Black Figure Skaters Strike More Than Gold with Captivating Performances.
The ice became a forum for athletes who are also musicians as the Black Lives Matter movement progressed.
At her first figure skating events, Starr Andrews recalls getting stares in the locker room. She recalls the demands to stroke her textured, coiled hair.
In a recent interview, Andrews, 19, said, “The first thing that came to mind was, ‘It’s because I’m Black.” “And I didn’t want that to be the first thought that came to mind, but I couldn’t help myself.”
Andrews, the only Black member of the United States national figure skating team, also has the unwelcome feeling, both on and off the ice, that she may be seen as different from her peers in a sport she has enjoyed since she was a small child watching her mother take lessons.
The ice, on the other hand, eventually became a place where Andrews could celebrate his differences.
She did so most emphatically last summer, when many famous athletes faced criticism for walking off the court or field in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting calls to “shut up and play.” Andrews, on the other hand, found that competing was the most effective way to express himself.
She skated to Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” a country song about racial injustice released after the police killing of George Floyd, for a virtual event in July. Andrews finished her speech with a smile and a raised right fist in a Black Power salute.
Her results videos have gained over 200,000 views on YouTube. Guyton and Michelle Obama are supporters, with Michelle Obama writing on one of the videos, “To all the Black kids out there aiming for success in the face of those who doubt you: Keep going.”
Andrews plans to do just that. Other Black skaters who have pushed themselves creatively in order to obtain respect and acceptance in a sport where they have often felt marginalized do as well.
Consider Elladj Baldé, a 30-year-old Canadian ice skater who was performing around the world before the pandemic forced him to return home. Soon after, he co-founded a foundation to help diversify the sport, and he became a social media sensation after sharing videos of himself skating in the wild outdoors, dressed casually and performing routines that scarcely resembled the formal Olympic programs.
Then there’s Joel Savary, a 34-year-old coach from Washington, D.C., who runs his own diversity foundation and wrote “Why Black and Brown Kids Don’t Ice Skate,” a self-published book.
Kaitlyn Saunders, one of Savary’s students, traded her ice skates for roller skates last summer and performed at Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza to a performance of Andra Day’s 2015 single “Rise Up,” a song about perseverance. Kaitlyn, now ten years old, performed the same routine as part of the Inauguration Day celebrations, this time with Day accompanying her live.
These initiatives have received widespread praise, but the sport’s willingness to make tangible improvements can determine whether it becomes more inclusive. To the topic of funding To the appointment and preparation of judges. (Baldé, Savary, and Andrews say they have never seen another Black person evaluate their work.) Finally, it comes down to the essence of what it means to be a figure skater.
After a breakthrough, things come to a halt.
Debi Thomas of the United States became the first African-American woman to win a singles world championship in 1986. It occurred seven years after Tai Babilonia, the daughter of a Black woman and a man of Hopi and Filipino ancestry, and Randy Gardner won a pairs world title.
Thomas finished third in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, earning the first Olympic medal for a Black competitor in a Winter Games.
Only one other skater of African descent has captured an Olympic medal since then: Germany’s Robin Szolkowy, who won bronze in pairs in 2010 and 2014.
The elite levels of the sport, which had been dominated for decades by white European and North American skaters, have been diversified largely with the arrival of East Asian and East Asian-American stars. Half of the figure skating competitors in the United States participated in the 2018 Olympics and were of Asian descent. Nathan Chen of the United States, whose parents emigrated from China, and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who won gold at the last two Olympics, will be the top contenders for the men’s title at the world championships in Stockholm this week.
A new demographic did not always get a warm welcome.
Tiffany Chin, the first nonwhite skater to win a senior singles title in the United States in 1985, said in a 2018 Huffington Post interview that early in her career, “a little girl told me: ‘You’re very sweet, but you know you’ll never be a champion.” Figure skating champions have blond hair and blue eyes, which you lack.’
An MSNBC digital headline declared: “American Beats Out Kwan” after native Californian Michelle Kwan, the gold medal favorite at the 1998 Olympics, was upset by her American teammate Tara Lipinski.
The racial makeup of players, judges, and other officials in the United States was not officially monitored until recently by sport leaders in the United States. However, following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, US Figure Skating began gathering such data and formed a working group, followed by a task force, to discuss diversity, equality, and inclusion.
Because of his book and his work with Diversify Ice, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2017, U.S. Figure Skating named Savary, a Washington coach and author, to both committees.
The skating association, according to Savary, was particularly taken with the segment of his book where he mentioned going into communities and knocking on doors to see whether families would be interested in learning about the sport. Pooja Kalyan, the only skater of Indian origin on the United States team, and Eliot Halverson, a Latinx and trans nonbinary national champion, are among Diversify Ice’s champions.
