Episode 44 – Cultural Appropriation in Figure Skating

Maryam: You’re In the Loop! We’re here to discuss the ups, downs, and
sideways of the sport of figure skating, and maybe give you +5 GOE along the way. Let’s introduce this week’s hosts. Lae: Hi, I’m Lae. I’m being defeated by Australian time zones,
and work exhaustion but valiantly trying to catch up to all the skating while I can. I’m @axelsandwhich on Twitter. Maryam: Hi, I’m Maryam, and I’m a sad Canadian
sadly watching the snowflakes pile up, and thinking about how I could be watching figure
skating instead. You can find me on Twitter @luckyyloopss. Lae: Awesome, so this is going to be quite
a long conversation, but I think a pretty necessary one, because we are going to be
talking about cultural appropriation, cultural borrowing – The issue of culture, in other
words, and figure skating. So, I just want to put out a long disclaimer
at the start of this that: this is a long and complex topic, which is also why we’ve
spent quite a while preparing it, and due to the run time, we won’t be able to cover
all facets or skaters, so we’ve tried to pick key examples of the issue because it’s been
a very topical one this season. And we also want to emphasize that this is
designed to start the conversation, not to make a ruling or a decision on it, but really
trying to prompt something of a discussion on an area that isn’t really widely understood
or discussed in this sport, but I think nevertheless is important to have as a conversational point. I also want to add that while we’ll be focusing
on figure skating’s roots in predominantly white-European and American cultures, white
Western cultures aren’t the only ones that have been accused of cultural appropriation,
so you see conversations happening in K-Pop for example, and the appropriation of Black
American culture in their genre. In that instance, East Asian cultures don’t
have a history of political or social oppression of Black Americans the same way that they
are in America, for example. But I just want to note that this is a discussion
that is very much alive between all kinds of cultural groups – even those considered
minorities commonly in Western society. Maryam: Before we begin, we just want to say
that this episode contains discussions that include mentions of historical incidents that
could be triggering for some. As well, while we do our best to ensure our
analysis is backed by research and is as accurate as possible, we are open to corrections. So please let us know via our website, inthelopodcast.com. If you would like to take a look at the subtopics
discussed in this episode or fast-forward to a certain section, you can find the time
stamps included in the description of [this episode]. So, cultural appropriation is a sticky pot
that’s been stirred many, many times this season, even just starting in the off-season. So we do have many examples, but we’d be here
forever if we talked about them all, so as Lae said, we picked key examples. But, before we start, we’re going to talk
a little bit about our cultural backgrounds, so Lae… Lae: So yep, I’m ethnically Chinese. My parents are from mainland China, but I
grew up in Australia. So, I kind of consider myself a kind of hybrid
upbringing, because obviously as a child of an immigrant family, we had a very interesting
and unique experience, I think, growing up in Australia. Maryam: I was born in Iraq – spent most of
my childhood in Iraq/Jordan in the Middle East, and my teenage years, I spent growing
up here in Canada. So, because the Middle East, a lot of it is
desert land, I didn’t actually know about skating until I got here. Lae: And obviously, in researching this episode,
we’ve called on the diverse backgrounds of the other In The Loop members, so we especially
want to thank Clara and Yogeeta for their input, but obviously given our cultural backgrounds,
we will not have a complete awareness of all of the different cultures and religions, topics
we’ll be covering in this episode, and in the spirit of wanting to give voices to those
who are most close to the issue, again this is all meant to start conversation, and we’ve
definitely taken on board and looked into the words of people who have spoken out about
various programs this season. Again, just disclaimer out there – we are
definitely not experts in all of the topics that we’re going to be talking about, but
we hope that the research and the links that we’ll be including in the transcript will
help continue that discussion, especially amplifying people who have more of a voice
and should be given more of a platform. -end segment- 5:20 START: What is cultural appropriation? Lae: After that very long introduction, what
we’re going to be talking about really is the range of ways that we interact with culture
when it comes to the arts because I think at the core of it, figure skating is a blend
of sport and the performing arts, so we will be talking about concepts like cultural exchange,
cultural borrowing, and cultural appropriation which is kind of the hot buzz word of the
Twittersphere and the online figure skating fandom, but something that I really noticed
in a lot of the ways people talk about cultural appropriation as a topic is the feeling that
it’s become a checklist, or a situation where it’s- you do one thing, and out spits cultural
appropriation on the other end, so the thesis we’ll be running with this episode is the
idea that this is really more of a spectrum: it’s not really a checklist, it’s not a button;
it’s a spectrum in the way that someone interacts and talks and represents a culture in the
performing arts, and in expressing it. So, that’s essentially why we think it’s worthy
of discussion. And I think it’s particularly important because
cultural sensitivity is such a topic of the modern age because people are more interconnected,
and art is exposed to a lot more international influences thanks to the internet and a lot
more diverse communities around the world. So, minorities, especially those in Western
societies such as the U.K, U.S, Canada, Australia in general- we’re speaking out more about
things that weren’t okay in the past and were never okay, but are only now being articulated
more regularly, and on bigger platforms. I think there’s also been an increase in media
representation, and different cultures being depicted on TV and movies. So while that’s been a really really great
sign of more diversity in the arts, the more people try to portray more diverse cultures,
obviously, the more issues are brought up with how that portrayal is done. Maryam: The first academic criticism of cultural
appropriation was in the late-1970s, so it was around the same time where media was picking
up things from other cultures, and displaying them on TV, and media was becoming mainstream,
so the debate has been around for a few decades, but why are we talking about it now when it
comes to figure skating? So, when the top skaters – when you think
about the medalists – when they skate to certain pieces of music, they set trends, especially
if the judges reward them for it, which they almost certainly will if that skater is also
normally usually known for getting high scores. Twitter/social media has amplified the audience
feedback compared to the past, so the top skaters obviously will face more scrutiny
than the skaters of the bottom of the chain. It’s the fact that small-fed skaters don’t
get talked about as much when it comes to cultural appropriation doesn’t mean that they’re
right, or that they’re not doing cultural appropriation, or that their cases aren’t
as strong; it’s just true that some skaters get more flak- it just comes with the fact
that the top skaters have a lot more influence, a lot more people going to watch them and
a lot more people going to talk about them. Lae: I think along with the fact that a lot
of top skaters do have more influence and so more weight is giving to the choices they
make with their programs, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that figure skating
is still a very inaccessible sport, whether it’s from an economic perspective, or from
a geographical perspective to do, and so as skaters from these small federations, they
really have to rely on more privileged skater sometimes to showcase their cultures. Maryam: And when [they do], it’s not usually
in a good way. Lae: The one thing I’ve personally felt, especially
of minority cultures, is the idea that when you have a lot of different varieties of stories
and pieces depicting a certain culture, they’re kind of free to be their own story and entity,
and it’s accepted that they’re not representative of a whole culture. So if you consider the whole range of stories
we have about white men, for example, in the middle class, we don’t look at, for example,
‘Fight Club’ and assume that every single white male out there is identical to the protagonist,
or we don’t watch ‘Batman’ and assume everyone is Batman. But when you have media depicting minorities,
we don’t necessarily have that luxury, because there’s so little representation, that each
case where a culture is represented carries a certain weight to them. This shouldn’t be the case, but it kind of
is that it becomes often representative of that entire culture because of the fact there’s
so little alternatives out there, and so I think it’s the same way with figure skating,
given that many skaters from smaller federations have trouble meeting the tech minimums to
get onto platforms like Worlds, like the Grand Prix series, with the lack of infrastructure
that they have to support that high technical level. Many skaters don’t get to have that stage
to tell their stories and the programs and showcase the performances they want. With that, also comes the loss of the chance
to showcase music from their country, to showcase costumes and ways of expression from that
country, and that’s why top skaters, and popular skaters in the limelight, show that culture
different to their own, or showcase a program that is specifically trying to depict a culture;
it’s why we put more scrutiny onto them because theirs is often one of the rare and few chances
that a particular culture has representation. Maryam: If you live in the western world,
chances are you’re going to be a lot less likely to have a profound and sustained contact
with those cultures yourself, especially first-hand. So watching these people on screen, on TV,
obviously gives a lot more weight to them, a lot more responsibility to try and do these
programs with a lot cultural sensitivity, because in a way your depiction is carrying
a lot more weight because these people don’t have much exposure to these cultures in the
first place. So there is that matter of responsibility. But, before we talk more about that, we’ll
get into what is actually cultural appropriation. So, as defined by Oxford, it is the unacknowledged
or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas– so basically the culture–
of one people of a society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. So when that academic criticism first came
out in the 1970s, and had a more political angle, criticizing colonialism–especially
European colonialism–and it was basically describing the power dynamics of dominant
cultures exploiting the cultures of the subjugated classes, often to their detriment, and often
to the benefit of those dominant cultures. So, if you think about Europe taking over
other cultures, selling the food they take and benefitting from that, or taking their
arts and not crediting them- (Lae: Putting them in museums) Yeah, so that’s where the
debate started. Lae: I think in figure skating, this political
dimension of economic exploitation isn’t so much the focus, but it is a lot of the conversation
we’ll be having in this episode is around the erasure of representation of culture in
the arts, because I think inherently exploring and being influenced by new cultures is what
