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Unleash Your Skating Potential with the USFS Testing Structure and Conquer the Crystal Stage

Conquer the crystal stage with the USFS testing structure

The journey to becoming a figure skater is about mastering the art of gliding gracefully - and with purpose! However, the road to becoming a master of the “crystal stage” can be elusive for many. Luckily, United States Figure Skating (USFS) offers a testing structure that establishes certain milestones based on prescribed skills. The conquering of these skills requires a skater’s dedication and monitoring of their progression. There are many different tracks for the USFS testing structure. Even within each track, there are different levels of proficiency (e.g. Standard, Adult 21+, Adult 50+). Once you graduate from the different levels of Learn To Skate or Freeskate 1-3, you may start to look to the traditional testing track to begin your journey to becoming a “USFS Gold Medalist” in Skating Skills, Freestyle, Pairs, or Ice Dance. In this post, we will talk about where to start and how to approach each test so that you can pass with limited retries!

Testing Tips Image

The test we are going to use as an example is the Dutch Waltz from the Preliminary Dance test. It is the first dance most ice dancers learn for testing. This test is commonly used first because it is all forward skating in Killian hold (the partners are side-by-side, skating forward).

The pattern focuses on progressives (similar to freestyle crossovers) and forward edges. A perfect pattern to begin your testing journey!

USFS Testing: Preparing for the Dutch Waltz

I am a big advocate for doing your homework. If you have a busy job, a family, and all of the responsibilities of adulthood, having more than one weekly lesson probably is not in the cards for you. Therefore, I recommend maximizing your lesson time by learning the pattern and steps before you see your coach. When you teach yourself the pattern, pay close attention to the number of beats each step receives and focus on the testing criteria: technique, timing, and expression. As a result, your first lesson will then be spent on refinement and pattern placement, preparing you to test faster and more efficiently.

Familiarize yourself with the Dance Pattern and the most current U.S. Figure Skating Rulebook

To learn the pattern and steps for your test, you must first familiarize yourself with the current OFFICIAL U.S. FIGURE SKATING RULEBOOK. Read every page and excerpt devoted to your pattern. If you look up the Dutch Waltz, you will find the below information:

The ability to read the rules and the pattern is, in my opinion, as critical as your work with your coach. Referencing the rulebook during your practice sessions allows you to focus your practice in a detailed manner and ensures you never deviate from the requirements of the test. Though this task may be intimidating at first, look at the pattern one step at a time and walk yourself through the pattern slowly. At first, it will take some time to acclimate yourself to this new skill. But, trust me, it will be well worth the time investment.

In the OFFICIAL U.S. FIGURE SKATING RULEBOOK, on the page before the Dutch Waltz pattern (above) is a brief overview page with information on the dance where you can see the required tempo and pattern timing. The most important information is the number of patterns required for your test and the tempo listed in beats per minute (BPM). For the Dutch Waltz, you will complete two complete patterns at 138 BPM (this means the metronome will click 138 times within 60 seconds). Moreover, the music rhythm is in a Waltz ¾ meter. Therefore, when you count the steps, be sure to count in patterns of 3. Now that we have the bare bones of the dance, we need to keep reading to find more information. 

When you first open this manual, it’s a lot. It has 500 pages. I recommend looking at this manual digitally. Press Control+F, type in Dutch Waltz and start reading the materials in the manual related to the pattern. If the descriptions are not helpful, jump to the picture of the pattern diagram. Study the pattern and even walk the pattern out on the floor at home. You can even get the timing by counting yourself through the pattern or putting on the ISU-approved Dutch Waltz music (available by a quick Google search). 

After I have gotten a sense of the dance off the ice, I kick it old school and print out all of the pages I need for the pattern. All of the pages for the Dutch Waltz are then placed in a binder with some loose-leaf paper. The loose-leaf paper is used to make notes, write reminders, list drills that would help the dance, or explain instructions on something technical. I will usually print two copies of the pattern itself: one to make notes on and a clean copy to use for visualization. I like to have the pattern on paper because if I am having pattern issues, I will hold up the pattern as I am standing on the rink. I hold the pattern up as it would lay on the rink to visualize the placement of the pattern. 

