Racism on Ice: Russian Ice Dancers Co-Opt Aboriginal Culture at the Olympics

No. Just no. For ice dancing in the Olympics this year, the theme was folk dancing. Who knew it would turn into this?
Despite the controversy Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin created when Aboriginal leaders found out the Russian ice dancers’ routine was an unbelievably offensive interpretation of Aborginal dance, all they did was “tone down” their costume (meaning not use as much face paint) but the dance was not altered. They came in third place on Sunday’s competition. Via Yahoo! Sports:

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.

You can see the routine here, it’s pretty difficult to watch. Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales state Aboriginal Land Council said:

“I am offended by the performance and so are our other councillors…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.”

She also notes the fact that their dark body suits put them on a “very slippery slope” to begin with. Sol Bellear of the Council adds, “We see it as stealing aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.”
Via Pam.

Join the Conversation

  • Renee

    They were made aware that the routine was indeed problematic but instead of making substantive changes, they lightened their costumes and removed the face paint. To them this was all that was needed to make their performance acceptable and in fact Domnina was quoted as saying how proud she was that the program had been made racially sensitive.
    While I believe that the skaters ultimately bare responsibility for their programs blame should be placed on officials as well for encouraging the whole cultural routine bit. How did they ever believe that this wouldn’t lead to this kind of result?

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    My friends happened to catch this Sunday night when it aired and we were completely gobsmacked at how offensive it was. Dragging around by the hair? For reals?
    Considering the ice dancing program was “pay tribute to other folk cultures” you’re of course going to run the risk of this sort of thing, but I really felt that the other countries were at least *trying* to be respectful.

  • feminismforever

    I just want to point out that the theme was folk music, not “other folk cultures.” Most, but not all, of the other skaters did something from their own culture.

  • VickyinSeattle

    To add insult to injury, the pair made a big show of wearing Canadian aboriginal blankets in the kiss-and-cry area. They met with the First Nations, exchanged gifts (hence the blankets), then used the meeting to prove they’d cleared the air and had the green light to do their performance.
    Um, they offended AUSTRALIAN aboriginals, so they sought to make peace with Canadian ones? They’re not all interchangeable brown people!

  • VickyinSeattle

    One American team did a Bollywood routine, but unlike the Russians, they were taught the right moves by an actual Bollywood instructor. They didn’t decide to “make up” what they thought “looked like Indian moves.”

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    No, most of the dancers did something from a culture other than their own.
    The French and Brits did cowboys, the Americans did Moldavian and Indian, the Germans did Hawaiian, Chinese did Greek, Canadians did Flamenco. The only team I saw that did their own culture was the Israeli Hava Nagila dance.
    The problem wasn’t that Russia did another culture, it was that they did racist stereotype of another culture.

  • dj_sex_ed

    Somewhat surprisingly, the thing that really gave me the ickies about this was the “music” they used. Where the hell did they get that track from? It was like a weird mash-up of drums, “chanting”, and sound effects or something. Was that supposed to be native music? Do these two even know who the aborigines are? The costumes are a friggin’ embarrassment (loin cloths, leaves, and body paint? Is that what they think aborigines wear on a daily basis?) but the music took it to a whole new level of blatantly disrespectful.

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    I can’t be racist, one of my best friends is the First Nations of Canada. They gave me this blanket.

  • VickyinSeattle

    Hahaha! Good memory on all the ice dancing performances! I could barely stay awake since NBC decided to air most of the ice dancing between 11 and midnight. But that’s a complaint for another type of blog.

  • Liza

    Because it’s not exactly difficult to borrow from another culture and pay tribute to it without being stereotypical and offensive. It’s the pair and their choreographer that are solely to blame.

  • allegra

    I think “folk dancing” is a dumb choice for a theme and am not surprised that it devolved into this. People are fairly ignorant of what may potentially be offensive to other cultures and why. But, really, don’t Russians have THEIR OWN long history of folk dance? Why the fuck couldn’t they just have done an iteration of their own dance?

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    Yeah, I was specifically thinking of the American tribute to Bollywood. I caught most of it and really enjoyed it.
    Hell, even the American Country/Western routines that a couple of the other nations put on didn’t seem particularly offensive to me. From what I saw, most of the skaters were actually paying a tribute.
    This was something else entirely. Minstrel show comes to mind.