helps art to evolve and it’s not inherently a bad thing. But what it needs to be done with is a degree
of sensitivity and respect. I think a lot of the debate, at least online
and in fan communities, is often around trying to define what is or isn’t appropriation. But I think what we’re going to be exploring
is this idea that when we say cultural appropriation or cultural sensitivity, it really is around
being more critical about the kind of performance and representation you’re trying to make in
an artistic performance. So really thinking about the power structures,
the stereotypes, or the impressions of a culture that you’re either subconsciously or consciously
portraying, especially if you’re not from that culture. It really isn’t so much about as intention
or someone deliberately trying to exert dominance over the other, but it is an acknowledgment
that whether we intend to or not there are a lot of power structures and stereotypes
that we may be in danger of falling into when we try and tackle and express and perform
something that is from a culture foreign to ours. Maryam: Yeah like I don’t think any skater
goes out there and says, “Okay, this season I’m going to culturally appropriate this culture”. Lae: Yeah, absolutely not. Maryam: But they do have that responsibility,
especially if they are not from that culture, even more so if they are a dominant culture,
to think critically about their programs. A term that I’ve heard people use instead
of cultural appropriation is cultural misappropriation. So just misappropriating the culture you’re
supposed to be depicting, especially when your portrayal has more weight than other
portrayals like we talked about earlier. So it was voiced predominately by minorities
in Western countries, because those are the places where that dynamic is most prominent. So you’ll hear a lot of issues come up, mostly
from people that have been living in the West for a bit of time, because they’ve experienced
that power dynamic first hand. A common rebuttal people say when talking
about cultural appropriation is they would say, “But these people are okay with it!”. They might be more okay with it if that power
dynamic does exist. So if you’re a minority, let’s say in the
West, but if you go back to your own country then you’re no longer the minority, there’s
no longer that power structure or dynamic. So it’s really hard to look at the connection
between immigrants and the culture when it’s been interrupted by colonialism and migration
and to call that connection perfectly intact and rely on that representation of the culture. Lae: A quick note about programs like Riverdance,
which is not so much brought up in conversations around cultural appropriation. I think partly because obviously there is
a historical context here in that Irish people and immigrants were treated poorly in America,
for example, when they were first immigrating over to the new world, but historical, the
passing of time, and history has allowed them to slowly assimilate into American culture,
and so they’re not as transparently considered ‘other’ on the surface, as for example, Muslim
refugees are in America at this point of time, or Mexican immigrants. But at the same time, another facet of why
Riverdance is not really brought up in conversations about cultural appropriation is because it
was created by [note: *popularised by] an American with Irish ancestry, and the premise
of the show and the music is about the movement of Irish people into the new world, and the
sharing and exploration of culture, so it actually is about that Irish-American experience
of being a culture moving into a different world, and dominant culture and the sharing
and cultural exchange that goes on in that space, and not so much about Irish culture
from Ireland, and with all that historical connection. I think, I think it is important to acknowledge
that this occurs in the culture of Irish culture being quite commercialized rather than authentic
in America, which is often a criticism from people who are actually from Ireland and is
treated with a slightly high degree of suspicion because of the way that America’s history
has treated the Irish. So it’s important to acknowledge that culture
is a living thing and it transforms constantly. So there is often no sort of historically
authentic culture to distill and it’s a common frustration that I have when at least hearing
people talking about cultural appropriation and using the example that, “Chinese people
from China are fine with this, so why are you taking offense?”. Something that I really feel is that I’m Chinese,
but I’m also Chinese-Australian. The culture of someone who is Chinese-Australian
and what they associate with that cultural experience is very very different to that
of someone growing up in China. But I don’t think that makes it any less valid
of a cultural experience, with particular commonalities, histories, and traditions. It’s just a different and possibly a younger
cultural tradition. So if you go on Facebook for example, there
is a very popular group called Subtle Asian Traits [1], and that is kind of made up of
Chinese and Asian Australians, Asian Americans (etc.), kids basically with an Asian immigrant
background but who grew up in a Western country. So it’s actually quite shocking how many common
experiences you have that are just completely unique to that particular experience, and
I would say that in particular, what we would call microaggressions, when it comes to racism. So things that are probably well-intentioned,
but still nevertheless offensive, are things like white locals complimenting you on your
English despite you having been born or grown up in Australia, and English being your native
language, or people casually mispronouncing your name and thinking it’s okay just because
it’s an Asian name or last name–some people straight up not go to the effort, and people
in Subtle Asian Traits or other groups like that, we do make light of it; it’s treated
as a joke. So with that comes particular sensitivities
and particular aspects of cultural expression that we as this hybrid cultural background
are more sensitive to than others. So I don’t really think it’s a valid argument
to shut down a discussion around cultural appropriation with just the idea that “it’s
fine because someone in China said it was fine.” So that’s a really important distinction that
needs to be made. Maryam: So like you said, culture is fluid
and we need to recognize people’s experiences with it are different. So what exactly is culture in this context? So we need to be specific when we’re talking
about cultural appropriation, what is culture? Culture is basically our collective experiences,
traditions, and beliefs. A lot of our perceptions of certain cultures
are shaped heavily by pop culture and media. Lae: And disproportionately by Hollywood I
think, and also Western culture, because of how widely they influence everyone else’s
cultures around the world, whether we like to admit it or not. So yeah I think it’s very important to recognize
that things we might by default associate with a certain culture may not really have
as pure of a root as we think it does. As we’ve said before, culture is a constantly
living and evolving thing and it will be influenced by outside foreign influences and then it’ll
be reintegrated and influenced again. A really good example of this is belly dancing. So there is a historian on Reddit called CPTBuck
who did a thread, that we will link in our transcript, which outlined the journey of
how belly dancing as we know it in pop culture and how it’s represented in the media developed
in history. It turns out that it came from the Middle
East, but it came from nineteenth-century European writings describing and interpreting
a particular kind of dancing that was originated in Brussels basically and the Middle East
in the nineteenth-century. It was interpreted in European writings and
then it went on this journey where it was performed by European showmen kind of taking
Middle Eastern performers out of their country, put into Europe and made to perform those
things. Then it was taken up and adapted by European
and American vaudeville and cabaret acts. Then it was thrown onto the screen and popularized
through media and then exported back to Egypt. After that, it was then reinterpreted and
reclaimed by Egyptian culture. So it’s just kind of an example of how something
we might innocently associate with a particular culture has actually gone through a huge history
of interpretation, reinterpretation, and then reclaiming by the original culture that it
came out of. If you’re going to say that, “you’ve appropriated
from X culture,” it’s often very hard to know what you’re talking about or whether it really
is so pure, so to speak. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about
it and that it’s not an aspect of that particular culture. But it’s often not as pure is the key takeaway
from that. Maryam: Right, and I think one aspect of culture
that gets lost in conversation a lot is the historicity of the culture. If you’re talking about- again, cultures are
fluid and cultures evolve and are dynamic, but there are cultures that have been lost
throughout the years no matter how hard we tried to conserve them, it has been thousands
and thousands of years [since they were lost]. So it’s really hard to talk about what are
exactly the defined customs of that culture. If you’re talking about Ancient Egypt for
example, their culture and traditions are very very different from modern Egypt. If you’re talking about appropriating ancient
Egyptian culture, you can’t exactly say this person should go and ask the ancient Egyptians
what they think about this portrayal because you can’t do that. Another thing is, can you really ask a culture
for permission to use something from it? It’s not really something you can do, but
what you can do is be culturally sensitive and try to include people from that culture
and their opinion on your portrayal and representation of that culture. Lae: Yeah, I think there’s a danger in kind
of assuming that…again it goes back to that checklist thing where people say, “Oh I’ve
gotten permission from this person because they’re part of that culture and then so it’s
okay.” It’s really difficult because cultures and
people within those cultures…the whole point of recognizing that diversity is also recognizing
that just because you’re part of the same culture doesn’t mean you have the same opinions. It doesn’t mean that everyone has the same
attitudes towards things like cultural appropriation or borrowing. So it is really difficult when we talk about
permission and talk about this idea that we have to go back to where this particular thing
originated and get the permission from someone. Just pluck them out their homes and be like,
“please give me permission to do this.” It really isn’t kind of a checklist, but it’s
more about the process of how you get to that representation and how you construct a program
and what factors and people you’ve consulted and taken into consideration along the way. I think what Maryam really pointed out is
that history, it’s important in trying to trace the roots and the original culture of
a particular act, in doing that that we don’t erase acknowledgment that history was a lot
more complex and lot more culturally diverse and messy than we like to think. So when talking about the Axis powers in World
War II for example, it’s not as simple as, “oh well you were part of an Axis power, so
you don’t have the right to represent XYZ.” Because within those powers, within wars,
within countries, there were always resistance groups; there were always people opposed to
the dominant way that that culture is now remembered in history. I think it’s just the process of being sensitive
in not only how you represent a culture but also how you criticize that act of representation. Maryam: Right and when we’re talking about
culture, it’s not exactly the same thing as race. It’s not synonymous with race. So Jewish culture spans a lot of ethnic backgrounds
