Powwow and ballet classes for Indigenous youth in Edmonton prove 'dance universal language'

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Alberta Ballet is teaming up with the Indigenous Sport Council of Alberta (ISCA) to give Indigenous kids in Edmonton dance lessons in ballet and powwow, proving “dance is a universal language.”

The six-week program offers free hour-long dancing lessons every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. for students between the ages of eight and 12 years old at Alberta Ballet School studios once per week.

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The first half-hour is assigned for ballet lessons and the second half is assigned for teaching powwow dancing.

Janis Galloway, community impact officer at Alberta Ballet, told Postmedia they were “thrilled” when the sport council approached them with the idea to collaborate, since their goals to reduce barriers to access dance classes and enjoy the physical, mental and social health benefits associated with dancing are aligned.

“No previous dance experience was required at all, no matter what age, we just wanted it to be an open space for kids to just come and try,” she said.

Not only will they receive free transit tickets but also a pair of ballet slippers and moccasins to dance in, Galloway said.

“So, each dancer was also provided with their own pair of ballet slippers to do the ballet portion. And they provided handmade moccasins for each kid to participate in the powwow portion, which is really, really special,” Galloway said.

“We were also able to offer tickets to each young dancer to come and join us to see our professional company on stage at the Jubilee this weekend for Sleeping Beauty. We’re hoping that they’re inspired when they see the professionals on stage to keep up their ballet journey.”

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Galloway said the classes are meant to offer a safe environment where everyone feels free to express themselves.

“We know that there’s a lot of competitive dance streams available, and we really want to fill the gap of just recreational dance where it’s really like, there’s no pressure, there’s no competition. It’s just like come in, have fun and express yourself,” she said.

“We like to inspire in the kids an interest of continuing to pursue powwow and ballet … who knows, there might be a professional dancer in that studio right now.”

She said they were able to make all this happen after receiving funding from the Edmonton Community Foundation and other donors.

Meanwhile, Kyra Buchan, the sport council’s sports co-ordinator, said they are constantly looking for health and wellness opportunities for Indigenous peoples, their families and their communities through sport, physical activity, recreation and culture.

“At the ISCA, we are always looking for partnerships that can provide new opportunities and reduce barriers for Indigenous people in Alberta. Partnering with Alberta Ballet was a great fit as it brought

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together both sport and culture for youth that wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise,” said Buchan.

Buchan adds Alberta Ballet is helping them to create a space for Indigenous youth to learn a new skill in ballet, while incorporating room for cultural dance and growth.

“We look forward to more exciting things to come!” Buchan said.

Interesting, fun, engaging classes

Alberta Ballet outreach teacher Emily Tench says the classes are fun and engaging.

“It’s a fast-moving class, but they are quite bright and they picked up on the sequences really quickly. We’ve been able to get through a lot of ballet material in this 30 minutes, and it’s been really fun and they’re really engaged in it,” Tench said.

She said the hour-long class is not only inspiring but also gives an opportunity to embrace the differences between the two dances.

“It’s super cool to see the similarities and differences and be within these two vastly different cultural art forms in the same space, in the same hour,” Tench said. “It’s so inspiring to kind of be in this, in the space with the kids and the powwow dance teacher.”

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Tench said she not only teaches ballet, she also learns powwow from the sport council’s teacher, Christie Nepoose.

“Christy and I take each other’s class. Christie takes the ballet class and is learning my style of movement. And then I am also taking her powwow class after, and I am being inspired by Christie’s powwow dance,” Tench said.

The first series of the six-week program ends Nov. 16. The class had 20 spots and is currently sitting at 18 participants.

“We had an outstanding amount of interest in this program and are excited for the opportunity to offer it again in the future,” said Buchan.

Indigenous peoples have been dancing on these lands, performing powwows to celebrate a successful hunt or a victorious battle since time immemorial, while ballet originated in the 15th century during the Renaissance and was reserved for celebrations in European courts. The two different historical dance styles share a common purpose of self-expression and celebration.

For more information, visit ISCA’s Facebook page.

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