A professional figure skater whose video of his impromptu performance on a frozen pond went viral is hoping to use his fame to break down barriers, breathe new life into the sport and inspire the next generation.
Elladj Baldé and his then-fiancée, Michelle Dawley, were out driving when they chanced upon a frozen pond in a field in Calgary last December. The province was in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown and indoor ice rinks were closed, meaning fewer opportunities to skate.
Baldé, who was in Victoria Wednesday for a performance on a seasonal artificial ice rink set up at the Uptown shopping centre, recalls saying to Dawley: “Let’s make a video.”
The couple scrambled out of their car and onto the ice, where Baldé skated, performing his signature back flip and hip-hop moves. Dawley captured the full 10-minute routine on her iPhone, edited it to 20 seconds, set it to a catchy tune and posted it on TikTok.
The video went viral, amassing more than 31 million views in less than a year.
The couple posted more videos, with Dawley serving as Baldé’s choreographer, and the number of followers ballooned from a few hundred to about 1.5 million on TikTok and Instagram.
Baldé wants to use his profile to encourage inclusion and diversity in the sport, as professional figure skating is mainly represented by white and female performers. “I remember feeling ashamed after a neighbour made fun of me in my costume when I returned home one day after a competition,” said Baldé, who was born in 1990, grew up in Montreal and started skating at the age of seven.
“I want to be able to remind boys that nothing should stop them from pursuing their dream.”
While he grew up inspired by the likes of Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko, he says it was only when he saw a Black skater when he was 16 that life changed for Baldé, whose mother is Russian and whose father is from Guinea.
“It was so powerful for me to see a Black person performing on ice. It opened the door to me believing in myself — that Black men could be figure skaters,” he said.
After winning the Canadian Figure Skating Championships in 2008 as a junior, Baldé went on to compete internationally, taking home the 2015 Nebelhorn Trophy.
Following some major injuries, he retired from competition in 2018, but he hasn’t stopped skating. This year, he joined the Stars On Ice cast, and last month, he and his wife founded the Skate Global Foundation, with plans to build outdoor ice rinks in underserved communities across Canada. The first one is set to open in Calgary on Dec. 17.
He hopes the popularity of his videos becomes a catalyst for change in the sport and inspires youth.
“My goal is to modernize the sport, which has not shifted in decades,” said Baldé. “My videos are popular because they show ways of moving that people haven’t seen before. By incorporating popular and mainstream music, it makes the movers current and gets kids watching.”
Baldé is not afraid to shake things up. In 2013 he performed in a free skate competition dressed in a hoodie and accompanied by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but half hip-hop, half classical.
“I always wanted to showcase my artistry — to skate how I felt, not trying to fit a restrictive mould that did not line up with my artistic expression.” said Baldé. “I have that freedom now.”