-done short and long programs.[8][27] The World Figure Sport Society has conducted festivals and competitions of compulsory figures, endorsed by the Ice Skating Institute, since 2015.[28]


Der Spiegel compared judging compulsory figures to the work of forensic scientists.[9] After the skaters completed tracing figures, the judges scrutinized the circles made, and the process was repeated twice more. According to Harvey, compulsory figures took five hours to complete at U.S. National Championships and eight hours at World Championships.[27] At the 1983 European Championships, the compulsory segment began at 8 am, and lasted six hours.[9]

The ISU published a judges' handbook describing what judges needed to look for during compulsory figure competitions in 1961.[29] Skaters were judged on the ease and flow of their movement around the circles, the accuracy of the shapes of their bodies, and the accuracy of the prints traced on the ice. Judges took note of the following: scrapes, double tracks that indicated that both edges of their blades were in contact with the ice simultaneously, deviations from a perfect circle, how closely the tracings from each repetition followed each other, how well the loops lined up, and other errors.[3]


  1. ^ See the historical document "Special Regulations for Figures" for an example of past competition rules and regulations for figures. See especially diagrams of figures, pp. 12–21.
  2. ^ Lauren Hill was the last skater to skate figures during a U.S. National Championship; she came in third place.[24][25]


  1. ^ a b c Special Regs, p. 1
  2. ^ a b c d e Sausa, Christie (1 September 2015). "Figures revival". Lake Placid News. Lake Placid, N.Y. Retrieved 27 September 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Kestnbaum, p. 82
  4. ^ a b Kestnbaum, p. 59
  5. ^ a b Brokaw, p. 19
  6. ^ Brokaw, pp. 19–20
  7. ^ Kestnbaum, p. 73
  8. ^ a b Kestnbaum, p. 84
  9. ^ a b c "Eiskunstlauf: Das Schlimmste". Der Spiegel (in German). 7 February 1983. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  10. ^ a b c Special Regs, p. 2
  11. ^ a b c d e f Special Regs, p. 3
  12. ^ a b c Brokaw, p. 23
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Loosemore, Sandra (16 December 1998). "'Figures' don't add up in competition anymore". CBS SportsLine. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  14. ^ Kestnbaum, p. 58
  15. ^ Kestnbaum, p. 60
  16. ^ Kestnbaum, pp. 81–82
  17. ^ "History". International Skating Union. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  18. ^ Hines, p. xx
  19. ^ a b Kestnbaum, p. 67
  20. ^ Hines, p. 12
  21. ^ Kestnbaum, p. 68
  22. ^ a b "No More Figures in Figure Skating". The New York Times. Associated Press. 9 June 1988. p. D00025. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  23. ^ a b Kestnbaum, p. 86
  24. ^ "For compulsory figures, the number is up". SLAM! Sports. Associated Press. 10 February 1999. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
  25. ^ "1999 State Farm U.S. Championships: All Figures Results". U.S. Figure Skating. Retrieved 24 November 2018.
  26. ^ Kestnbaum, p. 88
  27. ^ a b c Harvey, Randy (8 January 1988). "It's Compulsory, but Is It Necessary?: For Now, Tedious Competition Counts; Debi Thomas Takes Lead". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  28. ^ "World Figure Championship & Figure Festival coming to Lake Placid, NY" (Press release). Lake Placid, N.Y.: World Figure Sport Society. 25 April 2015. Retrieved 27 September 2018.
  29. ^ Hines, p. xxv

Works cited[edit]

  • Brokaw, Irving (1915). The Art of Skating. New York: American Sports Publishing Company. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  • Hines, James R. (2011). Historical Dictionary of Figure Skating. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6859-5.
  • Kestnbaum, Ellyn (2003). Culture on Ice: Figure Skating and Cultural Meaning. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0819566416.
  • Special Regulations for Figures. U.S. Figure Skating Association. Retrieved 30 September 2018.

External links[edit]