Celebration begins this evening at 6 o’clock with the Grand Entrance procession to Centennial Hall. The four-day cultural event of Southeast Alaska Natives includes 50 dance groups. Among them is All Nations Children’s Dance Group of Juneau. The group formed in 1995 and has about 80 members. I attended a recent practice and learned that singing and dancing is a foundation for much more.
It’s a Thursday evening and some 50 kids and teenagers dance their way through the Tlingit-Haida Community Center near Salmon Creek. Group founder and leader Vicki Soboleff walks up and down the line giving instructions. Soboleff says she and the group have come a long way since the first practice in 1995.
“There were 12 children here and there was a group of their parents and maybe grandparents and aunts and uncles. All those children were looking at me and I was terrified. We didn’t start off singing Tlingit songs. We actually started off singing ‘This Old Man.’ I was just trying to get them to sing and plus I was nervous.”
At this practice they sing numerous Alaska Native songs and Soboleff says they’re instruments for learning.
“Knowledge of your Native culture and involvement in Native song and dance and language really helps you with your sense of self and belonging. To your tribe, your clan. I believe it’s really important for Native children to know who they are, where they came from, what their tribal clan is.”
One of Soboleff’s early dancers is now a teacher. Barbara Dude joined the group when she was seven and now, at 26, she’s an assistant group leader. She helps 15-year-old Allison Ford with her Tlingit introduction—just like Soboleff helped her. Among other things, Dude says she gained language skills, self-esteem, and public speaking skills. But the most important lessons were about something more. She says the group’s goal to help engender identity worked.
“When I started the group when I was seven I didn’t know that I was Tlingit. The group has helped me gain a sense of pride in who I am and now I am able to share that with my children who have known they were Tlingit since they were born.”
Dude is excited for Celebration, especially the grand entrance.
“We all dance in together and ahead of us are dancers from another group, and behind us are dancers from another group and we’re dancing across stage and each person gets their chance to go across stage and dance their hardest. They feel it because everyone around them is feeling it with them.”
Dude tears up and apologizes for becoming emotional.
“How powerful it is to watch them be immersed in the culture and the language. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
The All Nations Children’s Dance Group is true to its name and is open to children of all races and ages until high school graduation. Then Soboleff and Dude hope they’ll join an adult group or stick around to help children learn language, song, dance, and especially, cultural identity and pride.
The Grand Entrance procession begins tonight at 6 p.m. at Centennial Hall. You can watch it on 360 North or 360North.org.
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