Ice dancing is a form of figure skating which draws from the world of ballroom dancing. It was first competed at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1952, but did not become a Winter Olympic Games medal sport until 1976. As in pair skating, dancers compete as a couple consisting of a man and a woman. Ice dance differs from pair skating by severely limiting lifts, requiring spins to be performed as a team in a dance hold, and by disallowing throws and jumps. Typically, partners are not supposed to separate by more than two arm lengths; originally, partners were supposed to be in a dance hold the entire program. This restriction has been lifted somewhat in modern ice dancing.
Another distinction between ice dance and other disciplines of skating is the usage of music in the performances; in ice dancing, dancers must always skate to music that has a definite beat or rhythm. Singles and pair skaters more often skate to the melody and phrasing of their music, rather than its beat; this is severely penalized in ice dance.
Additionally, ice dancing is currently the only form of figure skating to allow vocal music in official competitions. In some non-ISU competitions, solo dancers can also compete.
The patterns for most dances either cover one-half or one full circuit of the rink. The International Skating Union publishes the step diagrams and descriptions of the dances that are competed internationally, and also provides a set of standard music recordings for each dance with uniform tempo and introductory phrasing for use in competition.
For the original dance, the International Skating Union designates a rhythm or set of rhythms each year that all dancers must perform to, but unlike the compulsory dances, the competitors choose their own music (within a specified tempo range) and choreography. The original dance could be compared to the short program in singles and pairs. The length of the program is shorter than the free dance, and the skaters have more rules they must adhere to. The dance must be choreographed so that the steps do not cross the midline of the rink. There are certain exceptions for this rule that take into account required step sequences such as the diagonal footwork sequence. Closed partnering positions and close skating is also important for the original dance.
Beginning in the 1970s, dance began to be dominated more by teams from the Soviet Union and, after the end of the Soviet Union, by Russia. The Russian style of ice dance typically emphasizes speed and power at the expense of precision. For example, in the compulsory dances, the skaters have been known to make slight alterations in the pattern and timing of the steps that are not strictly correct according to the rulebook, but which make the dance flow better or have more speed over the ice, and hence appear more impressive. Russian ice dancers are also known for theatrical and sometimes bizarre costuming and expression in their dances.
In the 1990s, the International Skating Union began to try to restrain the excessive theatricality in ice dancing, first by attempting to return it to its ballroom roots by adding more restrictions on music and dance holds. Later, amid complaints that ice dance had become too boring, these restrictions were removed and replaced with requirements that dancers include specified technical elements in the original dance and free dance. The effect is that there is now more emphasis on technique and athleticism in the judging, and less on dramatics. While the requirement that dancers skate to music with a definite beat remains, ice dancing is currently the only discipline of figure skating which allows vocal music with lyrics in competition.