Russian ice dancers slip on Aboriginal ‘tribute’

Culture — By Kira Hudson Banks on February 23, 2010 at 08:00

Originally published at St. Louis Beacon

Required to do a dance that represents a culture, Russian ice skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin chose Australian Aborigines. Problem? They got it wrong and failed to respond to feedback. After its unveiling in December, several sources said that the skaters missed the mark . However, they maintained elements of the choreography only changing small aspects of their costumes for the Olympic competition.

I am not claiming that the pair intended for the performance to be offensive, but that does not preclude it from being experienced as such.

The performance was replete with stereotypes so often used to depict “savages.” A token smiling native, clapping and doing a “happy dance” is far from authentic. It even included body paint, hair pulling, mouth tapping and nose rubbing. Ugh.

However, I paused to check myself, because the challenge was to represent a culture. Was I offended by all of the dances? No. There is nothing inherently problematic about attempting to convey a culture through dance. It was the way in which the Russians portrayed Aboriginal culture. The performance was shallow and stereotypical. Unlike the Flamenco or Bollywood interpretations, the Aboriginal performance did not appear to be grounded in representative gestures or themes.

Don’t get me wrong. There were other stereotypes (e.g., the gun-toting cowboys and luau-ready Hawaiians). But seriously, the depth of the stereotypes represented by the Russian dance was significant. It would be like the Israeli skaters who portrayed a Jewish couple engaging in some casual money hoarding on ice.

Why not give the indigenous people of Australia the same respect? Unfortunately, I think it is because we are desensitized to caricatures of indigenous populations. When I say “we,” I mean all of us as a collective society. Notice the absence of indigenous people in the tourism commercials for British Columbia.

In the United States, we have a history of stripping American Indian representations of meaning – namely through mascots. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights deemed American Indian nicknames and mascots inappropriate and disrespectful and called for their elimination . The National Collegiate Athletic Association even created a special committee to investigate the issue .

Perhaps, if we could live in an ahistorical world, you could miss that this performance would be problematic. But not if you understand the history of misuse. Distortions of indigenous cultures appear, sadly, to still be considered fair play as indicated by this repeat performance on the world’s largest stage.

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Author: Kira Hudson Banks (11 Articles)

Kira Hudson Banks

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D. teaches Abnormal Psychology, Understanding Race, Psychology of Racism, Middle School Girls in Social Science and Illinois Wesleyan University. She spearheaded the GO-GIRL mentoring program to foster math and science interest among adolescent girls in the Bloomington-Normal community. She has received the community's Athena Award and the Pantagraph's "20 Under 40" honor for her local leadership. Kira earned her Ph.D. from University of Michigan.

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