Infusing hip-hop moves to traditional dance creates powerful performances
For one young powwow competitor from Morley Alberta, dancing is more than keeping a tradition alive; it’s giving him life too.
“When you hear the music, it feels like it’s your heart beating. You can just hear the way it pounds, and makes your feet feel the beat. I just want to dance.” A shy grin appears as Tyvin Wesley, of Stoney First Nation, looked towards downtown Calgary from the Calgary Stampede’s Indian Village.
“You know, without my outfit, I would still go out on that dance floor,” he said July 17.
Wesley is shy in person. The 17 year old had been enjoying a summer of powwow competitions before the dreaded school year started again. Like any typical teen, Wesley would rather do anything but be in school. For the summer, he planned to take advantage of opportunities to dance nearly every weekend in powwow competitions across Alberta and B.C.
What makes young Wesley stand out from a majority of competitors is his ability to incorporate hip-hop and dubstep moves into his grass style performances, while still respecting the traditional values of the dance.
“I’m not trying to change it [grass dance], I’m just trying to mix it up with my style,” Wesley said. “So, I can show them I’m different, but, I’m kind of the same.”
Grass style is a men’s traditional dance, which is known for using bold, swinging motions, as well as for the dancer’s unique and colourful attire.
More often than not, Wesley listens to music as he prepares behind the stage for powwow competitions. Lyrics act as inspiration as Wesley tries new hip-hop moves to the beat of a dubstep hit called Bullet Train;
‘Moving like the speed of sound, feet can’t keep on the ground, can’t stay in one place, keep moving like a bullet train’.
“I jam out a lot before I go into a powwow. If the moves work to my music, it will work with powwow music,” he said.
The self-taught hip-hop dancer started grass dancing when he was 10, but didn’t take it very seriously until he was 14. “Three years ago I lost my grandpa,” Wesley said. “That’s when I really started dancing.”
That’s when he started getting noticed for his unique moves too.
He says his grandpa, Bill Wesley, had an influence on young Wesley’s respect for traditional dancing. Although he was much younger when his grandfather passed away, he wishes he had asked his grandpa more about dancing.
“I never knew what style he danced actually. He never told me, and I never bothered to ask.”
Annie Wesley, Tyvin’s grandma and sole caregiver, said on July 20 that her husband danced traditional buckskin. He died of a heart attack, and will be honoured on the fourth anniversary of his death, in 2017, when Annie will take out his buckskin attire for the first time since he died.
Annie said the death of Wesley’s grandpa is especially difficult for the teen because he was the one who found his grandfather after the heart attack. She said the memory can still make young Wesley upset.
Wesley has suffered a lot of loss in his life, including his mother’s death in 2009 due to double pneumonia. Some might wonder how he finds enough courage to dance, but he said his losses have become inspiration too.
“Two days before a powwow, the day before my auntie passed … I went for a run that day. Her house is at the bottom of this hill, and after this hill is a good view of the mountains, if you stay on top of the hill. I noticed her house there, and I was just looking at the mountains for some reason. The next day, we found her in her house.”
His auntie passed away in 2015, stirring a lot of emotions in the young man.
“I think she choked on something, but she was dead before we got there I guess. I don’t know; I just took that as a sign to try and use that anger and that sadness to change it into happiness when I’m on the dance floor.”
Wesley decided to still dance in the powwow following his auntie’s death. He said he didn’t realize the first grass dance special he was part of was traditional, and did not place because of his unique dance moves.
“I was frustrated from my loss, and I did not know why I did not get picked during that first special.” Instead of giving into his anger and frustration, he went back out for the second performance.
“I went all out. I showed those people who I am, and that I’m here to dance too. No matter what, I’m here to dance.”
Dancing is like a healing medicine to Wesley. With the loss of close family members, the young man said dancing “takes away the stress from life.” When he dances, the world fades.
When asked if he had words of encouragement for other young people going through rough times, Wesley was completely honest: “I don’t know. I haven’t found mine.”
And yet the teen continues to see the positive with any given situation, and pours all of his negative emotions into creating eye-catching performances.
Wesley recognizes dancing is much more than an escape, or even something fun to occupy his time. To him, dancing has become the heartbeat of his life. He said “the powwow itself is inspiring.”
Wesley said his grandma Annie is very special to him too. “My grandma did everything; she was the only one there.” He boasts of Annie, who took home first place in the woman’s traditional dancing (55 and older) at the 2016 Calgary Stampede powwow competition.
The designer of all of his performance regalia, Wesley proudly talked about the intricately beaded headbands Annie creates to cover his eyes. He uses the headbands to “cover the crowds and make [him] feel like [he’s] dancing alone.” When he covers his eyes, Wesley feels like he can dance as uninhibited as he does when he is at home.
‘Regalia’ is the term used to describe the outfits worn by the dancers. These outfits are tailored to be as unique as the individual. It is designed in accordance with the style of dance being performed, to enhance the viewers understanding. As a grass dancer, Wesley’s regalia shows fringes of material, portraying grass billowing in the wind.
Annie spends hours on Wesley’s powwow attire, but said it keeps her young. To complete a new outfit for Wesley, it will take Annie a full day.
She started beading when she was just 14, and although she wouldn’t say her current age, she did say while laughing, “I’m over sixty.” She was working on yet another beaded headband for another of her grandson’s competitions.
When Tyvin’s mother passed away, Annie took in and raised four of six children. “I’m a single grandma raising my grandkids. I try to do my best,” Annie says about keeping Tyvin and his siblings involved in positive things.
She is vocal about her love for her grandchildren, and said Tyvin is something special. “He really can do everything, but he’s a shy guy.”
“Yeah, I used to [get nervous],” Wesley says about dancing in front of people. He said now with the beaded headbands his grandma makes, he doesn’t have those “butterflies in his stomach” before performing.
Wesley is an athlete on all accounts. Besides dancing, he enjoys hockey, lacrosse and basketball, the last of which he said “helps with the footwork [for dancing] a lot.” He would play football, but his grandma thinks it’s too dangerous. If he could play the sport he said, “I’d try for running back.”
However, Wesley said he wouldn’t stop dancing if he didn’t have to. “I have that urge to dance. I don’t know why. Even if there were 10 songs in a row, four minutes a song, I would still dance it all.”
The most rewarding aspect of taking part in powwows isn’t the chance of winning a prize or a title for Wesley. With such a passion for the dance itself, he said he simply loves “being able to dance in my full regalia.”
Wesley took home first place for the boys grass dance category at the 2016 Calgary Stampede, and chose to participate in the men’s grass dance (18 and over) as well.
He believes wholeheartedly that he can always improve, and that challenge keeps him motivated. He says after once participating “for fun” in a men’s grass special and coming in third place, an inspirational dancer approached him and said something Wesley will never forget. “You’re good. One day, you’ll be great.”
Wesley said that is all the encouragement he needs to move forward in life and in dance. “I feel like that day is close, but that ‘one day’ is taking a long time. I still feel ‘good’; I haven’t reached my potential yet.”
Wesley dances grass style
Thumbnail by Deanna Tucker