Celebrating resilience through performing arts

Dakhka Khwaan Dancers. | Photo by Simon Ager

Dancers of Damelahamid will be holding the 14th annual Coastal Dance Festival online in celebration of Indigenous arts. The virtual video program will feature the world premiere of a short dance in honour of the late Elder Margaret Harris by Dancers of Damelahamid. Performances and stories by the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, Git Hayetsk Dancers, Git Hoan Dancers, Spakwus Slolem, ‘Yisya̱’winux̱w Dancers, Casey James, Demetrius Paul and David Robert Boxley will be presented during the online festival from March 12–18.

Although a smaller scale festival compared to previous editions, this event offers a stage to celebrate the resilience of indigenous communities while many cultural gatherings have been cancelled this past year.

A new way of connecting communities

‘Yisya̱’winux̱w Dancers. | Photo by Amanda Laliberte

According to Margaret Grenier, the festival’s executive and artistic director, the online presentation is a blessing in the midst of cancellations because it enables the performing artists and Indigenous communities to maintain cultural practices. This virtual and free festival will reach a wider audience outside of Vancouver and connect them to the cultural celebration.

“The online format is allowing for some of the artists to go into their home community or home territory, to share some outside footage to show the landscape or cultural sights,” Grenier comments.

Marilyn Jensen, group leader of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, a national award winning Inland Tlingit dance group based out of Whitehorse, also sees the video format as an opportunity to bring the audience a step closer to their traditional land.

“Some of the shots will really highlight our land, our traditional territory, here in the southern Yukon, because that’s something that we really don’t get to show people when we’re at the festival, live, every year,” says Jensen.

A legacy of courage and resilience

Dancers of Damelahamid will share a preview of a new short dance and its creation process in honour of the late Elder Margaret Harris, who dedicated her life to reviving artistic practices along the Northwest Coast and recently passed on July 15, 2020. The work commemorates the legacy and the teachings of the elders that continuously guide younger generations towards upholding their own ancestral traditions.

“It’s intended to not only mark our loss and the family of Elder Margaret Harris but to celebrate her generation, which was the generation that brought revitalization to song and dance for Indigenous communities on the Northwest Coast,” explains Grenier.

Jensen, herself a performer, similarly recalls the empowering teachings of her deceased mother and her appreciation of the performing arts.

“My mom always said to us, ‘I don’t want you to ever take for granted that you can sing songs because we weren’t allowed to sing our songs. And now you are. So you have to really treasure that,’” says Jensen. “Just the fact that we are able to sing still and participate in our culture in that way is a very powerful thing, an expression of self determination, an expression of resilience.”

An uplifting and joyful gift

Dancing, singing, drumming and storytelling is not only a way to carry on traditions but also an inherently uplifting activity to cheer up the performers and the audience alike.

“It’s an expression of joy,” Jensen says. “It’s just so much fun to be able to dance together as a group and to really feel the power of our songs and the unity of that, to be moving in synchronicity to the beat of the drum.”

Grenier is also looking forward to spreading positivity to spectators through the arts and practices.

“They’re healing, they’re uplifting and, I think that when we’re in the pandemic, just keeping our spirits up. I hope that the festival will be an offering that the audience can take away something that will nourish their spirit as well,” she says.

For more information, please visit www.damelahamid.ca