Vancouver’s New Wave of Indigenous Dance

Indigener Tanz
Hunting magic: the Dancers of Damelahamid

Anna Springate-Floch

Rituals, Elders, Ancestors and lots of land in the Canadian West. Contemporary Indigenous dance is reviving in the Coast Salish Territories. In 1886, the urban settlement of Vancouver was founded here, the inhabitants were displaced. But now the wind is changing.

editor of Dance International

Scott Gudahl

In the province of British Columbia, much of the richly forested land that so impressed the first European explorers has been cleared and developed; the remaining green and blue spaces are constantly under threat. More and higher concrete and glass towers colonize the land and sky in desperate bids to find space for an ever-growing population. It’s ironic that, during the height of the pandemic, health leaders advised Vancouverites to get out in the great outdoors to restore and strengthen mental and physical wellbeing; those spaces promptly became overcrowded, resulting in the introduction of paid parking and even a reservation system in several locations.

Lukas Kloeppel

Given these stresses, many are questioning the status quo in politics, in society and in the arts. We look back to quieter, greener times and ask: What would our world be like if Indigenous ways had been nurtured along with European ones? In dance, those European ways include theatrical traditions that have come to greatly inform Canadian sensibilities. Yet, today, familiar and often beloved colonial traditions must be viewed in the context of the government-ordered ban on the potlatch gift-giving feast, in place from 1884 to 1951. This means that First Nations dance and song—integral elements of the potlatch ceremony—were lost as foundational inspiration for what has become our Canadian dance scene. And that prompts another question: What would our dance be like today if Indigenous traditions had been respected?

Indigenous dance is always a way to share knowledge and teachings across generations, a way to know and express who you are, and who your relations are, past and present. For a small group of First Nations and Métis dancers on Canada’s west coast, tapping into cultural traditions has provided a powerful place from which to develop their own contemporary voices. Many have European settler forebears as well, a mixed heritage reflected in what they bring in terms of dance training, which includes childhood ballet, jazz, tap and modern, that litany of Western theatrical and competition forms.

Starr Muranko’s ancestors are Cree, French and German

Sophia Mai Wolfe

The vital and life-changing part of their creativity, though, comes from an Indigenous perspective. Navigating a history of colonial disruption and cultural loss, they are moving through and past European forms and practices to find something new. A desire to strengthen Indigenous identities and develop understanding of Indigenous cultures connects them, with much consultation with Elders and mentoring from the more senior artists. The result: a flowering of companies and choreographic works that grapple with tensions between ideas of past and present, traditional and contemporary, community ritual and theatrical experience.

These artists are working in a time marked by environmental and social challenges: a global pandemic, climate change, and a growing gap between rich and poor. I asked half a dozen well-known and lesser-known companies in the Coast Salish Territories about their history, their artistic thinking and their aesthetic principles. I found stories that touched me, attitudes that made me think and also an attitude of protest against the ‘business as usual’ that has long been the norm even in the arts.

The spirits of Dance

3,14

Canada’s West Coast is world-famous for its potlatch – a lavish gift-giving ritual practiced by First Nations. Long forbidden, the meaning of this celebration seems puzzling today. Yet material expenditure and the immaterial expenditure in dance are a pair. The descendants remain on the trail of the meaning – a journey to modern civilization in search of its roots