Russian skating champions' dance offends Aborigines

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Australian Aboriginal elders accused Russian world figure skating champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin on Thursday of stealing an Aboriginal dance idea and causing serious cultural offence.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia perform during the Ice Dance Compulsory Dance at the European Figure Skating Championships in Tallinn January 19, 2010. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

The Russian pair, favourites to win gold at next month’s Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, unveiled an Aboriginal-themed dance at a performance in St Petersburg three weeks ago.

The performance included ceremonial dance steps and dark bodysuits adorned with indigenous painted swirls in white, red loin cloths and eucalyptus-style leaves in bunches.

“It’s very offensive. We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture, and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited,” Sol Bellear of the New South Wales state Aboriginal Land Council told Reuters.

“It’s been absolutely stolen without our permission and without consultation of the relevant dance groups within Aboriginal Australia.”

Domnina, 25, and Shabalin, 27, were world champions in 2009 and European champions in 2008, as well as three-time Russian national champions.

They recently told the ice-skating website Golden Skate that they created the new dance routine as something different after watching Aboriginal dance routines over the Internet.

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

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up about 2 percent of the population. They suffer higher rates of unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence, and have a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.

Bellear, whose organisation aims to protect the interests and aspirations of Aboriginals in Australia’s most populous state, said he would be writing to Russia’s ambassador in Canberra to protest about the dance.

“It may be very offensive to an Aboriginal group. It may be that they have based this on a ceremony that is strictly for men or strictly for women, and these are important things,” he said.

“It’s not just intellectual property. It’s straight-out cultural theft.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy