Figure skater Elladj Baldé and his fiancée, dancer-choreographer Michelle Dawley, were driving in their Calgary, Alberta, neighborhood in mid-December when they noticed a patch of open ice in a field. It was deep into the pandemic lockdown, when places to skate were hard to come by, and Baldé, who had his skates in the car, wanted to commemorate the find.
“Let’s make a video,” Baldé said.
As Dawley recorded on an iPhone, Baldé pulled on his skates, ran out of his car across snow-covered grass and onto the ice, did a celebratory backflip, then some hip-hop dance moves. His open plaid shirt flapped over a hoodie, and his enthusiasm poured out.
The recording took 10 minutes, from filming to laying in music by Rihanna. It became 20 seconds on TikTok, where Baldé said he had only a couple hundred followers at the time.
That – and Baldé’s life – would change quickly.
Within a few hours, it had 100,000 views. Three months later, it has 17.7 million (Rihanna among them). He now has 624,000 TikTok followers and another 415,000 on Instagram. He has made appearances on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood.” Gotten a shout-out and repost from multi-talented actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
And this 30-year-old man who had long wondered if there was a place in the sport for a Black man, an iconoclastic one to boot, suddenly was filling the vacuum that occurred when COVID-19 closures left skaters and their fans in an airless environment.
Baldé never expected the video to go viral. But he understands why it did.
“Everything was shut down, so it was refreshing to see someone living pure joy,” he said. “The backflip. The dancing. The way I dress. They look at a Black dude, and they don’t expect him to do backflips and skate this well. And we were outdoors. All the elements came together perfectly.”
He has posted nearly three dozen videos since, some with the stunning backdrop of Lake Minnewanka in the mountains outside Banff, most on ice patches near his home. Others have also had more than a million views. Nearly all have several hundred thousand.
They are set to the words of poet Amanda Gorman, to the music of artists like Labrinth, Sampha and DaBaby, to rap and to ballads, the most recent against a stunning backdrop in Lake Louise, Alberta, to the heart-wrenching Jacques Brel classic, “Ne me quitte pas.” And they have become Baldé’s vehicle not only to express his passion for the sport but also to call out those who would make skaters who look like him or others in Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities feel uncomfortable in the figure skating community.
“For longest time, the Black community wasn’t really interested in figure skating, but the way I do it makes them want to watch,” he said. “Me being true to who I am is changing the way people perceive figure skating. That is one of my biggest missions.”
He was once told you couldn’t wear your hair like that or dress like that. You couldn’t skate to music like that. You couldn’t move like that. You couldn’t be a real man, whatever that is, if you are a figure skater. You couldn’t be who you are in our oh-so-white, oh-so-genteel world. It’s a subjectively judged sport, and we have the power to make you conform.
Not me, Baldé would decide. I have to be myself, to be a representation for the next generation of BIPOC skaters, the representation that wasn’t there for him. Maybe if it had been, Baldé thinks, he could have enjoyed himself more and have accepted himself much earlier in his two decades as a competitive skater, a career that included the Canadian junior singles title in 2008 and eight top-seven finishes at the senior national championships.
“Elladj has cut through skating’s image because of the way he looks, his style and charisma, his phenomenal skill as a skater and performer, but also because of who he is,” said Canadian choreographer Sandra Bezic. “He’s a wonderful, thoughtful and kind man, and his personality leaps off the screen.”
So does his message, in both words and pictures. Baldé’s most powerful video, posted on Facebook before he became a TikTok and Instagram star, takes up the anguished cry, “No Justice, No Peace” in the wake of repeated police killings of Black people. He prefaced it with this statement:
“African. Russian. Immigrant. Black Male. Figure Skater. Every time I step on to the ice I am a living breathing protest to a society as well as a sport that thrives on oppression and elitism.”
Baldé was born in Moscow to a Russian mother, Marina, and a Guinean father, Ibrahim. They moved to Montreal when he was two. His father, trained as an engineer, found work only as a truck driver. His mother, trained as a meteorologist, would become a kindergarten teacher. Both still have those jobs.
He began skating at age 7. When his talent became apparent, he heard people attribute that success to his Russian side. The white side. People pointed out his Black side to say that was the reason he could jump so high.
“It all led me to want to fit into a mold that didn’t sit right with me,” he said. “I learned how to code switch. I changed the way I talked and walked so I could match what the high level of skaters in Canada looked like. That’s where the lack of representation played a role.”
At 22, Baldé began to express himself more freely, moonwalking in his free skate footwork to a Michael Jackson medley. He remembers his performance of that program at the 2012 Canadian Championships bringing the house down. He missed the bronze medal by .97. He could not understand why he was not third.
“The question of whether that was because of race, we don’t know,” Baldé said. “I’m not saying that was the case but the fact that idea was even in my head didn’t make me want to be part of the sport. It told me that no matter what I do, I wasn’t going to get the marks other people did.”
Yet he persisted, undaunted by such questions and by injuries that included multiple concussions. He was buoyed by the way audiences reacted to his skating. When judges told Baldé to ditch the hoodie he was wearing for a 2013 free skate that remixed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as half hip-hop, half classical, he stuck with it.
