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Ice production with Black figure skaters uses sacred dance to connect to ancestral roots

Tracing Sacred Steps production has a focus on what’s known as “ring shout.” Performances are Friday and Saturday at Highland Arena in Saint Paul.

ST PAUL, Minn. — For as long as skating artist Chelsea Ridley has been doing it, she has never been part of a production quite like this.

“Even down to the littlest like head roll or shoulder roll there something there and developing that I never thought about and it's awesome to be able to explore that,” Ridley said.

Ridley is from Chicago, but she has been in the Twin Cities for weeks now. She's been rehearsing for a skating in a production with a focus on what's called "ring shout."

Deneane Richburg started the nonprofit Brownbody, which blends dance theater, social justice practice, and figure skating. Richburg said historians trace ring shout back to Africa, then there is evidence it was practiced by enslaved Black people in America and later, freed men.

“Ring shout is a historic sacred African-American spiritual ritual which integrates connecting to ancestors, it integrates moving through the body,” Richburg said. “It integrates coming together as community and it really pulls from and it's rooted from a lot of the sacred west African spiritual traditions. One of the core purposes of ring shout is to connect to ancestor to reclaim one's humanity.”

Richburg grew up in Maplewood and began skating at 5-years-old.

“I never really felt my physical self was ever accepted in skating not only because of skin color but my shape,” she said, as she explained she was more curvy and didn’t have the stereotypical slim and small figure for a skater.

Experts also say the lack of Black figure skaters in the sport is due to a variety of reasons, including a history of exclusion. So, after a competitive career Deneane wanted to learn and do more.

“I realized that I could use the ice as kind of a space of critical, complex, honest, nuanced, culturally-based exploration,” Richburg said. “The idea of associating Blackness with skating, any kind of skating, is so foreign to a lot of people that sometimes folks they don't even know how to respond,” she said.

But here now is her response, a production on ice with a cast of Black figure skaters, like Ridley.

“It may bring up questions, it may liberate, inspire,” Ridley said. “I just I want people to look at this and really dig deep like, 'how do you connect to this story?'”

Tracing Sacred Steps production has performances Friday and Saturday at Highland Arena in Saint Paul.

You can get more information on Brownbody's website.

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