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FIGURE SKATING

Australian Aborigines find ice dance performance 'offensive'

A decision by the International Skating Union that dancers should use folk themes for their original dance backfires when Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin perform an Aboriginal tribute.

January 23, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Spokane, Wash. — For years, ice dance costumes and programs have been so over the top they made it almost ridiculous to think this was a sport worthy of Olympic medals.

Then the International Skating Union turned what was only a farce into an opportunity for cultural insensitivity as well as bad taste when it decided the dancers should use folk themes for their original dance in this Olympic season.

That led Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, the reigning world champions, to create a program with allegedly Australian Aboriginal music and to perform it wearing brown face, tribal paint and costumes with clumps of faux foliage.

Sol Bellear, of the New South Wales state Aboriginal Land Council, told an Australian newspaper: "It's very offensive.

"We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited."

Bellear has said he will write to Russia's ambassador in Canberra to protest the dance. The 2010 Winter Olympics take place in Vancouver, which has focused attention on issues related to the status and treatment of Canada's First Nations, just as the 2000 Sydney Olympics spurred discussions about Australia's historically racist mistreatment of its Aboriginal population.

In the U.S. championships, leaders Meryl Davis and Charlie White did an original dance Friday night to an Indian theme, using movements that could be seen as caricatures or cliches. But their costumes and interpretation have been greeted with approval on the Internet in comments from India.

Meanwhile, Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, fourth after the original dance, are using Afro-Brazilian music, but he wears a headpiece that recalls silent movie icon Rudolph Valentino as "The Sheikh." Bommentre said he used the headpiece because he could not grow long enough hair for dreadlocks and rejected hair extensions.

Five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who are second after the original dance, took a less risky approach, using a Moldovan theme.

While there is nothing inherently wrong about having dancers interpret ethnic themes, it looks absurdly out of place amid the frivolity that is ice dance.

Even with well-intentioned efforts at sensitivity, there is an element of high camp rather than cultural authenticity when ice dancers do the folk programs.

Belbin and Agosto train with the Russians in Aston, Pa.

"We are all trying to portray a style of dance we aren't familiar with," Agosto said.

"I know Oksana and Max as people, and I can assume they never intended to offend anyone with their program," Belbin said. "They were just trying to create something unique and different, and they certainly achieved that. Hopefully, everyone will be feeling OK by the Olympics, and it all will work out."

The U.S. couples all said they spoke extensively with natives of the countries whose folk culture they are using. Belbin said a Moldovan reporter messaged her on Facebook to express his pleasure over seeing his country well-represented.

Asked if he would dress as an Aborigine, Agosto demurred.

"I can't comment on what I would or wouldn't wear," Agosto said. "I've had my fair share of odd costumes over the years. I hope nobody in Moldova is offended by our dance."

Davis and White extended the lead they had after the compulsory dance. They have 113.53 points to 111.91 for Belbin and Agosto, who continue to insist they are treating the nationals as nothing more than a practice.

Davis and White won the title last year in their rivals' absence because Agosto had a back injury. Until Thursday's compulsory dance, they never had beaten Belbin and Agosto in any phase of a competition.

Davis said the idea for the Indian program came when their coach, native Russian Marina Zoueva, saw a Hermes scarf with Indian dancers on it and was inspired by the colors.

"Not knowing about Indian culture very much or Indian folk dance, we went to a couple specialists who really helped us understand what to do," Davis said.

They wound up with a blend of moves used in classic Indian folk dance and those seen in Bollywood movies.

"It was very important for us to do research to make sure we could do the theme justice and that we weren't going to offend anyone or do something that was completely off-base," Davis said.

phersh@tribune.com

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