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Celebrating Indigenous art forms: Coastal Dance Festival returns to New West

The annual Indigenous dance festival starts tomorrow
The 16th edition of Coastal Dance Festival will include artists from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.

Sixteen years ago, amidst the excitement around the City of Vancouver hosting its first Winter Olympics, an Indigenous dance festival was quietly born. 

Though conceptualized as an event for the Cultural Olympiad leading up to the 2010 Olympic Games at first, it continued to thrive even after the sports fest came to an end.

Year after year, it continued to grow — finally becoming the “strong festival community” it is today, as festival producer Margaret Grenier said over a call.

This year, for its sweet 16, the annual festival will see more than100 Indigenous artists gather from around the world to share and celebrate their traditional artforms over a four-day period at the Anvil Centre, per Grenier, who is also the artistic director of the B.C.-based Indigenous dance group Dancers of Damelahamid.

The extensive lineup includes evening performances by Paunnakuluit (Inuit), a group comprised of drum dancers and traditional Inuit throat singers; Australia’s intergenerational Wagana Aboriginal Dancers, who are known to perform traditional and contemporary dances inspired by the Blue Mountain ranges of the continent; and Rainbow Creek Dancers (Haida), who will perform the traditional Haida ceremonial dances, among others.

“This year, the theme is to celebrate the relationships with communities,” said Grenier, who spent the past year laying the groundwork for a cultural exchange with New Zealand.

As part of this exchange, New Zealand's Indigenous performing artist Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie will be part of the festival in New West; and Grenier's dance group Dancers of Damelahamid will tour Belvie's country in June 2023.

Dancing to keep languages alive

A community base, besides other reasons, is necessary to keep Indigenous languages alive, she stressed.

“So many of our languages are close to being lost,” said Grenier. “For many of us, it’s through song and dance that we have the ability to practice and learn our language.”

"Dance is also how we maintain connections to our ancestral lands. These lands inform our dance, stories and songs,” she added.

The festival started off as a way to bring Indigenous communities together to nurture this art.

“It started as an attempt to make connections with other Indigenous artists and cultivate a space — in partnership with the Museum of Anthropology — for them (to exhibit their traditional art),” she said.

Over the years, the community strengthened — with a core group of artists returning every year. Meanwhile, “a new generation of dancers also have grown up with the festival,” noted Grenier. 

“Now we see that not only are there artists sharing traditional art and dance, but also those who are bringing their contemporary approach to these traditions.” 

It’s quite an accomplishment for the festival that — though started in 2008 — has its genesis in the 60s.

Helping youngsters find their place in the world

A big reason Coastal Dance Festival came to be was due to a similar festival called the We Hani Nah (translates to Big Salmon Feast) that Grenier's parents ran in Prince Rupert for 20 years, between 1967 to 1987, she said.

The festival was discontinued after Grenier’s folks moved to Vancouver. 

But, since it was something that "really impacted" Grenier growing up, she decided to bring it back to life after almost two decades — as a new festival with a new name. 

"I wanted my children to have something similar growing up," she said. 

Mainly because the festival did more than just offer her a stage on which to perform — it helped her find a place in the world, said Grenier.

And with the Coastal Dance Festival, she hopes other young people find theirs.

Coastal Dance Festival is on from March 2 to 5 at the Anvil Centre (777 Columbia St.). The festival includes ticketed and non-ticketed segment. Check out the full schedule at Dancers of Damelahamid website.