stereotypes on ice

February 24, 2010

I don’t know if you guys are following the Olympics, but perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding a Russian ice dancing pair who did a routine based on aboriginal (as in, Australian aboriginals) dance? I am troubled by this, for many reasons.

First is the question of whether this should be considered offensive at all, whether we’re just being too damn sensitive over things that don’t matter. And I think it’s good to examine this, because frequently our overly PC culture objects to things as a matter of course rather than because they’re actually offensive. For the second program, the ice dancers were required to present a routine based on a folk tradition. The Israeli couple danced to “Hava Nagila”; various teams danced to American country music; one of the American teams did a Bollywood routine. So what’s the problem?

The problem, as someone else has already pointed out, is twofold. There’s the problem of secular versus sacred dancing: drawing on something like Bollywood, even when it’s not specifically your own culture, is less dangerous because you’re drawing on a public and secular dance style. But the Russians drew on a dance style that is not public, but is tied to sacred religious proceedings. And beyond that, they also don’t appear to have paid attention to the detail of aboriginal dancing, but instead did something that generically “inspired” by it—in the same way that, say, the Redskins mascot is “inspired” by a generic image of Native Americans. Based on the uproar over the routine, one can only assume that they didn’t consult or train with any aboriginal dancers.

And let’s not even get into the fact that the original version of their dance involved them wearing brown face paint.

In response to all of this, the Russian pair have said that they just wanted to do something different, draw on a cultural tradition that isn’t always represented in ice dancing. That’s all well and good—even commendable—but people need to be cognizant of the fact that we don’t live in a cultural or historical vacuum. When you’re dealing with a people and a cultural tradition that has been oppressed and misappropriated so much, you have to be very careful in how you approach any use of that culture.

Honestly, though, I find the American media’s response to this whole situation so much more disturbing than the routine itself. Of course they’re making a big deal out of it, because that’s what the media does. But it’s the smugness—the sense of moral superiority over these poor, backwards Russians—that I find disgustingly hypocritical. And just disgusting.

Here’s how it plays out: the Russian pair skates. They retire to the so-called “kiss and cry area” to await their scores. The announcers need to say something, anything during the wait, so they, once again, bring up the aboriginal dance brouhaha. They point out that the dancers are, while waiting for their scores, draped in some lovely Native blankets, and give the back story: after being accused of performing a racist routine, they “met with some leaders of Canada’s First Nation, apologized, and exchanged traditional gifts.” All of this is said with an aura of smugness, like everything is just dandy now that our foreign visitors have been schooled in the appropriate American system of publicly apologizing for acting like an idiot.

Have you noticed the problems in this little vignette yet? Let me point them out, in case you didn’t. Our holier-than-thou announcer has just said “Canada’s First Nation,” as though there is only one, rather than mentioning a specific tribe (the Coast Salish are indigenous to Vancouver), or even just the still-vague-but-correct Canada’s First Nations, plural, which is how they refer to tribal people up there. Nor has he said who these leaders might be. Additionally, he doesn’t bother to say if, you know, the aboriginal Australians who were offended had been apologized to or had extended forgiveness, nor does he mention why, if it was Australians who had been offended, the Russians were apologizing to Canadians. Because apparently, all tribal people are the same and it doesn’t matter which one you offend so long as one of them forgives you for it.

So basically, here’s this guy, explaining to Americans how offensive the routine was and how everything’s been fixed (with the subtle implication that Americans would never do such a thing, like, hello, you don’t think the Washington Redskins offends people?), while being completely ignorant about Native affairs or really any of the details of the situation. Which is pretty much par for the course for the American media. We love to trash people for their errors, we love the spectacle of the false apology, but no one is particularly interested in real issues.

A lot of people like to slag on our PC-obsessed culture, and they’re right to do so at times. We are obsessed with image over substance, with the illusion of contrition over substantive change. But there are times when people are right to get indignant. Actions and language do matter, and can be indicative of larger problems and beliefs in a culture. The real problems occur when our society and media are so obsessed with making a scandal out of every little potentially offensive offhand comment that they diminish the impact of more critical events and obscure the very real issues that lie beneath the surface. It’s very hard to make significant progress on issues important to your community if the mainstream culture has been trained to think of those topics as meaningless, politically correct whining.



  1. Sure is easy to pick on some ice dancers instead of addressing the intrinsic inequalities of our evolving systems of exploitation. (This has been the Socialist Minute with your host, Red Whim)

    That said, dance is a physical language. In my own writing and speaking, I borrow from many traditions, sacred and secular, sincerely, ironically, reverentially, and maintain my right to do so without accusations of racism. Dance is dance– movement is movement. Racism is a theory of genetic superiority enforced by social and legal agents. I think the only relevant question is whether or not the dance was good.

    Maybe we should have black, yellow, red, and white face days so we can stop scapegoating it and focus on other, more relevant questions of social justice.

  2. i think part of the problem is that the dance wasn’t very good (at least to my eyes, but wtf do i know about ice dancing?). so in addition to offending a lot of people, it was sort of clumsily handled and then ultimately not worth all the crap that surrounded it.

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