Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
On a sunny winter day, Elladj Baldé soars beneath the snowy peaks of the Canadian Rockies, floating to weightless chords of a piano ballad.
Few things compare to the singular beauty of skating on wild ice. It creaks, pings and groans. As it shifts, it fractures in deep, silvery lines. And for Baldé, it’s a place to make art.
The long blades and notched toe of his figure skates allow him to move untethered from friction. His silky movements across Alberta’s Lake Minnewanka are punctuated by leaps and spins into the air, leaving nothing but confidence protecting him from the thick ice below. And the internet loves it: his videos have been viewed more than 30m times on social media – a level of fame few in the sport ever attain.
But for Baldé, a Canadian skater of Russian and Guinean ancestry, the newfound stardom marks the first step in an ambitious quest to confront racial inequities in figure skating and to build an inclusive future for the sport.
Figure skating has long rewarded three things: immense physical strength for seemingly impossible spins, classic ballet-like choreography and dancers who conform to rigid and predictable expectations of judges.
“Everyone looks the same these days. It’s all very cookie cutter,” says Baldé. “You can swap one song for another and it would be the same thing. Nothing would change. Because being unique or different doesn’t hold any value.”
In his videos, he skates to Drake and Childish Gambino. He backflips and moonwalks. He dresses in casual street clothes and spends hours learning new movements with his fiancée, choreographer Michelle Dawsey, drawing inspiration from hip-hop. “We make an incredible team,” he says.
But the work has a deeper meaning for Baldé. Last summer, the killing of George Floyd in the United States – and the protests that followed – prompted a visceral and unexpected sense of grief within him.
“African. Russian. Immigrant. Black Male. Figure skater,” he wrote on social media. “Every time I step on to the ice I am a living breathing protest to a society as well as a sport that thrives on oppression and elitism.”
For Baldé, the videos aren’t just a way to showcase a fresh take on the sport’s potential; they’re a way of confronting the insular skating world of his youth.
Baldé was born in Moscow and moved to Canada as a child, where he spent his youth at Montreal rinks, hiding his skates whenever possible to avoid practice.
By the age of seven, however, he was landing jumps that others his age couldn’t. He began winning local competitions. He was crowned Canadian junior national champion at 18. He fell deeply in love with the blend of artistry and physicality; the sheer athleticism required for the gentlest of movements. A handful of wins on the World Cup circuit only added to his deepening hunger for success.
“For years, my self worth was tied to the dream of being an Olympian. The Olympics were the driving force behind everything that I did,” says Baldé of a dream that never materialized.
Behind the scenes, as he battled concussions, tendonitis and torn ligaments, he also struggled with the realities of a sport that has long been a home to the elite and wealthy.
“My family struggled financially to even afford the costs of me skating. Most of the people that I was around had a lot of money. And when you’re around that all the time, it’s something you try to emulate, even though it wasn’t really our situation,” he says.
And while his mother’s Russian heritage gave him a direct line to a pantheon of idols to worship, his father’s Guinean ancestry left him confused.
“To society, I was a Black boy in figure skating. And those two things didn’t really line up, so for the longest time, I didn’t really know who I was,” he says.
Few other skaters looked like him– cues that he gradually internalized. Outside the rink, he found himself changing his music and clothing preferences in order to fit a constricting ideal – one that he knew looked nothing like him.
Looking back, he sees his confusion as yet another strand in the thread of a sport that has long shunned Black dancers.
One of the pioneers in the 1930s, Mabel Fairbanks, was largely erased from the sport until recently. In the 1990s, French skater Surya Bonaly wowed audiences with audacious backflips (which she could land on one skate) while grappling with the realities of discrimination. “Race matters for sure, because I know that if I’d been white, I would have had more [endorsement] contracts and been bigger,” Bonaly told The Root in 2014.
In Canada, the country’s figure skating body has faced accusations of racism in recent years.
At the same time, Baldé grew frustrated that the competitive world had traded creativity for a fixation on technical excellence. The artistry, the urge to create something beautiful that had nourished him in his adolescent years, began to fade.
And so when he made the decision to retire in 2018 at age 28, Baldé felt alienated from both the sport and himself.
Today, his Instagram feed is populated by videos primed for online consumption. The songs are hits, the clips are short and the views pour in.
But as his audience grows, Baldé has chosen to use his social media following to become an unrelenting voice for diversifying the sport.
“The biggest thing I can share with the skating community is bringing young skaters of color into the sport,” he says. “Maybe I can inspire them to be authentic to themselves and realize they don’t have to conform to the mold that figure skating has put on us for so long.”
Parents of Black youth have reached out after he posts a video, telling him their child was excited to pick up their first pair of skates. Another told Baldé their son was bullied for his love of skating, but has been inspired to keep going after watching what a Black male skater can look like on the ice.
He’s a co-founder of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, a group of like-minded athletes working to get more minority youth in the sport. FSDIA has raised money to fund access to gear and provide grants for underserved communities, even organizing events for Black and Indigenous skaters.
For retired athletes, a broken relationship to a sport they sacrificed so much of their body and mind for is often difficult to reconcile. If it ends with animosity and resentment, there are often no second chances at personal redemption.
But as he inches forward with his goal to make figure skating more welcoming, Baldé has found his love of skating, which he feared he had lost, finally returned.
“Right now, for me it is about fully letting go of all roles and boundaries I’m used to,” he says. “It’s about feeling what it’s truly like to be free on the ice.”