'I can play again': Retired figure skater Elladj Baldé finds an escape on the ice
Baldé’s viral videos at outdoor rinks show new side of figure skating
Elladj Baldé first stepped on the ice at six years old. Within months, he was figure skating competitively, but that didn't allow for much time outside — it was all about the rink.
This winter, now 30, he skated on a frozen lake for the first time.
Since moving to Calgary this year, Baldé said he is rediscovering a sense of fun on the ice, giving him an escape from the figure skating world as well as the struggles of losing work and a tumultuous year.
"I get to be so present and I get to release, and in a way, heal at the same time."
Baldé retired from competitive figure skating in 2018 and started touring and performing as a skater year-round. That all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic and his only option last December was to skate outdoors.
He started to post videos of skating on ponds and rinks in Calgary and lakes in Banff National Park on TikTok and Instagram, which have gone viral.
Millions of people have seen the first video of Baldé celebrating when he finally found a community rink in Calgary during lockdown.
He hops out of his car, does a back flip onto the ice and then dance-walks on the points of his skates. Baldé said he feels like it's been an opportunity to rethink what kind of performer and skater he wants to be.
- From 'Battle of the Blades' judge to social media star: The world is falling in love with Elladj Baldé
"You're so used to doing it the way people are used to seeing it," he said.
"Once I started making videos, I started realizing there's actually a level of freedom that I have never felt before and I feel like I can play again."
A break from tradition
Growing up in Montreal, Baldé was encouraged to learn figure skating by his mom who idolized great skaters from her own childhood in Russia. He said he immediately loved the feeling of being on the ice, but the pressures to succeed in the sport sometimes hindered that.
"I remember we played tag one day with a bunch of kids. The feeling of being on the ice was fun, but it got serious very quickly."
The world of figure skating could feel stifling, Baldé said. He felt pressure to conform as one of very few Black figure skaters in a Eurocentric, mostly white, often elitist environment.
"There was a time in my life where I changed the way that I dressed, I changed the kind of music I listened to, I changed how I walked," he said. "I basically changed to fit what figure skating told me I should look like in order to be successful."
- Skate Canada attempting to make program more inclusive through systemic changes
- Figure skater Elladj Baldé breaks down barriers on the ice
Baldé said the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and Canada made him reconsider how much he had changed about himself to fit into the mostly white world of figure skating.
In his videos, he dresses how he wants, he chooses the music, he draws inspiration from different dance styles.
He wants to be a role model for other young skaters and show that there is room for Black, Indigenous and people of colour in skating.
A new audience
On TikTok, Baldé said he can show figure skating to an audience who may have never watched the sport before, but he's also hearing from other figure skaters who appreciate his videos.
"On the ice [I am] able to express everything that I've had inside — everything that I've felt — in a way that's truly authentic to me," Baldé said.
"I think that's what people are feeling — that's what people are connecting with. It's not one piece of choreography or one move that can instigate that feeling. It's truly the intention and the purpose behind what I'm doing."
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.