for example. And if you’re talking about the Arab world
they have so many dialects; they have near three hundred dialects. So you can’t pinpoint it to, “Oh this culture
is synonymous with this race.” But for the sake of this discussion, we’re
going to talk a little bit about both culture and race and how they both connect. Lae: I think again because culture is so hard
to define and the reactions of people from a cultural group will differ, the question
of how do we even have a discussion around what is or isn’t cultural appropriation is
also an important question to consider. So something that I’ve somewhat observed is
that sometimes the discussion can kind of become almost a trump card situation, where
it’s like, “oh well I’ve got a Chinese person here, but my Chinese person has been living
in China longer and they have a different opinion so that opinion trumps yours.” It sometimes feels a little bit like one ups-manship
and I think it doesn’t acknowledge that multiple people from a giant and diverse cultural background
like China for example, there will be many many different opinions. You really can’t just summarize it with: “The
Chinese people say it’s okay, so it’s fine.” I think for me it’s about a discussion, and
it’s about obviously recognizing that you’ll never get to a very clean and clear-cut answer,
but it’s about listening more to those who are part of the marginalized group who is
affected and recognizing their voices as people who have lived through that experience or
who have first-hand experience in some of the issues should be given a wider platform
and a louder voice than those who may not have any connection with that culture. Maryam: When you’re talking about people’s
experiences, one thing that you learn in psychology is that emotions in your brain are not hard-wired,
but they’re instead built. So you build your emotions as you go through
your life based on your own experiences. So different people react differently to different
things based on their lived experiences. Lae: And I guess on the question of who’s
responsible, I think for the vast majority of skaters, programs are a collaborative effort. So for us, it’s really about education and
more conversation around the concept, because we have to keep in mind the cultural context. That many, many skaters and choreographers
and coaches are not from Western backgrounds, such as US or Canadian or the UK where cultural
appropriation as a concept is very known and at the forefront of public discussion. So for many cultures, that really isn’t something
that has yet entered into their consciousness. Often because not all cultures are multicultural
in the same way that US or Australia for example is. A lot of the question sometimes is – should
we cut them some slack? And I think personally, absolutely, because
even in Western countries I think cultural appropriation isn’t very widely understood
or well-defined because there’s so much debate and controversy surrounding it. I think it’s really important when considering
criticism of skaters, particularly from largely mono-ethnic cultures such as Japan for example,
many parts of Asia where you really don’t get that much exposure to diverse cultures
within society on a regular basis. We should be mindful that not everyone has
the same cultural background and education and level of awareness. Maryam: Right, especially if it’s marginalized
and they don’t counter it nearly as often. When we’re talking about skaters, do they
or do they not have a minimum responsibility to do research on a program? One thing we have to keep in mind is that
for a lot of skaters, there is that language barrier and the material and their own language
may not be as easily accessible. But when you look at those skaters, a lot
of them do work with North American white choreographers and coaches, who do speak English,
who do have a lot more exposure, like Lae said, to cultural appropriation and what it
is. And they do have a lot more access to the
source material. So I feel like a lot of them do have that
responsibility to be a lot more mindful and expected to know a bit more about the story
they’re trying to get their skaters to sell and to portray. Lae: And I think especially considering how
young most skaters are, especially when you talk about the ladies. These are teenagers and quite young adults,
so it is very natural that they would be relying on and trusting their choreographers and coaches. While I do think that skaters should, just
as a performer, I think, put in some research into what they’re portraying and really trying
to understand what they’re trying to say, I do think the bulk of the responsibility
should nevertheless still fall on the adults who are guiding their journeys. And that’s why I would put more emphasis on
choreographers and coaches especially, who often suggest the programs and music and stuff
for skaters as well. -end segment- 32:42 START: Defining what is or isn’t cultural
appropriation Lae: Moving on, I guess, to the substantial
part of the discussion. There are three key facets of adapting cultures
that we’re going to be discussing for this episode. The first one is this idea of apparent intention. So when we’re looking at a program and really
critically examining it, in relation to this topic, we look at the intention that we’re
gathering, from the outward appearance obviously, because we don’t have access to the skater’s
internal thoughts and feelings. But what is the apparent intention, based
on what they’re putting out on the ice? The second factor is adherence to the norms,
rules, and sensitivities of the culture of origin. For example, whether they’re making use of
something religious or sacred from a religion that is not their own in a secular context,
if they’re sexualizing elements of a culture with different modesty standards. You’ll see a lot of that criticism come through
in things like Halloween costumes that are like “sexy” Native American person with a
head-dress. Those are very archetypal examples of cultural
appropriation. And the third facet that we’ll look at is
quality. Whether the output of your work pays tribute
to what you’re borrowing from. How much effort has been put in, that is visible
and apparent, into researching this program and to consulting people from that culture,
or is there a lack of effort. So while we won’t claim that is anything like
a definitive answer to cultural appropriation, we’ll be using this as a rough framework and
a kind of lens through which we’re going to be critically talking about some of the programs
that we’re going to raise as examples. Maryam: Going on to talking about these in
a little bit more detail, when you’re talking about intention, are you attempting to honor
what you’re borrowing from, or are you in a way, whether consciously or subconsciously,
exploiting that said culture. You see that a lot in programs that are told
to demonstrate range. If you go out and say “Okay, I want to do
this program. My intention with this program is I want to
show the judges that I have this interpretative range.” If you’re thinking about it solely from that
perspective, there is a bit of an exploitative side to it. Especially if, let’s say, you won a medal,
you get prize money. The person benefitting is obviously you getting
that money. If you haven’t done your research and if that
was your sole motivator to do this program, and if you’re only really portraying a superficial
view of the program and still get all of this prize money, then that culture you’re borrowing
from isn’t benefitting. Actually the opposite of benefitting because
you’re not doing an accurate portrayal in the first place but also because the only
person benefitting is you. Lae: And I think something that is really
relevant to talk about is this idea that doing something that is different, and portraying
a different culture, is often correlated or naturally corresponds with this idea of pushing
yourself out of your comfort zone. Because obviously it is doing something different,
you are being challenged because you are being forced to portray something that you are not
familiar with, in the context of skating, in the context of expanding someone’s range
of expression as a performer. It is particularly relevant this season which
is two seasons before the Beijing Olympics. It is often the season where a lot of skaters
are experimenting and trying to showcase the variety of different facets that they can
portray. I guess in particular it is slightly different
to be skating a culturally different program in competition versus exhibition, because
in an exhibition gala, that performance is designed much more for the audience. Because unlike a competition, the exhibition
is around creating enjoyment in those watching, whereas competition inherently I think places
the focus on the skater’s own individual qualities, because that’s what they’re getting judged
on. Generally, I don’t think it’s unrealistic
and inaccurate to say that often borrowing from another culture is a way for a skater
to expand their range, artistry, and interpretation. I think a really good example of this is even
explicitly stated by Benoit Richaud for Satoko Miyahara’s “Cleopatra” short program. He says in an interview that he wanted to
explore something different and was surprised when she said that she’d like to skate to
that piece of music, because he thought of her as a very classic and conservative skater,
and wanted to explore something different from her personality. I think the intention of wanting to explore
something different is always a valid intention to have and is definitely something a skater
needs to be doing to expand and challenge themselves in terms of their performance ability. But it does become somewhat of an issue when
that is automatically correlated with just skating to a completely different program
from a different culture and if that’s the only motivation for doing so, because I think
it then raises questions around what is your intention. Is there any facet of that that is around
actually being interested in the culture that you’re borrowing the program from, or is it
driven solely by that sense of wanting to challenge oneself. Maryam: Yeah, especially if you haven’t done
– you or your choreographer – haven’t done much research to look into the culture in
the first place. That really tells you a lot about the intention. But going back to what you said about competition
versus exhibition programs, this is not to say that people can’t skate to a culturally
heavy program and not do it well in competition. If you’re yourself skating to something from
your own culture, and just want a lot more people to get exposure to music from your
own culture, so your culture is benefitting from this, you’re benefitting from this. So it’s not naturally egotistic. It’s not to say that you can’t do it well,
you just have to put a lot more research before putting it into a competitive program that’s
going to get a lot more exposure. Another thing we’re going to talk about is
the concept of tragedy porn. A lot of figure skating has a tendency to
equate tragic stories with depth and maturity, especially if those stories have pieces of
music that are really dramatically heavy, and make it really really easy for the skater
to get into a dramatic, sad mode. Lae: I think we need to talk about the elephant
in the room, which is that this is the season of Holocaust programs. I don’t know why, I don’t know who got together
in a room and decided that this was a theme. But there are quite a lot of Holocaust programs
that we need to talk about, that all center obviously around Schindler’s list as the piece
of music. Maryam: There’s a difference between skating
to a movie with a Holocaust context and skating to a movie about the Holocaust. At the time that Schindler’s list came out,
there weren’t that many movies that had been made about the Holocaust, which definitely
