Dance the Night Away

Lisa Jumps for Joy!

Nothing can stop StoryCorps Alaska facilitators from bringing the StoryCorps experience to communities all over the State…not even a volcanic eruption! In spite of Mount Redoubt’s continued blasts, spreading ash debris throughout the airways, Facilitators Doreen Simmonds, Lisa Phu, and Elise Pepple finally made it to Bethel after many failed flying attempts. In collaboration with the Bethel Senior Center and the Bethel Council on the Arts, recordings began the week of March 22nd, 2009, alongside the Cama-i dance celebration.

Bethel, with a population of about 6,500 people, is home to Cama-i Festival. Cama-i (pronounced chew-MY), which means “a warm, genuine hello” in Yupik is a three day festival that honors, celebrates, and shares the Yup’ik Eskimo tradition of dance. 22 dance groups attended this year’s event, with dancers aging from 2 to 92. All in all, approximately 1000 people joined in the celebration. Facilitator Doreen Simmonds explains, “This is not a competition or awards. The only awards are dedications to elders. This powerful experience is a celebration of a shared but varied culture.” Groups travel from all around the state, as well as internationally, to take part in the common language of dance.

Yuyaret cutie smiling at you
The Yuyaret Dancers group shown here is just three years old, and is comprised mostly of young people. This group hails from Bethel, and was a favorite among the crowd.

Atka Atxam Taligisniikangis

Atxam Taligisniikangis is a dance group from Atka, Alaska, a very small city about a thousand miles west of Anchorage on the Aleutian chain. They dance barefoot and are adorned in particularly beautiful outfits. They revived their dances just 20 years ago.

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Almost 90 years old and barely over four feet tall, Mary Ann Sundown still knows how to please the crowd. The Scammon Bay Dancers are the host group for Mary Ann Sundown. The group leader is her son, Harley. Scammon Bay is 120 miles west of Anchorage on the Bering Sea.

Mary Ann Sundown is a well known singer and dancer, and became famous for her Eskimo dancing adaptation of the Macarena at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. On the opening day of Cama-i she danced a song about her father, who had sores all over his body that no amount of medicine or attention could heal. As a last resort, he had his dog lick the sores – and they healed! At the end of the dance, Mary Ann Sundown raised her head to the ceiling and howled like a dog, pleasing the crowd to no end – especially with the faces she would make. “Pamyua!” the crowd would yell.

“More!” More indeed!


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2 Responses to “Dance the Night Away”

To preserve the StoryCorps mission and experience for our readers and participants, comments are subject to the StoryCorps Terms of Service. Comments may be held for moderation or removed if deemed offensive or off-topic. Please do not resubmit your comment if you don't see it right away, it will be approved as soon as possible. Thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing these photos and this story! I grew up as a child of “gusuk” schoolteachers in Alaska. We lived in Alukanuk, Akiak, Kwethluk and Nightmute. Bethel was our “hub” – the jumping off point to fly into the villages. The last few years, around 1973? they started an Eskimo heritage program in the classroom, and I had the opportunity to learn the dances along with the native kids. These pictures bring back memories!!

    Comment from Diana Higgins on May 10, 2009 at 11:49 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Thanks for being so thorough with the photos. When you go through the slide show quickly at certain points you really get the feeling of the movements that comprise the dance.

    Comment from Carl on April 24, 2009 at 12:16 pm - Reply to this Comment

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