Kanata Native Dance Theatre/Kaha:wi Dance Theatre


By Michael MacDonald

In February, before I went to Vancouver, I attended the Ottawa/Gatineau Winterlude Celebrations. While I was walking around in the snow admiring the snow sculptures I heard some drumming and singing coming from one of the small stages in the ice-covered park. I walked over to the stage and saw a young woman doing a Fancy Dance on a small stage in the cold. For the next 30 minutes different members of the Kanata Native Dance Theatre, each in their own hand-made regalia, performed and explained dances for the audience. This group of young people performed a Fancy Dance, Shawl Dance, Jingle Dance and a Grass Dance on a small stage and danced to recorded music while the young woman, Naomi Powless, explained what the dance was about. She explained how the dances were used in Powwows and how their outfits were made.

Prior to 2005, the company performed over 250 shows a year. The Kanata Native Dance Theatre formed on the Six Nations Reserve in Branford, Ontario. Founded in 1995 by the New Zealand Maori artist Te Rangi Huata, the company had six to eight young people as members who came from Iroquois, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, Cree, and Lakota heritage. They have performed for audiences in Canada, the United States, Germany, Italy, Korea, and China. Naomi Powless was a member and choreographer of KNDT for fifteen years.

“When I was small my parents and I would go to Powwows. My parents would set up as vendors and sell crafts. I would bring my shawl and dance, but only with my dad. I was too shy to dance alone. This was my first experience with dancing. I was never competitive though; I just liked to dance. When I was 12 years old I got into figure skating. I did that very intensely until I was 19. I got back into dancing at 19 and by the time I was 23 I was a member of KNDT. I had been a figure skating coach but gave that up to dance full-time. Dancing became a really important thing for me. The choreography work that I had been doing in figure skating gave me the confidence to dance in front of people on stage. The KNDT gave me the opportunity to take that experience and my traditional dances and perform them for people”.

Even though Kanata Native Dance Theatre was based at the Six Nations Reserve many people from different reserves came to join them over the years. The group was always learning more traditional Indigenous dances and explained them to audiences that had never seen them.

As Powless stated in a 2005 interview: “We perform dances from many different aboriginal traditions. Dancers that come and join us from outside of the Six Nations Reserve bring their own traditions with them. While they’re here we learn from them and they learn from us. We train quite a lot. When we start to learn a new dance tradition we will sometimes travel to their home base and learn as much as we can. These cultural exchanges happen between people. We go and talk to their knowledgeable people and when we think we’ve got it down, we perform it. A few years ago we learned some Aztec dancing and since then we’ve been training and performing it. It just happens though. We don’t go looking for new traditions. When we come into contact with a dancer from a different place we learn about it”.

Each of the dances came to the group from a Native Dance Theatre member who took the time to teach the members how it was done. Then the members would once come up with a way to explain it to the audience while it was danced. A narrator would be on the side of the stage explaining to the audience where the dance came from, the history of the dance and its  meaning to the dancers.

Powless elaborated: “Most of what we do is traditional dance performance with a narrator, but we also have theatre pieces that we write and perform. We have one show that we only perform at the Woodlands Cultural Centre. When people come here they get to see something that can only be seen here. A big part of what we do is education. Too often people don’t realize that we still dance our traditional dances. At one school in Scarborough a teacher thought aboriginal people were extinct. It’s really surprising how many people have no knowledge of what happens outside of their towns. If they don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist. Part of what we do is travel around Canada giving people a chance to see it”.

A lot of what Naomi and the KNDT did was for education, but it was also fun for the members and for the audience. She explained that there is freedom in the dance moves and that you can be yourself when you are doing it.

“Dancing is fun. It’s one of the few times, especially with this kind of dance; there is no wrong step. When you’re listening to the song, really listening to the song, your body knows what to do. It’s your own time; it’s just you and your song. We are taught that you dance for the Creator’s enjoyment. It’s also for the people who can’t dance anymore. It’s about the joy of dancing. That’s why we can keep this group together for so many years. It’s because we love it”.

There would be time for fun, but also a time for seriousness. The KNDT allowed the members to travel to different countries and represent their homes. The dancers came from communities that had and continue to have real problems. The dancers had the chance to tell their stories to many people around the world. As Powless recalled:

“We see a lot of different things too. When we were in Germany the mayor of every city we performed in wanted to meet us. At first we expected the same questions we usually get, ‘Do you make your own regalia? … Are the feathers real?’ They didn’t ask those questions though. These mayors were asking, for example, ‘What is the water system like on the reserves?’ and ‘How does the traditional system of government differ from the national system?’ We were treated like diplomats and spokespeople. It was really an honour and it was very empowering.”

“In Germany we’d perform for two hours and after the show they would bring us back onto the stage and turn up the lights in the theatre and the audience would ask us questions. We had one person try to ask a question in our own language! It took a while to understand what he was trying to ask. It turned out that he learned how to speak our language from a book that was published by people from our reserve. That was a very odd coincidence. But it goes to show what you can do if you just work at doing something positive for your community. That’s what we try to do. We’re sure that telling our stories will help a little bit at a time”.

The Kanata Native Dance Theatre closed in 2008, but much of their work and influence has continued with a new company formed at Six Nations. The Kaha:wi Dance Theatre was formed in 2005 at Six Nations and continues to be directed by Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith. You can read about their achievements and outstanding choreographed works at //www.kahawidance.org.

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Indigenous Dance