What is a Spiral in Figure Skating?
If you have ever watched figure skating in person or on youtube, you have seen skaters perform spirals. One of the most iconic figure skating tricks, the spiral (also sometimes called an arabesque), is a key choreographic highlight and also a required element.
A spiral is a skill or trick (also called “element”) in figure skating where the skater glides on one foot with the other leg lifted in extension, generally to the back or side.
For the skater to receive at least the minimum credit from the judges for the spiral, the knee of the lifted leg must be at hip level or higher.
Some of the most popular skaters throughout history have been known for their beautiful spirals. Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Karen Chen are all known for, among other things, their incredible basic forward spirals.
Spirals can be performed on either foot, both forward and backward. In addition, they can be on a straight line or on a curve–an inside or outside edge.
There are quite a few variations of spirals–not all of which have names. Some common ones are the catch, the cross-catch, the Biellmann, the Y, and the Charlotte.
Check out this compilation of some of skating’s top spirals throughout the years.
Why Spirals Are Popular Figure Skating Tricks
Spirals are common tricks in figure skating for many reasons:
1. Figure skaters have been wowing audiences with spirals since before triple and quadruple jumps became commonplace. And until recently, a sequence of spirals was required in competition in the ladies free skate.
Spirals are so common in skating that NBC Sports even included the element in their glossary for viewers of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
2. A well-executed spiral requires the right combination of strength, flexibility, and balance–a perfect example of all of skating and athleticism.
The spiral is the quintessential element for building and demonstrating “extension”, which is one of the main focus points to consider when developing skating skills. Extension facilitates balance, which is everything in skating!
3. Spirals are still required elements in the skating developmental structure. In many countries, figure skaters must pass many different skills tests to work their way through the levels–either for competition or just for the sake of moving forward in their skills.
In the United States, spirals are part of the skating skills testing structure beginning in Basic 6 of Learn to Skate USA, showing up again in the Pre-Preliminary and Preliminary levels of US Figure Skating, and then again in Intermediate/Pre-Silver and finally in Senior/Gold.
In addition, judges look for skaters to them in competition as choreographic highlights.
4. Executing a spiral well makes you feel like you’re flying. The joy that shows on skaters’ faces when they’re performing a spiral is brilliant, and it’s contagious! You can’t NOT love skating when you’re watching someone perform a beautiful spiral.
How to Get Better at Spirals
The internet and social media have no shortage of videos and articles showing general stretches to do in order to “get your leg higher” in a spiral–seated forward fold, seated V stretch, standing arabesque, etc. Most of these videos present good, important exercises.
After all, many skaters of all levels must relentlessly work on flexibility in order to get the leg higher than the hip.
Some skaters, though, need to work more on strength and holding the leg in position.
Also, most of these resources address only the basic spiral position and don’t discuss the differences in alignment and balance that are involved in executing a spiral on an edge.
And very few discuss how to work with strength, flexibility, and balance all at once.
This is where yoga comes in!
Best Yoga Postures for Improving Spirals
A well-designed yoga program can help with all three of these things–strength, flexibility, and balance. Some individual yoga postures in and of themselves work all three of these things. Just like spirals do!
Sure, if you have a “problem” muscle area that is holding you back, then some targeted exercises are just what the coach ordered.
For example, Salabhasana, aka Locust pose is great for strengthening the back body (aka posterior chain), and a seated V stretch is an option for lengthening the adductors (aka inner thighs).
Sometimes, though, to get better at the skating trick, we just need to do the skating trick off-ice. This is where the following two yoga postures come into play.
Virabhadrasana III / Warrior III
In Virabhadrasana III, the skating yogi must incorporate strength and balance with poise. While similar to an arabesque from ballet, Warrior III is slightly different in that the free hip is not lifted and the free leg is not nearly as turned out.
Some yoga traditions even teach this posture with the hips square to the mat–a very different feeling and much harder to execute than opening the hip to lift the leg.
For this reason, Warrior III is especially beneficial for straight-line spirals.
Virabhadrasana III helps develop the ability to stand to use the entire foot to balance. It also strengthens and tones the legs, glutes, back, and abdominal muscles.
I find this harder than an on-ice spiral or camel spin. Balancing without momentum or the support of the boot with the standing leg vertical and the hips at least close to level presents additional challenges for balance and endurance.
To practice Warrior III:
Ardha Chandrasana / Half-Moon Pose
Ardha Chandrasana is a great posture for developing better spirals on an edge.
While Warrior III helps develop balance and strength of the back body (as well as hamstring flexibility), Half-Moon pose has the added challenge of stacking the hips, which is a closer alignment for what we need for spirals on an edge.
In this way, Half-Moon uses the gluteus medius of the standing leg to stabilize the pelvis and maintain balance, while the lifted leg is using the same muscle to help lift itself.
The gluteus medius is often a problem muscle in skaters, as weakness in this muscle limits balance.
Like Virabhadrasana III, Ardha Chandrasana works to create maximum energy and extension in all directions. As we know from moves in the field, extension facilitates balance, and balance is everything in skating.
To Practice Ardha Chandrasana:
In a “traditional” Ardha Chandrasana the front hand is on the floor, but I prefer for skaters to use blocks in most cases, because it aligns the torso more closely to a standard spiral position (for most skaters with decent flexibility) and because with the palm on the block the skater has something to press into to rotate the torse more easily.
Both of these postures are fundamental postures in Light on Yoga, which is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative texts on yoga.
There are different ways to enter both Warrior III and Half-Moon, but I like the steps I have outlined above as a practice to help strengthen alignment–this develops balance and helps skaters learn to use the proper muscles for each position.
Secret Tips to Improve Your Figure Skating Spiral
If only it were as simple as step-by-step instructions, right?
Yoga postures can help us tremendously, but only if we practice them regularly and only if we breathe while practicing.
When beginning a new skill–whether on or off the ice–it's normal to squeeze the muscles and exert a lot of effort and forget to breathe in the process. Spirals are no different!
I remember when I was working my senior moves (many, many years ago!), I don’t think I breathed once during the entire spiral sequence for trying to balance with the leg high enough.
Once the spirals become easier through regular practice, though, they are often used as breathing spots, moments of relative rest in a program. I say “relative” because even though the body is still in a spiral, muscular action is still present.
Spirals are the perfect example of the yogic principle of balancing stillness with movement and effort with ease. While the body stays still, the heart is still pumping, the muscles are still contracting, and the blade is still gliding. It’s truly magical!
So… the trick is that o matter what yoga posture or skating trick you choose, if you approach it with curiosity, determination, and balance, you can achieve it. You just gotta practice and breathe.
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Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the lower levels. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process. It should be an opportunity for athletic and personal growth and for building lasting friendships. With this in mind and following the 8 limbs of yoga, I use movement, breathwork, meditation, self-reflection, and community to help skating folks transform their outlook and relationship with skating. I help them learn to ditch comparisons and connect with their true selves and new possibilities. I also educate skating folks on building and nurturing a safer, more supportive skating community while continuing to develop skaters as authentic humans. I don't have all the solutions figured out, but I know what is kind and what feels right in my heart, and I know that yoga can change people because it changed me.
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