contributed to its popularity back then, and its popularity still now. It’s about this German man named Schindler
who saved a lot of Polish-Jewish refugees, and it’s based on a historical novel called
“Schindler’s Ark”. The skaters and choreographers that make those
programs rely on these threads of hope and suffering to give intensity to the program
and to show that the skater has emotional depth and can skate to something that is really
heavy, and they’re using the dramatic soundtrack as a tool to implement this, especially seeing
as the skater is usually at a young age, and does not have all that much life experience
so this is the easiest way for them to do so. A lot of programs put the focus on the suffering
of the Holocaust to give depths to the program and to show that the skater has emotional
depth and can skate to something that is really heavy. Lae: Inherently, I don’t think the desire
to express something about that particular movie is an issue in itself. I think what has become an unfortunate theme
of this season through, is seeing a slew of really offensive Holocaust costumes that have
accompanied those programs. To me, they don’t feel very promising for
revealing how much a skater’s really thought about what they’re depicting or trying to
say about such a heavy topic. Because I think – and we’ll get into the specific
examples in a moment – but I think that a lot of the costumes and interpretations are
very very literal. Whereas for most programs about using music
from a particular movie, that wouldn’t be an issue because you’re simply reflecting
something that happened in the movie or a character from that movie. But I think when so much of Schindler’s List
and those programs are about the overall tragedy of the Holocaust, when you see very very literal
programs that almost treat the theme and the music as just another movie with costumes
and you’re just portraying a character from there, it just makes you question whether
this is an approach that really does justice to how we should be when we’re talking about
a topic like the Holocaust. So I think for me the word is, it’s somewhat
distasteful. For example, I think the first costume that
we saw from Satoko Miyahara was this grey dress with the Star of David, sort of created
using crisscrossing straps on her back. In the context of “Schindler’s List,”
and in the context of the Holocaust, the symbol of the Star of David was a symbol of persecution,
and here it was used as a kind of design choice. And this grey, ashy, dirty dress really makes
you wonder what the intent of the costume designer was. What was the facet of the movie she was trying
to portray? And I really can’t help but feel as though
it was capitalizing on the tragedy of the victims of the Holocaust being forced out
of their homes, put into slum-like conditions and being marked by a symbol of persecution
that is now then used very casually as a design element. For me, that seemed very distasteful and,
thankfully, she changed that after her first appearance. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t the end
for this particular designer. Maryam: The same designer, Juju Designs or
Julia on Instagram, she also designed Yuna Shiraiwa’s dress. So her program is from the movie, “Amen,”
by Costa-Gavras. It examines the links between the Vatican
and Nazi Germany. If you saw pictures of the costume, it’s very
disturbing. If you saw the part that’s near her abdomen,
there are red streaks of cloth that depict a bloody gash or wound on an ash gray dress. So that is distasteful and it is very exploitative
of the tragedy. There are a lot of ways you can make a costume
that doesn’t do either of these things. Lae: I think in the context of the music that
she was skating to, which was basically around the links between the human experimentation
and things they authorized during the horrific events of the Holocaust – it just seems like
it places the emphasis on the suffering and the literal injuries and wounds suffered by
the victims, rather than literally any other part of the movie. In the performing arts, the costume and the
music work together in tandem to give signals to the audience about what the focus of this
particular program is. And so, again, it feels distasteful for that
emphasis to be more on the suffering and on the physical wounds and injuries that resulted
from the horrific events and tragedy rather than any other thing. Maryam: Yeah, and if you’re a Jewish person
in the audience watching this, a lot of people have a lot of emotional connections to the
past, to what happened. So just the sight of this might trigger some
people. Lae: It’s just a disturbing dress in general. And I know the idea was to be unsettling,
I suppose, but a lot of the movie centers around resisting that horror. So it makes you wonder, why is the emphasis
on the costume not around the acts of bravery and valor of going against an awful regime,
and rather on the suffering? And that really goes back to this idea that
the tragedy of the holocaust is what is being exploited and depicted and put emphasis on,
without truly exploring what that means and how that should be respectfully portrayed. It just feels exploitative of the tragedy
in itself; it’s making the tragedy and the suffering in itself the theme, and the aspect
of the music and the program that the skater has chosen to emphasize, so that’s why being
one note about this is particularly exploitative in my opinion. But I think I do have to say that the worst
“Schindler’s List” costume for me was definitely that of Anton Shulepov from Russia. His costume is like a hybrid mix of Schindler’s,
or I assume, Schindler’s suit and tie, which then is cut off halfway and turns into the
striped outfit that Holocaust victims wore in concentration camps, complete with a Star
of David on his chest. So for me, it’s the really overly literal
representation that for me makes it feel like a costume, and it feels like it’s merely viewing
the events and the people and situations portrayed in Schindler’s List as just fictional characters
in a movie. It feels very disrespectful to be mixing the
two, and it feels like a lack of thought was put into the significance of literally showing
the striped prisoner outfits the Holocaust victims wore, because it’s not a costume;
it’s a symbol of enormous amounts of pain and persecution that still has huge resonance
with the generations that came after the victims of the Holocaust. And to see it being chopped up really and
taken and exploited for its parts – as part of a costume – to just represent the characters
in the movie feels way too frivolous for something that should be given a lot more weight. And not only was Anton’s costume, with its
almost parodic-like combination of two “characters”, really offensive, even worse than the Star
of David was the number, because that was a number that replaced the names of the Jews
that were the victims of the Holocaust; they were forcibly taken away from them, and they
were given a number instead, so who’s number is he wearing? Does he even know this? It’s just every single part of historical
reference especially for an event like the Holocaust is so crucial and essential and
meaningful and to see it being so casually used without any guarantee that the deep weight
behind each of these elements was appreciated is just appalling. Maryam: You have so many choices to choose
from – from tasteful designs that don’t carry a lot of heavy emotional weight to them. Another kind of horrifying case was about
3 years ago – there’s this Russian reality TV show called “Ice Age.” This Russian pair, Tatiana Navka and Andrei
Burkovsky: they wore gray, concentration camp prisoner costumes that had a Star of David
on them, and in the middle of the program, and near the end, they were miming shooting
at each other, so one person was shooting, the other person was acting as if they were
dying, and they had makeup on themselves to look very, very bruised and frail. So it doesn’t take a lot, in this case, to
see that they were tasteless and that they were very, very exploitative of this image
of Jewish people. Lae: And I think what is really enlightening
in this season especially is when you contrast those approaches to depicting Schindler’s
List, who himself is Jewish and is skating to Schindler’s List this season – from his
costume to the way he’s spoken about the program, you really feel the difference. So to quote Jason, he said, my background
is Jewish and the story is so touching, he said he grew up learning about the Holocaust
and Oskar Schindler and the stories and always wanted to skate to it — but says it has to
be when I’m at the level maturity-wise that I’m ready to skate for it. So I think you can really tell in the way
that Jason talks about the program, talks about the sense of simplistic maturity that
needs to be developed before he can really grasp what he’s skating to. And the fact that it’s taken him until now
– but for him, it was very clear that it was a process that he went through to feel ready,
even to start telling that story. And he’s Jewish- like if anyone has the authority
and the cultural background and the history to be able to tell that story in an authentic
way, it would be someone like Jason, who’s from that culture. But I think the fact that he’s treating it
with such weight, and the fact that he thought that he had to wait until he was himself ready
in some sense to skate to it, lends credence to the fact that this theme/topic, in general,
is something that can’t be approached lightly, and is something that – for example, for Jason,
it’s something he said, I want to put my own take on it and see what I can bring to life. And so it’s a really good example of the contrast
of someone for whom this isn’t just a movie; this isn’t just a set of characters that feel
as fictional as, like the Marvel superheroes. For him, it’s something that I think carries
with it a certain family history I’m sure and a weight to it that he most deeply feels
the need to pay respect to. I think it’s a really really telling contrast
when you look at the approaches taken through the costumes of other skaters versus Jason’s. -end segment- 52:36 START: Exocitism Maryam: And another issue that comes up a
lot, when you’re talking about different cultures, is this concept of exoticism, which I have
personal experiences with. I have a lot of friends whose names are not
Americanized or not Western names, so when people ask them, what is your name, and they
say this and they say, ooh that’s so exotic! I know they mean well, but exotic is what
you would call a tropical plant or animal; it’s not really what you want to be defined
as, as a person. It inadvertently, whether subconsciously or
not, alienates the person, and it’s the same thing when you’re talking about culture. So there is that danger of shallow cultural
representation on an international stage, in a not really well-researched attempt to
show, oh I want to skate to this exotic music, or I want to show this exotic culture. A lot of times, these might not even be cultural
programs but pieces that represent an entire culture, despite the fact that they weren’t
authentic portrayals in the first place and were actually just adapted and transformed
for Western tastes. Lae: When we’re talking about this, what I’m
thinking about is historic warhorses. So themes like Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly,
for example – these are portrayed and set in “exotic” cultures when they were created
at the time, but they were filtered very much through Western tastes. So the opera of Madame Butterfly, for example,
utilizes Western instruments, it uses Western music traditions, Western languages and it
is very much the portrayal of an exotic culture filtered to become acceptable and popular
with the tastes at the time, which were Western basically. And so a lot of the time with figure skating
as a sport that has developed very much out of a Western tradition, skaters are often