“While I was on the ground every day through Diversify Ice working on these issues, some didn’t see the point in attempting to make ice skating more inclusive for skaters of color,” Savary said. “This was a 180-degree turn.”
The task force recommended creating a fund to help promising athletes in memory of Mabel Fairbanks, a Black and Indigenous skater who became a successful coach after being banned from competition in the 1930s due to discrimination. In their early years together, her protégés included Babilonia and Gardner, as well as Atoy Wilson, the first Black U.S. figure skater, who won the novice division in 1966.
Andrews won the fund’s first grant of $25,000 in January.
Many people, regardless of race, are discouraged from attempting figure skating as a competitive sport because of the high costs — Savary estimates that some people pay more than $50,000 a year to try to enter the elite level — and the restricted access to rinks. Diversify Ice’s goal includes making skating more affordable, in the hopes that increased participation would provide a safe space for skaters of color, who sometimes feel alienated.
However, he and Baldé agree that the sport’s rigid tradition has deterred Black participation as much as the price tag. The limited selection of preferred songs, body shapes, costumes, and dance movements causes claustrophobia.
For Black figure skaters, the subjective elements of the scoring system, which involve points dependent on personal interpretation of music and emotional translation of choreography, create a delicate situation. Many claim they feel obligated to fit into the stereotype of stars in a sport that does not reflect or portray their personalities or cultures.
Baldé, the 2008 Canadian junior national champion, often performed to classical music, which is common in the sport. However, in his final five years of competition, he began to include more funk and hip-hop songs by Black and brown musicians such as James Brown, Bruno Mars, and T-Pain in his shows.
Baldé joined the show tours after retiring from competition in 2018 and becoming a choreographer and judge for the Canadian reality competition series “Battle of the Blades.”
In early December, he began sharing videos of himself after being encouraged by his fiancée, Michelle Dawley, a dancer and choreographer. Near his home in Calgary, Alberta, he uses frozen lakes and random ice patches as environments. He performs back flips, which are not allowed in figure skating competitions because all jumps must be landed on one foot. Moonwalks, C-walks, and Milly Rocks are among his other moves. In the storm, his flannel shirts flap.
He believes that embracing such variety in competitive skating could reverse decades of declining television ratings.
Baldé skated an elegant routine in a Chicago Bulls jacket with snow-dusted mountain peaks as a backdrop and Sampha’s “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” as accompaniment in one frame. After celebrities including Jada Pinkett Smith and Complex reposted it, it received over 2.6 million views on Instagram.
Baldé said he felt a sense of liberation when making the videos that he had never felt before.
“If there had been representation for me as a young skater, if skating had been inclusive of Black music and Black styles and forms of, of traveling, I would have found my reality and my authenticity much sooner,” he said. He imagines he would have been more optimistic and wonders whether he would have done well in his competitive career if he had been more confident.
“The one thing I know for certain,” he said, “is that it would have allowed me to be myself for the duration of my career, rather than me trying to fit in.”
Embracing the Next Generation is a phrase that can be used to describe a group of people who
Kaitlyn’s mother, Katrice Saunders, was initially concerned about the family’s ability to cope with the costs and other demands of figure skating. Then came the offers of assistance from seemingly every corner of the Black community in the sport.
The Diversify Ice Foundation, established by Savary, provided funding for coaching and equipment. Baldé has contacted Kaitlyn to collaborate on her choreography.
Babilonia and Surya Bonaly, a Black skater from France whose audacious programs wowed crowds, if not judging panels, in the 1990s, have also contacted the family. Her career shortcomings sparked some of the most heated debates regarding racial inequality in sports.
Over the summer, Bonaly, who is now a mentor, offered $5 video conferencing software lessons, and Kaitlyn Saunders took part.
Andrews and her mother, Toshawa Andrews, have been particularly supportive, according to Katrice Saunders. She described the overall effect as a protective “we’re all in this together” feeling.
Starr, like Kaitlyn, gained a large following at the age of nine when she did an exhibition performance to Willow Smith’s girl-power anthem “Whip My Hair,” choreographed by her mother. The routine has more than 56 million views on YouTube, and it was Andrews’ most famous moment on the ice before last summer.
Andrews, on the other hand, has been a fan of the “Black Like Me” scheme.
It didn’t matter to her that she came in 13th out of 17 skaters when she used it in practice.
Andrews said, “The scores are disappointing, but that wasn’t the point of the program.” “The point of the initiative was to get the word out that being one of the few Black people in the sport is difficult.”