Cutting-edge blades TikTok phenomenon Elladj Baldé flips figure skating on its head with fresh approach
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Elladj Baldé is on a mission to make figure skating cool again… and more diverse.
Stars on Ice
● Canada Life Centre
● Thursday, 7 p.m.
● Tickets at Ticketmaster.ca
Videos of Baldé’s hip-hop-infused performances on open-air ice rinks went viral on social media during the pandemic, kick-starting his campaign and amplifying his voice.
“I think figure skating hasn’t caught up to where society is right now; it hasn’t modernized itself. I believe the lack of diversity in the sport doesn’t allow it to grow and evolve,” suggested the former Canadian national team member, who is now advocating for a shift in the sport’s buttoned-down culture.
“What I want to do is bring skating back into mainstream culture and media, and show that skating is an art form and sport that people in Canada absolutely love. But it has to match where we are in the world right now.”
With his passionate, high-energy on-ice flourishes complete with back flips, the pro skater has attracted 1.2 million followers on TikTok — another 600,000 on Instagram. A-listers Ryan Reynolds and Snoop Dogg are said to be fans, while Jennifer Garner allowed him to back-flip over her while she reclined at centre ice.
Baldé makes his first visit to Winnipeg this week, showcasing his fresh take on the sport as one of six new cast members on the 2022 cross-Canada Stars on Ice tour. The show returns to Canada Life Centre Thursday after a two-year pandemic pause.
Baldé landed on national and international medal podiums just a handful of times during his competitive career, but his innate showmanship made him a fan favourite. His singular style brought invitations to perform in Japan, South Korea and Europe. Since retiring from competition in 2018, he has continued to tour the world, although not North America.
Stars on Ice — traditionally the purview of Canadian and American skaters with world championship and Olympic medal credentials — didn’t come knocking until Baldé’s social media following exploded and his real-world influence soared as a catalyst for diversity and inclusion in the sport.
“The content I’ve been able to produce, the authenticity of my skating now and the way people have been reacting to everything I’ve been doing the last year-and-a-half, I think that’s what brought me onto Stars on Ice,” said Baldé, 31, who grew up in Montreal but now divides his time between California and Alberta.
Baldé’s different slant on figure skating means atypical music choices — think Lil Nas X — and decidedly untraditional skating garb, extending to his footwear. He has taken to tying his skates with hockey laces, giving the appearance he’s wearing hockey skates or even sneakers.
“People don’t really label me as a figure skater anymore, so the laces are in line with that idea that I’m trying to merge these different worlds, all these ways of expressing yourself on the ice,” Baldé explains.
He set his first solo Stars routine to his own mix of Drake songs, describing the musician as “the epitome” of rap and hip hop in Canada.
Baldé, whose mother is Russian and father Guinean, chose There Will Be Time by Baaba Maal and Mumford & Sons for his second number.
“Maal is a West African artist from Senegal. He sings in the same language as my dad’s — just a different dialect. I wanted to pay tribute not only to my African roots, but also my family and my heritage, everything my parents, my sisters and I went through to get where we are now.”
With an eye to welcoming more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) athletes to figure skating and encouraging young boys to pursue creative passions, the trilingual performer established the Skate Global Foundation with his wife, Michelle Dawley, a dancer and choreographer from Calgary. (Baldé credits Dawley, whom he met while performing in Switzerland, as “the mastermind” behind his video performances.)
“One of our projects is building outdoor ice rinks in underserved communities to facilitate the introduction of figure skating or other winter sports to Black or Indigenous kids, people of colour,” he says. “I think that will help make the sport more diverse in the long term.”
Although Baldé is a Stars rookie — along with reigning Canadian champions Keegan Messing and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Mike Marinaro, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and American Alissa Czisny — connections with his contemporaries and veteran cast members go back decades.
“It’s so great to share this experience with Kurt (Browning) and Elvis (Stojko). They’ve been mentors for me in my life and my career for quite a long time now. I respect them immensely.”