Level of difficulty

I never thought I’d say this, but figure skating as peaked my interest. The recent win of Evan Lysacek, the 24-year-old figure skater from Illinois, over reigning champion Yevgeny Plushenko, 27-year-old Russian who came out of retirement for these Olympic Games, has stirred a lot of buzz – not only because it’s the first time an American has taken the gold since Brian Boitano in 1988, but because it raised questions about how skating is judged.

For those of you who missed it, Lysacek performed brilliantly – no earth-shattering figures but it was nearly flawless. Plushenko nailed the quadruple toe loop – the new challenging figure all the best skaters are daring to try – but he had some errors on the jumps that followed. Both men received the exact same scores for artistry; Lysacek pulled in two more points for technical performance.

Some of you know that much of this has to do with math and the new scoring system (jumps performed in the latter half of the long program received 10% more points) but the bigger argument has centered around remarks made by Plushenko after the competition. Plushenko and his coach have both commented that male skaters who did not attempt the quad are basically wimps. “If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko said. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating. It’s dancing. Maybe figure skating needs a new name.”

The insinuation is that figure skating is about technical difficulty – pushing the envelope with respect to skill, not choreography and artistry. So who gave the better performance: Plushenko with his less perfect but more challenging routine or Lysacek with his cleaner, less difficult routine?

We see this drama play out frequently in the dance world. Sometimes the couple pulling out the big moves and getting cheers wins, and other times the simpler, smoother couple gets top placement. Depends on the judges, depends on the dancers, and depends on how much “bad” technique will be tolerated in exchange for difficulty and showmanship.

Dancing – especially competitive dancing – can be as much about showmanship and level of difficulty as it is about mastery of fundamental technique and partnership. To what extent should the former be valued over the latter? How much are we willing to sacrifice fundamentals for the “wow” factor? What separates great showmanship from “flash and trash”? And how might the factors we reward in competitive dancing be shifting what we see on the social dance floor?

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