Every Monday night since July, I have been trying out a new activity: First Nations traditional dance classes.
(Well, it hasn't been every Monday night... I took a bit of a break from dance after I stepped on a sea urchin while on vacation, but that's for another blog entry.)
I will say this up front: I am the whitest regular attender of the drop-in class. Last Monday, several new people joined us, so we did the customary go-around-the-circle-and-say-your-name thing, but we were also asked to share our tribal background. There were Miqmaqs and Plains Crees, two Squamish girls, a Haida woman, a Gitxzan, and a few people from Tsawwassen nation. When it was my turn, I said, "I'm Beth, and I am British/Irish/Swedish/Czech."
I am not only the whitest dancer, but also possibly the dancer with the least natural talent for dance. Sure, I can move in time with a piece of music, but I have always lacked the confidence required to do it creatively and convincingly. For much of my life, I have avoided school dances, and have made awkward small talk with other non-dancers during wedding receptions.
My whiteness and my lack of dance training combined to produce a fair amount of anxiety the first night I headed out toward the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre for dance class. As I walked, I rehearsed the reasons why I was going.
I need exercise.
The Friendship Centre is only a fifteen-minute walk from my house.
The classes are free.
Those reasons were convincing (especially the last one, on a low-income pastor's budget), but they could apply to a lot of other potential activities. They were not adequate to get me through the doors of the Friendship Centre.
I was invited to the class. That was a better reason. The teacher, who was fancy dancing at a National Aboriginal Day celebration put on by a local church, had invited the whole crowd to come to her class. But I could still rationalize that the invitation wasn't specifically intended for a white non-dancer like me.
I tried to think of another reason. I love to watch fancy dancing. Fancy dancing drew me in from the first time I saw it, in Saskatoon, during my undergrad years. I watched, dumbstruck, as the colorful ribbons of the dancers' shawls spun around them. They seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground, traveling by tiptoe, their feet stepping deftly, as though the grass under them were actually a bed of hot coals. Perhaps if I enjoyed watching it, I would also enjoy doing it. Still, I had little faith I could reproduce such beautiful and free movement.
Thankfully, there was one more reason I had for learning to fancy dance, and this was the reason that pushed me over the edge: I believe I have a responsibility to protect and appreciate the cultures of my brothers and sisters, especially if those cultures have been denigrated, or threatened with assimilation and extinction.
I co-pastor a predominantly low-income First Nations congregation in a neighbourhood that is home to one of Canada's largest off-reserve Aboriginal populations. About a century ago, my people tried to take away the dances of their peoples; we called them evil and outlawed them in the name of Jesus. We tried to rob them of many of the ways they worshiped their Creator and expressed their uniqueness. We cut their hair, changed their names, and muted their languages. It was only by their ingenuity and collective memory that they kept these cultural elements alive. Today, some First Nations languages and practices are still very much in danger of extinction.
I have a responsibility to protect these cultures by virtue of being human, but even more so as a human who claims to follow Christ. I believe that what my people did was sinful and unjust. My Creator loves variety and values culture. His plan for humanity is not for us to merge into a monoculture, but for all the kings and nations of the earth to march (or maybe dance!) into the holy city in our glorious diversity, bringing all our splendor (Rev. 21:24).
I did not think that learning to fancy dance would in any way undo the damage caused by my people. I did, however, hope that it would take me a few steps closer to appreciating and understanding the beautiful culture I sought to protect in the name of Christ. Besides, the slight discomfort and embarrassment I might feel as a white girl in dance class would, at most, be a small taste of the many marginalizing experiences most First Nations people face daily.
It turned out that my first dance class wasn't nearly as awkward as I expected. Rather than explaining the steps, the teacher stood in front of me and demonstrated them over and over, which is a typically First Nations way of teaching. She told me to keep trying them for the next hour of dancing. I left exhausted but exhilarated. It took me a full month to get a feel for the heartbeat of the drum, and many more months before I was able to combine the steps more creatively. Now, I notice myself loosening up and relaxing. I am even making a couple of friends.
I am always ready to share my reasons for learning to fancy dance. Yet to this day, not a single person at dance class has asked me why a pale-faced redhead would keep showing up. Maybe in the future they will pop the question, but for now, they simply accept me as a fellow learner, laughing complaining with me during the warm-up abdominal exercises, and poking fun at me when I fail once again to anticipate the ending of a song. It is a privilege to be so welcomed, and to work with them to preserve and promote something so beautiful.
Watch for me on the pow wow circuit years down the road. I'll be the one blinding you with my white skin and my boss moves.
A video of one of my teachers fancy dancing.