This group of six performers, led by choreographer Santee Smith, open the North American #Indigenous Games on Sunday at Toronto’s Aviva Centre. (Paul Borkwood/CBC) In a Brantford, Ont. dance studio hardly large enough to hold its seven occupants, music and feet thump to the same rhythm, punctuated only by the swishing of whipsticks and choreographer Santee Smith’s occasional guidance.
"So the head should go from here, to the left," Smith said, acting out the motion, "to down the centre, to catch up to the right. You feel the music out there."
She starts the music again. The troupe, sweaty and determined, has been at it all day — for good reason. They’re set to perform for thousands on Sunday evening at York University’s Aviva Centre in a show that, for these young artists, will be their most daunting yet. Montana Summers, front and centre, has worked with Santee Smith for other major performances, but says the audience of 9,000 will be the largest he’s ever danced for. (Paul Borkwood/CBC) "Nine thousand people," laughs 19-year-old Montana Summers a little nervously. "It makes my heart skip a beat a bit."
Smith, an award-winning choreographer from Six Nations of the Grand River, was tapped to design the opening ceremony act for the North American Indigenous Games.
The performance weaves local creation stories with spiritual symbolism, incorporating traditional Pow-Wow styles and referencing some of NAIG’s dearest sports: Smith employs kayak paddles, lacrosse sticks and archery bows as props.
Smith says she wanted the act to showcase Ontario’s best young Indigenous talent. "I keep a tab on what they’re all doing," she says smiling. Santee Smith, owner of Ka’wahi Dance Theatre in Toronto, has won awards for her choreography. She wanted to work exclusively with young people for the Indigenous Games. (Paul Borkwood) One member of the troupe is her own daughter, Semiah Smith. It’s her first stadium show.
She’s excited, but used to trying new things: although the 18-year-old discovered her singing voice only last year, she’s unruffled by displaying her vocal chops. She sang for an atrium full of spectators at NAIG’s medal unveiling last month.
The youngest in the room, 15-year-old Ascension Harjo, explains the history of the hoop dance he’ll be performing.
"In its original form it was a healing dance," he said, a tradition from the Taos Pueblo peoples of New Mexico. "Throughout the years it grew, and now people are doing it for show and competition."
Harjo tosses his decorated hoops high into the air, catching them effortlessly on an outstretched limb.
Karahkwiiohstha Feryn King, who at 23 is the oldest dancer in the room, mirrors him from the other side of the studio with her own hoops. Smith and the dance troupe have designed the performance collaboratively. It’s a symbolic work incorporating elements of lacrosse, kayaking and archery. (Paul Borkwood/CBC) "I feel relieved afterwards," King said of the dance’s impact on her. "We’re human beings and we go through a lot during the day. Anger, sadness, happiness. We just let it all out in dance."
Summers agrees. Even though Sunday’s show is fast approaching, he knows once he’s on stage he’ll forget the size of the audience watching him.
"I go into another zone," he said. "I’m exploring what my body wants to say."
This Sunday, come down to the Canadian Broadcasting Centre to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Toronto 2017 North American Indigenous Games. Doors open at 7 p.m. Broadcast starts at 7:30 p.m.
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