Skip to content

Time for racial and cultural insensitivity … on ice!

Jan 22, 2010, 10:00 AM EDT

Look, everyone knows that my ice dancing career was cut short when I choreographed a routine for myself and my partner entitled “Michael Vick Did a Very Bad Thing.” So I can empathize with Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who are taking heat for their planned routine at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. As you can see to the right here, their presentation is pretty freaky deaky; as if J.M. Barrie tried psychedelic mushrooms. Are they wood nymphs? Is it a tribute to the Batman villain Posion Ivy? None of the above. It’s a routine based on Australian Aboriginal dance; but the problem is, actual Aboriginal leaders are horrified by the portrayal.

“We see it as stealing aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the aboriginal people of Australian being expolited,” Sol Bellear, an elder of the South Wales state Aboriginal Land Council, told Reuters.

The designs, according to Bev Manton, chairwoman of the Land Council, are “no more ‘authentic’… than the shiploads of cheap ‘Aboriginal’ tourist trinkets that pour into our country from overseas”.

As if offending the custodians of an ancient culture were not bad enough, Domnina, 25, and Shabalin, 27, have also been accused of appropriating the idea from rival Australian skaters, Danielle O’Brien and Greg Merriman.

The routine took second place in original dance for the Russians at the European Championships in Estonia on Thursday, keeping the team on track for the overall gold medal going into today’s free dance.
I tend to love a good controversy, so I’m looking forward to this routine at the Winter Games. But the Russians are in for stiff competition from the Canadians and their routine, “Tribute to Cheap Prescription Drugs.”
Russian Pair Fuels Controversy With Aboriginal Dance [New York Times]
Skating on thin ice: Russians’ Aboriginal routine fails to amuse [The Independent]

  1. Skids - Jan 22, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    Just another example of everything you do these days hurts someone’s feelings. Political correctness BS. Get over it.

  2. Paul in KY - Jan 22, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    Skids, I don’t know if you’ve seen their performance or not, but any indigenous culture would be up in arms over the Sub-Branson-Missouri, kitchy, Glee-on-Angel-Dust ‘tribute’.
    From the Aboriginal’s perspective (reading their comments in Australian newspaper) it’s not so much the idea of the tribute, but it’s painfully awful execution that has them POed. It’s really that bad.

  3. Mike Ash - Jan 22, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    Skids, I think you’ve missed the point. The problem is that they have taken something that is spiritually significant to the Aboriginal people and trivialized it. Basically they took a dump on something sacred.

  4. Hercules McRockefeller - Jan 22, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    This is the biggest insult to Aboriginal culture since Crocodile Dundee II’s reckless portayal of this proud race as ravenous bat eaters.

  5. Rob - Jan 24, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    This “controversy” is based more in the ignorance around the sport of ice dance than the ignorance around any culture.
    I am not sure how many people have actually watched the performance, but it is interesting and respectful – given that they were required to pick a traditional culture as a point of reference. This is the “Original Dance” portion of Ice Dance Competition – they are required to do a dance inspired by a folk/traditional culture!!!
    Why is no one talking about the fact that ALL the competitors pick a folk/traditional culture to interpret – it is an interpretation, which means it is a taking off point!!! Isn’t the Aboriginal culture a Traditional Culture???? Why can it not be referenced in the same way Davis and White referenced (and interpreted) traditional Indian culture???
    Again, this “controversy” is based more in the ignorance around the sport of ice dance than the ignorance around any culture.

  6. skating think - Jan 24, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Keep in mind that all of the ice dance teams are required to choose a folk dance from a particular culture and that these are supposed to be interpretations…on skates. If it were only considered “appropriate” to choose a dance style from your own culture, then all the Americans would have to do Hoedowns and all the Russians would have to do Russian folk dances, etc. I frankly feel that it is refreshing for Domnina and Shabalin to create their own interpretation of Aboriginal dance, since it is a style that has rarely (or never?) been explored before, on ice. I appreciate when ice dance couples choose less common dances to interpret and take other stylistic risks. Not only does this push the sport forward, the variety contributes to the entertainment value. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to watch if all the couples chose waltzes and tangos would it? I’m concerned that the backlash of all this hoopla is that skaters and coaches are going to be afraid to try any styles other than from their own ethnic background.
    Besides, emulation is a form of flattery, as long as it is genuine. Domnina and Shabalin are certainly not intentionally mocking Aboriginal people. Whether or not you like this choreography, this music, or these costumes, you have to see it in the larger context of their competitors around the world. Many are attempting to interpret dances from other cultures i.e. here at the U.S. Championships, Davis and White “interpreted” Indian dance on skates, Belbin and Agosto “interpreted” Moldavian dance on skates and Navarro and Bommentre “interpreted” Afro-Brazilian dance on skates. It is also important to put this in the context of dance in general. The Nutcracker Ballet, for example, culls from many different cultures.
    While it is of course important for skaters to be respectful of the cultures they are interpreting, the people of those various cultures must also appreciate the fact that skating is technically complex and has its own physics (and rules) that are different from from any other realm. It is impressive and exciting that all these skaters can do what they do on skates while also approximating a form of dance. This is not just dance, but dance PLUS skating, PLUS athletic rules, so the results will necessarily be different.
    Finally, spectators and the media must realize that in this portion of the competition, judges are assessing skating technique and ALSO how couples are approximating the chosen dance through music, movement, and yes, costumes. The key word is approximating. Generally, skating judges do not have PhDs in the History of World Dance, nor do the coaches or the skaters, but neither do most floor dancers or choreographers or people around the world. People still have the right to explore outside their own cultures and use other cultures as a source of inspiration.

  7. Jeff - Feb 19, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    I’m a golfer. If someone were to dress in golf attire and ice dance, I’d be really offended.