Cama-i Dance Festival, Bethel, Alaska (part two): The dances

“In the past it was a big mistake to stop the dancing – a lot of things died in this process.  Restarting dances is only one thing… By learning the dances, you young people will have weight, so that nobody can brush you off the top of this earth. You will be the exciting ones.” ~Marie Arnaq Meade


In a recent post, I gave an overview of Cama-i, which we attended earlier this year.  In today’s post, I’ll talk about the star of this Yup’ik festival—the dances.

Yup’ik dance

I can’t even pretend to understand the Yup’ik dances that we saw at Cama-i.  During the performances, a group might pause here or there to explain the meaning behind a particular dance, but the explanations were infrequent, and I quickly lost track, hypnotized as I was by the constant beating of the drums.

I have since learned, however, that Yup’ik dancing is anything but simple.  I came across a dissertation on the subject (yes, I go deep with some of these posts), and the author, Dr. Theresa John, stated that, before dancing in the Y-K Delta was banished, there may have been as many as twenty different categories of Yup’ik dance.  There were dances for everything—prayer, storytelling, instruction, and celebration.  Some dances were used during sacred ceremonies, and others were offered as a celebration of family and kinship.  Dance and song were intertwined with all aspects of Yup’ik society and an integral part of their identity.

Most of the ancient rituals have been lost, but those that endured were on full display at Cama-i.

The Yup’ik dances follow a consistent pattern in which men kneel at the front of the stage and women stand behind them.  From the back of the stage, the drummers direct the songs, which consist of a chorus and several verses.

The dances were carefully choreographed, and each movement was an act of communication.  “Dancing is another way of visually speaking.  I think it is like a sign language….It just kind of draws you in as you watch.”¹

The women exhibited graceful, even dainty movements, but I found myself watching the men, whose large, precise gestures added punctuation to the drum beats.  They often mimicked actions, such as shooting an arrow or rowing a boat, making the subject of the song a little easier to understand.

Regalia and instruments of the dances

Yup’ik dancer wearing a kuspuk, piluguuk, and headdress and carrying dance fans

Yup’ik clothing was designed for warmth and water-resistance, and the dance regalia, which was simple and practical, followed suit.

  • The ubiquitous article of clothing at Cama-i was the kuspuk, a hand-sewn, loose-fitting, hooded shirt that was meant to be worn over a person’s fur parka to keep it clean.  Traditionally worn only by women, kuspuks are now unisex, and almost all of the Yup’ik dancers wore them.  Because it needed to be waterproof, the kuspuk was originally made from the skin or gut of an animal; these days, however, they’re made of cotton or other fabric.
  • Dancers wore piluguuk, or decorated boots, similar to the mukluks that we saw in the Yup’ik Museum:
Sealskin mukluks (photo taken at the Yup’ik Museum)
  • Traditionally, the regalia also included a qaliqor fancy fur parka, but dancers didn’t wear them at Cama-i.  I’m guessing it would’ve been extremely uncomfortable to wear an animal-skin coat while dancing indoors!
Fancy parka (photo taken at the Yup’ik Museum)
  • Both men and women wore dance headdresses made from a variety of animal sources, including caribou hair and bear claws as well as the fur of wolves, weasels, ermine, and otters.
  • Some young women wore a beaded headdress known as a dance cap. Traditionally, this was worn at all times to keep a girl’s hair neat and to prevent her caarluk (scent) from “injuring others.”  The Yup’ik name for the cap, nacarrluk, means “bad hat.”
Dance cap (middle) and dance headdress on the right (photo taken at the Yup’ik Museum)
  • Both men and women held dance fans, which served to accentuate their fluid arm movements.  The fans were made from wood and decorated with feathers or fur.
Women dancers, holding dance fans
Mens’ dance fans (left). The other items in the case were also ceremonial pieces— front right: a drum stick; back right: a dance stick (photo taken at the Yup’ik Museum)
  • The ceremonial mask is an important element in Yup’ik dances.  When we saw the masks displayed in the Yup’ik Museum, we admired them as works of art, but watching the masked dancers at Cama’i made it clear just how integral masks are to the performances.  They added an element of drama and realism to the stories being told.

Historically, masks were often created by the shaman, or spiritual leader, who acted as a mediator between his people and the spirit world.  The masks were based on visions that he had seen, and they were meant to be discarded after each ceremony.  In many villages, shamanism disappeared when dancing was abolished.


Drum  (Source: University of California, Berkeley)
  • The Cauyaq, or drum—a large, round structure made with bentwood—is the only instrument used in Yup’ik dance.

It is at the core of any Yup’ik ceremony.  “The reverberation of the drum kept everyone together,” Yup’ik elder Frank Andrew said in this interview. “The drum is indeed most important. Our ancestors used it to give thanks for the things they harvested…and they were joyous.  Our ancestors kept the drum’s sound alive, using it to uphold customary ways.”

