Annual Coastal Dance Festival celebrates the legacy of Indigenous elders

The event’s director discusses how the festival is taking a different form this year

Coastal Dance Festival returns remotely for 2021. Photo: Amanda Siebert / The Georgia Straight

By: Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

After a year of endless event cancellations, the Coastal Dance Festival decided the show must go on. Brought together by the Dancers of Damelahamid, the event will be occurring virtually this March. Every year, the festival celebrates the art of Indigenous dance — with guest performers from all over the Northwest Coast of Canada, as well as from Indigenous communities around the world, including South America, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia. The Peak had the opportunity to speak to Artistic & Executive Director of the Coastal Dance Festival, Margaret Grenier, about what to expect with this year’s showcase. 

Providing some background on the festival’s origins first, Grenier explained that “it originally started because of the cultural olympia that led up to the 2010 Olympic Games.” The event was initially intended to create space for traditional Indigenous dance, as several already established dance festivals had a contemporary style focus. “But, I think that the festival has in itself shifted in many ways,” she said. “Having the ability to define what is traditional, what is contemporary, or what is needed to be shared at the festival [for our artists to represent themselves], has become a little more open.” 

This year’s event is also particularly monumental and meaningful to the Dancers of Damelahamid. “Our family hosts the festival each year and we’ve had some loss with our elders — in particular my mother, Margaret Harris, passed last summer,” noted Grenier. She said this year they wanted to mark the legacy of Elder Margaret Harris, as well as the legacy of that generation. Grenier explained that “after the Potlatch ban had been lifted, there was decades of work that went into revitalisation, and that generation made it possible for us to have the dances that we have today.” 

Considering the challenges that have arisen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the context of this year’s performance has also shifted. Grenier explained that many of the dancers have not had the opportunity to share their art during lockdown and many of the performers have not even had the chance to wear their regalia since last spring. Still, she said, “it really is a festival with a focus on sharing, on resiliency, and on how we’re finding our ways to practice this.” Grenier added the performance as a whole this year is focused on allowing their artists “to share in whatever capacity they are comfortable to, and that they can, given all the restrictions that we are under right now.”

Grenier said the practice of cultural sharing in Indigenous communities has been greatly impacted by the pandemic, as so many gatherings and events have been cancelled. She explained artists have been trying to adapt to the circumstances by continuing to connect with others in any way that they can, like through the sharing of songs. “Also a really big focus seems to be on language, like finding ways for language practice to help working with elders and language carriers — just finding different ways to practice for when we can actually gather in person,” she added. 

This year’s event will be hosted on the Dancers of Damelahamid website and a list of images and biographies of the artists participating in the festival will be made available, from which the corresponding performances will be linked. While the festival will be running on a much smaller scale than usual, there are aspects of this year’s performances that are particularly sentimental because of the virtual circumstances. “What will be shared is really coming from the communities of our artists,” Grenier said. “The artists who won’t be travelling to Vancouver [will] be able to share some spaces that they couldn’t normally bring to [the festival].” Audiences this year will be able to see the connection Indigenous communities around the world have with the land — an opportunity that otherwise would not have been available.

When asked what the SFU community can do to support this year’s dance festival, Grenier said there are opportunities for donations. But she also noted that they aren’t asking for much as they’ve already arranged for the festival to happen without relying on ticket sales. She said, “Just taking the time to sort of be with the artists to see what they are sharing” would be the best way to support them. Grenier also shared some words of encouragement for all audiences watching from home: “have an open mind and an open heart that we’re all in this together this year and we’re all finding a way to move forward.”

The event will be running from March 12—18 and does not require tickets. To stay tuned on where to view the festival, check out the Dancers of Damelahamid website.