Elladj Baldé wants to redefine figure skating

On a frozen lake nestled between snow-capped mountains, a man in a Chicago Bulls jacket skates, his movements carefully synchronized to soothing piano music. His skates carve white curves in the dark ice. In another video, set to a Drake song, he launches himself into the air, backflips, lands expertly and keeps going. Meet Elladj Baldé, a biracial Canadian figure skater working to make skating more accessible and inclusive for more people.

Baldé challenges boundaries in figure skating – including stereotypes about race and masculinity and the types of music and choreographies skaters use. He retired from the competition and from the Canadian national team in 2018. He won the Canadian junior title in 2008.

The videos Baldé shares on TikTok and Instagram show him skating and dancing to all kinds of music, from James Brown to Justin Bieber to Labrinth, expertly choreographed by his wife, dancer and choreographer Michelle Dawley. He has developed the following online and hopes his impact can continue to grow.

“I want to change the culture of figure skating,” Baldé says. “I want to change the way people see it so we can let guys exercise and be themselves and know that they can be a part of it in a way that suits them — creating a space where Black, Indigenous and Colored people (BIPOC) can also be themselves and be celebrated for that.”

This month Baldé is at the Beijing Winter Olympics, reporting on figure skating for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where his impact will extend beyond skating broadcasts.

Related: Could the Beijing Winter Olympics Make a Jump-Start Women’s Pro Hockey in North America?

Canadian figure skater Vanessa James will also be in Beijing to compete in the pairs event, and she is a global brand ambassador for the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance. She has spoken out about the importance of making the sport more inclusive and has served as a mentor on the alliance’s Big Skater Little Skater program with Baldé. This program links BIPOC mentor skaters to young BIPOC skaters.

“We want to be part of that journey with them and help them, whether it’s emotional or psychological, to be there for them before the game when they’re stressed, but we’re also trying to find resources, skates, skates, costumes and financial resources,” says Baldé.

As the child of a Russian mother and a Guinean father, Baldé felt out of place in the predominantly white and wealthy figure skating world. “The sport is used to seeing a certain type of skater on the ice, usually the white European skater. It’s shaped around that identity,” he says.

Decades ago, black skaters weren’t even allowed to compete. In the US, for example, in the 1930s, figure skater Mabel Fairbanks was barred from competing because she was black. She later coached several high-profile skaters and became the first African American to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. A 2018 U.S. figure skating poll of fans showed that 73 percent are white, 18 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent African American and 1 percent Native American.

“Many skaters from the BIPOC community who participate in the sport of figure skating, the first problem you see is you don’t see yourself at the top, you don’t see yourself participating in the Olympics, you don’t see yourself competing and winning medals at national level,” says Baldé.

The sport is also expensive, making it out of reach for many children. “For many kids growing up in underserved communities, joining a figure skating club, with the cost of skates and ice rentals, coaching and travel, isn’t possible,” Baldé says. “My parents struggled a lot and tried to keep us in the sport, and if coaches didn’t teach me essentially free for most of my life, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

These barriers forced Baldé to create an organization that would make the sport more inclusive and accessible. He and Dawley founded the Skate Global Foundation and partnered with construction company EllisDon to build outdoor tracks in underserved communities across Canada. The first opened in Calgary, Alberta, in December. People can use the ice rinks and borrow skates for free. “They can fall in love with the sport, especially if the environment feels like home – it’s welcome to them,” says Baldé.

The Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion of Figure Skating is committed to a more diverse and inclusive figure skating environment around the world, and it has made a difference. “It has created a community of black, indigenous and colored people who can feel safe to share their experiences and be together,” he says.

Skating and masculinity

Baldé says he was always bullied for participating in a so-called girls’ sport. “The first time I was ashamed of being a figure skater was when I was nine,” he says. “It was very sad because I was so excited. I won a competition. And then I went to one of my neighbors, and I was still wearing my figure skating costume and my medal. And I was so excited to show my medal because it was my first gold medal.” The neighbor’s response was, ‘What the hell are you wearing? You wear a suit. Girls wear these things.”

Baldé’s pride in what he’d accomplished by doing what he loved turned to shame. That started with the feeling that he had to prove that he was man enough, he says. “It’s been a long journey for me to redefine what it’s like to be a man because in our society you’re supposed to be stoic, unemotional, solve your problems on your own and don’t talk. You talk about your problems. not about your fears, and those are all things that are actually extremely important as a human being to lead a healthy emotional and psychological life.”

Related: American Sports Perpetuate ‘A Certain Type of Masculinity’ — Here’s Why It Lasts

He hopes to dispel that perception by sharing his version of skating with others. “A lot of guys leave the sport of figure skating because they are teased and laughed at,” he says. “And it’s sad because so many guys are passionate about skating but will never allow themselves to continue in the sport because of what society has told them figure skating is.”

Artistic and authenticity

Baldé broadens the definition of what figure skating is. His videos don’t look like typical figure skating routines, especially when they include backflips, which aren’t allowed in Olympic competitions, or when they’re set to rap music.

“Because I was biracial — my mom was white, my dad was black — I grew up watching Russian figure skating, and there was a part of me that’s clearly tied to my Russian culture,” he says, so he started that path to follow at a young age. He later says, “I started to realize that I had so many interests — in terms of the kind of music I listened to, the way I danced, the way I dressed — that were completely different from what I was doing and from what I felt I was allowed to do on the ice.”

He struggled with that tension. “When I started winning games, I was rewarded for fitting that mold. And that reinforced this idea that there is no way for me to really be who I want to be on the ice and be successful: I had to choose one or the other,” he says. But when he was a teenager, he saw a black skater at a local competition. “That completely changed my view of what is possible for me because he was really authentic to himself and he was technically good. He was different on the ice, and that kind of spoke to me in a way I’d never spoken before.”

Elladj Baldé believes mental health and sustainability can be part of figure skating. Credit: Kris Andres

That meeting was the moment when Baldé’s perspective began to shift. In the last few years he’s competed, he says, “I really got into music that I wanted to skate on, and wore what I wanted to wear,” while following the rules for certain jumps and other technical elements. “Once I did that, once I felt that kind of authenticity, I had never performed so well. The audience stood on their feet every time I performed,” he says.

“There was so much raw energy around it, because I was operating from that space. And I think that’s what we’re missing in figure skating right now,” Baldé says. “It’s so technically focused that everyone looks the same.” It’s not that mastering the technical elements is bad. That has taken the sport to the next level, he says.

But, he explains, “one who isn’t a fan of figure skating doesn’t know the difference between a quad and quad flip. What appeals to them is the general feeling they felt, but that’s kind of lost in the sport at the moment. Because we are not rewarded for being artists. We are rewarded for being technicians.” A better balance between the two would make the sport more inclusive, he says.

Mental health and body image

Figure skating is a very subjective sport, says Baldé. You are judged by your appearance. You will be judged on what you present. You are constantly assessed and given a score,” he says. “That can have a very, very, very negative impact on a person’s mental health when they are constantly seeking this approval from judges.”

Mental health is one of the three pillars of the Skate Global Foundation (the other two being equality, diversity and inclusion; and climate change). “We’re trying to change the way skaters approach figure skating a little bit,” Baldé says. “In turn, we see that many high-level athletes perform better because they are more self-centered, and they create this unique moment when they perform. And people really like that.”

Skaters who are constantly judged and comparing themselves to others can also lead to unhealthy behavior. Eating disorders and body image problems are common in figure skating.

Many skaters have a toxic relationship with food, Baldé says, including himself. For him, it’s less about body image than performance, he explains. “My weight has to be so specific to perform at a certain level that I was obsessed with my weight at times.”

Climate change and ice

Baldé started skating on wild ice – frozen lakes – last year. “My connection to ice formed by Mother Nature is an experience I’ve never had before. And it’s deeply ingrained,” he says. He wants future generations to experience that, but he knows that due to climate change, certain lakes will freeze later and later, if not at all, and that some communities are dependent on the lakes freezing. That is why the Skate Global Foundation is working to emphasize the importance of action against climate change.

Of the messages Baldé gets from people who see his videos, he says the ones he likes the most are the ones who say, “I don’t watch figure skating, or I don’t like figure skating, necessarily, but what you do speaks to me.” .”

“When I get messages like this,” he says, “it reassures me that what I’m doing — and the purpose I’m operating from — is the right one if I want to help change this idea people have of figure skating.”

If Baldé hadn’t experienced the things he did in the sport, “I probably wouldn’t be skating the way I skate now,” he says. “Through these experiences I was able to transform that and use it as a gift to share with others, because that’s my story. That’s my message.”

He adds, “That’s what every skater strives for, really – by using those experiences, whether positive or negative, to create their own story and then share that.”

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