having to balance the risk of judges not liking their programs because there is this subjective
judged component – which is why many warhorses have historically become popular, because
they’ve been proven to be popular with the judges, and accepted. But when repeatedly used by skaters, the danger
is that they become shortcuts to portraying something that is “different” and somewhat
exotic – but nonetheless, still perpetuating the fact that these are actually programs
that were adapted and kind of filtered for western tastes in the first place. So my question is if you’re skating to a warhorse,
despite the fact that it might be set in a different culture, is it truly being different,
versus a skater taking the risk of skating to an actually authentic piece of music from
their culture, whether historical or modern? Maryam: Especially when you consider the fact
that you know judges like these warhorses and they like rewarding marks for these warhorses,
so you know judges are into these portrayals of these cultures – or into these westernized
portrayals. Lae: I think it’s not even so much sometimes
the fact that the judges love warhorses; like I don’t know if I can even say judges love
warhorses. But it’s almost like you know you won’t be
punished for the music if you skate to a warhorse. But I don’t know if you can necessarily say
the same thing if a skater chose to skate to a very, very different, somewhat offbeat
piece from their own culture. It’s a kind of invisible pressure there, and
it’s a consideration skaters have to pay attention to because of the nature of the way figure
skating is judged. But when you think about, for example, Madame
Butterfly, it started out as a short story by an American lawyer and author, John Luther
Long, which was published in 1898 and it was Long collaborating with David Belasco – who’s
also not Japanese – who adapted it into a one-act play, which then inspired Puccini
to compose the opera which debuted in 1904. So there really was no connection really with
Japan at all in its creation, despite the fact that probably when you think of traditional
Japanese warhorses, you would think of Madame Butterfly as the thing that kind of represents
Japan in that suite of music. And the fact that Madame Butterfly portrays
outdated Orientalist stereotypes was criticized as early as 1988 when David Henry Hwang wrote
a parody opera called “M. Butterfly.” And Miss Saigon is then based on Madame Butterfly,
for example, so the fact that all these different exotic warhorses stem from very much similar
roots is something that has been pointed out for a long time now. Maryam: And another one is Scheherazade. So it’s a Russian suite based on this middle-eastern
story that’s taken from ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ So, it’s been around for a long time – look
at Yuna [Kim], and Meryl Davis and Charlie White have skated to it. To be fair, the music is really nice to listen
to, but does it actually portray the story? I don’t think so. Lae: There’s a reason why they’re popular
warhorses. They are beautiful pieces of music, but when
you think about the fact that when people think about classic figure skating music that
is ‘exotic’ and from a foreign culture, many people would think about these pieces. It basically hides the fact that they didn’t
originate from authentic sources at all. A more contemporary example I will raise is
Chinese programs. So, for example, Sihyeong Lee, a Korean Junior
skater, is skating to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” which I would argue is one
of the most popular contemporary pieces of Chinese music that a lot of skaters skate
to; so, if you think about popular pieces, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is very,
very widely used, especially in the recent quad. And, that particular movie itself was actually
made by Ang Lee, the director, to be more easily palatable for Western audiences. I think it’s important, and it acts as an
example of the fact that a cultural piece that becomes kind of a stereotypical representation
of a particular culture doesn’t particularly have to be sacred in the sense that it’s a
spiritual or some really deeply culturally significant piece; it can just be the fact
that it’s the only piece that anyone only skates to when it comes to contemporary Chinese
music, or it’s the safest and only safe music to skate to because there’s only been a little
bit of precedent for the judges liking that kind of music. So, for example, with “Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon,” it actually belongs to the Wuxia genre of film, about Xiashi, who are
people who know Chinese martial arts. So, there’s a history and a set of traditions
attached to that particular art form but it doesn’t really represent Chinese spirituality,
and it doesn’t really hold a deep spiritual meaning as source material, but it does represent
Chinese culture in an international context in figure skating. So, while I think that, for example, Sihyeong
skating to it isn’t really as egregious as if she had taken something very sacred and
spiritual and should never be skated to, it is somewhat sad when that is one of the only
pieces of Chinese music we ever hear on the figure skating stage because it just lacks
that variety that makes a culture so rich in the first place. Maryam: It’s also sad because there’s so many
more to choose from, with all of these warhorses. You could actually go to the culture, and
you’d have so many choices of programs you could choose, but a lot of the time, skaters
and choreographers won’t even start suggesting these pieces because they feel limited by
the fact that they don’t know whether it’s safe, or if the judges will like it like Lae
said. Another aspect of where the culture originates
from is adhering to the sensitivities of said cultures. So, there are problems when you use the meaningful
source material and you fail to recognize how heavy weighted some of the pieces are,
or some of the aspects of the culture you’re taking. Another problematic music choice is “Strange
Fruits” by Billie Holiday. It was suggested as a program announcement
and there was so much universal backlash about that program because the music is very, very
specific to the culture, and the lyrics of said music – it’s very offensive to skate
to it if you’re not actually from the set culture. A really good thing was that they were receptive
to the feedback, and because of the sheer magnitude and how many people responded negatively
to it, they changed the piece of music in response to the backlash. Lae: I think it’s important to note that there
was no explicit message from Benoit Richaud who choreographed the program on this backlash,
but I do think what made Moa’s [Iwano] music selection so egregious and difficult to accept
was because “Strange Fruits” the song was used as a protest song for the black American
community, and the lyrics explicitly mention lynching as a practice, and it really wasn’t
a song where the lyrics could be interpreted in any other way except literally. It wasn’t a song where those lyrics could
be ignored either because the ignoring of the protesting voices of black Americans was
a key, fundamental basis for the civil rights movement, which is when this song was popularised
and created. And so, it’s a very rare example of a piece
of music that is so to the place, and time and purpose of its creation that to skate
to it in any other way that doesn’t reflect that would be disrespectful because you’re
erasing something that is so integral to that program’s origin, but Moa as a Japanese skater
– not having that cultural background and not having that experience, not having any
of that history and deeply painful and hurtful history associated with all the oppression
that black Americans were protesting against in the civil rights movement – it’s not a
story for her to tell, and I think it’s a very rare, clear-cut case where you can really
feel that this is not a piece of music that is open to anyone to interpret. It’s a piece of music with deeply personal,
heavy, cultural significance and it is in some ways, elevated to the sense of being
quite sacred to the people who are most deeply affected to it. So, I think it’s a really interesting example
of that kind of music because it’s quite rare for there to be that kind of music to be skated
to. Kind of similarly, Oksana Domnina and Maxim
Shabalin – I think cultural programs were actually a theme for the Ice Dancers to skate
to – their aboriginal program at the time actually received a lot of mainstream backlash
as well, and I think what really distinguishes that particular program from being extremely
disrespectful and appropriate was because of the lack of research, and almost parody-like
tone that the skaters performed in. If you watch the program, there are definitely
moments where it feels like the choreography was designed to make a sense of humor and
a sense of ridiculousness. In an interview about the program, I think
it was Oksana who said: “I thought it was just crazy, but once we tried it we immediately
fell in love with it.” So, I think it’s again highlighting that very
rarely do skaters have any ill intent when they’re trying to perform a program, but when
she was asked about what they did to research the aboriginal culture that they were trying
to portray, Domnina said: “We watched video clips on the internet of those dancers, and
it’s really like this, complete with the leaves around the knees.” So, if you look at their costumes as well,
they’re dressed to imitate tribal people with leaves around their knees and then face paint
and their costume is meant to suggest they’re naked with body paint around them.The ‘leaves
around the knees’ comment was also shallow because when you think about indigenous culture
in Australia, there are over 500 different tribes of indigenous people in Australia with
their own history, their own languages, and their own diverse traditions and cultural
practices, so to just to have it summed up so casually as ‘leaves around the knees’ without
appreciating exactly what the meaning of that was, from which culture it was, what practice
it was referencing, is just an example of how little thought goes into that examination
of the practices that they’re borrowing. Because it sounded like all they did was passively
observe. My question was did they talk to any indigenous
people at all? Do they know what the meaning of the leaves
were? Why do aboriginal people put these particular
body paints and symbols on their bodies? Why do they put leaves around their knees? I think another dimension that isn’t often
acknowledged is the music that they performed was composed by Sheila Chandra who is a Briton
of Indian descent, who didn’t really have anything to do with indigenous culture in
the first place, and also within Ice Skating circles, there were suspicions at the time
that they might have borrowed the idea from their Australian rivals, Danielle O’Brien
and [Gregory] Merriman.They’re actually a Sydney-based pair that first performed an
aboriginal dance at a Korean competition in 2008, but what Danielle and Greg did was they
actually spent a year in consultation with the indigenous community in Australia to ensure
that their performance, music, and costumes respected the aboriginal culture. You really get a sense of the gap between
someone just frivolously imitating what they saw, and not necessarily even in an accurate
way, versus a skater and team who took the time to do their research and actually speak
to people to find out exactly why the costumes and the appearance of these dances and indigenous
people were the way that they were. -end segment- 1:08:32 START: Cultural insensitivity Lae: Moving quickly on then, the sort of second
facet that we want to tackle a little bit is this idea of cultural insensitivity versus
appropriation. I think there are certain programs and aspects
of programs and choreography for example that, personally for me, fall short of being
