As we waited for the Staten Island ferry in New York this summer, music floated toward us. We hurried over to a crowd of people, and inside the circle of spectators, five or six break-dancers bounced off the concrete like it was a trampoline. With each beat of the song they twisted into new shapes and threw themselves around like rhythmically inclined rag dolls. Showing off their urban street-dancing skills, these performers coiled and leapt, bounded and pretzel-ed their bodies into awesomely awkward positions that made my bones ache. The crowd of strangers watched with raised eyebrows, clapping their hands and tossing dollars into the bucket being passed around. (Here’s a video of the New York break dancers. Enjoy!)
That day, I never would’ve guessed that in a few short months I’d be experiencing a kind of dancing so wildly different from the body-throwing, concrete-bouncing kind. And now, Yupik dancing is the only kind of dancing within hundreds of miles.
The songs the Natives dance to can depict anything from daily activities like taking a steam bath or walking through a blizzard to songs that tell about heroic events or traditional stories. The normal dance formation is two long parallel lines of people, women standing in the back and men kneeling in the front. Unlike break-dancing or any other kind of dancing I knew before, Yupik dancing involves mostly arm movements.
At the beginning of the semester, Kim and I went to the village community center (a shaky building with a ply-wood floor, old tables shoved to the side for people to sit on) to watch some Yupik dancing. It was my first time seeing this type of dancing, and it was very different—and oddly mesmerizing. Wearing their traditional guspuqs and singing along with the heavy drumbeats, the pride of the Natives is obvious in their smiles and in their voices. Even the younger ones beam as they execute the few dance movements they do know and stand next to their family and friends, elders and other children, all dancing the stories of their culture. Sometimes the songs echo out into the hallways from the gym after school, reminding everyone exactly where they are—an Eskimo village, a Yupik world of its own.
While you might find students in the Lower 48 tapping their foot and nodding their head to a Katy Perry song, here you might see a student practicing his or her hand motions while humming a Yupik tune. There aren’t many places left in the United States that thrive on tradition and pride in their simple way of life. For the modern and developed parts of America, grocery shopping is the new hunting and video games are the new dancing and singing, and sure, that’s a wonderful culture of its own. But in this interesting little village, the Natives honor the past while taking part in the present—at least the parts of the modern world they CAN take part in. They text on their cell phones AND sew winter clothing; they use the Internet AND make tundra-grass baskets; they buy chips at the student store AND go seal and moose hunting to provide for their families. They listen to Beyonce AND sing and dance to their own Yupik songs. They take advantage of technology AND they keep their traditions alive, making this little village one of the most rich and unique cultures I’ve ever experienced.