At the Coastal Dance Festival, the ‘Yisya̱’winux̱w Dancers from Alert Bay will share a traditional welcome dance and the Hamatsa (Cannibal Dance), which is considered the highest-ranking and most sacred of the T̓seḵa (Winter Ceremonies) of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw. Photo by Amanda Laliberte
Vancouver Island

‘For the well-being of our communities’: Coastal Dance Festival celebrates cultural resilience in uncertain times

The 14th annual festival will be a free online celebration of songs, dances and stories from along the coast

Indigenous dancers from around the coast are stepping back into their regalia — some for the first time since the pandemic began — to take part in a celebration of culture, community and resilience.

The 14th annual Coastal Dance Festival will take place as a free online event this year as a way to celebrate Indigenous arts in a time of uncertainty.

The six-day festival begins this Friday, with some performances being filmed at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster, B.C., and others being streamed in the dancers’ own home territories.

Margaret Grenier of Dancers of Damelahamid, the festival’s executive and artistic director, says a benefit of doing things this way is that groups with the capacity to do so can go beyond dance to share about their communities.

“The artists who have the capacity to do so are going out on the land and sharing a bit about the connection to land and place, connecting to their culture and artistic practice in that way,” Grenier says in an interview.

In previous years, the Coastal Dance Festival has been a large in-person event that involves dance groups travelling to perform for audiences in the Lower Mainland.

Last year, the event went ahead as planned in February — just two weeks before everything shut down because of COVID-19, Grenier says.

When organizers began considering how the festival would look during a pandemic, Grenier says she found people were missing the connection that comes with taking part in cultural events.

“A number of artists commented on how they hadn’t worn their regalia since last February, so it’s something people are missing,” she says.

“So many of the live cultural events have been cancelled, I think there’s just a real sincere wanting to share, but also wanting to have the opportunity for witnessing.”

Performances will feature dancers along the coast from Washington to Alaska — including the ‘Yisya̱’winux̱w Dancers from Alert Bay, a Tsimshian storyteller from Metlakatla, youth dancers from Musqueam and much more.

Dancers of Damelahamid is an Indigenous dance company from B.C.’s Northwest Coast that organizes the annual Coastal Dance Festival. The company is known for elaborate and dramatic masked dances that fuse ancient traditions with contemporary practice. Photo by Chris Randle

A highlight this year is that Dancers of Damelahamid will be honouring the legacy of Grenier’s mother, the late Elder Margaret Harris, who passed away last summer. She was 89 years old.

“I think when an Elder passes it really reminds you of the training you received from them, the legacy and impact they’ve had in the community,” Grenier says.

“Just the broader work that generation did to make sure dance wasn’t lost, to make sure language wasn’t lost.”

Grenier says in creating the short dance to honour her late mother, the group wanted to acknowledge Harris’s legacy around bringing life back to Northwest Coast dance and the importance of engaging future generations.

Grenier’s parents started organizing dance festivals in Prince Rupert in 1967, which eventually turned into what’s now the Coastal Dance Festival today.

“Just being immersed in the music and the dances of the surrounding communities, and being in a space full of people and sharing in that way, it impacted me a lot,” Grenier says.

“It was something I really enjoyed and so for myself it’s what compelled me to try to bring back that festival environment.”

Grenier says, following in Harris’s footsteps, the festival continues to create a platform to protect and preserve Indigenous protocols.

“Indigenous identity and cultural well-being are lived practices, and it’s essential for Indigenous people to continuously practice and share their songs and dances in order to maintain them, for the well-being of our communities,” she says in a statement about the festival.

The ‘Yisya̱’winux̱w Dancers from Alert Bay. Photo by Amanda Laliberte

Although the festival is being offered for free, Dancers of Damelahamid are accepting donations as a way to support the dance company’s ongoing work.

More information about the festival and performances can be found here.