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Aboriginal Youth Identity Series: Health and WellnessElementarySeniors Health and Wellness
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Health and Wellness

Lesson 1: The Link between Dance and Identity

Teacher Information:

What is the link between sport and recreation and identity? Why is it that certain cultures around the world associate specific sport and recreation activities with who they are? How do certain activities define a culture? Consider the Canadian cultural connection to hockey that is understood nationally and internationally. This lesson will enable students to realize the link between Aboriginal dance and ceremonies to a sense of identity and collective development of their culture.

Dancing is an age old form of recreation and sport amongst Aboriginal cultures across North America. Dance helps to illuminate a particular culture as each one has its own unique way or style of dancing. Each Aboriginal group developed a unique dance method and created original dance for specific purposes and occasions.

Dance expresses an experience. In Aboriginal culture, dance was often a way to tell a story or to re-enact an event or situation. Those who participate in a dance often feel a personal connection to the dance. There are often objects used in a dance and these tend to have important symbolic meaning. The traditional dresses worn in a dance are also significant and have personal meaning to the individual or community from which they originate. It is important to note that the traditional dress not be confused with regalia.

Dancing, ceremonies, and events such as the pow wow, potlatch, and Sundance are important elements of Aboriginal culture and are a way in which Aboriginal people seek to express their culture individually and collectively. The word pow wow originates from the Algonkian word pau wau. Traditional dances are often a part of a larger gathering that builds cultural cohesiveness and collective identity.

The Canadian government enacted early assimilation policies via the Indian Act. Aboriginal gatherings and ceremonies were outlawed in the late 18th century. This had an impact upon Aboriginal culture and identity.

Main Lesson:

Share the information from the Teacher Information section with the students and integrate it into the discussion in the Introductory Activity. The focus concept is that dance is a form of sport and recreation and that it reflects cultural values, ideas, beliefs, and identity.

If possible attain either one of these video’s that explore traditional dance and its cultural meaning:

  • Dancing Feathers (1983) 28 min long. Distributed by The Altschul Group 1560 Sherman Avenue, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201 1-800-323-5448
  • Bear Dance, Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, Chicago, IL, (1988) 13 min long.
  • Vignettes of Fancy Dancers, Available through Alberta Learning. Product number is 525412
  • The Potlatch (1999). Available through ACCESS The Education Station

After showing the video to students initiate a class discussion on the video’s content.

Using the Student Zone Tid Bits and the Photo Gallery as a starting point, have students investigate dances of Aboriginal people in Canada. Students can examine and report on at least three different dances by Aboriginal groups across Canada. Questions they will answer in their report are:

  1. Describe the dance, what Aboriginal group(s) participated, the importance and traditional significance and meaning of the dance, what ceremonies (if any) were associated with the dance, who participated in the dance (men, women, children?), what sacred objects are associated with this dance/ceremony
  2. What events or situations influenced the need or development of this form of dance?
  3. Was this particular dance affected by the Indian Act’s ban on ceremonial and social dancing? In what ways, or why not?
  4. How has this particular dance changed over time?
  5. Describe this dance in relation to developing individual and collective identity.
  6. How could this dance or ceremony be related to sport and or recreation? Why is this important to cultural expression?
  7. How does this dance or ceremony relate to the concept of nationalism? Describe this from an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspective.
  8. Include at least three visual accompaniments to your description of the dance or ceremony.

Students may present their information in a variety of formats. A suggested forum is an Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Dance Expo within the classroom to display their research material. You may wish to invite an Aboriginal dancer or Elder into your classroom to demonstrate or discuss the importance of traditional dance.

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