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In ice dance, it's a fine line between tribute and insult

Skaters react to criticism of Russians' Aboriginal dance

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance OD is offensive to some.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance OD is offensive to some. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2010) - The second question to ice dancers in the mixed zone last night, a few seconds after "How did that feel?," was "What do you think about the controversy over Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance?"

The Russian world champions, who just won their second European title in Estonia, don dark-toned bodysuits and "authentic" Aboriginal paint markings for the routine.

"This dance suits my soul very well," Domnina said. "The most important thing is that people are not left indifferent by the dance. There are reactions, and that is already a plus. It is impossible to please everyone."

The dance certainly does not please many in Australia's Aboriginal community, and it threatens to become an issue at the Vancouver Olympics next month, especially since members of The Four Host First Nations that are helping Olympic organizers sponsor the 2010 Games have also expressed concern.

"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." Bev Manton, chair of the NSW Land Council, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Tanith Belbin, who trains with the Russian world champions every day in Aston, Pa., and shares their coaches, Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov, was understandably quick to sidestep the controversy.

"I don't think that we're educated enough in the dances of the Aboriginal people to know," Belbin said.

"I know Oksana and Max as people, and I can assume they would never intend to offend anyone with their programs. They were just trying to achieve something unique and different and I think they certainly achieved that. I hope everyone is feeling okay for the Olympics and it works itself out."

Linichuk, the choreographer for her teams, gave the Americans a far safer choice, a Moldavian folk dance.

Asked if he would feel comfortable wearing Shabalin's aboriginal outfit, which also includes some Eucalyptus leaves, Agosto said, "I can't really comment on what I would, or wouldn't wear. I've had my fair share of odd costumes.

"Figure skating is a sport with lots of unique costumes and I hope nobody in Moldavia is offended by our dance."

Linichuk, who won the 1980 Olympic title with her husband, Karponosov, issued a statement.

"First of all, in the ISU rule book there is a list of dances which are allowed for use in the Original Dance competition. In black and white it states Aborigines Dances," she said.

"When creating an "Aborigines" dance, we were not suggesting a specific geographic region, but rather a tribute to a place and time before the "modern civilization". We had no intent to make the dance specifically "Australian", because we realize our limitations to fully understand all the intricacies."

The veteran coach, who has trained teams including Russian Olympic champions Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov, is known for her adroit maneuvering in ice dance, a notoriously political sport. She hinted that one her competitors may have planted the controversy as sabotage.

"If someone thinks that I and my athletes can be knocked out of balance, I am truly sorry for these people," she said.

In contrast to the Russians, U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White are fielding nothing but accolades for their Bollywood-style Indian dance.

The couple and their coaches, Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, worked with Indian dance specialist Aniya Ranedra to ensure their movements and costumes were authentic.

"We can't speak for anyone else, but for us, knowing that we didn't know anything about Indian culture going in, it was very important for us to do the research and do the dance justice," Davis said. "We didn't want to offend anyone or do something that was completely off base."

U.S. bronze medalists Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre's original dance to Afro-Brazilian rhythms was a hit with the Spokane audience here.

The skaters, who also train with the Russians and Belbin and Agosto, studied under Jeannine Osayande of the Dunya Performing Arts Company for months. Their elaborate costumes, including a breastplate and leather headdress for Bommentre, are the result of this research, they said.

"These costumes are inspired by mythological figures in African culture," Bommentre explained.

"As far as the headpiece is concerned, they were trying to find a way for me to have longer hair. I was really hesitant about hair extensions, and I can't grow my hair out fast enough to have dreds."

Novarro and Bommentre said last night was the first they've heard of the controversy, but they seemed empathetic to their training mates' plight.

"You're straddling a fine line between doing something incredibly authentic for the country and culture you're trying to portray, and yet still figure skate," Bommentre said.