The drumskin was traditionally made from the stomach lining of mammals, but these days it’s more likely to be nylon or other synthetic fabric.  Drummers use a mumeq, or hand-carved wooden drumstick, and the drum is to be struck with care and respect.  Drummers should not hit the drum when in a bad mood, because a broken drum is like “bursting the whole village.” ¹

It was fascinating to read the various qualities that Yup’ik people have ascribed to the drum.  It is considered sacred and powerful, and ancestors are believed to be present when a person strikes the drum.  It also “symbolizes love for all inhabitants”¹ and is like a beating heart, which I though was a fitting comparison, because throughout Cama-i the sound of the drum was ever-present.  Sitting through hours of performances, the beats reverberated in my chest and head.  It was mesmerizing and as natural as a heartbeat.

Cama-i’s aptly-named “Heart of the Drums” ceremony took place on Saturday afternoon.  Drummers from the various groups streamed through the aisles of the gym and climbed to the tops of the bleachers, drumming in sync with one another.  They then proceeded to the stage, all the while pounding their drums.

It was like hearing—and feeling—a thundering heartbeat, even and strong.  What a powerful experience.  Here’s a video link if you want to check it out.

The performances

Yup’ik dance groups

22 groups performed at this year’s Cama-i.  Most were Yup’ik groups from Bethel and surrounding villages, but a local classical dance company called Delta Illusions also performed,² as did a few non-Yupik Alaskan troupes from Canada and Texas.

It’s hard to describe the dances, so I’m including video links to some of the ensembles that I especially enjoyed, including the Pingayaq Dancers from Chevak, and the Upallret Dancers, a group from Bethel that performed an energetic dance in this video.

One of our favorite ensembles was Pamyua and Friends.  I’m not sure who the “and friends” were, but Pamyua (pronounced bum-yo-ah and Yup’ik for “encore”) is an internationally known quartet whose founding members, Phillip and Stephen Blanchett, are two brothers from Bethel.

Phillip Blanchett (middle) and brother Stephen (right), founding members of Pamyua

Most of Pamyua’s music is based on traditional Yup’ik, Inuit, and Greenlandic songs, but these talented musicians have transformed them into modern melodies that range in description from moving to downright funky.  They describe themselves as “tribal funk.”  They were fantastic performers who looked like they were having a blast dancing and singing together, and the energy rolling off the stage was infectious.

The Blanchett brothers come by Yup’ik music naturally; their mother is culture bearer Marie Arnaq Meade, a Living Legend whom I talked about in the previous Cama-i post; she immersed her sons in the Yup’ik culture from childhood on.  In the picture below, members of Pamyua and others perform with Meade right after she was honored (the video of the performance is here):

Marie Arnaq Meade (standing) is honored as a Living Legend.  Stephen Blanchett is fourth from left (sitting), and Phillip is playing the drum (middle).  The two young men sitting stage front, left, are Meade’s nephews, and the drummer (back, left) is Ossie Kairaiuak, another member of Pamyua.

More links:

  • Pamyua’s Cama-i Profile
  • This is a video of all four members of Pamyua performing.
  • Here is a link to Pamyua “unleashing” a “blizzard of interlocking harmonies” on a show called 360 North.
Non-Yup’ik groups

Another Alaskan performer was Athabaskan drummer George Holly from the Kenai Peninsula area (where Dale and I live).  His voice was as rich and powerful as the songs that he sang.  He handcrafted and painted the drum he is holding.  Like the Yup’iks, Athabaskans ascribe a sacred power to this instrument.

George Holly (left); assisting him is Paul Gray, host of the TV show Exploring Alaska Native Voices

Two groups from outside of Alaska gave amazing performances:

The Danza Matachin Pavo Real Dancers, from El Paso, Texas, exhibited the Matachin style of dance, which is rooted in Spanish, Mexican, and Southwest Indian cultures.

I went to a Q&A session with the group, which consisted mostly of members from a single family.  One of the dancers stated that Spanish priests brought Matachin dancing to the Southwest US as a way to reach the Natives, for whom dancing was a way of life.  As with the religious rituals of many cultures, Matachin has a mix of Christian and Native elements.

And like Yup’ik dances, Matachin is not performed for mere entertainment.  “People ask us to dance at birthday parties and store openings,” one of the members said, but the dances are considered sacred.

In the picture below, members explained the regalia of the dance, including the intricately constructed Nawilla, or waist garment, which is made of bamboo and other natural materials and decorated with the group’s symbol, a peacock.  Each element of their clothing, from the red and green colors to the handmade sandals and Nawilla, are symbolic of their culture.

