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Finding An Inner Light While Dancing Native Traditions

Erin Tapahe didn't realize she would be signing up for an inner journey as well as an outer one when signing up for Living Legends, a dance group.
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I knew I was signing up for an adventure when I tried out for Living Legends, a spectacular dance group at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah that performs all over the world.

What I didn’t know was that even as I was traveling out into the world of bright stage lights and faraway places like Canada and Alaska, I would be taking an even greater journey to find my light to become the best I can be.

Living Legends is unique because it incorporates three diverse cultures—Native American, Latin American and Polynesian—into a tribute to the ancient cultures of the Americas and the Pacific Islands. With vibrant colors, ancestral stories, and a mission of sharing these three cultures, the group travels throughout the United States and the world.

Even before I became a member of the troupe, Living Legends was a window into claiming my own heritage. When I was younger, I moved away from the reservation and attended a school where the majority of students were white. I became one of three Native Americans in my graduating class. During school, I was timid and shy when it came to my Native background because students asked me questions like, “Can I come to your house? I’ve never seen a teepee,” or raised their hands to their mouths to make a repetitive noise and ask, “What does that mean in Indian?” From those types of questions, I became distant and ashamed of my Native American culture.

When I was in the eighth grade, I saw Living Legends for the first time. I admired the love the dancers had for their culture and heritage, which made me proud to be Native. At the end of the performance there was a girl who came up and said, “Ya’ ateeh,’” (hello, in Navajo) then continued talking to me. From that moment, I knew that I could be like her. I could be a person who proudly spoke my Native tongue without fear, or wear my Native regalia without being ashamed of feeling different.

A week before fall semester at BYU, Living Legends held auditions. The audition process included three separate tests. The first was a solo where I performed the hoop dance. The second required me to learn dances from all three cultures: Polynesia, Latin America, and Native America, then demonstrate each dance for the judges. The final level was a personal interview with the selection committee.

Auditions for Living Legends are competitive and making the team as a freshman is rare. Usually, the dance troupe is filled with students who were in the group the previous year, or mature upperclassmen with experience in balancing school, dancing, and other responsibilities. But I made it! I became one of 12 people to make the Native American section, and one of just four freshmen to join the team.

In the middle of last semester, Living Legends traveled to New Mexico and Texas for 10 days. This meant I was expected to submit all midterm projects and homework before I left. During this tour, I became sick and spent my free time studying for a midterm I had to take during this tour. I also had to study for midterms I would take when I returned to school. I believe it was the stress of studying, little sleep, and touring that made me sick. However, all my worries escaped once I touched the stage and performed.

At the last performance on that tour, I was able to visit Gallup, New Mexico, which is near my hometown of Window Rock, Arizona, and dance for my family. I danced for my younger cousins, and from the look in their eyes, I knew that I had become a role model to them.

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Right before the Bow and Arrow number, a Navajo-inspired dance, I felt my heart quicken from nervousness. I double-checked my attire, tying the belt the way my grandmother taught me, and prayed quietly that I might represent my people in the best way that I could. After finishing my solo, I heard the loudest applause from the audience.

I had an even longer road show in April. Living Legends took its summer tour, which was for four weeks throughout British Columbia and Alaska. We visited a small island, Metlakatla, Alaska, that is a self-governing reservation of 1,500 people, including 250 children.

The show in Metlakatla was different than most because all the lights in the gym were on, which allowed me to see the audience’s faces. This show wasn’t only for the school—the entire community was invited to attend. Near the end of the performance, I got to hoop dance as part of the finale. Afterward, a little kid came up to me and said, “I used to hoop dance, too.”

Courtesy Mark Philbrick

A young Alaska Native boy felt encouraged to take up dancing again after seeing hoop dancers of the Brigham Young University’s Living Legends company perform on his homeland. Erin Tapahe, Navajo, is on the right.

“Why don’t you still hoop dance?” I asked him. The boy looked at his feet, saying, “Because I didn’t think it was cool.” Then he quickly looked up, realizing how that might sound, and said “But you’re cool. You can do all that cool stuff. I can’t.”

I assured the boy that one day he could become better than me if he worked hard. And I realized I had come full circle since the first time I saw Living Legends. I was a role model, too.

Later that night, I started a fire with my friends, but eventually left. When I noticed the sky changing colors, I saw it was filled with shades of green, yellow, purple and pink. It was the Northern Lights. It was unusual to see the aurora borealis because the sky usually wasn’t dark enough or cold enough at that time of year. I quickly pulled out my camera, trying to capture a picture to share with my family. Tears streamed down my face because I couldn’t capture that moment with the camera. I desperately wanted to share this moment with them, but later understood that this was a blessing for me.

Student journalist Erin Tapahe, Navajo, is a 2015-2016 Native American Journalist Fellow and a sophomore at Brigham Young University. She wrote this story for the Native American Journalists Association’s newsroom immersion program at the National Native Media Conference in Washington, D.C.