appropriative, because it might not copy enough of a culture or a facet of a culture enough
for it to feel like it’s in tribute to a particular culture, but none-the-less, there are still
aspects of it that seem somewhat insensitive. Lae: An example of this is Nicole Schott from
Germany and her Free Skate program for this season. Her music is a blend of three tracks – she
uses “Kung Fu Panda,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Geisha,” from “Memoirs
of a Geisha” soundtrack. So if you look at these three pieces of music,
I definitely could not say that “Kung Fu Panda” is a sacred Chinese text and so it
would definitely not be something that is untouchable or that no skater would skate
to, in the same way that it doesn’t hold that weight of cultural significance that
other pieces do. But I would say that the blending of Chinese
and Japanese soundtracks is kind of a big no-no, considering that it seemed like the
theme of her program was kind of ‘Asian’ in general. If you look at the nature and style of the
costume that she’s wearing for example and arm choreography like prayer hands and kung-fu
esque moves, it definitely felt like there was a strong Asian theme that was coming through. But for me, something like that program raises
the question of what exactly was the intention of the program? Why has she used those particular pieces and
put them together? Why insert those hand movements? What is the story she’s trying to portray
here? And sadly, in my experience growing up in
Australia for example, you often see very innocent and often well-intentioned people
who do kind of assume and group all Asian cultures together. They don’t recognise that Chinese culture
is extremely, extremely different from Japanese culture, which is extremely different from
Korean culture and it’s not interchangeable, it’s not something that you can casually
piece together. So for me, again, it’s not a matter of expecting
everyone to be perfect or expecting them to automatically know these things but I think
it’s an important conversation to have and it’s something that I think would be more
easily discovered if there was more research and attention paid to this aspect. Maryam: Asian fusion is something you talk
about when talking about food, it shouldn’t be something you do in a program. Lae: Yes, absolutely. Maryam: So in the same way that Nicole’s
program is kind of like an Asian fusion program, a really generalised view, Alina’s “Cleopatra”
program this season is also similar in that it’s a Middle Eastern fusion program. It’s kind of a hodge-podge of different
pieces of music from different places in the Middle East. Daniil Gleichengauz, her choreographer, chose
three pieces to string together. The first piece of music featured Peter Gabriel’s
“The Feeling Begins” from the movie “Temptations of Christ,” set in Jerusalem. The other one is Maurice Jarre – who is a
French composer – “Lawrence d’Arabie Overture” which depicts Syria. And the other is Khatir Hicham’s “Ramses.” If you’re skating a Cleopatra program, it’s
kind of really odd that it doesn’t have that much to do with Cleopatra [the movie]
itself. Usually when people skate to Cleopatra programs
like Kaetlyn Osmond or Elizaveta Tutkamysheva skated to it before, they usually skate to
music from the soundtrack of the movie, but what Daniil did was string these pieces of
music together to make a hodge-podge of a muddled Middle Eastern view. I don’t know why they called the program
“Cleopatra” if it doesn’t have that much to do with Cleopatra itself. Why I think they called it Cleopatra and why
they did was because they just wanted her to be in the costume for Cleopatra and they
wanted the focus to be on character programs. When skaters skate as a character it makes
it easier for them to carry the presentation. It’s also fun for the skaters because they
can understand what they’re meant to be showing. But in this particular case, I don’t know
if Alina really understands the view of Cleopatra that we have. I think if she were to skate to something
that has to do with Cleopatra, it shouldn’t be generalising three pieces that have nothing
to do with Cleopatra. And the stories we have about her are limited
but there are there, there is researched history about Cleopatra’s story for a more accurate
portrayal and I think it does a bit of a disservice to the music pieces chosen. I think if she were to skate to this piece
of music, it should be done a bit more tastefully. The music cuts are kind of jarring in places. As a person from that culture, it’s just
a lot of confusion, like your skating is lovely but. Like Egypt is really historically loaded and
you can go into so much more depth if you were to skate to these pieces of music. Another example of this occurred quite often,
especially this season, is skaters doing Egyptian hands in the middle of their programs. Lae: And what we mean by that is the sort
of movements you’ll see in hieroglyphics and the really Besti-squatted knees. Maryam: So doing these hands kind of perpetuates,
in my opinion, a one dimensional, stereotypical view of the culture that may not be necessarily
be tied to the culture nowadays. You don’t see Egyptians from today doing
these in their dances. It seems like a really lazy and shallow way
to just take the exotic exterior and superficial view of that culture. But going back to historicity of cultures
too, our understanding of Ancient Egyptian dances only really comes from whatever murals
and hieroglyphics we’ve managed to recover, which isn’t really that much. And it’s really hard to distinguish whether
the hand movements are tied to something that’s spiritual – something to honour to gods – or
to simply have fun in your dances. So with only still shot murals, it’s hard
to figure out their meaning. A lot of other people speculate that the dances
that you see in murals are performed for magical purposes – rites of passage, to induce ecstasy,
as part of homage, entertainment or in some cases do have the purposes of honouring the
gods. So they were both performed as secular and
sacred occasions. Lae: So examples of skaters who have been
featuring this type of choreography in their programs this season are Alina Zagitova, Satoko
Miyahara’s Short Program and Chock/Bates. So for me, it’s a question about how much
research was put into this. And it’s an open question because we’re
not privy to a lot of skaters’ creation process of their programs. In deciding to portray – an “Egyptian program”
or Egyptian inspired program – how much research and consultation was done with people from
that culture? And if there was consultation, were there
other varieties of more authentic or genuine movements that could have been used so that
you could showcase the diversity of movements that was possible in traditional dance in
the Middle East, for example, or from Egypt, in general. Definitely understand that choreographers
are often pressed for time and they have many clients, but if you’re going to choose to
portray a culture that’s not your own, my personal view is that that should be treated
with more weight than a regular program because you are borrowing from a culture that has
its own traditions, has its own rich histories of choreography, movement and dance and it
deserves to be researched in depth. So one aspect I also want to touch on is the
co-opting of spiritual chanting and other cultural or spiritual vocalisations as part
of a wider program. So two cases I want to talk about is firstly
Rika Kihira’s International Angel of Peace, which was choreographed by Tom Dickson and
he no doubt played a big part in the music cuts which are distinctive for having up to
– I believe 8 or 9 different pieces incorporated into it so it’s quite a beast of a Free
Program. What the theme that Rika emphasized in an
interview is that it expresses anger against war and it’s broadly a program that hopes
for world peace. The distinctive nature of it is in that it
incorporates songs from several faiths around the world, including the use of Japanese flute
or the shakuhachi so there’s definitely parts that refer to her own culture. But the chanting in question seems to mostly
come from a piece called “Sacred Stones” by Sheila Chandra and according to comments
on the internet which was all I could really find on the topic, it uses a Hindu shloka
(chant) to Lord Vishnu. So Sheila Candra is an Indian singer who grew
up in England and this song, Sacred Stones, is part of her album ‘Weaving My Ancestors’
Voices’ where she has consciously fused musical traditions from India and also from
England as a way to express her own hybrid cultural identity. The use in this program of this chanting and
of a very consciously religious piece seems to have been done with consideration for the
overall theme of the program and I do appreciate that at the very least, the songs chosen are
by people who are genuinely from that culture. I guess the questions I’m left with is what
exact messages about peace are they drawing from the faiths that they’re referencing,
or were they chosen to be broadly representative of a particular music tradition without further
digging? How much of that was incorporated in the choreography,
for example. These are all things I would have loved to
see a little bit more awareness of, or it would be comforting to know that Tom Dickson
or whoever had made the music cuts had consulted people from that cultural background on. But in the absence of further information,
I think it’s promising that at the very least, the program overall has a broader purpose
and the music used is authentic. Another example of the incorporation of chanting
in the program is Shoma Uno’s Great Spirit short program that started off as an exhibition
last season. So the lyrics of Great Spirit and the chanting
that is present throughout are in the Lakotah language which is a Native American tribe
that lives in North and South Dakota. The chants themselves incorporates references
to the Great Spirit, which is many Native American tribes’ concept of God or a supreme
being. But without knowing more about the chant itself,
we can’t exactly say more about whether it’s allowed or if it’s a sacred text
or what the nature of that particular chant is. But my key issue with Great Spirit is twofold. The first is that it seems to have been taken
from a collab between trance or EDM musicians: Armin van Buuren who is a famous Dutch producer,
Vini Vici, an Israeli producer duo and Hilight Tribe, which is a French group. So, what concerns me here is that there is
no information about whether or not any of them have Native American backgrounds, but
we definitely know that they’ve wrote those lyrics themselves, with a Lakota dictionary,
which is from their Guettapen and Clubbing TV interviews. So, their aim was to honour family and tribal
values as well as to reference what was going on at Standing Rock which was the protest,
I believe, against the Dakota access pipeline. The idea to do a Native American themed piece
was from the Israeli duo but the French group does a lot of world music producing and creating. So, they said that they sort of wanted to
do a lot of this ‘exotic’ fusion, in the interviews they had when talking about the piece, and
they definitely made some pretty dodgy jokes, so I quote ‘the lyrics for Great Spirit are
in Lakotah, so that did involve ethnic research. We almost got scalped a couple of times, but
after that things went well.’ So, I think even beyond the off-colour joke
that implies that Native American tribes are a little bit barbaric or inhumane, I think
what is really concerning is if you have taken the steps to write the lyrics yourself with
a dictionary without any of the background yourself – I don’t think it’s any more elevated
than using google translate to basically write lyrics that reference explicitly a spiritual
being from a different culture. And more concerningly, there’s no information
about the involvement of that tribe in the creation of this piece of music, so we have
