Dance Preview: Santee Smith grounded in dance

By Kristin McVeigh

Life sucks and then you die. A philosophy adopted as a mantra in our time. The linear philosophy of birth, life, then death being the be-all-end-all contradicts Santee Smith’s dance performance Kaha:wi. Her focus on the cyclical perspective of life comes from her Iroquian roots and allows for a refreshing new look at life, death, birth and love.

A member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from Six Nations Ontario, Santee’s accomplishments are fierce­–having attended the National Ballet School of Canada, completing an honours degree in kinesiology at McMaster University and being a featured dancer and choreographer for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. Still, Santee Smith’s modesty keeps her committed to her traditional culture.

“I’m not trying to change anything. I have this belief that tradition is not static. Things are always evolving,” she says.

In that spirit, Kaha:wi simply means “to carry”; no hidden meaning, it’s a verb. The actual significance of the title comes from Santee’s own life. Kaha:wi was the name of her grandmother, who died just before the birth of Smith’s daughter, Semiah Kaha:wi Smith. The two life-changing events reminded Santee of the Iroquoian’s philosophy of death and renewal of life.

“Because we honour the life cycle of all our seasons, all our ceremonies go around the calendar. So that was just a perfect link up for all of the content and everything just developed from there to more and more of a connection to Iroquoian philosophy,” she explains.

She always wanted to do a larger scale dance using music from her community and this dream materialized into a breathtaking, empowering, and sensual performance.

Kaha:wi centers around three women; a grandmother’s passing and a woman giving birth to a child. The influence of women in the life cycle is apparent.

“Anything to do with Earth is considered the mother, like where all the plants come from the mother and the moon is female. Anything that has to do with growth and fertility and creation is given a female designation.”

But Santee is careful not to leave the boys out. “And there’s also balance with the male, so it’s not all female. That’s also reflected in my choreography too, the duality of equality and wholeness.”

Obviously an intensive journey for Santee Smith, she’s involved in everything from the costuming to the songs and the choreography of the show. “That’s why it took four years,” she laughs.

The show has taken her all over Canada and even as far as Jakarta. The CD from Kaha:wi, featuring all original music, has also been nominated for two Canadian Aboriginal music awards.

Awards or not, the commitment Santee Smith gives in presenting her culture is evident. Smith would like to expand people’s views on time, life and death, by elegantly opening her culture to the world and, most importantly, the idea of the life cycle.

“There is an element of spirituality having birth and death and new life and having that connection to the spirit world,” she intones in her wise but modest way. “I’m just happy that somebody might take something from it,”

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