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The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival: A Chat with Margaret Grenier, Artistic Director

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UBC chapter.

You can’t go through a career in UBC without hearing the words “unceded territory of the Musqueam people.” The home of the Musqueam is what this university is built on. But who are these people who have lived here for thousands of years, and still do? What’s their culture like? Fortunately, you’re totally welcome to experience the richness of Pacific Northwest First Nations’ culture right on your doorstep. Go to the Museum of Anthropology in UBC Vancouver for a great collection of traditional artistic works by the locals who were here before UBC was, and see it in action at the upcoming Coastal First Nations Dance Festival that will be held at the Museum March 1-6.

Photo courtesy of the Dancers of Damelahamid

The Festival has been alive since 2008, and previous versions of it have been around in Prince Rupert since the Potlatch ban (a restriction on a traditional First Nations’ celebration as part of Canadian assimilationist policy) was lifted several decades ago. These festivals were a “focus of revitalization of Indigenous dance on the northwest coast,” says Margaret Grenier, who is the Artistic Director for the Dancers of Damelahamid. She is of Cree and Gitxsan ancestry.

Image courtesy of the Rainbow Creek Dancers

“The mandate of the festival and what I wanted to bring to it is really the opportunity for an intergenerational practice where there’s elders and really young people involved,” says Grenier. For her, the festival is “something that builds on community and also really shows the strength and diversity of these artistic practices that can sometimes be overlooked.”

Photo courtesy of Yisyawinux̱w dancers.

Audience members will get to experience a diversity of traditions and cultures. Dances will come from nations all over the coast, from the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island to the Inland Tlingit of Yukon Territory. There will also be guest dancers, including James Jones from Edmonton who mixes traditional dances with hip hop and was a finalist of So You Think You Can Dance Canada. Tesha Emarthle from Ontario will also perform smoke dancing. “We play the role of a host,” says Grenier. “It’s really about hosting the different communities that are brought together.”

James Jones, hoop dancer and So You Think You Can Dance finalist

Smoke dancing is a fast-paced, highly-coordinated, and footwork-heavy war dance hailing from the Haudenosaunee. Jones will perform the hoop dance, a complex dance that requires years of practice to express different artistic formations with a large array of hoops. It was traditionally part of the powwow. “The history of some of the lineages really grounds an understanding…of the culture [which is] so beautifully a part of the west coast land,” says Grenier. “People become part of that community during the short period of time [and] there’s a bridging of understanding and awareness that takes place.” Interestingly, while dancing is grounded on very old traditional foundations, Grenier says what’s primarily being shared today in the dancing world has been developed in the last few decades.

Rainbow Creek dancers

Because of around 70 years of Potlatch ban, the tradition is a fragile one. It’s remarkable and quite awesome to have so much diversity and enthusiasm remain in the tradition today. Evidently, great effort have been made to preserve this colourful tradition for generations to come, and going forward, it’s all about public awareness and community bonding.

The Festival will consist of Signature Evening Presentations, which are ticketed gala events showcasing the Dancers of Damelahamid and guest artists, Festival Stage Performances of visting performers, and School Group Performances. Signature Evening Presentations are $25 regular adults and $20 for students, seniors, and MOA members, while other performances are included with MOA admission. School-aged children will also be able to work with dancing mentors and learn some moves of their own. Visit the Dancers of Damelahamid for more info.

Yisyawinux̱w dancers in traditional regalia.

Charmaine majors in Creative Writing and English Literature. Like most other university students, she denies her coffee addiction, embraces her TV addiction, and totally overanalyzes everything because she doesn't know what to do with her life. (But it's all for science, you see, because at the end of the day all she needs is something interesting to write about.) She also loves vinyl collecting, guitar-shredding, and snowboard-shredding the local Vancouver mountains.