no idea whether they were given permission to use that chanting if they had consulted
about whether the words being used were accurate or not, and if they had consulted Native American
elders about whether it was even appropriate to reference things like the Great Spirit
and key terms and the appropriateness in the EDM entranced genre. The other element that I think was quite egregious
was the fact that last season, when it was initially debuted as an exhibition program,
it was initially presented with face paint and a costume that was designed to create
the illusion that Shoma was topless with a lot of different tattoos and body paint on
the design. He’s definitely changed the costume now
but I think the combination of facepaint and that costume that was sort of meant to evoke
the feeling of a tribal nature was what pushed the program’s interpretation over the edge
a little bit when it came to acceptability and a question of taste. Because I think the reference to the songs
of Native origins without any consultation on the use of the facepaint – why those particular
designs, why that particular costume – I think there was just an absence of thought put into
that element. So for me, that was also kind of worsening
the idea that the Native American culture where they derived all that inspiration from
wasn’t really given a say on the way it was interpreted and presented to such a wide
audience in the ice show. Lae: He’s definitely changed that costume
now but I think the combination of the face paint and the costume that was meant to evoke
the sort of feeling of a tribal nature was what pushed the program’s interpretation over
the edge a little bit—when it came to acceptability and question of taste because I think the
reference to the song’s native origins, without any consultation of the use of the face paint,
like why those particular designs? Why that particular costume? I think there was an absence of thought put
into that element and so, for me, that was kind of worsening the idea that the native
American culture where they derive all of that inspiration from wasn’t given a say or
consulted on the way it was interpreted and presented to such a wide audience in the ice
show. He’s changed it up definitely for the season. As part of the short program, the face paint
and the costume are gone. I think, in that sense it’s good. It goes back to the idea that the source material
and music that incorporate cultural influences are not necessarily free from being appropriative
in themselves. Maryam: One thing that we have to talk about
when we are talking about programs that are supposed to portray a certain culture is the
naming of said program. The skater and the choreographer, in conjunction,
choose the name of the program. [Meryl] Davis and [Charlie] White’s program,
they called it Indian folk dance but the music is from two Bollywood movies. It is in Bollywood style of dancing and not
Indian folk style. We know the different regions in India have
different dance traditions so what exactly is Indian folk dance? Lae: Again, similar to the way that Nicole
and Alina’s Cleopatras, it’s been quite general about a particular style of dance or music
that you’ve been borrowing where you could be a bit more specific about what you are
being inspired by. In doing so, not erasing the great amount
of diversity within that particular culture and even those music traditions. I think it’s important to be mindful to not
erase the various traditions and cultures that certain music comes from. For example, Rika Kihira’s short program this
season “Breakfast in Baghdad” has been somewhat criticized online for the fact that it features
vocals that are a bit nonsensical, that the name refers to the Middle East, and the name
has some sort of exotism so to speak about the music she is skating to which is distinctively
different than your classical warhorse especially compared to her last season’s [short program]
“Clair De Lune”. For “Breakfast in Baghdad”, only the name
refers to the Middle East, but it was originally composed by a Swedish jazz musician, and performed
by Youn Sun Nah who is a Korean vocalist. She’s employing scat singing which is a jazz
improvisation technique. I think in this example, it’s important to
dig deeper when criticizing a program and not call a very historical jazz tradition
as nonsensical words for example. Maryam: As someone who grew up in Iraq, watching
this program live at Autumn Classic, it’s not really, “It hurts because it’s called
‘Breakfast in Baghdad,’”; it’s more going back to the cognitive dissonance that’s happening. Personally, I don’t associate jazz with Baghdad,
or Baghdad with jazz music automatically or specifically. What I think of instead is usually classical
poetry or ancient melodies. The artist could’ve called it “Breakfast in
Moscow” and it still would’ve been the same exact song, just with a different title. But seeing as how the album includes North
and East Asian styles, I’m guessing that the name was chosen because it fits the overall
theme of the album, and not because it has anything to do with Baghdad itself. Lae: I think the final category of problematic
music that we want to talk about are programs that are originating from the potential problematic
source material. I think the quintessential example of this
is Memoirs of a Geisha. What people, who have read or are familiar
with the book that the movie was based on, would hopefully know is the fact that the
author Arthur Golden, the author, actually had a falling out with the geisha with who
he consulted with on creating the book. Her name was Minako Iwasaki. She was very angry about the inaccuracies
with his portrayal and described a lot of backlash within the current geisha community
in Kyoto as a result. This actually a controversy that blew up around
the novel. This is well-known, especially considering
how much the book and movie made off of the adaptation and the portrayals. I also want to add the movie is cast with
Chinese and Malaysian actresses. There is no Japanese actress that portrays
the major character in the movie. That’s also something to keep in mind. A key worry about Memoirs of a Geisha and
a key controversy has always been the fact that the person who made this book possible
basically cut ties with [Arthur] Golden entirely, was very deeply hurt by the decision to not
keep her name anonymous which she requested, and by the way he portrayed the geishas that
would tarnish their image. Evgenia Medvedeva is skating to this program
this season. This is one of the most widely known topics
of cultural appropriation and arguably kicked off a lot of the discussion. For me, she has said in interviews that she
always wanted to skate to the program. She very deeply loves the movie and wanted
to skate to the program but I think it is possible she may not know the history of the
book and may have listened to the soundtrack of the movie. For me, the question is around going back
to intent. I would say Memoirs of a Geisha is probably
one of the safest pieces of music to skate to in the skating world because people have
skated to it and it is quite a popular track to use when you want to portray Japanese culture. My question is: in perpetuating a movie and
a book that is inaccurate and has caused so much pain in just existing is that extending
the amount of hurt that it is causing the people that is the most affected by the source
material? Is it continuing that degree of exploitation
that was definitely happening by the author Golden in his portrayal? Is that a secondary responsibility rolled
up in there as well? My question is: are you sure your intent is
to 100% appreciate the culture? When the material you are extracting your
program and basing your program on has caused so much hurt, and therefore could not really
be said to be an authentic or respectful at least of the culture itself. Maryam: That goes back to intent and input
does not always equal output. What she wanted her output to be was to appreciate
Japanese culture but because she is using such a heavily loaded music that has all this
historical complexity. In a way, subconsciously or not, you can understand
why some people can be hurt by this choice. Another contrast to make is Satoko skating
to this in the Olympic year. Lae: I would never want it to be as simple
as, “If you’re a Japanese woman and you skate to something problematic, it’s automatically
okay”. But I think in being Japanese and having your
interpretation of a piece be influenced by your authentic cultural background, in some
ways it mitigates and filters through some of the inaccuracies than someone who is not
familiar with that culture. With Satoko, as would any skater, they would
pick and choose what aspects of the music to portray. I think being from that culture, she has a
better grasp on what subtleties and intricacies to portray from that piece of music than someone
like Evgenia who was choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne. Neither of them is from Japan or are from
that culture. I think, overall, it’s not as clearcut like:
“It’s fine if you’re from that culture and you skate to a problematic piece of music.” but I think it’s something doubly to consider
if you are not from that culture and you are skating to a piece of music that has demonstratively
caused pain to the people from that particular world. -end segment- 1:34:35 START: Cultural exchange and borrowing Maryam: So when there are discussions of cultural
appropriation happening, there’s often the rebuttal of what if there’s involvement from
people from that culture. Another key concept is what is the difference
between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Cultural exchange lacks that kind of systematic
power dynamic that you have when you have minorities and non-minorities. Cultural exchange happens when someone shares
ideas, knowledge of their culture with others with giving consent and giving respect to
whatever is being said. Lae: A lot of the pain from cultural appropriation
stems from the feeling of being erased and not being consulted in someone else taking
your culture and putting it onto a much larger platform than you yourselves may necessarily
have access to. I think it’s a running theme with some of
the programs we talked about earlier when it comes to why we feel that they are disrespectful. A lot of it is because of the lack of research,
the lack of conversation, and the lack of permission in some senses that results from
actually interacting with people from that culture and making sure that it’s at least
past the filters of one or two people who are more intimately acquainted with the nuances
and the deep meanings and the histories of that culture. That’s where I think cultural exchange is
quite different because of the fact that cultural exchange is dictated by the people of that
culture. They have the power. They have the say to give that permission
to invite other foreign people into their culture and they’re the ones with control
over how the outsider, so to speak, interacts with their culture. It’s really about who has the power in the
situation and who is controlling that conversation and giving access. I think it’s not that straightforward again
as saying that “oh, just because you’ve had one Chinese person work on this then the program
is fine even though the costume might be really disrespectful whatnot.” Personally, for example, I’ve been asked about
Chinese culture by people I work with when they’re trying to write something that speaks
to that community and so much at the time even as a Chinese person, I need to caveat
it by saying like, “oh, this is just my personal experience,” because the experiences of people
in one culture can be widely different. That it’s very hard for someone to act as
a representative of that culture and give any sort of mission for a foreigner to portray
that culture in any way. But I do think that, again, going back to
