Cultural parody as Olympic Sport

So apparently the “original dance” in ice dancing doubles as the Olympic’s multi-cultural night… without the culture.  My curiosity transformed into astonishment and then annoyance as I saw one couple dance a “country” routine, an American team dance an “Indian” routine, another a “Moldovan” dance, and worst of all a Russian couple who did an Australian Aboriginal dance.  This couple had leaves stuck to their costume.   Sitting Pugs said they looked like sweet potatoes and tomatoes.  I conceded that they did look a bit like garden vegetables.  The costumes were  “toned down” for Vancouver – they dropped the Blackface and face paint.

Initially, I blamed the dancers.  Then I read in a Chicago Tribune article, which came out before last night’s competition in Vancouver, that it was the International Skating Union that decided dancers should use folk themes for their original dance in this Olympic season.  Perhaps the Union had hoped couples would interpret folk themes in their own countries.  Ok, I sound awfully traditionalist here.   The same article is spot on about why all this bothers me so much:

While there is nothing inherently wrong about having dancers interpret ethnic themes, it looks absurdly out of place amidst the frivolity that is ice dance. Even with well-intentioned efforts at sensitivity, there is an element of high camp rather than cultural authenticity when ice dancers do the folk programs.

I’d argue that even the term “folk” is derisive.  One person’s “folk” is another person’s every day (or at least partial day) existence.  As far as Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalina are concerned, I still blame them.   I mean, seriously?  If I were Aboriginal, maybe I would die from laughter first before I had the chance to be offended.

I really don’t know why people get it into their mind’s that it’s ok to borrow piecemeal from other people’s cultures for the purpose of performance and exhibit.  I’m reminded somewhat of the colonial fairs and exhibitions that took place in Victorian London primarily to showcase conquests of foreign lands.  However, in this case, it’s probably even worse; it borders on parody.  The only couple that did this round of competitive ice dancing any true justice (yes, I realize oxymoronic  in and of itself as I’m not sure this is actually a sport) was probably the Israeli one, who danced albeit predictably to Hava Nagila.  And the Canadian pair who did something which could have resembled a paso doble.

Given that the Winter Olympics is pretty much OECD + well… nothing, this context was doubly unfair.  Also, contrary to figure skating, there are no Asians in ice skating (I don’t blame their parents for thinking it would be a stupid endeavor for their kids).  As always, it’s cool to be ethnic… as long as one is not actually ethnic.

Sitting Pugs and I would like to propose cosplay for ice dancing couples in Sochi, Russia in 2014.  They should get started on ordering their costumes now.  Here are some suggestions.

Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask

Heero Yui and Relena Peacecfraft  (Gundam required)

Pikachu and… Chu-Chu?

Anyways, I’m off my soapbox now.


3 thoughts on “Cultural parody as Olympic Sport

  1. One person’s “folk” is another person’s every day (or at least partial day) existence.

    And that’s just the tip of the snow cone. Once you get into someone else’s culture, there’s classical vs. folk art; high art vs. low art. And somehow, I think an outsider’s use of low art comes across as much more likely to cross into offensive rather than just silly. Ballet or clogging, if an American dance form is to be appropriated even without the intention of insulting anyone, put a foreigner in a clogging outfit (saying “yee-haw” too), and you’ll get a lot more grr-arghness.

    Also, contrary to figure skating, there are no Asians in ice skating (I don’t blame their parents for thinking it would be a stupid endeavor for their kids).

    Asian parents wouldn’t allow their kids to ice-dance. “You do side-to-side triple axel, no fall. No the ice dancing juss becos you can’t do axel. You do the jumps. You practice 8 hours a day until you jump without fall.”

    I saw a replay of the Canadian’s long program routine. I liked the costumes and wasn’t bored. Still, though, ice dancing makes me think, “Well, why don’t I just watch pairs skating or actual foot-to-ground dancers?”

    I love the visual aids at the end!

  2. Parul

    Well, I read the article. I’m not disagreeing about the Russian dancers, but it seemed like many of the dancers, including the ones who performed Indian dances, spoke to Indian performers, watched Indian movies, etc….

    I just don’t agree about not borrowing from other cultures. We do it ALL the TIME. Rap with South Asian music is just one example. Visual artists take elements from around the world. Peter Gabriel worked with African performers, using “piecemeal” elements and combining it with western music to come up with something great (as did Paul Simon).

    So in short, while the Russians probably didn’t do a great job, there IS a good way to do it.

  3. @ Sitting Pugs – SNL did this hilarious skit with Jennifer Lopez as a news anchor for “Telemundo” where they were lamenting and expressing confusion over why anyone would want to live in ice and snow and compete in such cold weather sports. The “co-anchor” was something like: Don’t you know there are places with beaches and warm weather, and not just ice dancing, but real dancing…with shoes… and sometimes without shoes! It was the first night in ages I watched SNL all the way through – J-Lo was great. I think she should more comedic acting from now on. Not just romantic comedy – but comedy, comedy.

    @Parul – My grievances are not about not borrowing from other cultures or discouraging cultural exchange. It’s how or for what purpose it’s done. Regardless of the research the dancers did, I think the skating union’s assignment per se to interpret folk themes, came off as mainly gimmicky and Miss Saigon-ish. Artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon represent real, well thought-out collaborations. I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem if dancers took this up on their own – I did have a problem with the skating union asking dancers to interpret folk themes.

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