Clad in black leggings, white ice skates and identical gray T-shirts, 18 girls glide over the ice. Groups of five hold hands and skate with one leg in the air, while others move in wheel-like motions in perfect unison, all with brilliant smiles.

They seem to form a single unit of undulating lines, twirling elegantly as the orchestral music swells.

It looks like figure skating with the team precision of synchronized swimming thrown in. And in some ways, synchronized skating is a mash-up of the two.

The international sport, in which teams of eight to 16 perform as a unit, has been around since 1956. And while there are more than 600 “synchro” teams in the United States, in Minnesota, where figure skating dominates, synchro teams are uncommon.

In fact, there’s only one in the state — the Northernettes Synchronized Skating team — that has junior, novice and juvenile teams competing at the national level.

Founded by competitive skater Alana Christie in 2017, the all-female Northernettes haven’t been hampered by a lack of local competition. The junior and novice teams are heading to the U.S. Synchronized Skating National Championships in Rhode Island next week.

“It’s been a really crazy experience. Our teams have improved and been competitive much quicker than I would have ever imagined,” Christie said.

The sport, which runs from May to February, comes with a major time commitment.

Schedules vary per level, but the junior team, made up of 19 girls ages 13-18, practices three days a week and attends six competitions across the country. A five-minute program can take as many as nine months to master.

Still, it’s a more accessible way to compete on ice than figure skating, which is incredibly competitive and requires years of focused training to come close to performing nationally, Christie said. Synchronized skating is reachable for those with varying skill levels and experience.

“It gives you so many more opportunities to travel and compete,” said Northernettes co-captain Allison Pasdo.

The sport also is considered low-impact compared with figure skating. There are few dramatic jumps and landings in synchro routines.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without its own challenges. Routine moves include skaters revolving around a fixed point in a perfect wheel and “intersections,” where half the team weaves between the other half at high speeds, with only inches between them.

“We always joke that synchro has the potential to be a contact sport because if somebody trips you could take down half the team,” said Christie. “It can be kind of scary, but when it’s done well, it’s very impressive.”

A sporting chance

Pasdo has been skating since she was 3, but it wasn’t until Christie contacted her a few years ago that she considered trying a synchro team. Few people are familiar with the sport, so she has to do a lot of explaining, but it’s worth it, she said.

“It’s amazing to have people on the ice with you because sometimes it can be kind of intimidating and scary. But when you’re going through a tough practice, or it’s like a kind of a low competition, you have all these other girls pushing you.”

Annie Givens, a high school senior and co-captain for the Northernettes junior team, also finds herself explaining synchronized skating.

“When I tell people I do this, they’re like, ‘Show me a video,’ and they’re amazed,” she said. “People see the 16 girls on the ice and are like, ‘How does that even work?’ ”

Christie, 26, built the team after she graduated from college in 2016 and returned to her hometown of Minneapolis to find that there were no high-level competitive synchronized skating teams.

It’s a seven-day-a-week job. As director of the organization and head coach for all three teams, she does everything from leading practices and recruiting skaters across the Twin Cities to “stoning,” or adding individual gems and sequins by hand to each skater’s competition dresses.

“It’s a lot. But every single day, I get to work with these really passionate skaters. Inspiring them is worth any extra hours of work I need to do,” said Christie, who has won figure and synchronized skating competitions around the world.

She thinks that the market for synchronized skating teams is growing. The Northernettes have added a new level every year, she said.

“There’s a lot of really talented, passionate figure skaters in the area that didn’t necessarily think synchro would be in their future, but have turned to that and loved it,” she said. “The overall talent we have has skyrocketed our success.”

At a recent practice, Christie and two assistant coaches encouraged the skaters, who will shortly travel to the national competitions. They’ve been practicing an intricate program for months, but Christie doesn’t want them to get too comfortable.

“Try not to glaze over, bring yourself back to the routine!” she shouts. “You never get to do this program again, so put it all out there now!”

Audrey Kennedy (audrey.kennedy@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.