Native stories told through hoop dancing 

WHAT: Weetama

WHERE: Whistler Conference Centre and village

WHEN: Aug. 30-Sept. 2

Dances are used for many purposes in the lives of Canada’s First Nations and Native American peoples and are a key tool in keeping their culture alive. They can tell stories, are often ceremonial and are sometimes just for entertainment. Dancing is a celebration of life with roots in ancient ritual and symbolism.

One of the most popular forms of social dancing is the hoop dance. It’s a modern, inter-tribal sport which some believe originated with the Taos Pueblo people or the Hopi people of the Southwest. Regardless of the background, all First Nations seem to have circles incorporated into the history of their dances and their beliefs. With the hoop dance, willow switches were soaked in water until they were flexible enough to bend. In some tribes, the dance was used as part of healing ceremonies, but world-wide it’s now performed just for exhibition and in appreciation of the Creator.

Traditionally restricted to only males, it’s a showcase of dexterity and agility as dancers manoeuvre hoops around their legs, arms and torso. Picking them up with their feet, shapes are woven with the hoops, which can range from five all the way up to 50, to portray symbols or tell a story. What the symbols or stories mean will vary according to the dancer’s tribe and background. Accompanied by singing and drumming, styles can range from highly athletic with acrobatic leaps, to more controlled with precise movements.

The mental and physical skills required to be a good hoop dancer have led to competitions, the most prestigious of which is the annual World Championships held in Phoenix, Arizona. Competitors are judged on timing, rhythm, creativity, dancing and speed. This year’s winner was Alberta’s Alex Wells.

Although it was Wells’ first time in the adult category, he beat out 17 experienced dancers from across North America for the title. But that’s not to say that Wells, a member of the Interior Salish First Nation of Mount Currie, is inexperienced. He’s been dancing for more than 11 years, performing solo as well as choreographing large scale productions. Wells has appeared in film and television such as Jackie Chan’s "Shanghai Noon" and a music video by country artist Chris Cummings. He travels extensively to bring his dancing all around the world, including Vancouver, Chicago, New York, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He is just coming off a tour of Italy.

Whistler will be treated to Wells’ talents this weekend as he is the feature performer at the Weetama Traditional Feast. Weetama – from the Squamish Lil'wat word ‘cwitima,’ which means whistling marmot, for which Whistler is named – is a weekend of cultural exchange with storytelling, dancing, singing and art. The Feast celebrates a time-honoured tradition, including a welcome cleansing ceremony with cedar wood boughs, a feast of more than 30 authentic foods served in carved wooden bowls and bentwood boxes, a full length performance by Wells and a traditional good-bye with guests receiving gifts of wooden clackers and their bentwood box.

For tickets to the Saturday night Traditional Feast or information on all of the Weetama events, visit the Activity Centre in the Whistler Conference Centre.

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