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Maggie Hendricks

Aboriginal leaders: Russian ice dancers' routine still offensive

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This year, the theme for the ice dancing original dance was folk dancing. The dance was supposed to represent the "flavor" of one country or another.

Some skating pairs, like Israelis Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky and Georgians Allison Reed and Otar Japaridze, chose folk dances that represented their own country. Others chose to honor other cultures. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir did a flamenco, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White did an Indian dance, and Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin did an Australian Aboriginal dance.

When the Russian pair did the Aboriginal dance at the European Championships in January, they drew criticism from Aboriginal leaders who found the dance and costumes offensive. Domnina and Shabalin toned down their costumes and removed their face paint, but made no changes to their Aboriginal dance.

The dance they did was more likely their interpretation of Aboriginal dance, though they claimed to have done research. Watching the dance Sunday night, one can understand why Aboriginal leaders were offended.

At times, Shabalin led Domnina around by her ponytail. They mugged, stuck out their tongues and mimicked the hand over mouth gesture that was once associated with American Indians. (See it here and judge for yourself.) After the dance ended, the crowd gave the Russians what could generously be called a lukewarm reception.

After seeing the dance Sunday night, an Aboriginal dancer wrote in Australia's Herald Sun newspaper:

The dance is certainly unlike anything I've seen, and other than a few complex lifts, the performance didn't really entertain me. It looked wrong on so many levels. ... When creating a dance or theatre work, even as contemporary indigenous dancers, it is a part of our practice to follow cultural protocols and consult with traditional elders who understand the meaning behind the movement. It is respect for our traditional cultural laws, language groups and elders for this information to be passed on correctly.

An Aboriginal leader agreed, telling The Australian newspaper:

"I am offended by the performance and so are our other councillors," Bev Manton, the chairwoman of the [New South Wales] Land Council said.

"Aboriginal people for very good reason are sensitive about their cultural objects and icons being co-opted by non-Aboriginal people – whether they are from Australia or Russia.

"It's important for people to tread carefully and respectfully when they are depicting somebody else's culture, and I don't think this performance does."

Watching this dance was like watching an old movie – like seeing Mickey Rooney's offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" – or seeing a period show like "Mad Men," where one of the main characters dressed in blackface. The dance was anachronistic. Considering that the pair slipped from first to third, it was not a winning routine, either.

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