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National Brotherhood of Skiers hits the slopes

African-American ski club uses trips to raise awareness of winter sport
National Brother of Skiers member Norman Boyden Jr., and his partner Juanita, got the party moving at the Roundhouse last Saturday, Jan. 13. Photo by joel barde

On Saturday, Jan 13, Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge looked a little different than usual. In a section looking out at the Peak 2 Peak Gondola — where riders typically wolf down lunch before heading back onto the slopes — an ebullient group of African Americans were celebrating, performing a series of choreographed line dances in ski and snowboard boots.

The highpoint came when hype-man and DJ, Norman Boyden Jr., played "Wobble," an infectious line dancing anthem by New York rapper, V.I.C. "To describe the dance, I'd have to do it — and I don't think you could put that in the text," Boyden Jr. later explained.

The group was part of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), an organization that oversees almost 60 African-American ski clubs around the U.S. Dating back to the 1970s, NBS took its first trip, to Aspen, in 1973, and it's been going strong ever since, bringing a bon-vivant, party-meets-the-slopes attitude wherever it goes.

Line dancing is a big element of the fun.

"You don't need a partner — all you need is rhythm, music and a good attitude," said Boyden Jr., sporting a bright blue and red toque emblazoned with Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort's logo.

Selecting songs that appeal to everyone is key, said Boyden Jr., who works as an IT manager and leads an R&B group, Norman & The Boyz. "You want to have music for Generation Y and the Millennials, but you don't want to forget the old-schoolers like myself."

Like others, Boyden Jr., who hails from Stockton, Calif. and is part of the city's "U-2 Can Ski & Snowboard Club," got into skiing late in life. While stationed in Europe serving in the U.S. Army, he tried it in Germany and Austria and quickly fell in love with the sport.

"Being an African American, you don't have the opportunity in the urban area to experience skiing — and skiing is a wonderful sport," he said. "It's a sport that should be shared by everyone and all."

According to a 2014 report from the SnowSports Industries America, just eight per cent of winter sport participants are black — something NBS has tried to address.

For years, NBS has served as a bridge into the sport, providing urban-dwelling African Americans (the club has a large contingent from Atlanta) with their first experience on the slopes. The Whistler trip, which included a long list of activities, was made up of 13 individual African-American ski clubs from the Western U.S., many of which boasted their own ski outfits and logos.

The second part of the club's mandate is to support African-American winter athletes. According to a recent Powder Magazine feature on the NBS, siblings Andre and Suki Horton are likely the most accomplished of the athletes the club has supported. In 2001, Andre finished ninth overall in the U.S. Alpine National Championships and won an FIS race in Europe, and both brothers nearly made the U.S. national team. It would be great to have a "Tiger Woods of skiing," said Boyden Jr. — someone to inspire more black youth to pick up the sport.

Charles Ward, an NBS board member, said it was the group's fourth trip to Whistler. "We like Canada — we like the mountains, the snow, and the hospitality," he explained.

Ward stressed that the Brotherhood is a ski organization.

"That's what we do — we ski," he said. Then, glancing at a friend sitting across the table, he added: "Well, they snowboard. We tolerate all them other folks.

"We're always looking for more folks, and younger folks.

"We're encouraging African Americans to come out and get on snow."