Elladj Baldé is someone who will stop you mid-scroll.
First, you’ll notice his infectious smile. Whether you’re watching on TikTok or Instagram, it radiates through the screen and instantly invites you in. Instantly is key, because you have mere seconds to focus on what you’re about to see before Elladj starts skating. He’s gaining momentum, the music rushes in, the camera pans to follow him and the sequences begin. Forwards, backwards, jump after jump after jump—suddenly a full back flip!—and still the camera is there, an arm’s length away, capturing every anticipatory expression and emotion. It could be the first time you’ve ever watched figure skating or the thousandth, but when the choreography ends—of course you already hit the Like button minutes ago—it’s obvious you’ve just watched something no one else is doing. And we haven’t even mentioned that all of this has taken place on a stretch of wild ice, a frozen lake amongst mountains or forest or frozen fields, where skating is typically more recreational and rudimentary.
This isn’t always the way Elladj took to the ice. As a competitive figure skater for Team Canada from 2005-2018, he’s performed in some of the best rinks around the world. But near the end of 2020—a year of restlessness for everyone—he had the idea to finally skate in nature. “Since I started reconnecting with myself as an artist, I knew my journey would take me to the wilderness to reconnect with nature in a new way,” Elladj explains. “As a figure skater, we train indoors. The last thing we want to do is go outside for another skating session! But I started to realize one of the most beautiful feelings I could experience would be to do what I love in nature.” He had a routine and music ready to go—his wife, Michelle Dawley is a choreographer and dancer—when a new friend, wilderness photographer Paul Zizka, offered to take him out to Lake Minnewanka in the Canadian Rockies.
What unfolded on the frozen lake was more than beautiful—it was transformational. The videos went viral, but more importantly, it changed Elladj’s relationship with skating. “I just remember feeling a sense of freedom,” he recalls. “And now I’m continuing to search for that feeling.”
Elladj’s relationship with skating has always been in a state of evolution. He started on the ice at the age of six, encouraged by his mother’s own experience as a figure skater in Russia. “At the beginning I absolutely hated skating,” he admits. “But my passion for it really started when I was landing jumps, winning competitions and doing things that other kids my age weren’t doing. So I started getting really passionate about landing new jumps and the feeling of jumping.” It was a strategy that worked: he competed internationally for 13 seasons, was the Canadian Junior Champion in 2008 and won the Nebelhorn Trophy in 2015.
“Later in my career, my relationship with skating really shifted,” Elladj says. “I fell in love with the artistic side of the sport and expressing myself as a human being, as an artist—and making people feel things. It motivated me to continue to explore myself as a human being so that I can even more accurately share my story with audiences around the world. And now what I’m really trying to push is a change in the culture of figure skating to increase the diversity in the sport where we can be authentic, be ourselves, be artistic.”
The history of figure skating is one that’s been centered on a very narrow set of aesthetics and ideals. “In order for you to be successful, you’re made to feel like you need to skate a certain way, be a certain way—and that mold is very limited. It suits mainly white, European skaters, but not necessarily skaters who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour,” he says. “If you’re from the BIPOC community, you go through a process where you don’t really know who you are—because when you’re rewarded for fitting a certain mold, it’s not authentic. It’s not you. I definitely went through an identity crisis being biracial, and as a male figure skater—there’s a lot of layers there too! It can be really confusing growing up, but I did the work and I now know who I am and I’m able to share that with people.”
Speaking of doing the work, in 2020, Elladj co-created the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance as a platform for conversation and change in the industry. And in 2021 he and Michelle launched the Skate Global Foundation, of which one of its goals is focused on building and upgrading rinks across Canada as a way of breaking barriers to skating in underserved communities. “Accessibility has always been one of the primary reasons for a lack of diversity of BIPOC in the sport of figure skating,” the foundation states.
Now deep into the second winter season since Elladj started skating on wild ice, the videos punctuate his social media feeds almost daily. And the surprises, from celebrity cameos to bolder and bolder trick jumps, keep coming. But most importantly is the satisfaction Elladj gets from making, posting and building a community. “I reconnected with my heart and who I am at my core,” he admits. “I’m someone who really enjoys connecting with people and sharing everything that’s inside of me—not just when I meet you in person, but also when I skate. That’s what’s been driving me—to continue to explore who I am as a human being and be able to share that with the world.”