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Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin aboriginal costumes are right to draw criticism

By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, February 22, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. Another figure skating event, another controversy.

This week's brouhaha is brought to us by the original dance, the second of three portions of the ice dancing competition. Like prom, the original dance -- all 2 minutes 30 seconds per routine of it -- always has a theme. Like prom, it's filled with secrets and hormones and tears. And like prom, it features some less than tasteful outfits.

The problem is, while I enjoyed the heck out of prom, I wouldn't want to watch anyone's on TV, including my own. However, I'm told by sources close to their televisions stateside that NBC programmers decided that if there were offensive costumes to be shown, they were by God going to show them on The Big Peacock. That meant relegating the United States-Canada men's hockey game to MSNBC. God forbid the country that still brags about the Miracle on Ice would be forced to watch a couple hours of hockey on a Sunday in February.

The prom theme of this Olympics is "country/folk dance." And the controversy is swirling around the world champion Russian pair, who are performing an "aboriginal dance," with the lucky aboriginals in question being Australian, not Canadian.

Once the country/folk dance prom theme was announced, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin really got into the spirit of the thing. Instead of blowing up balloons and hanging crepe paper, however, they donned bodysuits with a dark brown skin tone and white markings resembling aboriginal body paint, or what non-aboriginals believe resembles aboriginal body paint. Both costumes are also adorned with leaves, and Shabalin wears a loincloth.

Not surprisingly, some Australian aboriginal leaders have accused the Russians of offensive cultural theft, criticizing the costumes and calling some of the steps unauthentic (which is probably true of many of the original dances, considering they are being performed on skates).

In a January editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, asked Domnina and Shabalin to reconsider their decision to perform the routine at the European Championships. They did anyway, and won the gold.

"Our dance, our ceremony and even how we look is the basis of much of our culture," she wrote. "Our designs and images have evolved over 60,000 years. We're understandably fond of them, and we don't like seeing them ripped off and painted onto someone's body for a sporting contest.

"But there are also more modern reasons. For many of us, our culture is all we have left. Our land was taken from us. Many of us lost our wages and savings. Many of us lost our children. Many of us even had our ancestors remains robbed from their graves.

"My people have already lost so much. Surely it's not hard to understand why we might fear a loss of control over the parts of our culture that we have managed to hold onto?"

Representatives of Canada's Four Host First Nations, who performed so memorably at Opening Ceremonies, also expressed concern over the costumes. But after meeting with Domnina and Shabalin last week, Tewanee Joseph, chief executive of the Four Host First Nations, gave them traditional red, white and black blankets of the Coast Salish tribal group. The skaters draped the blankets over themselves in the traditional "kiss and cry" area after winning Friday's compulsory program.

"They were very open and kind and wished us good luck," Shabalin said of the meeting.

Domnina and Shabalin could have played it safe and done a Russian dance; the other two Russian pairs did. The Georgians did a Georgian dance. The Italians did an Italian dance. The Israelies did a Jewish dance. The Czechs did a Czech dance. The Hungarians did a Hungarian dance. The French did a Can Can, bien sur. The Japanese did a Japanese dance. The Ukrainians did a Ukrainian dance. One American pair did an American dance.

But there were exceptions to that pattern. A German pair did a Hawaiian dance, a Chinese pair did a Greek dance, and both Canadian pairs did Spanish Flamenco. One Brit pair did Irish, the other American. (I'm doubly outraged!) The top two American pairs did Indian and Moldavian dances, respectively.

Of course, there should be no restrictions on dancing. Did Patrick Swayze and Kevin Bacon teach us nothing? Americans should tango, the Chinese should jitterbug and the French should crunk.

Domnina and Shabalin insist that they meant no disrespect, that they tried to be culturally sensitive and that they researched aboriginal dance. (How, by ordering "Crocodile Dundee" from Netflix?) However, when you've been told by the very people you're allegedly trying to portray, even honor, that you are in fact offensive, it would be a good idea to listen. Even IOC President Jacques Rogge said last month he might have to intervene, and he's a noted non-intervener, except when Usain Bolt exuberantly celebrates being the fastest man alive. That he can't tolerate.

When they skated out for warmups Sunday night, it was clear that Domnina and Shabalin had taken some of the criticism to heart. They lightened the skin color of their body suits, and Domnina went without her usual white paint on her face and legs. The routine itself was bizarre, to say the least, and the judges apparently agreed. They dropped from first to third overall, behind Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Of course, like all good things, prom comes to an end, and so too may the original dance. The three-tiered ice dancing competition may be scaled back to two stages by the 2014 Games. That could be achieved by scuttling compulsories -- the Ambien of Olympic sports in which all couples skate the same steps to the same music -- or by combining compulsories and the original dance. That way, tastelessness in apparel and behavior could be a requirement.

Which would take us right back to the prom.

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