the theme of listening and not being erased, having someone from that culture as a consultant
or just as a sense check at least ensures that something has gone through a degree of
filtering and a degree of passing that interpretation by someone who is much deeply acquainted with
the norms, the nuances, the things you might not know as an outsider and probably can’t
read about or research. I think a lot of the time skaters say “oh,
but skaters have limited resources, they can’t do that.” My kind of question back would be, “if you
don’t have the resources to do it properly, consider doing something else.” Really. Because I think it’s sort of — what is the
priority here? If you don’t have the resources to do this,
why are you doing this at all if you’re not gonna do it properly? Maryam: Right. It is harder for a reason and another thing
I want to go back to is Evgenia’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” costume. Her costume is made by Satomi Ito who is a
very well known Japanese dress designer. If you’re talking about an economic angle,
Evgenia consulted Satomi and went all the way to Japan to have fittings, chose one of
the sketches, and she had a Japanese person’s input on choosing the costume and on the design
of the costume as well. Going back to the economic angle, Satomi is
benefiting from this economically because they’re paying her to do these costumes, they’re
paying her to do the sketches to design the costume. So while the program choice itself raises
a lot of questions about intent and a problematic origin in some ways, her costume — it’s really
good that she went to a Japanese costume designer for this. Lae: I think having Satomi there ensures that
she has access to the resources needed to properly design a kimono for example, and
to have the cultural knowledge of what’s important and what’s not important when adapting that
kimono for ice skating. There are all these benefits that come from
having someone from that culture be so intimately involved in the process of that portrayal. It is something to be commended and something
she’s done well. And along the same lines, Deniss Vasiļjevs
had a samurai program last season as well. There is no information on who designed his
costume but we do know that Stéphane Lambiel choreographed the program with a Japanese
contemporary dancer, Kento Kojiri. So it does just indicate that there was some
degree of care and attention paid to the fact that he was trying to depict a different culture
and that in doing so it would be good to have Japanese sensibilities and an eye in the choreography
process. It ‘s things like this we think of as very
positive signs of a skater at least very much attempting to acknowledge they are depicting
something that they’re not familiar with and therefore should not be shy about enlisting
the expertise and help of those who are more knowledgeable. I think the last example of a team that did
it well was Davis and White, Indian folk dance, despite the issues we’ve pointed out with
the name. Maryam: Davis and White, they wore traditional
outfits in their program. They went into a lot of research when they
chose these outfits. They worked with Indian choreographers so
that they could use the correct choreography instead of the stereotypical hand gestures
that you see in a lot of western portrayals of Indian dancers. So Davis and White actually received letters
from fans in India and South Asia who said they enjoyed their routine. Do we have the right to judge whether or not
the program they’re doing are actually appreciative of the culture? Lae: I think for me it’s about the fact that
they’ve received letters from people who have really enjoyed the routine and I do believe
they were somewhat viral on Indian youtube at the time. The fact that it resonated with the people
from that culture authentically and they were heaping praise on it, I think it’s a good
indication that they did something right. In the sense of they had accurately portrayed
or spoken to an aspect that resonated with people from that culture. I think for any skater like trying to adapt
a foreign piece of music or doing a different program — that would be a good barometer
to measure success on. -end segment- 1:42:03 START: Where do we go from here? Maryam: The last thing we’re going to talk
about is where do we want to carry this discussion and what do we want to get out of this discussion. Figure skating started in Europe and came
to North America. It’s historically been a predominantly white
sport, we talked earlier about gatekeeping, and how minorities don’t have kind of a platform
to show their programs in the first place so it doesn’t increase the basic advantages
they face. If kind of the acceptable/rewarded version
and portrayals of their culture is the ones that have been colonized/commodified for white
audiences. Lae: Yeah. I think it goes back to that question of if
the only portrayal of your culture that feels like it would be safely accepted without any
extra risk in the sport is one that doesn’t authentically come from the culture that might
be problematic in its source material or that may not be an accurate representation of the
culture. It begs the question of is this sport very
very limiting. I think in that sense the fact that skaters
are taking the risk to tackle different types of music from different cultures is, at a
baseline, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s good that there is interest in
portraying cultures that aren’t just traditionally white and based on European tradition. But again, like we’ve said at the very beginning,
the more that you try and portray different cultures, the more issues arise with the way
that you do so. It is, very much, a kind of up and down journey,
and it’s very unrealistic to expect that every skater gets it right from the get-go. I think what’s really important is also — it’s
not a crime to not know that something you’ve done is problematic or something you’ve done
has inadvertently caused pain to people from that culture. I think what’s important is the response that
you display when being called out for it. Responses where the choreographer or the costume
designer acts very defensive and closes off an avenue for discussion is worrying, and
I don’t think is the right way to go about it. I do think that when talking about such a
constantly evolving concept and a very grey area, a lot more sensitivity needs to be shown
both by people criticizing and also by the people attempting to portray these programs
and cultures. Maryam: An example that comes to mind when
you think of non-Western skaters kind of bringing pieces of their own cultures into the skating
world is Yuna’s “Homage to Korea” program. She skated this program both in competition
and she also skated it as exhibitions. Her intent was to show people what Korean
music sounded like especially because Korean skating and figure skating hasn’t been around
for a really long amount of time so it’s really really nice to see her bring that music into
the skating world. Lae: I just also want to add that the music
she was skating to was Arirang — which is a really really iconic Korean piece of music. It’s a Korean folk song that is often considered
to be the unofficial anthem of Korea. It really is something that was also a really
big risk for her to do given her position as one of the top skaters in the world at
that time and with all the media scrutiny on her she would have been subject to so much
extra criticism, so much extra scrutiny and to put her reputation on the line to take
a risk and skate to an unfamiliar piece of music — I think is something that needs to
be commended because it’s not easy to do that. Maryam: No. Unfamiliar to the judges and to the audiences
too sometimes. So [Yuzuru Hanyu]’s another example of a top
skater bringing aspects of his own culture into the sport, and as Lae mentioned taking
a risk with music that hasn’t really made its way into the skating world, so when we’re
thinking about Hope and Legacy and we’re thinking about Seimei… Lae: That was a lot of risk he took especially
with Hope and Legacy, I think with Seimei having that traditional music structure like
that really iconic climax and the exciting drum beats and all that stuff — it was a
bit easier to understand for western audiences but was a lot of commentaries when Hope and
Legacy first debuted about how it was a snooze first, how people didn’t really get it, and
it was very much not particularly rewarded by the judges in program component scores
throughout the season. Granted, he didn’t skate cleanly but even
at the world championships when he skated cleanly I think there was a certain amount
of media where it wasn’t easily understood. But something Yuzu’s done when describing
the piece is that it is quite Japanese in its approach, in that he kind of left the
interpretation open to the audience — he didn’t really impose his own reading of the
music on there. So that kind of music style and that style
of skating was in itself a very big risk in the figure skating world and what it tends
to hold as popular music. Maryam: And his Seimei program is based on
a character and like we said earlier, characters — it’s easier to skate to music centered
in characters because it’s easier to act out the characters. But he still did a whole lot of research in
the movie where the Seimei soundtrack came from. Lae: Nomura Mansai was the actor for Seimei
in the Onmyōji movie the soundtrack was based on. He is also a very successful and iconic stage
performer in Japan. There was an interview Yuzuru did with Nomura
Mansai about ways of expression and performance that were very unique to his particular style
of kyōgen, which is a type of Japanese theatre. Maryam: For both programs, the Japanese culture
has benefited because of exposure, and because he did a lot of research and consulted people
to make sure he has the most accurate portrayal. Lae: So I think, I mean, both Yuna Kim and
Yuzuru Hanyu’s acts of bringing music from their own culture, especially considering
their position as top skaters of the time is really something we need to commend, and
something that — I can’t overstate how risky it was in many senses of the word despite
the fact that they were in the top of their game — to sort of deviate from that general
tradition and to really authentically bring facet of their culture and have a mind to
showcase that using their platform to a wider audience. I think in especially Yuzuru’s case you can
really see the flow-on effects of that, there have been numerous examples of junior skaters
and skaters from other countries using the music of Seimei, the music of Hope and Legacy,
and all the stuff he has popularized in their programs. So in that sense it’s sort of an example of
how you can create new music traditions and new cultural traditions by extension through
taking a risk but just as top skaters are disproportionately criticized for their music
choices, that’s also the opportunity they have with them to take risks and to tell new
stories with what they’re portraying. -end segment- 1:50:04 START: Outro Lae: On that note, thank you so much for listening. We hope to see you again for our next episode. Maryam: If you want to get in touch with us
then please feel free to contact us via our website inthelopodcast.com or on Twitter or
Instagram. You can find our episodes on YouTube, iTunes,
Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify. Lae: If you enjoyed the show and want to help
support the team, then please consider making a donation to our ko-fi page and we’d like
to give a huge thank you to our listeners who have contributed to our team thus far. Maryam: You can find the link to all our social
media pages and our ko-fi on our website. Lae: If you’re listening on iTunes please
consider leaving a rating and review if you enjoyed the show. Thanks for listening. This has been Lae- Maryam: and Maryam. Bye!

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