Figure Skater Elladj Baldé Is Changing the Game
We caught up with the pro figure skater to chat about his new videos shot on iPhone 13 Pro, how content creation changed his life and the celebs he’d like to backflip over.
by : Patricia Karounos- Sep 23rd, 2021
Paul Zizka, Nicole Shabada
If you, like many Canadians, spent any time on TikTok during another pandemic lockdown last winter, chances are a video of a man doing a backflip on ice skates before jubilantly dancing around on the frozen pond came across your “for you” page. That video went viral (it’s now at over 18 million views) and it launched a new career stage for pro figure skater Elladj Baldé. “It was wild. We posted it right before dinner and within a few hours, it reached 1 million views,” Baldé, who was raised in Montreal and now splits his time between Calgary and L.A., says. “When we woke up, we were at, like, 13 million views. At that point, we realized something was changing–now, I could use this platform to continue to do what I love, but also have the freedom to do it on my own terms.”
Baldé competed internationally in figure skating for over 15 years, before retiring in 2018. He continued performing, but when COVID-19 put live events on hold, he turned to social media to share his art. Now, he counts celebs like Jada Pinkett Smith, Ryan Reynolds and Snoop Dogg as fans, and is beloved for his larger-than-life authenticity and passion, jaw-dropping on-ice flips and effervescent skating videos–which are choreographed by his wife and creative collaborator, dancer Michelle Dawley–that look like nothing you’re used to traditionally seeing in the sport.
And that’s exactly what drives Baldé, who’s also the co-founder of non-profit Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance. He knows what it’s like to be a Black man who’s been forced to contort himself to fit into a predominantly white sport, and he wants to change figure skating so that it’s more versatile, accessible and welcoming to people of colour.
To do it all, the figure skater relies on his iPhone. So, ahead of its latest launch, Apple hooked Baldé up with the brand-new iPhone 13 Pro (available on September 24) so he could put the device’s impressive camera features–like cinematic mode, which adds depth-of-field focus transitions to videos, and macro photography thanks to an ultra-wide lens–to the test.
“I’m a huge fan of documentaries and [exploring] the way things are shot, so I’ve always wanted to do a little film where I take people behind the scenes of how we create, right from how we start our creative process,” he says. “There are so many layers to what we do to get to the end product, and we’ve never shared that before.”
We caught up with Baldé to chat about these new videos, how content creation changed his life and the celebs he’d like to backflip over.
You live in Calgary and you filmed your most recent video in Idaho’s mountainous Sun Valley. How has being in nature influenced your content–especially during the pandemic?
“It’s freedom. Before I started making videos, I was kind of stuck because I wasn’t performing. I love performing and miss performing, and doing these videos has really allowed me to tap into a space that I haven’t been not only in my life, but in my figure skating career too. [Skating in wilderness] has given me this ability to just play and have fun and be free and explore and access something I wasn’t able to access before. It’s allowed us not only to survive during this COVID time, but to really thrive, and that’s been the most beautiful gift.”
You’ve always used an iPhone to create your content, from filming to editing and posting. As someone without a film background, how has being able to do all of this work from a single device opened up your creative process?
“It’s changed everything. I really don’t know how to operate a camera, so to be able to have one thing we could just pull out and shoot things of the quality we’ve been shooting has allowed us to have the career we have now—we’re content creators, really. We can just pick up an iPhone, click record and know it’s going to give you the highest quality shot you can get. That’s allowed us a lot of freedom. Here’s the backstory of the first video that went viral for me: We were just driving around and I saw an outdoor rink. I hadn’t skated—hadn’t been on ice—in so long, but my skates were in the back, so I was like, “Why don’t we just go out on the ice and shoot a little video?” And if it weren’t just for us having our phones in our pockets, we wouldn’t have filmed that video.”
I actually remember seeing that video come up on my “for you” page on TikTok and thinking about how joyful it was. No one could have known what it would lead to, so it’s striking that filming it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. What made you stop and think about both filming and posting that moment?
“The person who sparked all of this was Michelle, my wife. I was complaining like, ‘Oh, I miss performing and connecting with people and sharing my art,’ and she was like, ‘Well, why don’t you start making videos?’ My first reaction was: ‘Why?’ [Ice skaters] weren’t really doing that, though some had tried and it always turned out to be a bit weird. I was very resistant. But she was like, ‘Trust me. I have an idea.’ After the first few videos, I started to see it–Michelle is an incredible dancer, choreographer and creative director. She helped me figure out what it looks like for me to be authentic and to skate from a place that’s completely different than what most skaters had done in the past.
