Rumbling drums and droning vocals from the edge of the performance tent signified the arrival of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers . A minute later a procession of bodies swayed down the aisle, heavy with song and regalia, feet stomping upon earth, twisting the audience around to take it all in.
Dakhká Khwáan knows how to make an entrance. And so they should. After all they did win a Canadian Tourism Award for their ability to capture an audience through story and song. Their Pan Am Game performances have been no different. Whereas the Aboriginal Pavilion offered an intimate setting that brought the audience up close and personal, a wave of ‘Panamania’ characterized the Ontario Celebration Zone with Dakhká Khwáan looming large (quite literally thanks to a massive digital screen) in front of a swarming crowd that filled the outdoor auditorium.
To see the Dakhká Khwáan dancers in action at the 2015 Pan Am Games, watch our video:
On each occasion the backdrop faded away amongst Inland Tlingit tales of history and identity, time and culture, through echoing voice and the rigorous beat of mallet hammering upon stretched animal skin.
At the helm of guiding the ménage of song and thump is Gary Johnson, lead vocalist and drummer. With his Tlingit name translating to “coming up noisy,” he certainly knows how to use the escalating sounds to drive both the dancers and the crowd alike. “The biggest thing is high energy….we really pick up the crowd.”
Yet the performance is more than just pulsing beat and emotional adrenaline. Traditional songs and stories come from a very personal place, and each performance is an opportunity for the group to make that known.
“Culture is still here, prevalent, it is strong,” Johnson noted.
The Pan Am Games offered an important opportunity for this Yukon-based group to share this with an international community, so much so that this lead drummer fought his way through an earlier wrist injury in order to be a part of the performance. The chance to share their stories was too great to miss out on.
And share they did. Unlike sporting events that keep spectators at arm’s length, Dakhká Khwáan reaches out to the audience and brings them into the fold as Johnson and his companions guide them through ritual and meaning, story and dance, welcoming and encouraging everyone to take part.
The Raven makes its way off the stage and through the crowd, pausing amongst the viewers to evoke smiles (and plentiful iPhone photos), its reputation for playful trickery and mischievousness tailing not far behind. The ‘grouse dance’ takes interaction to an even higher level as audience members are brought onstage and taught to strut their tail feathers amongst positive laughter and joviality. Even the young ones got on stage in this very family friendly event.
Having brought the storytelling to a crescendo, the audience engaged in a greater appreciation of the Tlingit people and the richness of the Yukon, Dakhká Khwáan shifted off the stage much as they had arrived. Drums shook the air and feet rumbled upon the ground, bodies swayed forward, and the audience parted to make room for the Tlingit recessional. And with that they were gone. Well, other than pausing to take a few iPhone ‘selfies’ with awaiting fans, of course.