If there is anything on the pattern you find confusing or an obscure abbreviation, refer to the appendix of the common abbreviations used in this pattern dance, descriptions of the Dance Diagrams, the number of sequences (patterns) to execute the test, and the timing of Dance patterns using ISU music.

Now that you know how to execute your test, take note of the Judging Section to understand the test expectations and the test markings.

Of course, these are just excerpts from the rulebook. When it comes to studying the rules for an upcoming test, always refer back to the rulebook and read all of the sections related to your test. This is a great start as you continue to work with your coach to ensure that you are practicing correctly.

Analyze the music

You can download the International Skating Union (ISU) music for your Dance patterns. Most rinks may even have a CD of all of the dances. Now, there are lists on Spotify and I keep my music on Google Drive.

  • The BPM matters. No matter what music you choose, it MUST have the same BPM as listed in the rulebook. The ISU will allow a +/-2 beats. So, for the Dutch Waltz, the BPM is 138 but a range of 136-140 BPM is allowed.

  • The music you pick must be in the character and style of the dance. If you are doing a waltz, the music must have a strong waltz tempo or feeling of 3.

  • Don’t be afraid to mix it up! Listening to different selections is good for your ear and helps you learn to count the music. Training your body to do the pattern as your ear is listening to different music will help solidify the pattern in your body and you will reduce the risk of getting off time.

Breakdown the dance into manageable sections

Usually, I recommend cutting each side of the pattern in half. This means the first length of the pattern will be in two sections, the end pattern will be in two sections, etc.

  • Understand the holds and positions of your pattern: This is a little bit complex but it is important to know what your partner is doing. It’s good to know when you are Kilian, foxtrot, waltz, or any other hold required by the dance.

  • Don’t be afraid to walk it through: I do not recommend trying any of the dances at full tempo at first. There have been some dances where I rarely trained them at tempo to perfect technical issues. This goes for whether you are learning steps or trying the different holds for the first time. Go under tempo and get all of the requirements in your body before trying the dance with music

  • Cross-train: Eventually, you will get to higher-level dances that are demanding on your body and the test requires you to perform more sequences/patterns. Cardiovascular cross-training is important to build stamina. I would also consider pilates/ballet for strength and to work your core. This will assist in building the strength to hold your edges and execute difficult (and, sometimes, fast) turns.

Find online videos of skaters demonstrating the dance pattern

  • YouTube: There are a lot of resources for learning your current skating test. However, I caution you against relying on this resource. I would recommend videos by coaches or people who skated at a high level. With that said, I have noticed that many videos do not address where the patterns should be placed on the rink. I urge you to pay attention to your pattern at the lower levels because it will pay off when you get to the higher levels.

  • Skating Skills App: This App, developed by Dana Tang, has videos of Skating Skills tests you may be working on. Videos of tests passed are submitted and uploaded into the app. While it is always wonderful to see skaters successfully reach these milestones, it is important to remember that each judging panel is different and the rulebook will always be the most reliable resource.

  • USFS Rulebook and your coach’s guidance: While living in the digital age is wonderful, the absolute best guidance is the rulebook and your coach. Your coach is there to assist you and offer you ways to troubleshoot your pattern. This person knows your skating better than anyone else!

When you are ready and can, practice the whole test

Rink time is shared time, so if you are comfortable and the rink is quiet enough, practice the whole pattern on the ice when you can. Start slowly, then gradually bring up the speed to the required tempo. Also, try filming your practice runs to watch back to find any places for improvement. One of the most underrated portions of any test is stamina. Be sure to run through your entire test once or multiple times a session when you are ready to do so.

Final thoughts

Skating tests including ice dance patterns can vary in complexity and some may be more challenging than others. Never be discouraged if you have an unsuccessful test. Use any test retries as an opportunity to improve. Read the judges’ comments and use them to focus your practice. This is a journey and every day we get to skate is another day we get to focus on improvement. 

So, make sure to follow the rule book for your testing structure and, with every pattern you test: glide with purpose!

Taking a virtual test? Check out my quick tip video!

Disclaimer: Images from the USFS Rulebook were captured in 2023. Please always refer to the most recent USFS Rulebook that is posted on their website.

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