The bamboo of the Nawilla made a pleasant clicking sound when they danced and spun:

The sole drum was played by the leader of the group (also one of the group’s founders and father to several of the people in the group):

And the dancers shook hollowed-out gourds that rattled with every movement.  Here’s a video link to one of Pavo Real’s riveting Cama-i performances.


Hoop Dance

The celebrated Running Thunder Cree Dance Troupe from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, also put on a spectacular performance.  Running Thunder was founded by Adrian LaChance, who also makes indigenous drums.  The troupe wore stunning regalia and performed traditional First Nations pow-wow dances (link to a video of the performance is here):


Throughout the weekend, the children were invited to sit near the stage so that they could watch the performances up close. Look at how rapt they are!

LaChance gave a bit of narration before each dance, explaining its purpose.  He also talked about why his troupe chooses to dance, and he did so with eloquence and humor: “A long, long time ago—before KFC—we would roam these lands without borders.  We would celebrate and honor the Creator through song, through dance.  Today we still tell stories of what it was for a First Nations person long ago, to maybe go on a hunt, or a battle.  Today we keep the stories alive.

“Dancing for us is a way to heal.  Dancing for us is a way to forgive.  Dancing for us is a way to love.  So we keep these stories alive for each and every one of you, to celebrate the Creator, Mother Earth.  If you think about it, Mother Earth gives us so much.  The water, the fruit, the vegetables.  Instagram.  Facebook.  Just kidding.  So we honor Mother Earth with every step we’re making, saying, ‘Thank you.  Thank you for life.’  So that is why dancing for us is a very important part of our life.  It reminds us to always be thankful.”

Adrian LaChance, founder of Running Thunder

Aren’t they spectacular? ³

Finally, Cama-i celebrates dancing of all kinds, including hip hop! Kontagious Mindz, a hip hop group from Anchorage, was amongst the most popular performers at the festival.

Children’s performances

These days, immersion schools and other organizations teach modern Yup’ik children traditional dance, and I counted seven groups ranging in age from preschool to high school who performed at Cama-i.  There was also an ensemble from the University of Alaska Kuskokwim Campus.

We had originally thought about skipping the children’s dance groups, not because we have anything against kids (we rather like them), but because we’re not parents, and we didn’t have a child onstage, so why attend what would undoubtedly be imperfect performances filled with giggles and missteps?

We ended up watching several of the groups anyway, and, to my surprise, they were among my favorites.

No, they weren’t perfect, and yes, there were giggles and waves to the audience and self-conscious blushes, but these kiddos possessed a great deal of skill, not surprising when you realize that many of them had been dancing since they were tiny tots.  And they more than made up for any imprecision with their devotion to and enthusiasm for the dances.

Mt. Edgecumbe High School, among the best of the dance groups, in my opinion!  (You can watch a video of their performance here)
Gladys Crane School. Look at those smiles! (video here)

I actually found myself tearing up several times as I watched these groups perform.  Long ago, Yup’ik dance was banned in many villages, and dancing was so important to the culture that the banishment basically stripped many Yup’iks of their worldview.  How terrible it must have been, to have one’s identity disassembled and then replaced with something alien.  These Yup’iks were, to repeat the opening quote, “brushed off the face of this earth.”

And yet here were their descendants, performing the cherished Yup’ik dances.  These kids know their roots.  They have weight.  They are the exciting ones.  And they won’t be brushed off the face of the earth.

Thoughts on Cama-i

I know that most of the people who read this blog won’t ever make it to Alaska, much less to Bethel or Cama-i.  I know it’s a bit obscure.  But I hope that you’ll enjoy this humble attempt at sharing our introduction to the vibrant spirit of Yup’ik dance.  I hope you’ll watch some of the videos of their joyous performances.  I hope you’ll witness, as we did, children preserving a way of life that was once near extinction.

If you do, by chance, attend Cama-i, immerse yourself in the culture and the stories.  The word cama-i is a friendly greeting in Yup’ik, and Bethelites were incredibly friendly.  I wish I would’ve talked to more people, sought out elders’ stories, learned more about the customs being shared.  Regardless, I’m so glad we had an opportunity to attend this celebration of culture, history, inclusion, education, and preservation.  And, since it looks like Yup’ik dance is going strong, there’s always next year!

For an overview of Cama-i 2017, check out the following:

¹ Unless otherwise noted within the post, quotes were taken from YURARYARARPUT KANGIIT-LLU: Our Ways of Dancing and Their Meanings, A Thesis, by Theresa Arevgaq John, now a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

² The presence of a classical dance company in Bush Alaska seems improbable, but Delta Illusions is thriving in Bethel and has an inspirational story, which you can read here.

³ The morning after Cama-i ended, we were on the same flight to Anchorage as many of the dancers, including the Running Thunder Dance Troupe.  Not that I expected them to be wearing their regalia, but I have to admit it was a bit anti-climactic to see them sans face paint and in their jeans and baseball caps!