Waacking on the world stage: Montreal dancer choreographs Olympic gold-medal skate routine

Axelle Munezero spent about six months teaching Olympic gold medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron the history of waacking before she even started to choreograph their acclaimed performance.

How Axelle Munezero took a dance from L.A. clubs to ice dancing in Beijing

After emigrating to Canada at a young age, Axelle Munezero fell in love with skating at Montreal public skating rinks. (Submitted by Axelle Munezero)

Anxious and crying, Montreal dancer Axelle Munezero watched her TV intently as the French skating champions she had trained for a year competed at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

To her relief, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron not only topped the Olympic podium, they also set a world record in rhythm dance with a score of 90.83 using her choreography.

"I don't think I was ready for that," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"I was thinking 'Oh my God, we did it. We brought waacking to the Olympics.'"

Munezero initiated the dancers to waacking, an underground club dance popularized by Los Angeles' queer communities of colour in the 1970s.

She spent about six months teaching the skaters about the dance's history before she even started to choreograph their acclaimed performance. She made them dance in unconventional places, including hallways.

"We trained in parks, in the most strange settings, and we would freestyle and dance together and they came to see some waacking battles," Munezero said.

"I really approached it like I was training dancers that wanted to become waackers and do that as a living."

Moves from underground

Munezero said it was important for her to relay the history of the dance to the figure skaters before creating a choreography for them.

"I told them I wouldn't be comfortable just giving them movements," she said. "It can show in the movement if you know where it's coming from."

"If they knew the history, they could transmit that information and inspire younger people and inspire the community to feel that they're part of this as well."

Waacking is notable for its striking arm poses inspired by Hollywood silent films. It is intricately linked to dancers expressing their vulnerability and strength.

France's Gabriella Papadakis and France's Guillaume Cizeron compete in the ice dance rhythm dance of the figure skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing on February 12, 2022. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images) (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

"The arm movement looks like you're fighting with your arms a little bit, but at the same time, [it's] very elegant and delicate," she said.

Martine Bruneau — who co-founded Canada's largest waacking event HOTMESS with Menezero — says she's proud of the visibility her colleague helped bring to the dance.

"The more visibility the dance has, the better," she said. "The movements that skaters do have always been an inspiration for waackers … so it's kind of a full circle seeing it back on the ice."

"Seeing it sprinkled in the Olympic choreography on a global stage is something that is amazing."

Papadakis and Cizeron's win allowed Munezero to live out her own figure-skating dream vicariously.

WATCH | Papadakis and Cizeron's record-beating win: 

France's Papadakis and Cizeron set world-record in rhythm dance

4 months ago
Duration 6:51
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron posted a world record score of 90.83 at Beijing 2022.

"It was a childhood dream that never happened," she said.

After emigrating to Canada at a young age, she fell in love with skating at Montreal public skating rinks.

"I would go there at night with my mom after work," she said. "We weren't a family that had enough money to put me in classes for that, but I really really loved it."

Since the victory, Munezero has continued travelling the world to perform, teach and "spread the love for waacking."

"Now, I'm at a place where I got to choreograph this," she said. "Everything is possible if you stay true to yourself …. The world will always see the good side of it."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


with files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak