Note: The video of their actual Olympic performance was unavailable. This is the same routine performed at a different competition.
Cultural appropriation occurs when members of one culture use the symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies of another culture, “regardless of intent, ethics, function, or outcome” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). When two or more cultures come in contact, Rogers believes cultural appropriation is “inescapable” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). Because of its immense prominence in society, it is necessary to be aware of cultural appropriation or better yet, understand its nuances and learn how to recognize it. Rogers’ essay provides a useful examination of the term, and how it should be understood in modern society.
In his essay, Rogers wishes to “(re) conceptualize” cultural appropriation, not only for purposes of his own critical analysis, but also to enhance “intercultural communication theory and pedagogy” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). To further break down the term, Rogers divides it into 4 distinct categories: exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476).
There is a difference between ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘culture exchange’. The former is the broader term used loosely by society to describe cultural incorporation; the latter is a specific category of culture appropriation that Rogers has invented to describe the kind of appropriation that occurs when two cultures of equal power come together and exchange their cultural artifacts.
Washington Post article, “Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin aboriginal costumes are right to draw criticism” and Telegraph article, “Australians angry over Russian ice skaters’ Aboriginal routine”, both refer to the controversial costumes and choreography of a Russian ice dance team competing at the 2010 Olympics. The event represents cultural appropriation because it involves the use of a culture’s symbols (costumes) and rituals (dance choreography) by those of another culture. Using Rogers’ terms, many would argue that the Russian ice dance team’s performance was cultural exploitation, because a dominant culture was using the submissive culture’s traditional symbols and rituals for their own benefit – i.e. to attract attention and win favor from the judges.
The “Original Dance”, the 2nd of 3 judged events in the ice dance competition, is always given a theme for the year’s competitions. For the 2010 Olympic season, the International Skating Union decided that the theme would be “Country/Folk Dance”. In following of this theme, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin selected an Australian aboriginal routine and performed it at the 2010 Olympics where it caught the attention of the press. Many considered their costumes and choreography offensive to the Australian aboriginal community. Aboriginal leaders, as the Washington Post reported, accused the Russians of “offensive cultural theft”. They criticized their costumes and called some of their steps unauthentic. (Hamilton, 2010).
Bonnie Malkin of the Telegraph, stated her opinion at the end of her article. She felt that the routine “[bared] little resemblance to a traditional Aboriginal ceremony”. “Domnina and Shabalin glide across the ice, waving their arms, jerking their bodies and stomping intermittently”, she describes (Malkin, 2010).
Despite earlier requests from Aboriginal leaders to change their original dance, Domnina and Shabalin retained they’re routine for the Olympics, arguing that they meant no disrespect by it, and did extensive research on aboriginal dance before choreographing it. Yet Hamilton argues, “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” (Hamilton, 2010).
It is clear both journalists do not approve of the Russian ice dance team’s theme selection. As a former competitive figure skater, I can understand the position of Domnia and Shabalin. Although I competed in pairs, I am very familiar with the ice dance competition, its requirements, and how it is judged. In a very competitive field, Domnia and Shabalin needed to select a theme for their Original Dance that would help them stand out against their Russian teammates. The Australian aboriginal music and choreography inspired by traditional aboriginal dance, certainly made for a memorable performance.
From a spectator’s point of view however, I recognize what Hamilton and Malkin are suggesting. Both the costumes and choreography accentuate the stereotypical image/understanding of the aboriginal people, and therefore are inappropriate to present in front of an Olympic audience. The Olympics is a special opportunity for figure skaters because it is the one competition that is watched by not only skating fans, but also millions of other spectators – many of who are not familiar with the sport. For this reason, Domnia and Shabalin probably should have chosen a more recognizable, or commonly understood, folk dance for their Olympic Original Dance.
Hamilton, T. (2010, February 22). Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin aboriginal costumes are right to draw criticism. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/21/AR2010022104563.html
Malkin, B. (2010, January 21). Australians angry over Russian ice skaters’ Aboriginal routine. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/iceskating/7044990/Australians-angry-over-Russian-ice-skaters-Aboriginal-routine.html