Russian Ice Dancers Tone It Down

The world's chilly response to the faux-Aboriginal costumes of ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin led them to lighten up on the references a bit for the Olympics -- literally -- but their original dance scores still lowered the Russian pair from 1st place to 3rd, with one round of competition to go. 

Was it the skating or the styling that led to the duo's drop in the ranks?  We'll never know.  But more generally, what is the global standard when it comes to cultural borrowing?

Domnina and Shabalin, before and after

Who Owns the Ice?

Perhaps in a perfect world, culture could flow freely without anyone taking offense.  Given the history of prejudice and power relations, however, world peace even on the cultural level isn't going to happen anytime soon. 

So, setting aside the question of whether folk dancing on ice is the best theme for an Olympic event, not to mention whether any form of dancing on ice is "authentic," how are skaters to choose a theme that is aesthetically and ethnically inspiring but not offensive?

One route is to play it safe and stick close to home:  an American pair skating country-western style to the Dixie Chicks, a French pair doing a can-can, or an Israeli pair choosing "Hava Nagila" for its music are unremarkable.  Then there's the kind of common cross-cultural borrowing that generally elicits smiles rather than raised eyebrows:  both Canadian couples skating firey flamencos, for example.  The American partners who chose to interpret traditional Indian dance -- as in Southeast Asian, not Native American -- were a bit bolder.  Perhaps aware of this, U.S. television coverage noted that the couple had taken Indian dance classes, that Meryl Davis' costume was "authentic" (defined as purchased at an import boutique and cut down to skating size), and that Davis & White had developed a huge fan base in India. 

And then there are the culturally tone-deaf Domnina & Shabalin, who inadvertently glided across a line that, like all political boundaries, is invisible until crossed. 

In brief, the differences between celebrated cultural borrowing and cultural misappropriation come down to the nature of the borrowed elements, the type of use, the history of the source community, and the relationship between the borrower and the source.  The commercial appropriation of sacred or secret cultural property is more problematic than borrowing a few relatively meaningless frills for artistic purposes.  And while it's arguably acceptable to rob from the rich, it's quite another thing to appropriate the cultural heritage of communities -- like Australian Aboriginal people -- that have a long history of oppression by outsiders who often did their best to extinguish the culture in question altogether. 

This historically informed response may be heightened by a former colonial or other oppressive relationship between the cultural borrower and involuntary lender.  Would a British skating pair not of Indian descent have elicited the same favorable response as Davis & White?  And what exactly would have been the reaction to a non-Jewish German pair choosing "Hava Nagila" for its music?  While Russians and Australian Aboriginal people are not intergenerational enemies, the racial narrative at work here inevitably invokes past wrongs. 

Blanket Statement

By the time that Domnina & Shabalin recognized that their intended homage had given umbrage, it was presumably too late to change their routine.  It's only fair to note, though, that the changes to their costumes were at least a step toward responding to Aboriginal concerns.  The duo's meeting with Tewanee Joseph, representing the four First Nations in whose traditional territory the Olympics are being held, was another important step.  And although wrapping themselves in the traditional Coast Salish blankets given them by Joseph won't be enough to muffle criticism, at least this is one slip on the ice that has given rise to thoughtful public conversation.

Ice_dancers_blanket_CTV_2-21-10.jpgUPDATE from the "What Were They Thinking?" Department:  Counterfeit Chic has just been informed that an Olay skincare commercial shown as recently as this afternoon is using an image of a woman applying white cream in a pattern similar to that of the Russian skaters' original face painting and the tagline, "Olay: Prepare for victory."  If anyone happened to record the ad, please email -- this I have to see.