Why Pairs?

When I started this blog, I had the intent to focus it partly on pairs skating. So I jumped right in and started writing reviews of pairs events last fall. Recently, it occurred to me that some people might be wondering: Why pairs? Why write so much about pairs?

Well, I started writing about pairs because it’s my favorite discipline of figure skating. I love watching all four disciplines, but pairs has been my favorite for quite a few years now. So, writing about it came naturally.

Why do I love pairs? I think it starts with speed. Going fast is what I love most about skating! I love stepping onto the ice and being liberated from the constraints of earthboundness. Instantly, you can move and glide at twice the speed you could ever achieve walking. The speed is exciting, exhilarating, like nothing else.

In pairs skating, that speed is multiplied. When you have two bodies connected on the ice, the speed and momentum they gain together is greater than a singles skater can achieve. Ice dance also involves two people skating together; but in dance, the speed is controlled and harnessed in the service of exacting, complicated patterns and footwork. In pairs, all that speed and power is unleashed fully to fuel the high-flying twists, lifts, and throws that define the discipline. In a SkateGuard interview, Paul Wylie talked about the speed of legendary pairs skater Irina Rodnina: “I watched her skate at the Broadmoor, and it was two crossovers to full speed and full ice coverage.”

Irina Rodnina/Alexander Zaitsev: Renowned for their speed
Irina Rodnina/Alexander Zaitsev: Renowned for their speed

The first pair I ever saw live was a young team at a local rink in Franklin, Massachusetts. They were probably no older than 10 or 12, and they didn’t have any big lifts or tricks. But, the second I saw them, I was captivated. Because even though they were so young and not very skilled, they took over the rink, racing past the singles skaters at impressive speed and effortlessly grabbing onlookers’ attention. It was fascinating. Watching them, I knew I wanted to see more of this pairs skating!

In the years since then, I’ve watched countless pairs competitions on TV. And I’ve been fortunate to see many famous pairs live, including Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze, Sale/Pelletier, Babilonia/Gardner, Duhamel/Radford, Castelli/Shnapir. But the best moment came last winter in Boston when I attended a full competition for the first time with all-event tickets—2014 U.S. Nationals.

The very first thing I saw at Nationals was senior pairs practice. Wow! That practice took my breath away. To me, it was every bit as exciting as a competition. Watching the pairs teams up close—the amazing things they could do—the speed with which they skated—their reactions after they tried difficult elements and succeeded or failed–was fascinating to me.

U.S. pairs skaters Shaughnessy/Morgan in practice
U.S. pairs skaters Shaughnessy/Morgan in practice

Blair Braverman wrote an in-depth article about 2014 U.S. Nationals for Buzzfeed. She was as captivated by the pairs practices as I was, and wrote eloquently about it:

I’m not planning to stay long at the senior pairs practice, but two hours pass before I can look away.

Four teams — eight skaters — take the ice at a time. They’re all dressed in head-to-toe black, long sleeves and long pants, identical except for the women’s shirts.

Even when they’re all skating separately, when all four pairs have divided and instead eight bodies arc around the ice in a mess of lonely directions, I can see exactly who belongs to whom. The partners’ connection is evident in their rhythms and the angles of their limbs, and when one by one they come together again, it’s almost a relief, things clicking into place. Their bodies are beautiful, made more beautiful by proximity to other bodies, without a trace of sex or romance; each pair seems less an ideal couple than an ideal male and female version of the same human essence.

The pairs practice is, and will remain, the most striking thing I see all week.

You could argue that pairs skating is more exciting than singles skating from a technical standpoint, because not only do pairs perform many of the same spins, jumps, and footwork as singles skaters, they also do the challenging pairs elements too. Of course, pairs skaters don’t usually perform the most difficult solo triple/quad jumps. That said, Duhamel/Radford and Marchei/Hotarek are raising technical standards with their side-by-side triple Lutzes, so who knows what the future will hold?

The thing that I love most about pairs, aside from the speed and sheer beauty of movement, is the artistic potential of the discipline. It seems only logical that you can create a wider range of different movements on ice when you have two bodies to work with, as opposed to one. I find the choreographic potential of pairs and dance far more exciting than singles skating.

So many of the most memorable, iconic programs in the sport are pairs programs. The Protopopovs’ Liebestraum. Underhill/Martini’s When a Man Loves a Woman. Gordeeva/Grinkov’s Moonlight Sonata and Reverie. Mishkuteniok/Dmitriev’s Liebestraum and Rachmaninov. Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze’s Lady Caliph and Meditation from Thais. Sale/Pelletier’s Love Story. Shen/Zhao’s Turandot. Savchenko/Szolkowy’s Pink Panther and Pina. When not performed at a high level, pairs can look prosaic and disjointed. But when pairs skating reaches its fullest potential . . . magic happens.

Gordeeva/Grankov's Moonlight Sonata: An iconic program
Gordeeva/Grankov’s Moonlight Sonata: An iconic program

So, I wanted to write about pairs skating simply because I love it. And also because I feel it doesn’t get as much love (or attention) as the other disciplines. Singles skating is hugely popular, endlessly discussed in forums, and quite well covered in the press and specialized blogs such as Naked Ice. And with the emergence of North American ice dance teams in the last 20 years, ice dance also now has a large following, with its own blogs.

But pairs skating gets a bit lost. So I wanted to show it some love by writing about it here, in this blog. I hope fellow pairs fans have enjoyed the coverage so far, which I aim to continue and improve upon in the future!


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