Book explores folk dance across Canada for insight into culture
Lori Henry has been dancing since she was two years old. Trained in everything from Polynesian to ballet, tap, and hip-hop, Henry, now almost 30, still loves to dance but works as a travel writer. So it was only natural to combine her passions into a book that explores Canada through its folk- dance culture.
For Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories That Define Canada (Dancing Traveller Publishing), Henry went to nine provinces and territories to experience their dance cultures. She took part in Highland dancing in New Brunswick and Ukrainian in Saskatchewan and Alberta. She step-danced through a community-hall gathering in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and participated in a powwow at the Wikwemikong Cultural Festival on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. She even went up to Nunavut and took part in Inuit drum dancing.
On the line from her Vancouver home, Henry tells the Georgia Straight that while dance tourism isn’t a well-established niche like culinary tourism, people do it informally around the world; for example, in Buenos Aires tourists often try out tango. She notes that many of the Canadian festivals she covers in her book are annual events that welcome tourists and offer workshops for the inexperienced.
“For the most part, you just step in—that’s why dance is so accessible,” she says. “You don’t even have to speak the same language. You just dance.”
For Henry, dance is about more than just having a good time. Like tourists who delve into a destination’s food to gain insight into its culture, she turns to dance for exploration. “For me, it’s an ‘in’,” she explains. Through dancing, she interacts with people she might not otherwise have met, which opens doors to unique cultural experiences, such as being invited into a local person’s home.
Dancing also leads to a better understanding of the people and culture of a place. “By stepping into the dances that they’re doing, it teaches me about their dancing, first of all—what the dance is about, where it came from, how it’s changed—but it also leads me into the lives of the people,” she states. “Dance parallels a way that a society behaves.…It mirrors how people live their lives.” She gives the example of Ukrainian-Canadian dancers in Saskatchewan and Alberta who wear brightly coloured costumes and do high-energy dances to up-tempo music: “The Ukrainian people that I met, that’s also how they live life—with this intense passion about things, in a sort of a colourful way.”
As its title indicates, Dancing Through History looks at how past events have shaped the traditional dances of the country’s immigrant and aboriginal groups. In fact, the book reads less like a travelogue than a study of how Canada’s diverse communities—in particular First Nations groups—have struggled to retain their cultures in the face of political challenges.
“Everyone I spoke with was living their culture, seeing to it that it didn’t die,” Henry writes in the book. As Margaret Grenier, artistic director of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival in Vancouver, told her, “We [dance] to see something carry forward that we might have lost.…So everybody who sings and dances knows that if they don’t, no one else will.”