THE BIG SOCIAL
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
Saturday, October 5, 12pm-11pm
Union Station West Wing
Haudenosaunee Social Dance (Indigenous) and Swing Dance
In Union Station’s West Wing, I had another opportunity to move. As part of THE BIG SOCIAL, the Grand River Haudenosaunee Singers – wearing traditional headdresses with eagle feathers – and dance artist Santee Smith of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre were instructing folks in various Haudenosaunee social dances. These dances, as the speaker explained, are forms that have evolved over the years as community members share them together in social contexts for many different celebrations (birthdays, for example), for rejoicing and for thanksgiving. They are in contrast to the more specific ceremonial dances passed down through generations, which are performed only in private. Without much further explanation or context, the men began to sing and travel in a circle with a simple stepping pattern. Passersby and observers were invited to join.
The dances always travel around the circle in a counter-clockwise direction, earthwise, as Santee explained. This is in alignment with the rotation of the earth. At intervals, many of the dances include a half rotation to face outward (while still travelling), for balance, said Santee.
I participated in a women’s dance – a shuffle – in which Santee said the main thing was to always keep both feet in contact with the ground, as though massaging the earth. The movement was a simple parallel toes-heels back and forth shift that again travelled in a counterclockwise circle. It looked simple, but the pace was quicker than I expected and I felt the intensity of the repetition in the twisting of my hips. Others agreed and we laughed together. There’s a bounce to these stepping patterns that, I have a feeling when done right, makes the movement more relaxed and released.
We then did a robin dance, typically done in spring, in which both men and women participated. It was more of a stepping, less of a shuffle.
Finally, I joined in a round dance, in which we faced the centre of the circle and held hands, stepping in and out while swinging the arms forward and back.
As I was leaving to catch the next Artist Talk, the group did a fast and vigorous swamp dance.
When I returned to the West Wing later in the day, a swing dance lesson was underway. The space was absolutely packed and volunteers were having a hard time keeping the pathways clear for travellers. At least 25 pairs of dancers stood in a circle all around the space (with more surrounding them observing the fun). The instructor couple in the centre were dressed the part: she wore a striped short-sleeved t-shirt, knotted scarf, long narrow skirt and brown oxfords. He wore a black button down, pleated trousers and a flat cap. They demonstrated basic swing steps and then encouraged the participants in short practices with recorded music. Everyone seemed to be managing the basic, the flip flop, the break and the break move (including the pigeon peck, which involves an extended arm and a pecking action of the head forward and back). Lots of laughter filled the space, along with furrowed brows, stumbles and lots of bounce.
(In a very general comparison, I’d say the Haudenosaunee bounce emphasizes the grounded
downward pulse, where the swing dance bounce emphasizes the lifted upward pulse.)
I didn’t participate in this session – there was barely space. After a while, I sat down on the floor and enjoyed a “kid’s eye view” of all the dancing feet – and range of footwear, from oxfords to sneakers to heels to bare feet.
The lesson concluded, and eventually the live band struck up (a quartet of grand piano/vocals, bass, drums and clarinet/saxophone). As I left, the space was filled with strangers and friends joyfully dancing together. The big social!
(I admit I was invisibly practicing “the basic” all the way to the subway platform.)
*And to note: later in the evening THE BIG SOCIAL culminated in a Tango Milonga that I was
unable to attend.