The Evolution Of Technical Merit And Artistic Impression

Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University Library Editorial Cartoons Collection. Used for educational purposes under license permissions.

"It's that presentation mark that is always the nebulous one. Whatever you like can have a basic impression. For example, if two things are well-done, then you sort of go with what you are most familiar with and knowledgeable about. Some people like opera, others don't.'' - Rosemary Marks, "Edmonton Journal", March 17, 1996

As compared to today's points-based system, many tend to think of the 6.0 judging system, where skaters received two sets of marks from a panel of judges, as pretty cut and dry... vague even. Skaters received one mark for the technical content of their performance and one for the way the performance was presented. However, the history of how those two marks developed and evolved over time is nothing short of complicated, convoluted and quite fascinating.

Free skating rules from the 1910 Minto Challenge Cup 

In the early years of the International Skating Union, skaters received one mark for their figures and were judged on 'contents of the programme' and 'manner of performance' in free skating, with the scores added and multiplied by a factor to achieve a total number of points and a final result. Section ninety one of the ISU Regulations noted that in marking 'contents of the programme', judges were to consider difficulty, variety, harmonious composition and utilization of space. When considering 'manner of performance', judges were to take into account harmonious composition, carriage, sureness, easy movement, rhythm of movement and in the case of pairs skating and ice dancing, unison and variety of movement.

In the early Roaring Twenties, the Austrian skating federation pushed to have a third marking category added to the evaluation of free skating: the overall impression for the performance. In "Skating" magazine, George H. Browne quoted 'the Austrians' as arguing, "Beauty, which should be an essential element of artistic skating, is not sufficiently taken into account in the present evaluation of our skating." The Austrians petitioned the IEV to add this third category - called 'aesthetic impression' to the fold in 1924, but were shot down. Instead, the IEV added 'rhythm' to the judging criteria for the 'manner of performance' criteria. An ISU subcommittee brought the 'aesthetic impression' proposal before the ISU Congress again in 1929 and it was again flatly denied, citing the fact that having three categories for marking free skating would only compound the pressure upon the already overwhelmed judges.

To further the confusion, the earliest ISU recommendations for Valsing competitions during the same period called for couples to be marked in not three but FOUR categories: Carriage, Grace, Unity and Time. Ice dancing, as we know, wasn't yet considered an official discipline at ISU Championships until the fifties but 'informal' contests were held at European and World Championships as early as the Edwardian era.

Judging criteria circa 1948

It took a second World War and some thirty years before the ISU finally decided to make a change, dumping 'contents of the programme' and 'manner of performance' in 1959 in favour of categories called 'sporting merit' and 'general impression'. In "Skating World" magazine, a clearly unimpressed Muriel Kay remarked that the term 'sporting merit" sounded "more applicable to horse trials or foxhunting".

These terms only lasted two years before being replaced in 1961 with 'technical merit' and 'artistic impression'. The USFSA adopted these new categories two years later, in 1963. ISU historian Benjamin T. Wright noted, "The intention of the change was to indicate that the judge must evaluate both the artistic planning of the program and the technical ability with which it is performed."

Judging criteria circa 1962

As a result of a decision at the 1975 ISU Congress in Munich, the marking categories changed yet again. Short, original or technical programs were scored on 'required elements' and 'presentation'; free skating programs on 'technical merit' and 'artistic impression'. In singles and pairs skating, the 'required elements' score in the short programs was based on quality, difficulty and execution and 'presentation' was marked on "the composition of the whole program and its conformity with the music, originality, the difficulty of the connecting steps, speed and how well the ice surface is covered." The 'technical merit' mark in the free skate considered the quality, difficulty and execution of jumps, spins, steps, 'other elements' and "the cleanness and sureness of the overall performance". The 'artistic impression' mark was based on "harmonious composition of the program as a whole and the conformity with the music chosen, utilization of the ice surface, easy movement and sureness in time to the music, carriage, originality." Compulsory dances continued to receive one set of marks in competition and 'composition' and 'presentation' were used internationally for the OSP with 'technical merit' and 'artistic impression' utilized as the free dancing categories.

Things became exceedingly confusing in the decades that followed as different federations employed their own rules and criteria to the categories used in national level competitions. To only compound the confusion, as television emerged as a medium, it wasn't uncommon for commentators to go back and forth between outdated and current ISU and national terminology for the categories from event to event, year to year.

To give you a sense of as to how a federation would employ their own rules to the marking categories, the 1984 CFSA rulebook explained that in free skating, pairs, fours and free dancing, skaters were marked on 'technical merit' and 'artistic impression'. However, in the OSP, Variation Dance and in precision skating, the marks were for 'Composition' and 'Presentation'. In compulsory dances, skaters only received one set of marks in competition, but in tests the categories were 'Dance Rhythm' and 'Execution'. The definitions of these categories varied wildly. The three criteria for 'technical merit' were outlined as Difficulty, Variety and Cleanness and Sureness. 'Artistic impression' criteria was Harmonious Composition and Conformity With The Music, Utilization Of Space, Easy Movement and Sureness With The Music and Carriage. In ice dancing, the criteria of 'Composition' and 'Presentation' for ice dancing were outlined thusly:

By 1998, the term 'artistic impression' - or even the word artistry - was nowhere to be found in any ISU rulebook. 'Technical merit' and 'presentation' became the new go-to terms as the ISU ditched the term 'artistic' in some effort to remove itself from the intangible quality of judging something 'artistic'. In modern times, countries still using the 6.0 system in lower level competition use the terms 'Technique' and 'Timing/Expression' for pattern dances, 'Composition'/'Required Elements' and 'Presentation' for Original/Short Dances and 'Technical Merit'/'Required Elements' and 'Presentation' for free skating, pairs and free dancing.

So why did the 'powers that be' insist on changing the names and marking criteria of the two categories under 6.0 so often over the years? The changes were no doubt made to try to improve upon and clarify a judging system that wasn't always perfect. Did it make that much of an impact? Probably not. Is it interesting history? Absolutely.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":