By: Aurora Tejeida
“This song is about the Vancouver fire of 1886,” said Cease Wyss, after singing her first song during a pre-festival performance at the Museum of Anthropology.
This was the same song three Squamish women were learning on the night of the fire. According to Wyss, they went back and forth across the Georgia Strait until the sun came up, trying to save as many lives as possible.
It doesn’t matter that the song was a Catholic hymn, the result of European contact and subsequent evangelism. The song is in Squamish, a language that still lives, and the night was important enough to be remembered. This living memory, in part, is what the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival is about.
The festival is described as a celebration of stories, songs and dance, but it is also a colourful and powerful experience that brings together cultural traditions from up and down the American coast: the Yukon, Alaska and, for the first time this year, Ecuador and Peru.
“I think dancing is an integral part of culture,” said Nigel Grenier, a third-year UBC student and a member of the Dancers of Damelahamid, the dance troupe that organizes the event. “Part of it is that it’s a form of self-expression, but in addition to that, it’s something that brings people together, as families and as communities. And in terms of the dance festival, it’s an opportunity for cultural sharing.”
The festival has been happening for seven years now, and Grenier has participated every year.
“For me, growing up with it has been really good to have a foundation in my culture,” he said. “I really enjoy being part of that community.”
Grenier performs traditional Gitxsan dance. For most of the dances, he wears traditional button blankets and carved masks, as well as other regalia. Like fellow dancers, he has been training since he was very young.
“Most people start dancing before they can even walk,” he said. “Parents will carry them around, so from a very young age you’re involved with dancing.”
This is also the case with Giselle Vargas, one of the two South American dancers joining the festival this year. She started dancing when she was five, and has continued for 15 years. Originally from Ecuador, Vargas is excited about the festival and being in Canada for the first time.
“Even though our cultures are so different, there are so many similarities,” she said. “Dancing is a sincere and pure way of showing your feelings towards things that matter. What moves you to dance is the force that comes from the earth and those things you can’t buy.”
Like Vargas, Grenier believes dancing is a spiritual experience, for both the dancer and the audience. “It gives other people a chance to have a connection with something deeper, something more profound,” he said.
It is also an opportunity to experience culture like never before at the world-renowned Museum of Anthropology.
“I think a lot of people in Canada don’t know much about the diversity of culture in B.C. and other places in the world, and it’s an opportunity for them to get a glimpse of that richness,” said Grenier. “Hopefully it’ll open a few eyes.”
The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival runs from March 4 to 9, and performances are as varied as the schedule. There are two signature evening performances on Friday and Saturday night, as well as more casual performances during the day. Performances are free with admission, which is free to UBC students.