Skating on thin ice: Russians' Aboriginal routine fails to amuse

It was certainly an arresting performance: the Russian world figure skating champions, clad in dark-toned bodysuits and red loincloths, performing a routine based on an Aboriginal dance. It won Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin a gold medal at their national competition last month. But in Australia, Aboriginal leaders were not amused.

The Moscow-based pair, who plan to repeat their performance at next month's Winter Olympics in Vancouver have been accused of gross insensitivity and cultural theft.

Sol Bellear, from the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, described the dance as "very offensive". "We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal culture of Australia being exploited."

The Russian routine includes ceremonial dance steps, performed in costumes adorned with eucalyptus leaves and white swirls representing traditional-style body paint. But the designs, according to Bev Manton, chairwoman of the Land Council, are "no more 'authentic'... than the shiploads of cheap 'Aboriginal' tourist trinkets that pour into our country from overseas".

As if offending the custodians of an ancient culture were not bad enough, Domnina, 25, and Shabalin, 27, have also been accused of appropriating the idea from rival Australian skaters, Danielle O'Brien and Greg Merriman.

The Australian pair staged their Aboriginal-themed routine at a competition in Korea in 2008. But, according to the The Age newspaper, that was only "after spending a year in consultation with the indigenous community to ensure their performance, music and costumes respected Aboriginal culture".

So what research did the Russians – world champions last year, European champions in 2008 and three times national champions – conduct? "We've watched video clips on the internet of these dances, and it really is like this, complete with the leaves around the knees," Domnina told the ice skating website Golden Skate.

She said: "We did not want to create another Slavic dance and have considered a lot of options, including Scottish folk. But eventually we settled on this one. I thought it was just crazy, but once we have tried it, we immediately fell in love with it."

The pair, who turned heads when they unveiled their routine at the Russian figure skating championships in St Petersburg, are favourites to win gold in the ice dance competition in Vancouver. Their Australian rivals failed to qualify because of injury.

Ms Manton told The Age: "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."

Mr Bellear, who plans to protest to the Russian ambassador in Canberra, said: "It's absolutely been stolen without our permission, and without consultation of the relevant dance groups within Aboriginal Australia. It's not just intellectual property; it's straight-out cultural theft."

The authenticity of the music has also been questioned. Local media say ice skating fans have identified the track as having been composed by Sheila Chandra, a Briton of Indian descent.

The Russians are to perform their Aboriginal dance today at the European championships in Estonia.

Rink-side scandals

* Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were the great rivals in American women's figure skating in the build-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Then Kerrigan was brutally attacked by a thug hired by Harding's ex-husband, injuring her knee. Harding was eventually fined $160,000 for her role in covering up the crime – but retained her place in the Olympic team. She finished eighth; Kerrigan recovered to win silver.

* Double gold medallist Katarina Witt was nearly as well-known for her costumes as her skating: her skirtless feather-trimmed outfit at the 1988 Olympics led the authorities to modify the rules to insist on more modest clothes. Witt won gold anyway, and went on to appear in Playboy.

* When the Canadian pair of Jamie Salé and David Pelletie finished their routine at the 2002 Olympics, most observers were sure that gold was theirs. But to general shock, and outraged headlines in Canada, the judges disagreed, placing a Russian pair first by a whisker. There it might have rested – if a French judge had not allegedly made a tearful confession (later denied) that her score was rigged. The Russians kept their gold – but at least the Canadians got one too.

Archie Bland

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing