When Gary Sidney Johnson bows low beneath head feathers, beads and delicately embroidered black-and-red regalia, the Dakhkahwaan (First Peoples Performance) dancer doesn’t quite feel like himself.
“There’s a sense of power when dancing in regalia,” says 26-year-old Whitehorse-born Johnson, “like my ancestors are dancing with me.” The traditional Tlingit-wear, Johnson dons, is far more than costume or uniform.
“It basically represents you,” explains Johnson. Everybody’s clothing is unique and displays their clan representation and crest. The regalia could be either accumulated from trade or handmade like Johnson’s as he “doesn’t know how to bead or sew, just yet”.
The killer whale is Johnson’s personal representation as the exhibited painted centre on the pulled-taut hide of the lead singer’s drum.
Johnson has been part of the Dakhkahwaan Dancers since its May 2007 beginning. The group, which gathers twice weekly to rehearse and entertain with two performances a week, on average, is composed of approximately 20 dancers ranging in age from three to 60.
It’s been a busy year for Johnson and the dancers with a Cultural Olympiad this past March, in Vancouver, a February Winterlude Festival, in Ottawa, and a number of summer performances including Aboriginal Day where their Shipyards Park performance was aired live across Canada on APTN.
The Dakhkahwaan Dancers are now preparing for an engagement potlatch in Vancouver in a few weeks and an Olympic performance in 2010.
Johnson used to laugh when people talked about “being grounded and one with earth” while dancing, but says now he understands this. He celebrates this awareness and grasp of culture especially because he grew up being ashamed of his First Nations identity.
“I grew up seeing the bad side of native culture,” he says. Today, his favourite part of the dancing is the sense of pride and joy he sees on the faces of First Nations and others as they watch. Johnson says he dances for anybody who has lost their culture, past or identity.
A poignant step, for Johnson, toward accepting his heritage was at a powwow in South Dakota where he was invited to dance alongside some neighbouring Alaskan Tlingits.
“I danced like nobody was watching and I started feeling and loving it,” he recalls. Ever since, he says dancing has been his life.
Teaching dancing at the Early Childhood Education Centre, in Carcross, helps Johnson incorporate his passion into his everyday routine. He also teaches the Tlingit language to children and adults there where he’s worked on and off for the last two years. He views dance as a positive outlet that has allowed him to encounter great teachers and help to keep his culture alive.
“My voice cracks at least once during every performance,” laughs Johnson, who sings, dances and drums as part of the Tlingit dance group.
“Doing all three at the same time is harder than anybody knows,” he says. “It’s harder than Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk!”
“I grew up playing sports in high school and this is a better workout than any sport I’ve ever played,” he says, explaining that the men demonstrate strength while dancing, crouching low and stiff as if ready to pounce. The women are supposed to look regal, swaying from side to side like princesses.
“Dance has made my life awesome,” says Johnson, who feels most opportunities he’s encountered have been because of dance.
“A five-year-old girl once told me I didn’t have to make money to teach them dance,” he says, and he absolutely agrees: “It’s not about money; it’s about keeping it alive.”
Aislinn Cornett covers dance and dancers in the Yukon. If you have an upcoming dance performance, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.