BANFF, ALBERTA - They dance because the spirit moves them to dance. They dance through the forms and beyond the forms. They dance the traditions in their bodies and bones, allowing that which is ancient to flow through them.
The students and teachers in the Chinook Winds Aboriginal Dance Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts instinctively know that for something to be truly alive, it must change and grow. Dancers, teachers and choreographers from all disciplines come to Banff eager to combine the best of traditional Native dance with the best of contemporary styles in order to create something new - in dance and within themselves.
"Most of them got to a point where they really wanted to develop something that they couldn't find in their own schools or at home," says Georgina Martinez, choreographer and training director. "I think they really want to dance in a different way because ... there's all of this longing to know new things - something different that's not in formal dance schools."
During the four years since the Chinook Winds Aboriginal Dance Program started, an international team of respected Native dancers and choreographers has been developed as core teachers at the center. More mentors than instructors, they work with students in a highly creative atmosphere, sharing ideas and insights, modern techniques and ancient dances in a way that synthesizes the best of both worlds.
Each year the program explores and celebrates dance from a particular culture, ending with a major dance production performed at the Banff Arts Festival at the end of the summer session. In 1996, the Plains region was highlighted. The second year, the program brought together dancers and instructors from Inuit cultures, which included regions from the eastern and western Arctic and Greenland. In 1998, the focus was on Turtle Island and included participants from Canada, the United States, Mexico and South America. Last year, the program celebrated the emergence of the sovereign Native nation of Nunavut.
This year 14 students, assistants and apprentices from Mexico, Canada and New Zealand are participating. For the first time, dance training is separate from the annual production. The Aboriginal Dance Professional residency and the training program are part of a two-tier system that brings more experienced professionals together with emerging artists.
"The Aboriginal Arts program has developed innovative and challenging programs in dance and music," says Sadie Buck, co-director. "In bringing these two programs together, we will bring together four years of research each in Aboriginal dance and music. Now we will begin to explore the intrinsic and inherent relationship of music and dance as it currently exists within our communities."
For five weeks the Aboriginal Dance Professional residency focuses efforts of professional performers with apprentice dancers and a creative team from other programs at the center to work on a new project, an Aboriginal dance opera entitled "Bones."
The opera, the center's first Aboriginal production to combine original music, voices and dance is scheduled to open at the Banff Centre summer festival in 2001 and then move into an international tour.
But the measure of the program's success is the number of students who say they feel expanded as dancers and reconnected as Aboriginal people through participation. In some cases, students connect with their own ancestral dances for the first time at the center.
Marrie Mumford, artistic director of the Aboriginal Arts Program the Banff Centre, recalls three young Inuit dancers from Iqaluit, Nunavut, who participated in the program's second session. Taught the ancient Inuit drum dancing forms which had almost completely disappeared from their culture, the students returned home and set up classes for others. The first year they had 15 students. The following year they received funding to produce a show in Iqaluit. Inuit visitors from Greenland saw the production and were so impressed they invited the group to tour Greenland.
"They asked them where were they learning about their culture, and they said Banff," says Mumford.
The former students formed a group called the Northern Lights Dance Co. Based out of Ottawa, it has a seven-country contract for a tour of Europe.
A current student, Penny Kouchie, an Ojibway Mohawk from Nippissing, North Bay Ontario, started dancing professional ballet as a young teen-ager and went on to work with the Toronto Dance Theatre as a modern dancer in Ontario. But as a contemporary professional dancer, she missed the feeling of being connected with her people. She also yearned for an originality in dance not available in the contemporary dance world or in the stylistically pure traditional dances of her nation.
"There's not a lot of freedom to express who you are," she says. "And that's absolutely why I came here. This is a place that I can express my identity as an aboriginal person and to trail blaze with other Aboriginal people."
Exactly where this "trail-blazing" will lead, no one knows for sure. But Martinez says creating new forms of Aboriginal dance is an intuitive process that allows meaning and connectivity to flourish. And, as the ancestors always knew, it is a creation that is a healing process as well.
"Because we are human beings, we have something that we call ancestral body memory," she says. "We have something inside us ... and we have to use it.
"Dance is a way of healing. And that's something that we're doing in this program. To be creative, to bring out all those old teachings and to open up our hearts and minds and bodies to do that healing. I think ... we can do a lot of things for the world."