That day of the first viral video, we weren’t planning on shooting. I just had an idea to do a backflip and a little dance. We didn’t have any expectations from that, because we had posted a few videos before that did well but didn’t go viral. It was kind of just like, “Let’s just post it and keep doing what we’re doing.” And then it exploded in a really powerful way.”
You’ve talked a lot about how changing skating culture is your main mission, as well as creating more visibility and better representation for people of colour in the sport. Was that always the goal when you started your videos, or is that something that developed organically as your platform grew?
“Prior to my social media blowing up, I had used my platform as a voice for underrepresented people to fight for equity, diversity and inclusion in the sport. Too many skaters leave the sport feeling disappointed with themselves and in pain–not only Black skaters. Existing in this sport is really hard psychologically, then you have other barriers, like skin colour, that add another layer to [the challenges]. So when my videos did blow up, I got even more excited because now I could continue to share this message on a much larger scale. It motivated me to continue to use my voice and try to shift this narrative and culture. Everything came together so organically. Now, it’s all intertwined–the music, the performance, what we wear and the message.”
Of course, your authenticity and joy is something that makes your videos so popular. How do you combine that aspect of what you do with the broader message of inclusion and changing the sport?
“I tap into my experiences. I know how [competing] made me feel, I know all the pain I’ve suffered throughout my career in the sport. All those feelings and experiences sit inside of me–they are a part of me, they essentially shaped who I am and where I am in life. So for me, there’s no way to separate the two.”
What role, then, do you see your content playing in actually changing figure skating? Is it increased visibility and representation, or is there an even bigger picture beyond that?
“Representation is huge. I didn’t realize how much the lack of representation affected me until much later in my life. I want young Black people, Indigenous people and other people of colour to see themselves represented as skaters, as athletes, as artists and as human beings. But there is also this other layer of paving a new path for figure skaters. In the sport, your only goal is to compete and go to the Olympics, or you stay on the recreational side. And because the sport is so subjective, you always feel like you are not enough, no matter where you’re skating, and you’re always compared to other people. Your entire self-worth becomes based on what kind of jumps you can do, what medals you have, all of that. That is the culture of skating.
What I’m trying to do now is inspire skaters to be like, ‘Actually, I don’t need to put my entire self-worth into being an Olympian, I can base myself off my work as an artist.’ Maybe they can use social media to build a new life or find a new way to live off of skating in a way that gives them the freedom to be themselves. That’s something I’m really passionate about–showing people that they can carve out their own path, create their own platform and live the life they want to live.”
You’ve definitely carved out your own path now, but you started skating when you were young and your mother was a Russian skater too. At what point did you enter the path of becoming a competitive professional skater?
“It was a long journey. I grew up within the competitive world, and in Russian culture, when you do a sport, when you do figure skating, you don’t do it for fun. Your goal is to be the best, to be the Olympic champion. That’s the conditioning you’re brought up with. So my entire career had that as a focus–it’s what I based my self-worth on. When I started to realize that that wasn’t my journey, that being an Olympic champion maybe wasn’t me, I started questioning everything. Up until that point, every reason I had to do the sport–be an Olympic champion, make sure our life in Canada was happy, please my mom–they were all external things that were motivating me to continue in the sport. I didn’t even know who I was or why I was skating. And deeper than that, if I wasn’t going to be an Olympic champion, then who was I?
I stopped skating for [a bit] until I could find a reason to do so from within. That really transformed my figure skating journey and relationship to the sport. I realized what I was really passionate about was expressing myself and connecting with audiences and making people feel things. From there, I shifted my intention completely, and approached the sport from a place where I didn’t see judges, just human beings. My goal was to make the audience feel things. That was the last three year so of my [competitive] career. Then when I started doing social media videos, I really was able to tap into what it feels like to truly be authentic. Creating content is where I truly feel the deepest form of freedom–I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. That was life changing.”
You recently did a video where you did a backflip over Jennifer Garner. Who else would you like to backflip over?
“I have a whole list of people. Ryan Reynolds is one. Will Smith would be cool. And I have to say, on record, anyone from Marvel–Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, anyone. Canadian Simu Liu would be cool too.”
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