  • ClaireAllison

    I’m really not surprised this happened. Lets not forget that the Canadian government and VANOC have blatently co-opted and white washed aboriginal culture into one mish mash hodge podge of warm fuzzies, and Canada is “supposed” to be sensitive to these things. The mascots themselves are a classic example of the dominant culture adopting iconography from the non-dominant culture and packaging and selling it as authentic, in some cases as “learning tool” for children to learn about the Olympics (see the Mascot story book). I’m not trying to say that the cartoons are as offensive or racist as this dance was, but as a Canadian I’m bothered by how casually VANOC has decided to sell off an amalgamation of various legends and myths. Even the Inukshuk logo is a bit much for me, because that’s an Inuit symbol, and has very little to do with West Coast natives. It’s even annoying to see how kitschy the opening ceremonies were about dominant Canadian culture, with virtually all the references being to Anglo-Saxon Canadiana and nothing to reference the less dominant European influences in Canada and the African, Carribbean, Asian etc.
    I remember seeing a museum in Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, dedicated not only to North American aboriginals, but to the history of Europeans co-opting aboriginal culture. From what I gathered from the broken English placards, they were rather proud of the way aboriginal culture had been adopted in Europe and “thrived”. So when I hear that the Russians believed their efforts to tone down the racial text were sufficient, I’m really not surprised, as the dominant cultures in Europe have often been raised with the impression that co-opting native culture isn’t problematic, and their concept of cultural appropriation is very, very different from ours. I almost wonder if they really had any way of knowing, substantially, that they were doing something North Americans would be offended by, if they were perhaps raised in a culture that accepted that kind of appropriation as business as usual. With the way Canada has been selling off Aborignal legend, art and culture as one big thing instead of many independently formed cultures it doesn’t surprise me that they got here and saw what we were doing and failed to draw the line between what they did as wrong. I’m not making exceptions for them or trying to say they’re innocent, but I do think that Canadians and Americans accept appropriation- we’re just better at masking how much of it we own up to.

  • notemily

    The French did a can-can. A pair of Brits also did an Irish dance, which is at least an adjacent culture.

  • Alex51324

    I thought the meeting-up-with-Indigenous-Canadians-to-make-it-okay thing was the weirdest and squickiest part of the whole mess, but it appears to have been the idea of the Indigenous group that was involved in the hosting of the Olympics. So it wasn’t just the Russian pair, or their PR people, who thought that meeting with representatives of the Indigenous people of a totally different country would help somehow; the Indigenous representatives from the totally different country also somehow thought it would help. The Indigenous Canadians were also quoted saying something about how “we” pass on customs orally, so it’s important to meet face-to-face, so apparently they felt that they and Indigenous Australians make up a “we.”
    I do essentially buy that the Russian skaters were under the (mistaken) impression that their performance would be read as respectful and were genuinely surprised that anyone took offense. But I’m not sure how much that does, or should, excuse them.

  • lauredhel

    Is there any link to the Olympic routine that people who aren’t in the USA can view? I put the old routine here; is the new one similar?

  • Toongrrl


  • A male

    I haven’t watched any of the Winter Games, not coverage or news; yet, because it’s about what I thought it would be.

  • Tracey T

    Hmmm, I heard stories about something similar. Some people gave blankets to North American First Nation people in the past as a supposed sign of reconciliation. I think it turned out not to be an actual sign of reconciliation though.

  • gatanegra

    What is interesting to me is that the prevailing analysis seems to be about the “offensive” nature of this performance and cultural appropriation. Since we’re dealing with indigenous peoples who have been put historically into the realm of “culture” and “ethnicity,” vs. African peoples who represent “race,” we end up essentially whitewashing racism. Offensive, yes absolutely. But, the point is not whether they did something from their culture or not or who validated that choice, it’s that the actual performance was racist — from the stereotypical depiction of aboriginals as primitive, to the “blackface,” to their neocolonial attitude.
    This should not be happening in 2010. Ever.

  • Zhyenshshina

    I agree that this is incredibly racist and upsetting.
    The thing is, in order to understand how the Russian skaters would find such a thing acceptable, I think it’s important to recognize that Russia’s ethnocentricity is part of what makes post-Soviet Russia…Russia. Whereas the United States has at least some history of cultural critique and a consciousness of what lesser-minded folks would call political correctness, Russia has been relying on a sense of cultural homogeneity (if not superiority) to forge a post-Soviet identity. Therefore, I don’t think it’s productive to apply American sensibilities to Russian cultural expressions if we wish to deconstruct their actions and engage in a meaningful dialogue on why such performances are unacceptable on a world stage.

  • Ronijn

    I thought about that too – that Russia is perhaps more ethnically/racially homogeneous and perhaps they don’t have the historically memory that other nations who have to deal with these issues have.
    That being said, with numerous people telling them prior to the Olympics that this performance was in bad taste at the least and racially offensive at the worst, they should have altered their routine somehow – or scrapped it when first told.
    All I could think of while watching their dance was “uh, Aboriginal people are not cavemen” – their movements were cartoonish gestures of ‘savages'; hair pulling, hand over mouth, silly faces, even ape-like stances.

  • gatanegra

    While I agree that US understandings of racialization are not applicable when analyzing racist expressions in Russia, it is not helpful to pain them as unique in their ethnocentricity. That’s why when we talk about racism, we need to understand it as a plurality (racisms), much as we recognize the plurality of feminism.
    Russia is not more ethnically/racially homogeneous. A quick look at historical processes and colonization of peoples in the region of the past century and change can show us that. They are not divorced from global processes. And, interestingly, there was a fair amount of discussion of US racism/slavery in the Soviet bloc. So, no. That doesn’t get them off the hook.
    And, as @Ronijn pointed out, there was a discussion with these skaters prior to the Olympics about this routine and these costumes. At some basic level, they just didn’t/don’t care. And that doesn’t make them different than most people, unfortunately. But as public figures, they should be condemned.

  • lauredhel

    In what way are Bev Manton and Sol Bellear “applying American sensibilities”?