“When I have a mission in my head, I just go at it, no matter what I experience,” he said. “All those things shaped who I am now. I had the sheer motivation of wanting to be successful, to prove to myself I could stand with the best in the world.”
In an exclusionary sport, there was little appeal for BIPOC athletes to take part. Of the Black men who came to love figure skating nonetheless, few have reached the level as a singles skater Baldé attained. Among those who have are Derrick Delmore of the United States, who won the 1998 world junior title and now is a coach; Starr Andrews, twice sixth at U.S. Championships, is among his students. Rohene Ward of the U.S., a four-time qualifier for the U.S. Championships, now is an acclaimed choreographer who created U.S. Olympian Jason Brown’s landmark 2014 free skate to Riverdance.
The final event of Baldé’s competitive career was the 2018 Canadian Championships, a de facto trials to pick the two men who would go on to the PyeongChang Olympics. He had missed some three months of training that season after a concussion, returning to the ice only a month before his nationals.
An error-free short program put him fourth, just 1.29 points from second. “His was the performance of the day,” longtime figure skating journalist Beverley Smith wrote of Baldé’s short program. In the free skate, which Baldé skated to a medley of soul and funk by renowned Black artists (Otis Redding, James Brown, Leon Bridges, Bruno Mars), a couple minor errors and less difficult jump content kept him behind skaters who had fallen and made other errors.
His component scores in both programs were second only to those of three-time world champion Patrick Chan. Baldé got prolonged standing ovations after both. And he wound up fourth – for the fourth time. “Too many times,” he said with a laugh. The goal of being an Olympic champion, the goal that for many years he had let define not only his skating but also his identity and his self-worth, was gone.
After a dismayingly poor performance at the 2015 Canadian Championships, when Baldé thought he had a chance at the title, he began to reassess himself. How could he be a world or Olympic champion if he couldn’t win nationals? A trip soon after with his father to Guinea, where Baldé met his paternal grandfather, became a life-changing experience that led him to decide he would continue skating only if it was intrinsically fulfilling rather than a chase after titles. Knowing the concussion he had sustained in September 2017 might prevent him even from competing for a spot on the 2018 Olympic team, Baldé was satisfied just to be there and skate well.
“All I wanted to was get to nationals, to compete one last time,” he said. “I had to accept that I had done enough in my career. If I was going to move on, I had to find a space within me where I was proud of what I had done.
“It was actually a very beautiful ending for me. The performances were the best of my career. And I received the most beautiful gift from the audience, being celebrated in a way I never had been before.”
He moved on to a full-time career as a show skater, doing tours in Europe, Asia and North America. (He and Dawley met in Switzerland on the 2017 Art on Ice tour, where she was a dancer.) He was a choreographer and performer on the 2019 “Battle of the Blades” (and would be a judge on 2020 Battle.) Yet only serious fans of the sport knew him.
And then the pandemic hit.
“If that had not happened, I would absolutely not be in the position I am now,” he said.
Social media allowed a performing artist like Baldé to be wildly creative, providing even more programming freedom than ice shows and infinitely more freedom than the sport’s paint-by-numbers competitive side. With the pandemic keeping audiences from attending events, more and more eyes were focusing on streamed entertainment, and Baldé was eye and ear catching.
In Baldé’s case, the number of views defied the ever-shrinking audience numbers that “traditional” figure skating attracts in North America, once the sport’s hotbed.
“The sport will die if it continues the way it is going,” Baldé said. “I’m trying to make skating cool again. It needs to be modernized. Because it’s so technically oriented, it isn’t rewarding skaters who skate to something different, who move in a different way.”
As executive producer of “Battle of the Blades,” a celebrity competition that creates ice dance teams of a hockey player and a figure skater, Bezic has seen firsthand why Baldé connects with audiences. Like all innovative artists, Baldé’s mastery of his medium’s fundamentals allows him to make his experimentation be compelling and not merely different.
“He has that ability to make his audience feel,” Bezic said. “He’s a disciplined and skilled artist, and he’s taken skating to make it uniquely his.”
Brown, among the few figure skaters in recent years to have a competitive figure skating program go viral, appreciates what Baldé is trying to bring to the sport.
“Elladj has always been this unbelievable performer, pushing boundaries and drawing people in when he skates,” Brown said. “He has this unique ability to capture an audience through personal storytelling pieces that resonate with viewers.
“He’s always been insanely special, but what has changed is that people are now paying attention. It’s incredible to see him getting the recognition that he deserves. He deserved it while he competed, and he deserves it now.”
In the middle of last year, Baldé became a co-founder and president of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, whose mission is “to foster a more diverse and inclusive figure skating environment worldwide through policy change, program development and funding for the next generation of athletes.”
Long outspoken about trying to remove both the real and perceived barriers faced by figure skaters of color, Baldé’s words now are amplified by his new recognition.
“Elladj has become a real voice in the skating community, bringing awareness and attention to areas in which our sport needs to grow,” Brown said. “By breaking the mold of what people think of figure skating, he opens the door to a greater future for the sport and what it can become.”
Elladj Baldé is the champion of a cause.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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