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Coastal First Nations Dance Festival intertwines history, culture, and art through movement

Tuesday 01st, March 2016 / 10:58
By Prachi Kamble
James Jones

James Jones

VANCOUVER — UBC’s Museum of Anthropology is bringing together First Nations talent from across the country to celebrate the indigenous stories, dances, and music that are at the crux of Canada’s heritage.

James Jones — a championship-level hoop dancer who also tours with electronic Powwow DJs A Tribe Called Red — features in a spectacular lineup of artists set to present at the weeklong Coastal First Nations Dance Festival. Included alongside Jones are Tesha Emarthle, who will perform a smoke dance, and the Dancers of Damelahamid, who will showcase a wide range of indigenous dance forms.

Jones hails from a small reserve outside of Edmonton. He moved to the inner city and became interested in electronic dance music, which led to learning how to breakdance. “I started going to sober dance clubs,” he recalls. “They were like family dance nights, where you could have fun without drugs or alcohol. When electronic hype songs came on, Native dancers would make a big circle and start dancing. That’s where I learned the b-boying. Those Native breakdancers were also Powwow dancers. They took me under their wing and showed me how to dance in the men’s grass style.”

The grass dance is controlled and calm, with fringe on the ensembles that signifies grass swaying in the wind. Fancy dance, which Jones did later, involves rapid footwork that barely touch the ground. Fancy dancers don bustles and headgear adorned with feathers and fringe. Hoop dancing, Jones’ ultimate choice, uses hoops to create shapes and formations to tell stories.

If you watch videos of Jones’ hoop performances, you’ll see him in colourful and textured traditional wear, with fur-lined boots and signature waistcoats that show off his physical prowess. He combines traditional and street wear to represent his own nuanced identity and does the same with his choreography, folding break dancing staples like front flips and headstands into traditional hoop dances to create a hybrid that is both novel and youthful.

With no real dance academies teaching the hoop dance, Jones’ mentors played a key role in his training. “You need a lot of guidance,” he says. “You have to get the hoops, you have to get the regalia, things you can’t just buy at the store.”

Traditional hoop dancing, apart from being arrestingly cool to watch, has a strong spiritual component and Jones performs with as many as seven hoops at one time. “Each hoop has a meaning,” he explains. “The dance is part of a healing ceremony, so every time you dance you have to honour that story.”

Spreading the wonders of First Nations dancing, especially to youth, is important to Jones. When asked what direction he would like to see First Nations dance go in, Jones replied, “I’d like it to be really big in our communities before it hits the mainstream. I’d like to see more youth getting support for the arts, to travel and compete.”

Jones has faith in the youth — First Nations culture and the arts are so intertwined, they can’t be separated. “Our kids are latching onto [the culture] because it’s giving them a sense of pride and identity,” he says. “We were artists as far back as you can tell. Singers, storytellers, dancers. Being First Nations, you’re already an artist.”

For youths with financial difficulties, he maintains, the arts are both accessible and highly rewarding. “We never had thousands of dollars for hockey equipment. We were chipping in for slurpees, you know what I mean?”

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival provides an excellent opportunity for young First Nations to come face-to-face with the power of their traditions, while offering audiences outside the community a chance to marvel at its rich heritage. Prepare for a week that will stir up your senses with dazzling costumes, vibrant movements, and soul-awakening music.

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival runs at the Museum of Anthropology from March 1 – 6.

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